There are three main aspects to Robert Saleh’s defense:
1. All gas, no brake.
2. Attack the ball.
3. Extreme violence.
That’s all the first-year 49ers coordinator wants his 11 players on the field to think about.
“We always talk about reppin’ our style, and if we can rep our style on every play,” Saleh explained to NBC Sports Bay Area, “as a fan or someone watching from the outside, you’d be able to recognize our defense.”
It’s a defense that will appear similar at times to the Seahawks during Saleh’s three years there as a quality control coach. Pete Carroll’s “leo” position is featured, as are some of the fronts designed by former defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley. Saleh’s defense will also flash influences of Lovie Smith’s Cover 2 from Smith's time in Chicago. Saleh left Seattle to join Bradley’s staff in Jacksonville at the time Bradley started incorporating some of Smith’s principles into the Jaguars defense.
“There’s some similarities, but there are a lot of nuances that we feel are going to be unique to us,” Saleh said.
Saleh is known for his attention to detail, but like Carroll, Smith and Bradley, he doesn’t want too many of them to weigh down the players. His current players laud the fact that they are working with fewer than 12 play calls in his system. The simplicity allows them to think less, play faster.
“Sometimes, I feel like as coaches we get caught up in trying to trick the opponent when in reality we’re tricking ourselves,” Saleh said. “It also gives a player the ability to hold themselves accountable, because they fully understand what they’re responsible for. When a player completely understands what he’s responsible for, they can play a lot more free. They can play a lot faster, because once they clear their greatest issue, now they can just go play football.”
Defensive schemes come easily for Saleh. Attention to detail doesn’t come without a lot of preparation. But developing his coaching style, the style he wanted to rep, began to take form in his first year in the NFL as an assistant under former 49ers defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio. The two spent one season together in Houston.
“Vic has an influence in terms of demeanor, personality, to understand that it’s OK to be yourself. That a player, truly, all they really want is information to help them play better on Sunday. They want to know that you have their back, so you can represent any style you want as long as you are up front and honest with the player,” Saleh said. “Vic, he did keep it very simple, but he had his own style that some would argue doesn’t fit the mold of the old, outgoing, yelling coaches. But he had tremendous power in the room because players knew that the stuff that he was going to deliver to them would be helpful on Sunday.”
Saleh is clear what he’s looking for his players to deliver in return.
“It’s an attacking style defense,” he said, “fast, physical, everything being about the ball.”