Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh Press Conference
Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh
Press Conference – November 12, 2020
San Francisco 49ers
Wanted to ask you to just, obviously, I’m sure you want to generate more pass rush. Just regarding two guys who statistically, sack-wise, haven’t done much in that regard lately who are good candidates to do so, being DL Arik Armstead and DT Javon Kinlaw. Just maybe what are the reasons for that? I guess when I ask about Kinlaw, I do understand he’s a rookie and probably came in more advanced as a run stopper, but what gives you the belief that he will develop as a pass rusher?
“I’ll start with Kinlaw. Obviously, when you get one-on-one opportunities in this league, you’re not going to get very many, especially in a true passing situation. First and second down, a lot of teams give us a lot of play action, hard sets, which is a difficult transition for a rookie to make, especially. So, while it may look like he has a one-on-one set or one-on-one opportunity, it could be a play action where he’s got to transfer from a run mentality to a pass mentality, which takes time. It takes time, takes field, takes an understanding for what’s happening. Along those lines, when he does get his one-on-ones, he does have to win. He has had some wins. I believe he’s, I mean, it’s amongst rookies so far this season, I think I read somewhere that he’s in the top five with regards to pressures from defensive lineman. He’s progressing along well and I do believe that once things start to click, and they are, because he’s showed up a step late to the party when I think [CB] K’Waun [Williams] had a sack. He had [Philadelphia Eagles QB] Carson [Wentz] in his grasp, Carson Wentz. Carson got away from him. He was in a foot race with [Green Bay Packers QB] Aaron Rogers on Thursday. So, he’s had his opportunities and those are things that he’s going to learn. It’s the same thing that happened with [Indianapolis Colts DL Deforest Buckner] Buck, where we talked about he needs to find that one step. I feel like that’s where Kinlaw is with regards to, he’s had some opportunities, he’s missing a step and that just comes with time and reps and learning. I believe that he’s going to get all that. He is just hungry for knowledge and just constantly trying to learn from everything. So, I believe that he’s a guy that won’t fail. With regards to Arik, Arik is getting a lot of attention with regards to the way teams are blocking, the way teams slide the front to him and all that stuff. His one-on-ones are even more limited than what Javon’s been able to get. So, on the flip side, when he does get those one-on-ones, he knows it and everyone knows that he’s got to win those opportunities. He’s got to take advantage of them, but at the same time, that’s on us as coaches to find ways to get him more one-on-one opportunities. That’s an every week thing.”
You guys hung in there pretty well as far as defense goes, considering the circumstances. You rank 13th or better at yards, points, turnovers, interceptions, plays and time of possession per drive. I was wondering, as a coach, what do you think the defense has to do better over the last half of the season for the 49ers to make a playoff run?
“Third down in the red zone. Third down in the red zone. We’ve got to be a lot better. A lot of our red zone touchdowns that we’ve allowed have come on third down. Did not like the way Thursday went. We’re not a defense that gives up explosive plays. So, that’s got to get fixed immediately. It’s unlike us. The biggest thing to me so far has been third down in the red zone. We’ve haven’t been able to win as frequently as you’d like. Obviously, we’re still up there with regards to stats or however you want to see it, but, so, it’s got to be better. That’s going to be the biggest difference, is being great in the red zone. Obviously, it always comes back to the ball and creating disruptive plays and being disruptive, not only at the line of scrimmage, but in the back end and trying to get some takeaways, getting the ball out, forced fumbles. We traditionally have been a high ranked team in forcing fumbles, and the ball has been wiggling. It’s been loose. It just hasn’t been getting on the ground as frequently as we were used to seeing. So, guys have been focused on it and looking at it and we’re trying to get better. There’s a laundry list of things I can pick for us, but getting the ball and obviously third down in the red zone would be at the top of my list.”
I have a question that doesn’t, it’s not regarding the Saints or necessarily even your defense. It’s about what the NFL did yesterday in terms of encouraging diversity hiring. I wanted to get your impressions, as a guy that’s been up for head coaching jobs and will be again, what’s your impression of what the NFL did to encourage that by saying they would reward teams third round draft picks if assistant coaches or assistant GMs leave for higher jobs?
“I think the NFL has done a really good job, not only speaking about diversity, but acting on it. A lot of people in this country tend to speak and they say a lot of things, but I think the NFL has clearly, and the owners, because they’re the ones that ultimately make the final decision, have put their money where their mouth, so to speak. Like I’ve said, it’s one thing to speak and it’s another thing to act. I think it’s a tremendous gesture by the league to be able to reward teams that are able to develop young men. It’s a promising thing for a lot of the young coaches who are looking for those quality control gigs because that’s really where it all starts is those opportunities. It doesn’t matter your race, ethnicity. It’s just getting that opportunity at such a young age at the quality control level, because that’s where all the development happens. I think that opens up the door for minorities to be able to get those opportunities so they can grow. It still comes down to the individual taking advantage of that opportunity and finding ways to develop within it and not relying on the NFL. The NFL has created the opportunity and now it’s on the individual to always act on that opportunity. So, it still goes hand-in-hand.”
Regarding the strong safety spot, how do you view that position over these next few weeks with S Jaquiski Tartt going down? Is there going to be an opportunity for S Johnathan Cyprien to potentially earn more playing time?
“We’ll see as it goes. Obviously, Cyp will be up. He’s always part of the equation, but trying to find roles for everybody on our defense and making sure that we’re putting our best 11 on the football field is always going to be at the front of our minds. Whether Cyp has a role, [DB Tarvarius] T-Moore, [S] Marcell [Harris], we’ve just got to do a really good job trying to find a way to get our best 11 on the field and continue to be as fast as possible. So, to answer your question, absolutely. There’s always ways to get people on the field. We’ve just got to figure it out.”
How beneficial were those extra few days off following back to back road trips with a Thursday night game right after that?
“They’re always beneficial. The bad part about Thursday night is that it hits too quick, especially for the players. There’s nothing better than winning on Thursday Night Football. So, wish we would’ve been able to do that, but to get any kind of break, especially for the players. You can always feel their energy when they come back to practice on a Wednesday. Thursday, defensively, I thought we had two fantastic practices and just feeling our speed, our energy, our communication, just they were alive. That’s a direct correlation to the break that they got. So, it’s very, very beneficial. And not to look ahead and past this particular game, obviously, but having the Bye Week, it’ll only be better for them to surge towards the second half of the year.”
With CB Jamar Taylor, I think just his recent bio didn’t suggest maybe he’d be as good as he has been when he’s gotten his opportunities this season. I think he’s played for four or five teams the last couple of years. Released after training camp. Has he surprised you, particularly, I guess, his performance against the Rams and Patriots?
“No, to be perfectly honest. He had so many reps to prove himself during training camp because KK had gotten injured and if it had not been for numbers, he would have made this football team. If we had preseason games, he would have been claimed by somebody else. I believe that. He was doing a lot of great things during training camp and so that’s why when KK got injured, it was a no brainer to bring him back. His play has warranted keeping him on this roster, obviously. He’s been fantastic. He is a veteran, he is a pro, he is incredibly smart. He’s very deliberate in the way he works and he practices and that’s why he has the success he has. Whatever we said we might be nervous about putting in whatever situation, he’s proven that we shouldn’t be. So, he continues to get better and it’s really a testament to him and the way he works and how he tries to get better every day.”
A two-part question about interior defensive lineman. Last season, you lost DL D.J. Jones against the Saints. In retrospect, how much did you miss him, especially, you think, in the Super Bowl? Two, I saw a graph the other day, one of those ESPN stats, where it said DL Kevin Givens was eating up a lot of double teams. Has that been the case from your perspective? Has he commanded more double-team attention this year and resulted in a good, positive domino effect?
“To answer the first question on D.J., I think losing D.J. is a very big deal. He’s such an explosive player on the inside of our defensive line. The culmunation of losing as many players that we did a year ago in terms of all those, I don’t want to call them grunts, but the D-Line took a significant hit last year. D.J., just his ability to get off the ball, penetrate, his body balance and his foot speed and all that, he is a disruptive piece on the inside. So, anytime you lose a player like him, it’s going to hurt, regardless of the opponent you face. With regards to Kevin, I’m not sure how they come up with those stats. I do know that when he’s in there on first and second down, a lot of the things we get are hard, play action, double double concepts, where you get one guy with a one-on-one and everyone else is getting double-teamed. Or if he’s in there on third down, he might get the slide to him, which may look like a double team. So, I don’t know if teams are deliberately trying to double Kevin. I think it’s just been the situations he’s been put in more than anything. But again, he’s another guy that we’d like to see get some one-on-ones in the future. But same thing, he’s got to take advantage of them when he gets it.”
This is a great offense you’re going up against. Last season, it seemed that LB Azeez Al-Shaair, in particular, in coverage gave up a few big plays. That’s what I think, you can correct me if I’m wrong. How has he improved since that game a year ago?
“Azeez has gotten better with regards to just having a good command of the defense. He’s gotten a lot more middle linebacker reps, in terms of practice and all that. So, he can make every check, he can make every call. He’s very, very intelligent, and he really does a really good job for the other 10 players and giving confidence that they can go do their job. He gets close calls out of his mouth. He gets coverages communicated. So, he does a great job there. So, he has done a really nice job improving from year one to year two and I only think he’s going to get better. He hasn’t even scratched the surface yet with what he’s capable of. He’s just, again, it’s same thing. A lot of things pop up for some of these young kids and he’s one of them that can see it. Even though he may have made a mistake, he doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He will continue to get better with the more reps that he gets.”