SANTA CLARA -- First-time defensive coordinator Robert Saleh inherited the worst – by far – run defense in the NFL.
The 49ers last season surrendered 165.9 yards rushing per game, including 4.8 yards per carry, and 25 touchdowns to rank last in the league in each of those categories. The 49ers finished 2-14. Coach Chip Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke were fired. Kyle Shanahan was hired.
After being unable to hire Gus Bradley or Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator, Shanahan filled the position with the hiring of Saleh, who previously worked as an assistant with Houston, Seattle and Jacksonville.
So it was not difficult for Saleh to find a reasonable starting point for what he wants to establish with the 49ers’ defense in 2017.
“Stopping the run is our No. 1 priority,” Saleh said Monday, on the first day of the 49ers’ offseason program. “The way we align, our demeanor, the responsibility of the defensive players. . . We will stop the run on this defense.”
General manager John Lynch has spoken often in his first two months on the job about deploying an attacking style of defense. Defensive lineman DeForest Buckner spoke about playing more aggressively – unlike the read-and-react style of last season.
“All gas, no brakes,” Buckner said.
Saleh, speaking publicly for the first time since joining the 49ers, described the demeanor he wants from his players as “extreme physicality.”
Saleh spoke about the design of his defense, as well as which players fit in the different spots:
--“We are a single-high (safety) defense," Saleh said. "The system you could say, it originated in Seattle. I was there from the get-go. Three teams currently, Seattle, Atlanta, Jacksonville, if you’re looking at tape, all of them have their nuances and how they operate. I don’t want to say it will be a very different scheme, but there are going to be differences and there will be nuances within this scheme that makes it unique to us.”
--Saleh agreed with the observation that the 49ers will run a 4-3 base defense using what amounts to 3-4 personnel. He emphasized that the strong-side linebacker (Sam) will be more of a pass-rusher because of the high volume of snaps that teams now play with five defensive backs in passing situations.
“It’s almost 70-percent nickel, and the nickel who doesn’t get talked about as a starter, he’s starting to come up as an individual piece to the puzzle,” Saleh said. “So when looking at the Sam linebacker and what they’re asked to do on a day-to-day basis, 70-percent of the game their hand will be in the ground.
“So we’re looking for more of an edge rusher as opposed to what it was in years past with a brut Sam linebacker, a Bill Romanowski-type. We’re trying to move forward from that.”
--The best fits for the Sam linebacker on the 49ers’ current roster are Ahmad Brooks, Eli Harold and Dekoda Watson, Saleh said.
The Sam is similar to the “Leo” position, which is similar to the “elephant” position that George Seifert implemented in the 1980s and ‘90s with the 49ers.
Saleh said Aaron Lynch is a Leo type. And Arik Armstead could find a role for himself in a Sam/Leo role, too. Said Saleh, “Even Arik, he’s not a prototype, but he’s capable just from his flexibility.”
--When asked what kind of player he is looking for in the Leo role, Saleh ticked off some names of players who have fit in that role – or players in other systems who have the attributes he desires:
“Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril, Yannick Ngakoue, Dante Fowler, Vic Beasley. People outside of the system, you’d look at Von Miller, Khalil Mack. Back in his heyday, Charles Haley would have been a guy that would have been a Leo.”
--Saleh said there is no difference between the Mike (middle) linebacker and Will (weak side). Whichever player is best at communicating with the other members of the defense will be designated the Mike.
“Yeah, the Mike-Will, they’re interchangeable,” Saleh said. “So if you look at Seattle, their Will linebacker, K.J. Wright, is 6-4, 245 pounds. If you look at Jacksonville, the Will linebacker was 6-3, 215 pounds. If you look at Atlanta’s Mike linebacker, he’s 220 pounds. Bobby Wagner sits at 240.
“So there’s no height-weight parameter. But, what there is, is one person can communicate and the other one might be able to communicate, but one is better than the other.”
--The 49ers reacted quickly to release starting cornerback Tramaine Brock last week after his arrest on suspicion of domestic violence. The 49ers are keeping an open mind whether to keep Jimmie Ward at cornerback or move him back to free safety to fill a role similar to what Earl Thomas has played with Seattle.
“Jimmie is a very, very versatile athlete,” Saleh said. “He can play corner, he can play safety and whatever is best for the organization is exactly what we’re going to do with Jimmie.”
--Meanwhile, Eric Reid will be a “box safety” – playing closer to the line of scrimmage in a role that Kam Chancellor has filled in the Seattle defense.
--The 49ers have spent first-round draft picks the past two years on defensive linemen Armstead and Buckner. Although selected to play in different systems, Saleh believes both can be versatile enough to play multiple spots in the scheme he is installing.
“The cool thing with the way the front has been built in the past, they are very versatile,” Saleh said. “So you can do anything, we can do anything we want with them. They’re not traditional. When you look at Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, they are very, very unique in the sense that they can play up and down the line however you need them to work. We’ll find what’s best for them.”