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49ers DC Robert Saleh figures to be hot coaching candidate

Fri Dec 4 6:39pm ET
AP Pro Football Writer

In this Sept. 13, 2020, file photo, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh talks to players on the sideline during the team's NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals in Santa Clara, Calif. Saleh inherited one of the worst defenses in the league when he arrived in 2017 and helped turn it into a dominant unit that helped the Niners reach the Super Bowl last season and remain in contention this season despite the string of injuries on both sides of the ball. (AP Photo/Scot Tucker, File)

Edge rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford were lost for the season by Week 2. The secondary has been a revolving door all season as stalwarts like Richard Sherman, Jaquiski Tartt and K'Waun Williams are among those dealing with injuries.

Through it all, the San Francisco 49ers have still managed to put together one of the league's top defenses thanks in large part to their defensive coordinator, who is making his case to be one of the top head coaching candidates at the end of the season.

''You've got to give Robert Saleh an abundance of credit. You have to give him an unusual amount of credit, and I don't think he's getting enough credit not only here but in the league, in general,'' Sherman said. ''To have the injuries that we've had week after week after week, the setbacks week after week. ... He's not making any excuses. He's making great plans week in and week out and we're making it happen. I expect him to be a head coach next year because of what he's able to do. He's able to rally men. He's a leader of men and that goes a long way.''

Saleh inherited one of the worst defenses in the league when he arrived in 2017 and helped turn it into a dominant unit that helped the Niners reach the Super Bowl last season and remain in contention this season despite the string of injuries on both sides of the ball.

San Francisco (5-6) ranks in the top 10 in several key defensive categories, including yards allowed per game, yards allowed per play, passer rating against and overall efficiency by Football Outsiders as he has built on the system he learned as a position coach in Seattle and made it into his own.

''I think he just knows exactly who he is and what he wants his defense to look like in terms of our core values as a defense, playing with effort, technique, violence,'' linebacker Fred Warner said. ''We know exactly what we're going to do. We're not going to do a lot. We're just going to do it fast and as physical as we can. That's what makes him so great. He makes sure there's no gray area in terms of coaching and teaching. There's a lot of coaches out there who just coach. But he's a great teacher.''

That kind of performance, and his leadership skills, made him a candidate for the head coaching job in Cleveland last offseason that went to Kevin Stefanski and should make him a contender for a job once again this offseason.

In a league that has struggled to hire minority coaches, the Lebanese American Saleh figures to be one of the leading minority candidates this offseason.

Saleh's head coaching candidacy is even getting a push from politicians in his home state of Michigan. A bipartisan group of 36 lawmakers led by state Rep. Abdullah Hammoud released an open letter to Detroit Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp suggesting she hire Saleh as the new coach to replace the recently fired Matt Patricia.

The letter called Saleh, who grew up just outside of Detroit in Dearborn, a ''hometown hero.'' Saleh also went to college at Northern Michigan and coached at both Michigan State and Central Michigan.

Saleh said he learned about the letter when he came off the practice field Friday and said his focus is entirely on beating Buffalo on Monday night.

''It's really a nonissue for me,'' he said. ''I don't talk about it. I don't really even see it. I don't have social media. I don't look into the news. It's probably more for family and friends to enjoy and get a kick out of than it is for me. We're completely locked into Buffalo.''

Regardless of whether he notices the talk, other teams are noticing him. With potential job openings already in Detroit, Houston and Atlanta, Saleh figures to be on the interview circuit once again this offseason.

Coach Kyle Shanahan was selfishly pleased when the Browns passed up Saleh last season but knows he won't be able to keep him forever.

''It's a matter of time before he becomes one,'' Shanahan said. ''I keep telling him, don't be mad at me because I know he's going to be one eventually. I hope he stays here as long as possible. He needs to be in no rush. So hopefully people don't figure it out and he stays here for a little bit.''

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Five Hot Plays: Week 13

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Player Notes
Calvin Ridley Dec 4 7:10pm ET

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley (foot, ankle) is good to go for a rematch with the New Orleans secondary in Week 13. Ridley has been banged up for a couple of weeks now but has still produced, putting up at least five catches and 50 yards in his last two games. The Saints' secondary has clamped down in the past few weeks, though they'll be without the services of Janoris Jenkins (knee). The potential presence of Julio Jones (hamstring) could also help Ridley's outlook. He should finish among the WR1 ranks this week.

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Jerry Jeudy Dec 4 7:00pm ET

Denver Broncos rookie wide receiver Jerry Jeudy (ankle) practiced in full on Friday, but he's listed as questionable for Week 13 against the division-rival Chiefs on Sunday night. Unless Jeudy suffers a setback on Saturday, he should be good to go in the rematch against the Super Bowl champions. Don't just assume that the Alabama product will bounce back in a big way from his donut in Week 12 because the Broncos will be forced to pass often against KC. The 21-year-old will certainly get on the board on Sunday night, but the Chiefs Defense has allowed the fewest receiving yards per game dating back to the start of last season. And Jeudy has caught only 37 of his 78 targets from quarterback Drew Lock in his rookie season. That's not great efficiency, making Jeudy more of a WR3/flex on Sunday night under the lights.

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Jared Goff Dec 4 6:50pm ET

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff has been inconsistent for fantasy this year, but he's a safer play for Week 13 against the Arizona Cardinals as a QB2. For his career, Goff has averaged right around 20 fantasy points per game against Arizona and he's actually seen a two-point bump when he's played them on the road. The Cardinals are allowing an average of 18 fantasy points per game to the quarterback position, which isn't a crazy good number, but Goff could be a good fill-in option with other starting quarterbacks dealing with injuries or bad matchups this week.

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Julio Jones Dec 4 6:50pm ET

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (hamstring) is a must-start fantasy option if active for Sunday's game against the Saints. Jones appears to be on the right side of questionable after a limited session on Friday. The All-Pro wideout has averaged 7.4 receptions and 116.4 receiving yards on 9.6 targets per game with three touchdowns in five contests where he's been fully healthy. The health has definitely been a concern, but Jones is a must-start WR1 whenever he's active. Lock him into fantasy lineups if he's available against the Saints' pass-funnel defense.

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Royce Freeman Dec 4 6:50pm ET

Denver Broncos running back Royce Freeman led the team with eight carries for 50 rushing yards in the Week 12 blowout loss to the Saints, but last week was an abnormal game, and that's an understatement. It helped that Phillip Lindsay (knee) left the game with an injury, and Freeman could be in line for an increase in workload if Lindsay misses the Sunday night game against the Chiefs, although it's looking like Lindsay should be active after practicing in full on Friday. In a best-case scenario, Freeman would help spell Melvin Gordon III against the division-rival Chiefs if Lindsay was inactive. But even in that situation, the 24-year-old wouldn't have standalone fantasy value. He has only 30 carries for 129 scoreless yards and nine catches for 73 yards in 11 games this season.

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Jason Myers Dec 4 6:40pm ET

Seattle Seahawks kicker Jason Myers has rarely been an elite fantasy play this season, but he remains a safe play again in Week 13. He's gone 15-for-15 on his field-goal attempts this season and he's gone 40-for-44 on extra-point attempts. While the New York Giants have a decent defense, they really lock it down in the red zone. They allow teams to score a touchdown on just 55.26 percent of their red-zone trips. With that in mind, Myers could have a lot more upside than we're used to this weekend. He's still not the best play for the week, but he should be considered a top-10 kicking option for those streaming kickers in Week 13.

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Phillip Lindsay Dec 4 6:40pm ET

Denver Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay (knee) was a full practice participant on Friday, but he's listed as questionable for Week 13 against the division-rival Chiefs on Sunday night. Lindsay looks to have a good chance at being active, but if you want to win your fantasy matchup this weekend and get into the fantasy playoffs, you should stay away from him. His presence against Kansas City would hurt Melvin Gordon III's upside and make both RBs more of RB3/flex options, with Lindsay being more of an RB4 in deeper leagues. The 26-year-old has just two receptions all year, giving him very little upside in PPR leagues. The Chiefs Defense has been more vulnerable on the ground, but Gordon is the only player in this backfield worth considering in Week 13.

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Seattle Seahawks Dec 4 6:30pm ET

The Seattle Seahawks Defense hasn't been the best for fantasy football this season, but they have a chance for a lot of value in Week 13 against the New York Giants. Giants quarterback Daniel Jones (hamstring) was announced as doubtful to play on Friday, which puts quarterback Colt McCoy in line for the start this weekend. Through 29 career games, he's thrown for 29 touchdowns and 27 interceptions. This Seahawks defense generated pressure and turnovers last week against the Philadelphia Eagles and they are a reasonable play again this week as a top-10 fantasy unit.

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Kalen Ballage Dec 4 6:30pm ET

Los Angeles Chargers running back Kalen Ballage (ankle), cornerback Casey Hayward (groin) and linebacker Uchenna Nwosu (chest) are questionable to play in Week 13 against the Patriots. Ballage practiced in full on Friday, so he should be active on Sunday. However, with Austin Ekeler returning from Injured Reserve last week and leading the backfield, Ballage has essentially lost the fleeting fantasy value that he had when Ekeler was on IR. He'll be fighting for touches with rookie Joshua Kelley and Troymaine Pope behind Ekeler on Sunday. Ekeler is right back in the RB1 conversation in his second game back. If Hayward can't suit up, it'll put more responsibility on cornerback Chris Harris Jr. in LA's secondary and upgrade the matchup for Patriots quarterback Cam Newton.

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Indianapolis Colts Dec 4 6:30pm ET

The Colts Defense had their worst performance of the season last week against the Titans, and they will have another tall task this week against Deshaun Watson and the Texans. Watson has been phenomenal this year. He has a passer rating of 103.6, has tossed 24 touchdowns and has not thrown an interception since Week 5. The Colts defense has been good against the pass, but they may be a risky start this week. They may be able to get some sacks as the Texans offensive line has allowed 28 sacks this year, but Watson does not turn the ball over and his capable of putting up plenty of points.

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Todd Gurley Dec 4 6:30pm ET

Atlanta Falcons running back Todd Gurley II (knee) is questionable for Week 13 against the Saints, though it would appear he has a good shot to play. If Gurley plays, he'll be taking on a Saints team that possesses the second-best run defense in the NFL. Gurley has struggled to a 3.7 yards per carry average, with his fantasy statistics buoyed by his rushing touchdowns. This is a matchup to actively avoid, as Gurley may not finish among the top-30 running backs this week. If he's inactive, it's best to avoid the backfield committee of Brian Hill and Ito Smith as well.

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Tyler Lockett Dec 4 6:20pm ET

Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett has been kind of boom-or-bust this year, but he's trending upwards in Week 13 against the New York Giants. He's on pace to top his career-best 82 receptions from last year and he's already scored eight touchdowns this season. If he scores at least three times in the next five games, he'll top his current record of 10. Lockett will get the easier matchup this week because cornerback James Bradberry will be following teammate D.K. Metcalf on the other side. As a result, Lockett could make a push for WR1 status this week.

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Jonnu Smith Dec 4 6:10pm ET

Tennessee Titans tight end Jonnu Smith (knee) and cornerback Adoree' Jackson (knee) have been ruled out for Week 13 against the Browns. Smith missed practice all week, so he wasn't close to playing this weekend after not seeing a single target in the Week 12 win over the Colts. Whenever he returns to action, he'll be a shaky touchdown-dependent, low-end TE1 for fantasy managers. Receivers A.J. Brown and Corey Davis should see more targets in the passing game. Anthony Firkser figures to benefit as the top pass-catching tight end with Smith out, but MyCole Pruitt could also see some run. Firkser isn't the answer for those looking for help at tight end in Week 13 fantasy lineups.

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Matt Ryan Dec 4 6:10pm ET

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has been struggling as of late with a matchup against New Orleans on tap. Without the presence of his favorite receiver Julio Jones (hamstring), Ryan has thrown for just 417 passing yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions in his last two games. The Saints Defense has been on a roll lately and got to Ryan in their first meeting, sacking him eight times and picking him off twice. Having Jones back in the lineup would certainly help, though it's wise for fantasy managers to avoid the Saints' defense wherever possible right now.

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Trey Burton Dec 4 6:10pm ET

Indianapolis Colts tight end Trey Burton caught another touchdown last week against the Titans, which gives him five total touchdowns on the season. All of those touchdowns came in the red-zone, proving he is a legitimate threat inside the 20-yard-line. With that being said, Burton needs touchdowns to be a reliable fantasy option. He has just two games all season with four or more catches and one game with over 50 receiving yards. The Texans Defense has struggled most of the season, and they rank 19th against opposing tight ends. Burton is worthy of starting consideration in deeper leagues but his value rests with finding the end zone.

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Cam Newton Dec 4 6:10pm ET

New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton (abdomen) is listed as questionable for Week 13 against the Chargers. Newton was limited in practice all week, so fantasy managers should consider him likely to suit up on Sunday. He could be in danger of aggravating the injury because of his aggressive style of play and the fact that he's run the ball double-digit times in five games this year. However, the Chargers Defense has allowed the 11th-most fantasy points per game to signal-callers this year, including four rushing scores. Newton has QB1 upside each week because of his rushing prowess (nine rushing scores), but fantasy managers may be wary after he completed just nine passes for 84 yards in the win over Arizona last week. Consider him a high-end QB2 with a safer floor against LA on Sunday.

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D.K. Metcalf Dec 4 6:00pm ET

Seattle Seahawks wide receiver D.K. Metcalf just got done cooking Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Darius Slay, and he's setting his sights on the New York Giants secondary for Week 13. On the year, he's averaging over 19 PPR points per game. Through 11 games, he's been held under 13.6 fantasy points just twice. The Giants are allowing just 23.0 fantasy points per game to the wide receiver position, but they haven't been matching up with a quarterback-receiver duo like Russell Wilson and Metcalf. With good weather forecasted for Sunday, he's a strong play again this week.

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Cleveland Browns Dec 4 6:00pm ET

Cleveland Browns cornerback Denzel Ward (calf) has been ruled out for Week 13 against the Titans. The Browns are getting All-Pro pass-rusher Myles Garrett back from the COVID-19 list this weekend, but they'll be thin in the secondary without Ward around. Cleveland will still have a difficult time trying to slow down the NFL's rushing leader in Derrick Henry on Sunday, and wide receiver A.J. Brown should have no problems returning WR1 value for his fantasy managers as well. The Browns Defense has been pretty solid in the fantasy realm in 2020, but this weekend isn't a time in which you should trust them to your starting lineups. Ward has 38 tackles (32 solo), two interceptions, 15 passes defensed and a forced fumble in 10 games this season.

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Zach Pascal Dec 4 6:00pm ET

Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Zach Pascal is now the No. 3 wide receiver on the team's depth chart, so it is tough to consider him a reliable flex option. He had his worst performance of the season last week with just one catch for 23 yards. The only silver lining for this week is that he has found a bit of success against the Texans Defense over his career. In four career games, he is averaging about four catches for 57 yards, and a touchdown per game. There are other offensive options ahead of Pascal, so fantasy owners in deeper leagues can feel mostly comfortable in leaving him on the bench this week.

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Clyde Edwards-Helaire Dec 4 5:50pm ET

Kansas City Chiefs rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (illness) is listed as questionable for Week 13 against the division-rival Broncos. Edwards-Helaire has missed practice each of the last two days and is in danger of sitting out on Sunday. Making things more difficult for fantasy managers, the Chiefs-Broncos game is on Sunday night. His fantasy managers would like to see him get more touches, but there are just too many explosive offensive weapons in KC. He'd be a solid RB2 this weekend if he's active against a Broncos Defense allowing the most rushing yards per game in the last five weeks, but you'll need to have backup options ready in case he can't go. Le'Veon Bell would be an excellent plug-and-play RB2 if CEH misses the Sunday night clash with Denver. The rookie had eight carries for 46 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting with the Broncos in Week 7.

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