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Robert Saleh’s sideline study and ‘absolutely no panic’—how defense silenced Rams after first drive



© Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

For about five minutes into the first quarter of the 49ers’ 20-7 win over the Los Angeles Rams, Robert Saleh isolated himself. An assistant coach handed him a tablet. No words were exchanged. Saleh did not speak to his players, nor ask his coaches what went wrong. He watched first, standing alone on the sideline, then migrating to a spot on an empty bench.

As the 49ers’ offense took their recompense for a seven-play, 56-yard opening drive by the Los Angeles Rams which featured all run plays and the first rushing touchdown allowed by the defense this season, Saleh was on an island, watching, noting, preparing adjustments. A defense which had seemed indefatigable had just let the Rams, without Todd Gurley, walk into the end zone with not so much as a question being asked of their offensive line or running back Malcolm Brown.

Six minutes later, the score was evened at seven points apiece. And though no one knew it yet, the Rams were already done scoring. For the most part, they were done doing anything of significance on offense. For the rest of the day, just 109 total yards were accrued (six more than George Kittle alone caught for), 53 on the ground and 78 in the air.

The golden boy, Jared Goff, who’d thrown for 912 yards in the two prior games, looked like a high school quarterback unprepared for his first night as a varsity starter. And while he was poor, his dud was largely prompted by a 49ers front which sacked him four times, and appeared to rightfully petrify him on just about every snap.

Saleh was sly when asked what adjustments he made, biting his tongue and opting to “keep it in house,” but he did generalize what the changes were.

“We just had to get a grasp of what kind of runs we were getting and then what we could do without disrupting the structure of the defense,” Saleh said. “The adjustments we made in between series, we’ll keep it in house, obviously, but I think the guys did a great job executing it, the coaches did a great job coaching it and we were able to put all that stuff to bed.”

The Rams were nothing short of putrid after that opening drive, converting on third- and fourth downs on the empty side of the binary scale, going 0-for-9 on third and 0-for-4 on fourth. Crucially, they were shut down twice at the one-yard line.

That pair of rejections on third- and fourth down at the 49ers’ one-yard-line was the moment the tide turned in the defense’s eyes. DeForest Buckner said the defense viewed the Rams’ opening set of eight-straight run plays (seven on the first drive and the eighth to open the second drive) as a personal affront, and built off the energy of the goal line stand.

“They decided to run it [eight]-straight times. It definitely hits you on a personal level,” Buckner said. “Especially, we know we’ve been playing really good run defense and we know they have a really good run game. That’s what they thrive on. They go for the run, play-action pass and they can drop back pass. I’m pretty sure a lot of guys took it personally. We even told each other, ‘They ran it [eight]-straight times.’ As a man, you don’t like to see that on the defensive side. It really sparked into that goal line stand for us.”

The tone after that opening Rams volley was met with tranquility from the 49ers sideline, according to Saleh.

“There was no panic on the sideline,” Saleh said. “There was absolutely no panic, didn’t need to change our calls, didn’t need to change the structure of the defense. We felt good about our ability to stop the run with just our front.”

That energy comes from the man at the helm, Kyle Shanahan, who Saleh credited for his growth as a coach, and for ushering in that sense of calm.

“Kyle was great,” Saleh said. “Talk about a guy who’s had tremendous growth in these three years. Kyle, he got on the headset, ‘Hey, don’t panic. Get it fixed and get these guys right.’ Kyle was phenomenal on the headset, he has been all season. So for Kyle, obviously him communicating, just keeping us in our element, keeping us focused and keeping the task at hand and constantly, throughout the game, just talking to us about what he was trying to get done. I thought he was really good.”