Robert Saleh’s popularity as head coach candidate is well-earned

Robert Saleh’s string of head coach interviews are very much deserved.

In an NFL dominated by offensive football, one of the most popular candidates in this head coach hiring cycle is a defensive specialist. Although Robert Saleh was not able to prevent an injury-ravaged San Francisco 49ers team from finishing with a 6-10 record, his resume from 2020 proves that he deserves to be an outlier in that regard and be given the chance to lead a team to prominence.

Saleh has interviewed with the Atlanta Falcons and is set to do the same with the Detroit Lions. The Jacksonville Jaguars and the Los Angeles Chargers are also reported to have requested permission to interview him for their vacant head coaching positions.

The 2019 season saw Saleh’s defense lay the foundation for a 49ers Super Bowl run and keep Patrick Mahomes in check for three and a half quarters.

However, his dance card is packed because he backed up that effort with another stellar campaign from his defense in a year where the 49ers were without Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Richard Sherman for the vast majority of the season, while a host of others missed long stretches.

Saleh is worthy of being considered one of the hottest properties on the head coaching market after showcasing his ability to keep the Niners defense among the elite while relying on backups and practice squad players, with his success in doing so reflected in the numbers.

A fine finish

Saleh could hardly have asked for a stronger finish to the season from his depleted defense. After holding Kyler Murray to an Expected Points Added per play average of minus 0.26 in the Niners’ Week 16 win over the Arizona Cardinals — according to data collated by Ben Baldwin — San Francisco’s defense ensured Russell Wilson was similarly frustrated in Week 17.

The 49er defense may not be have been able to drag C.J. Beathard and an anemic offense over the line in the season finale – Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks scoring 20 points in the fourth quarter to secure victory  — but San Francisco did an excellent job in stifling their division rivals for three quarters.

Seattle was held to six points in the first half and, despite his late revival, Wilson’s EPA per play of 0.05 was worse than that of Beathard.

Over the course of the season, the Niners finished eighth among all defenses in EPA per play allowed. San Francisco was ninth in dropback EPA and sixth in rush EPA, though Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric has a different read as to the strength of the 49ers defense.,

Strength in the secondary

The 49ers finished the year 11th in overall DVOA, above five teams with winning records and four playoff teams. However, the disparity between the offense and defense is stark.

Indeed, the offense – missing starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and a host of stars for most of the season – was 20th in DVOA. By contrast, the defense was sixth behind only the Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints, Washington Football Team, Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Niners were 10th in DVOA against the rush but fared even better in pass defense DVOA, ranking seventh, speaking to the progress the San Francisco secondary has made under Saleh despite the absence of Sherman.

With a consistently rotating cast of characters, Saleh made sure the 49ers defense dropped only four spots in DVOA from 2019. Had the 49ers enjoyed competent quarterback play, his efforts likely would have been rewarded with a playoff game in an NFC where eight wins was enough to make the dance.

That should greatly encourage each of the teams interviewing him, three of whom are set at the quarterback position, with the Jaguars set to acquire Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick.

Saleh is reported to want to take San Francisco passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur with him wherever he goes and make him his offensive coordinator.

Widely praised as an excellent leader of men, the combination of Saleh developing a defense and a quarterback such as Justin Herbert or Lawrence working in a Shanahan offense is a recipe for success.

The numbers are illustrative of a coach that has earned his chance to ascend to the big chair. And, given the offensive mind he would likely bring with him, his presumptive employers should have no fear about zigging when the rest of the league is zagging and going with one of the sharpest defensive brains in the NFL.

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