San Francisco 49ers

49ers mailbag: Is it time for a change on defense? Who’s the team’s best rookie?

A reader of The Bee has asked beat writer Chris Biderman if it’s time for the 49ers to replace defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, seen here during the team’s training camp in May.
A reader of The Bee has asked beat writer Chris Biderman if it’s time for the 49ers to replace defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, seen here during the team’s training camp in May. AP

The 49ers are getting a much-needed week off following their 2-8 start to coach Kyle Shanahan’s second season. But we won’t stop answering your questions in our latest edition of the weekly mailbag.

Derrek Weatherford asks: Is it time for a D coordinator change? (Robert) Saleh looks out-coached consistently and his players look out of position or lost way too often.

I’d be shocked if Shanahan was willing to make that kind of decision during the season. He’s publicly been in Saleh’s corner in the face of criticism, even while the defense has struggled and, at times, looked badly out-coached against the better offenses the 49ers have played.

“I have confidence in him because I’ve been coaching for a long time,” Shanahan said of Saleh on Oct. 17. “I’ve been around a lot of coaches, offensive coaches and defensive coaches. I have confidence in him because I should. He’s very good at what he does. He’s very smart and he runs a very good system. Any time there’s a mistake, you always look at coaches, you look at players. It’s all of us.”

There are a few things to keep in mind. First, there’s not a lot of great defense being played in the NFL anywhere. Offenses are scoring at record highs largely because of the new rules emphasizing player safety that allow pass catchers to run freely downfield — and quarterbacks to feel much more comfortable in the pocket.

Scoring is up nearly eight points per game this season from the 2000 campaign, which is a lot. Five defenses are allowing fewer than 20 points per game. That number was 12 in 2000. Suffice to say, there don’t appear to be many (any?) young defensive assistants flying up the ranks. The next crop of defensive coordinators will likely be headlined by head coaches about to get fired (Todd Bowles? Sean McDermott? Marvin Lewis? Vance Joseph?).

Second, the 49ers have battled injuries at key positions. They’ve played without both their starting safeties in recent weeks, the corner spot opposite Richard Sherman (who’s also dealing with heel and calf issues) has been a turnstile and linebacker Reuben Foster began the year suspended and has been dealing with shoulder and hamstring injuries since.

The team came into the season lacking depth on defense and the injuries have exacerbated the issue.

How much of that falls on Saleh’s shoulders? That’s debatable. It’s fair to hold him accountable for a number of young players regressing, like Foster, Ahkello Witherspoon, Adrian Colbert and Solomon Thomas. But it’s also fair to hold the players accountable for their own development. They’re the ones on the field.

Saleh was also the coordinator running the team’s No. 7 ranked defense during the five-game winning streak late last season, when the players mentioned were all playing at much higher levels. It was the same scheme they’re running now and the same system employed by the Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Chargers, Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars that’s seen so much success in recent seasons.

Has Saleh done a great job this season? The evidence clearly says no. But Shanahan has indicated Saleh will be around for the long haul and it’s hard to imagine a new coordinator coming and turning this around without drastic upgrades being made to the roster, which the team plans on making anyway.

Who knows, Saleh might not even be a person of interest if quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo remained healthy and the 49ers scored nearly 30 points every week, as they did when Garoppolo was the starter in 2017.

Zeus asks: What do we need to take the step next year?

Upgrades are clearly needed throughout the roster. I’ll try to list those areas based on importance: 1. Edge pass rusher; 1A. A healthy Garoppolo; 2. Edge pass rusher (yes, they need more than one); 3. Cornerback; 4. Receiver; 5. Safety; 6. Running back.

Let’s remember the 49ers are 10th in the NFL allowing 344 yards per game, which isn’t terrible. Neither is their 5.4 yards per play, which ranks 12th. Where they falter is turnovers (five, last) which is directly correlated to their defensive sack rate (6.54, 18th).

I’m of the belief that improving significantly at edge rusher could have huge ramifications on the rest of the defense. Quarterbacks are simply far too comfortable in the pocket, which is terrible for a defense that plays predominately zone coverage. DeForest Buckner needs more help and it needs to come from the edges outside of quarterbacks’ peripheral vision.

Sherman has played well this season, but there’s no established backup plan heading into next season, particularly since Witherspoon hasn’t played as well as he did during his rookie season, while rookie third-round pick Tarvarius Moore has hardly gotten on the field. LSU’s Greedy Williams will get plenty of attention surrounding San Francisco’s likely top-five selection in the upcoming draft if someone like Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa is off the board.

At receiver, Pierre Garçon’s future with the team is very much in doubt beyond this season. Rookie second-round pick Dante Pettis has done little following an impressive training camp debut, though that can be attributed to a knee injury.

At running back, the team has shown it needs another capable option behind injured starter Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida because Alfred Morris’ 3.4 yards per carry isn’t going to cut it.

Solomon S Rollins asks: What do you think Shanahan’s message to the team was and how do you think he feels about the struggles on defense?

I wrote about this on Tuesday. Essentially, Shanahan told the team he’s using the final six games of the season to figure out which players will stay on the team going forward.

“You’re always playing for something,” he said. “This league doesn’t have patience. I don’t have patience. No one in this league has patience. You shouldn’t have to say that to players. And most of the players that have been around, (mostly) veterans, understand that. But a lot of people don’t understand that. And sometimes, you do have to educate people on that.”

Shanahan is clearly fed up with losing. And even without Garoppolo and McKinnon, San Francisco has lost too many games it should have won, particularly against the Chargers, Arizona Cardinals (twice), Green Bay Packers and recently the New York Giants.

Sure, the Chargers and Packers were road games against significantly more talented teams (particularly without Garoppolo), but the point stands. The 49ers were in position to win, but failed late.

Ultimately losing is probably a good thing for San Francisco, strictly in terms of getting the best draft pick possible. But NFL teams don’t operate that way, particularly with livelihoods on the line. Shanahan is still set on creating a competitive environment over the remaining seven weeks to ensure he has the best roster possible next season.

Joel Ellis asks: Who’s your 49ers rookie of the year?

It’s right tackle Mike McGlinchey. He’s been good to very good throughout the season, both in pass protection and as a run blocker.

Pro Football Focus had McGlinchey as the league’s top-ranked tackle in run blocking through Week 10. He’s allowed four sacks on the year, per PFF, which is just one more than Joe Staley, whom he will likely replace at left tackle once Staley hangs up his cleats.

Linebacker Fred Warner is the only other player worthy of the discussion. He’s played well in spurts, but his tackling has been more inconsistent than the 49ers would like, though he was very good against the Giants and running back Saquon Barkley. Warner has played every defensive snap in nine of 10 games so far, missing only a handful of snaps in a Thursday night blowout win over the Raiders after the win was in hand.

Chris Biderman: @ChrisBiderman
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