Robert Saleh will unveil a new version of the 49ers defense this fall.
What will it look like?
Before I tell you, let me quickly take you through the history of his 49ers deenses, starting with Version 1.0.
This was the 49ers defense in 2017 and 2018, and it was classic Pete Carroll -- stuff the Seahawks did in 2011 when Saleh was one of their defensive quality control coaches. It featured five defensive players on the line of scrimmage to stop the run, and Cover 3 to stop the pass -- zone coverage. This defensive approach worked well 10 years ago, but it’s predictable and NFL offenses figured out how to beat it. So from 2017 to 2018, the 49ers defended the run well, but opposing quarterbacks shredded them.
That’s why Saleh unveiled Version 2.0 in 2019.
In 2019, Saleh hired defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, who installed a Wide 9 defensive front -- meaning four men on the line instead of five. This Wide 9 enhanced the 49ers pass rush and weakened the run defense -- a smart tradeoff in the modern NFL, which is a passing league.
Saleh also hired defensive backs coach Joe Woods, who varied and disguised the 49ers’ coverages. Instead of using Cover 3 every play, sometimes to keep teams guessing they used Cover 4, meaning four deep defenders and three underneath ones.
These changes made the 49ers defense the second best in the NFL. But the defense fell apart during the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl -- gave up 21 points. Wasn’t good enough to hold down the Chiefs offense for an entire game. And the 49ers lost.
So Saleh changed his defense again this offseason.
Woods did such a good job with the 49ers in 2019, the Browns hired him this offseason to be their defensive coordinator. So Saleh needed a new defensive backs coach.
Most analysts expected Saleh to hire Kris Richard, who was the Seahawks cornerbacks coach when Saleh was their defensive quality control coach. Richard is a zone-coverage specialist who spent the past two seasons with the Cowboys.
Saleh didn’t hire him. Instead, Saleh hired Tony Oden, a man-to-man coverage specialist who coached the Lions defensive backs from 2014 to 2017, and the Dolphins defensive backs from 2018 to 2019.
This is Version 3.0 of Saleh’s defense.
Saleh knows a defense can’t play purely zone coverage and win a Super Bowl anymore. Those days are over. Offenses are too sophisticated -- the best quarterbacks carve up zone coverage. See: Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees.
A great defense must play man-to-man and zone coverage.
The only team that has beaten the Chiefs in the playoffs since Mahomes became their quarterback was the Patriots in 2018. That season, their linebackers coach was Brian Flores, who became the Dolphins head coach in 2019. He and Oden worked together for a year.
The Patriots primarily are a man-to-man coverage defense -- they have a different philosophy than Saleh. Bill Belichick wants to take away the opponent’s best weapon. Saleh wants to take away big plays.
When the Patriots beat the Chiefs in the playoffs, Belichick double covered Tyreek Hill -- took him out of the game. He finished with one catch.
When the 49ers played the Chiefs in the Super Bowl, the 49ers didn’t double Hill. Instead, they played their typical zone coverages, and gave up a 44-yard catch to Hill on third-and-15, which changed the entire complexion of the game.
Oden probably would have doubled Hill on that play, and for most of the night.
Oden should improve the 49ers’ ability to play man-to-man coverage, which is exactly what they need. He helped develop Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard, who intercepted seven passes in 2018, and helped develop cornerback Darius Slay, who intercepted eight passes in 2017.
Maybe Oden can develop Ahkello Witherspoon, who is the 49ers’ best man-to-man corner. He struggles playing zone, so more man coverage would benefit him. But it wouldn’t benefit Richard Sherman, because he struggles playing man to man. Meaning Sherman might play less in 2020 than he did in 2019.
Version 3.0 could look quite different than the previous one.