Robert Saleh putting his stamp on 49ers' dominant defense

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Make no mistake, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh sees and hears all. But if it doesn't have to do with the Niners' defense, Saleh doesn't care.

He is the architect of one of the league's best defenses, and his message never changes.

"You remind everybody, every day, no matter what: It's a life commitment to be able to stay focused day in and day out at the task at hand, to stay in the moment and not allow things to get too big for yourself just because it's a different set of circumstances," Saleh said. "The circumstances are always the same -- it's a championship game."

It's an approach Saleh has used his entire coaching career and is the foundation of a San Francisco defense that has fueled the team's 8-1 start. The unit ranks second in yards allowed per game and points allowed per game, first in sack rate and near the top of the league in nearly every meaningful statistical category. That has made him one of the NFL's hottest potential head-coaching candidates.

From hulking meme to head coach?

Saleh is well liked around the 49ers' facility. With his players, he's a talented storyteller who finds ways to share important life lessons and tie them back to football. With the media, he offers thoughtful responses in a soft-spoken way that makes him easily approachable.

When game day arrives, Saleh transforms.

During an Oct. 13 win against the Rams, Saleh was shown repeatedly on the sideline jumping up and down, yelling encouragement and celebrating big plays.

He quickly became an internet meme, with the gifs quickly making the rounds in the 49ers' facility, opening Saleh up to ribbing. The jokes continued at home.

The tall, muscular Saleh admits that he occasionally "blacks out" on game days, cajoling and supporting his players as if he's one of them. His favorite message? Play with extreme violence, offering an interesting juxtaposition for a guy Shanahan sometimes calls "Gandhi."

"I think he knows how to coach defense," Shanahan said. "If you don’t stress extreme violence, it's tough to play football. He knows what it takes, but he just wears a bracelet on it -- it's not like it's tatted on his face or anything. He's a nice guy, but he's a very good coach who knows how to get the most out of his players."

Humble beginnings

In an alternate world, Saleh's days would be spent in an office, analyzing numbers instead of game film. He graduated from Northern Michigan with a degree in finance after four years of playing tight end. Upon graduation, Saleh took a job at Comerica Bank in the Detroit area.

That didn't last long. Saleh took a job as a Michigan State assistant in 2002 and hasn't looked back. Along the way, he has accumulated the right combination of X's and O's and life experiences to make him a hot name in coaching circles.

After working in multiple roles for the Houston Texans from 2005 to 2010 -- where he first met Niners coach Kyle Shanahan -- Saleh graduated to a job on Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll's staff.

"He got recommended from somebody to us," Carroll said. "And he had been a really well-respected quality control guy at the time from Houston. And we interviewed him and really liked him and we’re fortunate to get him. ... There was no question that Robert was going to really be a good ball coach and can be a leader of the defense and all that from the start."

Carroll was in the midst of building one of the best defenses in league history and Saleh, the defensive quality control coach from 2011 to 2013, basked in the opportunity to learn. Whether it was from Carroll or other defensive coaches such as Gus Bradley, Ken Norton Jr. and Kris Richard, Saleh soaked up every bit of knowledge.

Niners cornerback Richard Sherman, who played for Seattle then, remembers watching Saleh learn the intricacies of Seattle's Cover 3 scheme, his preparation and attention to detail.

"He’s a mad man," Sherman said. "He will work himself to death. You give him a bye, you give him a day off where he can just work freely, you'll come back and he'll have drawn some really unique things up. And he'll implement them in a really simple fashion and make sure everybody understands it. ... You can't help but want to make his vision come to life."

Making his mark

When Shanahan tabbed Saleh as his defensive coordinator in 2017, it raised eyebrows since Saleh had never called a defense before. But Shanahan saw Saleh's work ethic and football acumen.

Despite struggles in their first two years, Shanahan's faith in Saleh never wavered, even as outside observers wondered if a change was needed. Saleh heard the talk, but only because he was asked about it.

"I don't pay attention to it," Saleh said. "I don't have social media. I wouldn't have known my job was under pressure unless you all told me ... anytime I'm thinking about myself and my job security, I'm taking away from my ability to focus on what's important now."

Instead of worrying about his job, Saleh spent every day figuring out how to best unlock the defense's potential. From a scheme standpoint, Saleh's defense leans mostly on Cover 3 principles with a little Cover 1 on the back end, but it's now paired with a front four that is capable of getting pressure on its own. That frees Saleh up to mix up looks and matchup principles based on opponent formations and receiver splits.

For example, the 49ers won't hesitate to use what's known as "Cover 3 boundary lock," which actually mixes zone on one side with the corner on the short side playing man. Saleh has also implemented more "wide 9" alignments for his defensive line, a result of the offseason addition of line coach Kris Kocurek. That allows edge rushers Dee Ford and Nick Bosa to generate more speed-to-power moves by lining up outside the tackle's outside shoulder.

Smaller tweaks, such as using safeties Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward interchangeably, also have made the Niners more difficult for offenses to figure out.

"He does a great job calling it and being situationally aware, and when teams want to take a shot and when teams run certain plays, he has a great sheet that he goes through when teams want to be aggressive or teams don't want to be aggressive," Sherman said.

The rest of the league is beginning to take notice of his work, which is why Saleh's name has begun to pop up on lists of offseason head-coaching candidates -- even if that's another item he's not worried about.