49ers are back thanks to a nasty defense led by a coordinator whose sideline antics are must-see TV

Terez PaylorSenior NFL writer

The Senior Bowl week is a long one for all the players involved. Between practices, media obligations and meeting with NFL teams, it’s essentially a long job interview that leaves players operating on a mere modicum of sleep.

In 2014, Auburn edge rusher Dee Ford found himself overwhelmed by the process. By the middle of the week, he was admittedly sleepy entering team meetings, but he would never leave that way thanks to the South team’s coaching staff, led by then-Jacksonville coach Gus Bradley.

“He started all his meetings with something inspirational,” Ford recently recalled to Yahoo Sports. “It didn’t matter what it was, whether it was a story, whatever it was, but that man had the same energy everyday. I would leave that meeting ready to go. I was in awe of Gus Bradley.”

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Ford, of course, went on to have a killer week, and be drafted in the first round by the Kansas City Chiefs. Thirty-and-a-half sacks — and five seasons — later, he was dealt to the San Francisco 49ers in March for a 2020 second-round draft pick.

San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh shares a word with Richard Sherman on Oct. 7, the start of the 49ers' dominant defensive run this month. In three games, the Niners have surrendered only 10 points. (Getty Images)
San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh shares a word with Richard Sherman on Oct. 7, the start of the 49ers' dominant defensive run this month. In three games, the Niners have surrendered only 10 points. (Getty Images)

And when Ford stepped into his first defensive meeting with San Francisco and met defensive coordinator Robert Saleh — an intense bald-headed man who resembled Bradley and, as a longtime assistant under him, brought a similar enthusiasm and a knack for opening every meeting with a story or joke — well, let’s just say Ford had a great feeling about the 2019 49ers defense.

“My first meeting reminded me of the Senior Bowl,” Ford said. “He brought such a light to the room with that approach, and I was like, ‘Yo, this goin’ be special, man.’”

Ford’s inkling could not have been more correct. Seven weeks into the 2019 season, the resurgent 49ers are off to their best start in 29 years at 6-0, and after the defense’s dominant performance in a 9-0 win over hapless Washington on Sunday — in which they surrendered only 154 net yards in mud-soaked conditions — the 49ers rank first in pass defense and seventh in rush defense, which is no easy feat.

It’s powered by a deep and talented pass rush that — thanks to the addition of Ford, who leads the 49ers with 4½ sacks, and first-round pick Nick Bosa, the odds-on-favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year — has finally come around after years of front-end investment.

The 49ers use stunts to create pressure with a four-man rush, which also allows them to boast one of the league’s best nickel defenses, a real boon in a league that has become increasingly heavy on three wide receiver sets.

“They’re incredibly powerful up front,” Washington offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell noted before Sunday’s defeat. “You’re going to play against a loaded box for a lot of the day.”

Led by a pair of second-level linebackers who can run, cover and hit in free-agent signee Kwon Alexander and second-year pro Fred Warner, not to mention a secondary powered by a All-Pro Richard Sherman, the 49ers boast the NFL’s No. 1 defense, one that is holding quarterbacks to a 64.6 passer rating (second-lowest in the NFL) while surrendering a mere 223 yards per game (after finishing 20th in total defense a year ago).

The defense’s performance could lead to Saleh being an attractive head-coaching candidate for a few teams that will be seeking a new head coach in 2020.

Saleh, whom 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan says is playfully referred to as “Gandhi” in the building, is even starting to develop social-media fame thanks to the primal sideline yells he’s becoming known for unleashing after big plays.

Cameras have started to capture these moments in recent weeks — especially in the 49ers’ 20-7 drubbing of the Los Angeles Rams a week ago — much to the enjoyment of the public.

“I don’t have Twitter or anything, so I got flooded from my family and I was like, ‘Jeez,’” Saleh told reporters this past week. “It’s like they’re all asking, ‘Why are you going off?’ It’s no different from any other game. I’m like that every single game, but it got noticed. I guess it went viral.”

And while his visceral on-field approach is one that is winning over viewers and players alike, Saleh insists he’s only doing what comes natural to him.

“When you step inside the white lines,” Saleh explained, “whether you’re a coach or a player, if you can’t trigger emotionally, then there’s something wrong with you in my opinion, at least from a defensive standpoint. It takes a certain mentality to play this game and it’s not for the soft. I’m there on [my players’] highs, I’m there on their lows. Football’s an emotional game, so it just comes out on Sunday, I guess.”

Even opposing coaches are starting to notice.

“You can see his energy, his enthusiasm and you can feel that the players really play hard for him,” O’Connell said.

And the players, Ford says, indeed love it. The 49ers have a saying — “all gas, no break” — and it resonates, with Saleh leading from the front.

“We’re a very spirited front, and he understands how to create energy,” Ford said. “So when your spirit and your morale is high everyday, and it’s a conscious effort to keep that going, man that’s special, that’s rare man because coaching’s hard, bro — and it’s a long season.

“There could be times where you can find coaches and players just trying to get through it, but he’s the guy who’s gonna pull it out ... and get us to play hard. Yeah, he’s special man — I like him. And he’s young as hell. He’s only gonna get better, bro.”

Ford is also quick to caution that the 49ers’ success doesn’t start with Saleh’s yells — it just ends with that. It actually begins in the meeting room, where players say Saleh installs his creative play calls and understands how to keep things simple so they can still play fast.

“We go in there so prepared that we have zero doubt when we’re out there on the field,” Warner told Yahoo Sports. “He’s very detailed, so when we’re out there or in the meeting room, we’re going over every little piece of it so we can play fast, and that’s the goal — is to just play as fast as possible.”

So far, it has been working. The key is to keep it going — there’s 10 games left, after all.

And if it does, perhaps Saleh will get a chance to be a head coach in this league, just like the man who rescued Ford from the Senior Bowl doldrums, the man who reminds Ford of Saleh so much.

“He’s insanely positive, he’s a storyteller ... like, he really has a lot of head-coaching qualities,” Ford said of Saleh. “And coming from that Gus Bradley regime, he brings a lot of those same things to where he makes the environment to play football … the everyday grind, worth the while.”

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