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Inside the Numbers: Robert Saleh at Northern Michigan and with the 49ers

His College Receiving Numbers Were Modest, His SF Defense's Rankings Remarkable

San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh watches from the sideline during an NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Santa Clara, Calif. The Cardinals defeated the 49ers 24-20. (Kevin Terrell via AP)

In this Inside the Numbers: Saleh Special Edition, we dive into two sets of numbers from new Jets head coach Robert Saleh's journey from Dearborn, MI, to Jets Nation.

It is true that Saleh's coaching career, from Michigan State in 2002 through his stint as San Francisco 49ers D-coordinator from 2017-20, has exclusively had a defensive flavor.

But he also has had exposure to offense after spending four seasons at tight end for Northern Michigan University's teams from 1997-2000.

Want some stats from Saleh's TE career? So did we. They were hard to come by no matter what the source — NMU's football website, anywhere else online, even on except for mentions of individual plays he made as a junior and senior.

But with help from the school's sports information department (special thanks to Katherine Harvath) and the NCAA's stats website, we can provide you with Saleh's receiving stats for his last three seasons for those Yooper (located on Michigan's Upper Peninsula) Wildcats. Here are Saleh's numbers from those seasons:

Table inside Article
Year GP Recs Yds Avg TDs
1998 11 8 110 13.8 0
1999 10 14 186 13.3 0
2000 11 23 198 8.6 2
Totals 32 45 494 11.0 2

Those numbers are a fun look back at Saleh's playing career. His coaching numbers have more to say about what can be expected from his Jets head coaching tenure. In short, everywhere he's gone in the NFL, from the Texans to the Seahawks to the Jaguars to the 49ers, those teams' defenses improved.

It's hard to tease out how much his input as a quality control coach at Houston and Seattle helped those teams, but it's easy to see how his guidance as the 49ers' defensive coordinator raised the Niners' status from one of the NFL's bottom defenses in 2015-16 back to one of the league's best units in 2019-20.

Here are some key NFL per-game rankings for San Francisco's defense, in 2016, the season before Saleh arrived on the scene, and then in 2017-20, the four seasons he served as the 49ers' coordinator:

Table inside Article
Year TotYds RushYds PassYds 3rdDn RZ Points
2016* 32nd 32nd 14th 29th 27th 32nd
2017 24th 22nd 22nd 30th 26th 25th
2018 13th 14th 11th 21st 26th 28th
2019 2nd 17th 1st t-2nd 22nd 8th
2020 5th 7th 4th 4th 9th 17th

So how will Saleh come across to players and fans, as more defensive guru or returning to his offensive roots or as football team CEO? He stated it well Thursday when asked about defensive play-calling duties:

"Who am I going to be like? I'm going to be like me. That was the challenge Pete [Carroll] gave us as young assistants. In moments of adversity, your true character will reveal itself. When adversity hits, your authenticity shines. Who are you going to get? You're going to get me."

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