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For new 49ers DC Ryans, growing pains can be expected

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DeMeco Ryans

It is almost comical to think about it now, but there was a time -- and not long ago -- some believed 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan should have fired defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.

Shanahan stuck with Saleh, the 49ers’ defense became the strength of the team and Saleh established a great reputation around the NFL. The New York Jets this offseason hired Saleh as head coach.

But it wasn't always smooth. In December 2018, with the 49ers experiencing struggles in every area, Shanahan explained why he would be bringing back Saleh for a third season as defensive coordinator.

“Saleh is a very, very good coach,” Shanahan said. “He always has been. He still is, and he’s not a finished product, either, like we all aren’t.

“I think Saleh will continue to get better because he works at it. He’s very smart, and I think he’s good right now.”

Saleh had already spent 12 seasons as an NFL assistant coach when he became defensive coordinator. Ryan, who played 10 NFL seasons, was promoted to coordinator after just four seasons as an assistant coach.

Of course, as the talent level on the 49ers' defense got better, so did Saleh's job performance. But, early on, Saleh’s learning curve was steep. So what can we expect this season from DeMeco Ryans?

There is a great deal of confidence within the organization in Ryans’ ability to excel as the man in charge of the defense. But, like Saleh early in his tenure, Ryans will not be a finished product until he spends multiple years in his new role.


The 49ers are scheduled to report to training camp on Tuesday in Santa Clara, and expectations are high. But if you’re looking for a reason for concern, Ryans' relative lack of experience is one place to start.

Ryans is likely to establish the same approach for his side of the ball as Shanahan does for the offense. He will solicit thoughts, opinions and suggestions from everyone. Then, he will be tasked with deciding what to install and what to toss aside.

It is a balancing act. And that will be the one area that could be the most difficult for Ryans to navigate.

The 49ers hired two recent defensive coordinators to positions on the coaching staff. They take many of the responsibilities of those coaches who left the 49ers to join Saleh’s staff with the Jets.

Former Cardinals and Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher is the 49ers’ senior defensive assistant/run game specialist. And former Lions defensive coordinator Cory Undlin takes over as defensive pass game specialist/secondary. They should serve as important resources for Ryans.

When Ryans met with the media last month for the first time since his promotion, he promised a more aggressive approach.

“Our defense will be a fast, attacking, aggressive defense,” Ryans said on June 2.

As reasonable as that sounds, it does come at a price. If there is a change in defensive philosophy, will it create more problems than it solves?

Typically, teams that blitz and attack succeed in making more big plays.

However, defenses that take risks also leave themselves vulnerable to giving up more big plays.

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When? Where? How? Those are the questions Ryans will have to figure out for himself as it pertains to how he is going to design and call the defense this season.

It will undoubtedly be a learning experience for him and the entire staff as they work together for the first time and figure things out as they go.

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