Two years ago, shortly after he became the 49ers’ defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh was asked about the position where he places the team’s best pass rusher.
Did he need an elite player to play the so-called “Leo” spot?
“Oh, yeah,” Saleh said definitively before changing his tone. “… I don’t know (about) needing one per se, but we’ll find one.”
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Well, it took two years, but here’s the good news for Saleh: It appears the 49ers have found two.
On Wednesday, Saleh addressed the media for the first time since the 49ers traded for Pro Bowl pass rusher Dee Ford in March before adding pass rusher Nick Bosa with the No. 2 pick in the draft in April.
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The additions have inspired optimism that the defense can take a much-needed step after its middling pass rush was a big reason it ranked 28th and 25th, respectively, in points allowed during Saleh’s first two seasons.
With Bosa and Ford on board, Saleh can say it without hesitation: An elite “Leo” is a huge part of making his 4-3 defense work.
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“It’s like telling an offense to get by without a good quarterback,” Saleh said. “Our front is everything. It starts with the front. It’s a big man’s game. Big men usually win. And to have (Ford’s) speed element along with Bosa’s power. And the inside guys that we have …”
Last year, Saleh’s job security came into question as the 49ers set an NFL record for fewest takeaways in a season (seven) and allowed 27.2 points a game.
A more potent pass rush could make Saleh appear smarter this season. And he’s not alone: Pass-rush specialist Chris Kiffin, in his second season, joked his job became easier this offseason.
Kiffin will coach a defensive-line group that includes five first-round picks, all of whom were taken with a top-23 selection. Along the interior, DeForest Buckner, who had a career-best 12 sacks last year, Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas could benefit from the attention Ford and Bosa attract.
“Now that we have some edge presence,” Kiffin said, “and we have a dominant interior rusher, and piece together guys like Armstead and Solly, who keep coming along … it will be fun to see how it all plays out.”
Of course, it’s only May. Bosa is already sidelined with a hamstring injury that could keep him out until training camp. And Armstead and Thomas, to varying degrees, have yet to realize their first-round expectations.
Still, the 49ers, on paper, resemble a poor man’s Purple People Eaters.
And the potential of the group has them talking Super Bowl. They’re not necessarily talking about playing in this year’s title game on the heels of a 4-12 season. But they are noting they appear to have the same key ingredients recent champions have possessed.
New secondary coach Joe Woods had the same position in 2015 with the Broncos, who beat the Panthers in Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium. Denver, which had past-his-prime QB Peyton Manning, was led by a defense featuring Pro Bowl pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
“I think now with the pieces that we’ve added, in terms of our rushers up front, with Dee Ford and now you’ve got Bosa,” Woods said, “it was kind of the same formula in Denver when we had two good edge rushers and everyone forgets about (tackle) Malik Jackson inside.”
For his part, strong safety Jaquiski Tartt referenced the Super Bowl XLVIII champion Seahawks when discussing the offseason upgrades.
“Going back to the year the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl,” Tartt said, “the pressure that their defensive line brought, the quarterback was throwing it hot and the ball was out instantly.”
That didn’t happen often last year, which helps explain why the 49ers set an NFL record for fewest interceptions (two). The 49ers didn’t make major changes to the secondary in the offseason and they hope an improved pass rush will boost their back end.
The defensive line is “the lifeblood of our system, (and) I feel like we’ve got a good one,” Saleh said. “We should, hopefully, see a much more efficient defense.”