SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Robert Saleh had been in the NFL for six seasons with Houston by the time he arrived as an assistant coach in Seattle in 2011. He immediately realized what the Seahawks were building with players like Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor.
“We had decent defenses, but you recognize, it was like right when we got there. Like, ‘Man these guys are a lot different than what we had in Houston,’ at that time,” Saleh said Thursday. “To see those guys just taste a little bit of success and to see Earl, Richard, Kam. Bobby Wagner was a rookie, KJ Wright. Then once Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril came in it was like they just took that thing completely over.”
The Seahawks went to the playoffs in Saleh’s second season as a defensive quality control assistant and won the Super Bowl the following year. He parlayed that success into a better job in Jacksonville. Saleh followed former Seahawks coordinator Gus Bradley and spent the past three seasons as Bradley’s linebackers coach on the Jaguars.
Saleh is now building his own defense as coordinator in San Francisco, and has the opportunity to take the lessons he learned with the Seahawks to boost one of their rivals in the NFC West.
Saleh said he absorbed all sorts of knowledge, from scheme and philosophy to how learning to prepare, from Bradley, and getting a players’ perspective from fellow assistant and former NFL linebacker Ken Norton Jr.
He also saw how head coach Pete Carroll always stayed true to himself and is trying to do the same in his own career.
“The biggest influence I took from coach Carroll is from a philosophy standpoint,” Saleh said. “Understanding who you are as a person. Understanding what’s important to you as a person. And, how to apply it to the message that you’re trying to deliver. Understanding that everybody has a style and that every style is the right style provided you apply it in the right way. So, just from a philosophy standpoint, speaking to people, handling people is where I have my greatest growth from coach Carroll.”
Carroll said Saleh has added his own wrinkles to the defense and expects him to have great success in his first job as an NFL coordinator, even though the Niners may lack the talent defensively that was in Seattle when Saleh arrived six years ago.
“I’m not surprised at all that he has arrived here as a coordinator in the league,” Carroll said. “Great worker, brilliant guy, good communicator. He gets it. Great demeanor about him and a lot of energy. I’m not surprised at all.”
Having coached against the Seattle style of defense over the years and having served as offensive coordinator for another former Seahawks defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, first-year 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan wanted to find a disciple of that defense to run his unit in San Francisco.
The 49ers tried to hire Bradley, but he went to the Chargers instead. So Shanahan hired Saleh and tasked him with trying to build a defense like the one in Seattle that has tormented San Francisco teams so often in recent years.
“They make you work for everything and it’s something that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every week,” Shanahan said. “It’s something that if you just do over and over and over again, it’s hard not to get better at it.”
The Niners showed moderate progress in their first game under Saleh despite losing 23-3 to Carolina. The run defense was vastly improved over a year ago and four of the five scores allowed came on short fields after turnovers or fourth-down stops.
But they also failed to get much pressure on Cam Newton, generating no sacks and only nine QB pressures, according to SportRadar. San Francisco knows that must change against Russell Wilson and Seattle’s patchwork offensive line.
“We have to win our one on ones,” defensive lineman DeForest Buckner said. “When we had opportunities to rush Cam last week, I didn’t beat my guy on a one on one. We have to do a better job this week.”
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