SANTA CLARA — Over the last few weeks, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has faced an onslaught of scrutiny regarding the team’s poor defensive performance throughout this season.
Despite the outcry from fans and media calling for Saleh to be fired at the end of year, leaders on the defensive front are standing behind their coach, pointing to the team’s inexperience and youth as the reason for their disappointing results rather than Saleh’s play calling.
“It sucks for Saleh because, yeah, he’s definitely taken a blow on this,” 49ers defensive end DeForest Buckner told the Examiner on Thursday. “Saleh can’t play in the game. It’s up to us.”
Buckner’s steadfast support of Saleh comes after playing under the 39-year old coordinator for the last two season. Saleh was hired in 2016 along with head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch in an entire overhaul of the 49ers coaching staff.
In his first season orchestrating San Francisco’s defense, Saleh’s 49ers gave up 351.6 yards per game (24th in the NFL), including 235.3 yards passing (22nd) and 116.3 yards on the ground (22nd).
The 49ers also allowed their opponents to score 23.9 points per game in 2017, more than 24 other teams in the league.
Those numbers would land San Francisco as eighth-worst defense in the NFL according to ESPN.
This year, while their numbers have improved in regards to yards per game, the 49ers are now giving up the third-most points per game in the NFL (28), which, in part, has led to a 2-12 record 14 weeks into the season.
“For the most part, we’ve been playing better defense,” rookie inside linebacker Fred Warner told the Examiner. “A lot of it has to do with our red zone defense, though … It comes down to us players being locked in.”
For Warner, 22, in his first season out of BYU, much of the defensive responsibilities have been placed on his shoulders. Wearing the “green dot” on his helmet, Warner is tasked with relaying calls to the rest of his teammates on the field.
Including Warner, the 49ers entered the 2018 season tied with the Jacksonville Jaguars and the New York Giants for the eighth-youngest roster in the NFL (25.8-years-old).
According to several players inside of the 49ers locker room, that has played a part in why their defense has been so unimpressive and simply disappointing.
“When you have an old, veteran team of guys that have just been in the system, been in the system, them you can say, ‘Hey, we know you’re calling this because these guys have been running this forever, they’re not making many mistakes, it’s just not the right plays,’” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said. “But when you’re a younger team, then it’s some of the guys just like, ‘Man, that was a perfect play but if this guy would have just played the standard and if he would have just played where he was supposed to be, it would have been a great play.’”
While the 49ers tried to use the youth excuse last season, perhaps one of the biggest reasons for San Francisco’s defensive shortcomings has been missed opportunities.
In 14 games, San Francisco has registered the fewest number of turnovers in the league, only coming away with two interceptions and three fumble recoveries. Meanwhile, they’ve given the ball up on offense 25 times, resulting in a -20 turnover ratio.
“We’ve definitely gotten the ball out a couple of times, but the ball hasn’t bounced our way,” Buckner said. “Some DB’s have gotten their hands on the ball but haven’t been able to finish plays … It’s been a really big problem for us.”
On Wednesday, Saleh struggled to assess his own season, stating that he has been putting his best effort forward, even though the team’s win-loss record did not reflect that.
While many defensive players for the 49ers have been visibly bothered by their results on paper and at the end of games, there has been one commonality in their reactions: No one on the team blames Saleh.
“At the end of the day, players make plays,” Warner said. “I think [Saleh] puts us in a great position to be successful and I feel like the game plan he puts together every week is on point … He’s one of the best defensive minds, I feel like, is in the NFL.”