New 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan on Friday confirmed former Jacksonville Jaguars linebackers coach Robert Saleh will be his defensive coordinator.
Saleh, 38, faces a tall task. The 49ers defense last season under coordinator Jim O’Neil was one of the worst in league history.
While staggering to a 2-14 finish, the 49ers’ defense ranked last in yards allowed, rushing yards allowed and points allowed. The 49ers surrendered 6,502 yards and 480 points – the eighth- and tied for ninth-worst figures, respectively, in NFL history.
“Robert Saleh is as smart as anyone I’ve been around,” Shanahan said on the "Murph and Mac Show" on KNBR. “He studies everything. He knows a lot of different systems, but he knows the true Seattle-Atlanta-Jacksonville system inside and out, as much as anybody I’ve been with.
“(We) went through a hard interview process with him. I wanted to see where he’s come in the last eight years that we haven’t been together, and it was extremely impressive. I’m very confident in Saleh. He’s helping me put together this defensive staff. He’s going to build a scheme and we’re going to try to get players to fit that scheme. But we also know we’re going to adjust to the players we have, too.”
Saleh coached linebackers with the Jaguars the past three seasons under Gus Bradley. Saleh and Shanahan coached on the same staff with the Texans for all four seasons Shanahan worked under head coach Gary Kubiak.
The 49ers targeted two experienced coaches before hiring Saleh. The 49ers made a push to hire former Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley before he opted to join Anthony Lynn’s staff with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Shanahan also was interested in hiring former 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, but the Chicago Bears would not allow him out of his contract, sources told CSNBayArea.com.
Saleh (pronounced SAHL-uh) started out as a defensive intern with Houston in 2005 before moving up to defensive quality control (’06-’08) and assistant linebackers coach (2009-10).
From 2011 to ’13, Saleh worked with the Seattle Seahawks as defensive quality control coach. In Saleh’s final season with Seattle, he worked under Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, who was the defensive coordinator. Saleh also worked two seasons while Bradley was the Seahawks' defensive coordinator.
The 49ers will technically play a 4-3 defense, but Shanahan explained there are certain elements of the 3-4 built into the scheme.
“It’s a 4-3, which I think all of that is such semantics, to tell you the truth,” Shanahan said. “Seattle has a linebacker on the ball every single play. So does Atlanta. That’s five guys on the line of scrimmage. Whether you call it a 4-3 or a 3-4, for the most part, we call it a 4-3, just to tell you guys the way I look at it, as a coach.
“Can your halfback block that Sam linebacker on the ball? And that just depends how big he is. And if he’s a big guy and he’s Ahmad Brooks, then call it a 3-4. If he’s a smaller guy like K.J. Wright, who’s not that small, but you’re going to put your back on him, then call it a 4-3. There’s really no difference. It’s the same kind of fronts.
“In a 3-4, sometimes they one-gap, sometimes they two-gap. But we plan on having a linebacker on the ball. That’s five guys on the line of scrimmage. Depending on how our personnel plays out, I’ll have a better answer for what you want to call it.”