San Francisco 49ers

49ers hire Robert Saleh, who will run Seattle’s defense

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan says new defensive coach Robert Saleh is “as smart as anyone I’ve been around.”
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan says new defensive coach Robert Saleh is “as smart as anyone I’ve been around.” AP

Kyle Shanahan confirmed Friday that new 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will run the defense that has propelled the archrival Seattle Seahawks to the top of the NFC West in recent seasons.

Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has described it as a 4-3 defense that uses 3-4 personnel. The 49ers have used a true 3-4 – in which there are three down lineman plus two outside linebackers toeing the line of scrimmage – as their base defense for the past decade or so and have chosen two prototypical 3-4 defensive linemen, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, in the first round of the last two drafts.

“I think all that is semantics, to tell you the truth,” Shanahan said on his KNBR radio show. “Seattle has a linebacker on the ball every single play. So does Atlanta. And that’s five guys on the line of scrimmage. So whether you call it a 4-3 or a 3-4 ... for the most part we call it a 4-3.”

The 49ers on Friday announced the hiring of Saleh and eight other assistant coaches. The special teams will be run by Richard Hightower, who has had several NFL stints alongside Shanahan and who was part of Jim Tomsula’s 2015 staff in San Francisco. Meanwhile, Jason Tarver (senior defensive assistant) and Jeff Hafley (defensive backs) will remain with the team.

Jeff Zgonina will coach the defensive line, Johnny Holland will coach linebackers, and Bobby Slowik will handle defensive quality-control duties. The team also made two hires to its strength and conditioning staff – Marquis Johnson and Dustin Perry. Furthermore, the 49ers appear to be zeroing in on an offensive-line coach, John Benton.

From 2003 to 2015, Benton served as offensive-line coach for the Rams, Texans and Dolphins. He spent last season as the assistant offensive-line coach of the Jaguars before taking a similar position with the Broncos last month. The Broncos, however, are believed to be amenable to letting him take the 49ers’ job.

Benton was on the same Texans staff as Shanahan from 2006to 2009 and worked under Shanahan when he worked as Houston’s offensive coordinator in 2008 and 2009. Shanahan will serve as San Francisco’s de facto offensive coordinator this year.

Saleh, 38, was the Jaguars’ linebackers coach last year under head coach Gus Bradley, a former Seahawks defensive coordinator. Shanahan coached in Atlanta under Dan Quinn, who also once ran Seattle’s defense.

“Robert Saleh is as smart as anyone I’ve been around,” Shanahan said. “He studies everything. He knows a lot of different systems, but he knows the true Seattle-Atlanta-Jacksonville system inside and out, as much as anybody I’ve been with.”

For a look at how the 49ers’ current personnel might fit Saleh’s defense, click here.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at