Despite what feels like an endless list of injuries, the 49ers' defense hasn't been as bad as it seems this season.
Entering Sunday's road game against the New Orleans Saints, the 49ers have allowed the 13th fewest total yards and the 16th fewest points.
Considering the 49ers lost reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa and former first-round pick Solomon Thomas to torn ACLs in Week 2, and they've dealt with a plethora of other injuries, it's impressive that the team's defense hasn't completely bottomed out.
But when asked where his unit can improve over the last seven games of the 2020 season, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was quick to identify one specific situation.
"Third down in the red zone. Third down in the red zone," Saleh told reporters via conference call Thursday. "We've got to be a lot better. A lot of our red zone touchdowns that we've allowed have come on third down. Did not like the way Thursday went. We're not a defense that gives up explosive plays. So, that's got to get fixed immediately. It's unlike us."
Opponents have scored 12 touchdowns against the 49ers' defense while in the red zone this season. Of those 12, four were scored on 3rd-and-goal.
San Francisco allowed one 3rd-and-goal touchdown in Week 6 against the Los Angeles Rams, two in Week 8 against the Seattle Seahawks and one more last week against the Green Bay Packers.
"The biggest thing to me so far has been third down in the red zone," Saleh said. "We haven't been able to win as frequently as you'd like. Obviously, we're still up there with regards to stats or however you want to see it, but, so, it's got to be better. That's going to be the biggest difference, is being great in the red zone."
Overall, the 49ers are allowing teams to convert on just 40.7 percent of third-down plays, which is 13th best in the NFL.
While Saleh's defense has missed guys like Bosa, Thomas, Richard Sherman, Dee Ford, K'Waun Williams, Dre Greenlaw, Emmanuel Moseley and others, it's impressive that the team has held its own through nine games.
At 4-5, the 49ers will need the defense to stand tall Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. A win over NFC South-leading Saints would go a long way to helping San Francisco's playoff hopes. A loss would drop them to 4-6 and make a return to the playoffs a long shot.
In order to slow down the Saints, the 49ers' defense is going to need to keep Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Co. from converting on third down, especially in the red zone.