49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan didn’t love that he had to answer questions about the viability of his defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh, throughout 2018. After all, it meant that the defense was struggling and people were looking for someone to blame.
To leave no gray area, Shanahan was asked at his end-of-season press conference if Saleh would be returning in 2019 for a third year after San Francisco finished with the NFL’s 28th-ranked scoring defense.
“Yes,” Shanahan said. “... I’m with him every day. So I know how good of a coach he is. I know how he is schematically. I know how he is dealing with the players. I know what he can handle just with his personality and how smart he is, and that’s a lot.”
What Shanahan didn’t ensure was the return of Saleh’s defensive staff, to which the team this week made two new hires: defensive line coach Kris Kocurek and defensive backs/passing game coordinator Joe Woods.
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The team announced Tuesday it had added Kocurek, who spent the previous nine seasons with the Detroit Lions, serving one year as assistant defensive line coach and the final eight as the main coach at the position. Woods’ hire was announced Thursday after he spent the last two seasons as the Denver Broncos defensive coordinator; he’ll replace Jeff Hafley, who left the team earlier this month to become a co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State.
Kocurek replaces Jeff Zgonina after two seasons at the helm in which the defensive line didn’t improve enough. In particular, the 49ers have yet to get adequate production from the first ever draft pick of the Shanahan and John Lynch era, Solomon Thomas, whose only sack last season came when he was in the vicinity of Raiders quarterback Derek Carr as he scrambled out of bounds for a loss in early November.
Otherwise, the only 49er to stand out as a pass rusher in 2018 was DeForest Buckner, who logged 12 sacks and was named a Pro Bowl alternate this week.
San Francisco improved its sack numbers overall, going from 30 to 37, but it was hardly a jump that elevated the defense. For that, Zgonina was made expendable in favor of Kocurek, who spent last season in the same role with the Miami Dolphins. He was the Lions’ defensive line coach from 2010 to 2017.
“When he recently became available, we acted aggressively to add him to our staff because his philosophy, and the style of play he coaches, fits our scheme and personnel very well,” Shanahan said in a statement. “We’re excited to get him in the meeting rooms and onto the field with our players.”
San Francisco’s secondary also struggled throughout 2018 under Hafley. Lapses in communication were a common thread of many of the touchdowns allowed while few, if any, returning defensive backs took positive steps in their development. The 49ers finished 26th in red zone defense, allowing touchdowns on 65.5 percent of opponents’ trips inside the 20.
Moreover, their two interceptions were the fewest in league history. The only players to pick passes off were safeties Antone Exum Jr. and Jaquiski Tartt, which puts pressure on Woods to help swing the team’s ability to take the ball away. Cornerbacks Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon, K’Waun Williams, Jimmie Ward and Tarvarius Moore were all shut out.
But Woods brings some positives: He spent the past two seasons as a defensive coordinator for the Broncos, offering valuable play-calling experience, and he was indoctrinated into the league by Monte Kiffin, the unofficial forefather of San Francisco’s defensive scheme.
Woods’ first NFL coaching job was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004 and 2005 (a staff Shanahan was also on as a quality control coach under Jon Gruden). Kiffin was the defensive coordinator, whose Tampa Two scheme heavily influenced the system created by Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, which is mimicked Saleh (and Chris Kiffin, Monte’s son, is San Francisco’s pass rush specialist).
“Since we first worked together in Tampa,” Shanahan said in a statement, “Joe has continued to gain invaluable experience in different schemes and coverages that will benefit our defense. Anybody who is familiar with Joe as a coach knows that he is passionate about the fundamentals of the game and we look forward to seeing the impact he has on our team.”
Suffice to say, the 49ers found new coaches for their most problematic position groups on defense in 2018. They didn’t replace their defensive coordinator, but they might have done the next best thing.