SANTA CLARA — On a first-and-10 at the end of the third quarter on Saturday night, Dallas Cowboys running back Mike Weber spilled out of the backfield, broke several San Francisco 49ers tackles and sprinted for the open field.
To San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, it looked like a 50-yard run. Then, he saw Adrian Colbert. “[He] comes flying out of the middle of the field and tackles for nine,” Saleh said after Tuesday’s practice. “Those are the plays that made him special his rookie year”
After being removed from the starting lineup during training camp earlier this month, Colbert has shown signs of renewed focus. His progress has placed him back in the running for the starting free safety job just three weeks from the 2019 opener.
“I was really excited for him to play in that game,” Saleh said. “There’s a great competition going on in that safety room. There are legitimate safeties all over the place in that group. I’m very excited about them.”
Colbert’s tenure with the 49ers began in 2017 when San Francisco picked him 229th out of Miami. During his rookie season, Colbert played in 14 games — including six starts — after being inserted at free safety in Week 10 against the New York Giants. In that game — the 49ers’ first win of the season — Colbert recorded four solo tackles and a pair of pass breakups, earning him a starting role for the rest of the year.
Colbert looked to build on his strong rookie effort as the penciled-in starter in 2018, and came into camp relaxed, believing that his game was already where it needed to be to legitimately compete.
“The three most dangerous words in the NFL are, ‘I’ve got it,’” Saleh said. “They think they do, but they forget. They always go into that second year thinking they’ve got it.”
In seven games (six starts) before going on the injured reserve with a high ankle sprain, Colbert recorded just 15 tackles in 2018, and one pass break ups. Through the six games that he started the year before, he recorded 24 tackles and five PBU’s.
Returning to camp this year, healthy and eager to play, Colbert fell short during early practices. Failing to effectively cover his assignments and busting coverages during team drills, Colbert was pulled from the starting unit and replaced by Tarvarius Moore, a second-year defensive back out of Southern Miss.
Taking reps with the second — and sometimes third — defense, Colbert was forced to refocus. Put in a position where he had to re-convince his coaches that he was worthy of starting again, Colbert entered Saturday’s game with an intention to disrupt Dallas’ offense with and physicality.
While this approach paid off for the first three quarters of the game, including the first-down play which saved the 49ers from a back-breaking run, he got a bit too aggressive just two plays later as Colbert was ejected for lowering his helmet to initiate contact with a receiver.
“You’ve got to do everything as a defender to make sure that you’re not leading with your head and be deliberate to show the refs that you are not trying to lead with your head,” Saleh said. “I don’t think Adrian was trying to lead with his head. I know his intent. I know the man.”
Regardless of his intent, Colbert was forced to watch the rest of San Francisco’s 17-9 win over the Cowboys from the locker room. Despite the penalty, however, his play resonated with Saleh and the rest of the 49ers defensive coaches.
In fact, Saleh says that on Saturday, he saw flashes of what initially convinced him to make Colbert a starter in 2017.
With just three weeks until the 49ers are scheduled to open up against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1, Colbert will need to continue on this trajectory to convince Saleh once again that he’s worthy of the start.
“If he can reconnect to what he was as a rookie in terms of just playing disciplined in the middle of the field and understanding that he’s got a special talent with regards to tracking,” Saleh said, “his speed, finding the ball from the middle of the field, going red line to red line, and tracking the ball coming out, he’ll have a chance.”