Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh Press Conference

Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh

Press Conference – December 10, 2020

San Francisco 49ers

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Head Coach Kyle Shanahan was talking yesterday that he showed a lot of clips from the Monday night game, offensively and defensively. What were some of the main messages regarding your defense that you guys needed to fix up before Sunday?

“Obviously, we all feel that we’re a heck of a lot better than what we showed on Monday night, but when you play an offense as good as Buffalo’s and you’re not on you’re a-game, something like that can happen. We made some uncharacteristic mistakes in coverage that just led to explosive plays that didn’t need to happen. We had some opportunities. It was one of those Murphy’s Law-type games where anything that could go wrong, would go wrong. We get an interception from [LB] Fred [Warner] that gets called back from an illegal contact. Fourth-and-two, felt like we had a stop on a potential penalty, but don’t get the call. Just a lot of little things that just happen. To their credit, they do a phenomenal job executing and straining you and making sure that you’re on your A-game at all times during the game. The big thing was, is just to show the guys that Monday night does not define what the group has accomplished, both offensively, defensively and special teams for that matter. So, we’ve got a lot of confidence. We’ve got Washington coming in and we’ve got to pick up and get going again. So, we’re still in this thing.”

With DL Arik Armstead being the nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year, just what does that say about what you’ve grown to know him as a human and his character, and I guess conversely, what do you think’s happening in terms of the overall lack of sack production for him this season, which I would imagine would be a disappointment given what he did last year and the contract he received in the spring?

“For sure. To answer the first question with regards to Arik’s personality, his character, he is such a genuine human being. If you just see him in person, you just see this mountain of a man, but what you will never understand unless you speak to him is just how thoughtful and how calculated and how smart the man is. He’s so much more than just a football player, especially off the field. The guy’s just got a fantastic mind and he’s very bright, so well deserving of the nominee that he did receive. As far as the sack production, obviously it comes with opportunity. You’ve got to win your one-on-ones, but he’s also not getting as many one-on-one opportunities as he had a year ago and it’s just when teams double him, other people have to step up and help around him. There are times where guys have, [DL] Kerry Hyder’s [Jr.] done a nice job, [DT Javon] Kinlaw’s getting a lot better, [DL] Dion Jordan’s, he’s getting better every day, every week and they’re grinding. I can say more about [DL] D.J. Jones and [DL] Kevin Givens and all the different guys who’ve been stepping up. Arik’s leadership and all that stuff, I’ve never judged a man or a player by his sack production and more whether or not he’s disrupting plays. What is he doing on the field? How’s he affecting the game? Our run game production is directly correlated to Arik Armstead and what we’ve been able to do in the run game and being able to stop the run is a direct correlation to his play in those roles. Obviously, he would love more production with regards to sacks and all that, but we’re still very pleased with how he’s been able to play, his mindset, his effort and all that stuff is still there. So, it’ll come, he’s just got to keep grinding and opportunities, when they do arise, he’s got to take advantage of them.”

What are the challenges going forward to facing Washington this week?

“You look at their overall numbers and it could fool you. You guys can look it up yourselves, but when [Washington Football Team QB] Alex Smith took over as quarterback, since the day he took over, I think it was four or five games ago, they’re one of the top 10 offenses in all the football. Yards, points, just overall production. They are playing at a very, very, very high level. Their skill guys are a challenge. They’re starting to understand what [Washington Football Team offensive coordinator] Scott’s [Turner] asking of them from an offensive perspective. It’s a good one. They’re going to be a challenge. Alex Smith, obviously at quarterback, he’s doing just a really nice job of getting the ball to everybody, getting the ball in and out of his hands, being quick with his reads, being accurate. So, it’s going to be a challenge. It’s a good offense. It’s an underrated offense for sure.”

When Smith was here, he was referred to negatively as captain check down, meaning that he would take whatever the defense would give him. What’s your take on that style of quarterbacking, which might be characterized as careful, cautious, not throwing a lot of interceptions?

“You want to be aggressive, obviously. Explosive plays are such a big part of football. It’s very hard to go right down the field, 10, 12, 14 plays, whatever it is, and then score touchdowns on a consistent basis. There’s going to be a holding penalty. There’s going to be a tackle for loss. Something’s going to happen in those 10 plays where it allows the defense to get on schedule and the drive will break down. What he does, he will take check downs, obviously. He’s going to get the ball out of his hand. He’ll take what the defense gives you, but I promise you, when you watch his tape and you watch him over these last five games, if you’re careless in the backend, he will go over the top. He still throws great intermediate routes, digs, 15, 20-yard digs, and he’ll throw posts, he’ll throw go balls. When you have a quarterback who’s not careless with the football, especially with the defense that they have, you’re finding a team that is starting to realize that, well, shoot, we can stick around and play good team football and at the end of the game we’re going to make the plays to win. That’s what they’re doing right now and it starts with taking care of the football on offense and attacking the football on defense. So, with regards to Alex, yeah, he’ll take what the defense gives you, but he’ll still take his shots and make you pay if you start getting careless and aggressive.”

Maybe a dumb and obvious question, not for the first time, but Washington Football team head coach Ron Rivera was talking about following the Niners blueprint and building, obviously, he inherited a lot of those defense linemen, but he said that has to be a priority. That’s what I want, to have that type of defensive line like the Niners did. Can you just talk about either obviously, maybe why it’s the defensive line, not the secondary, not the linebackers that might be so important to build the defense and the mentality it can give a team when you have a destructive defensive line?

“Absolutely. That’s a good question. Everyone’s philosophies are different. There’s some philosophies that rely on the backend and they’ll manufacture pressure and then there’s a philosophy which we have in terms of we’re going to disrupt with four and we’re going to play good, sound coverage. When, it’s just my opinion, when you have a quarterback, everyone knows that the quarterback is the most important, valuable position on a football field, period. Making the game easy for him so he can be as efficient as possible so he can put you in winning positions, that’s a quarterback’s job and that’s why they’re so important. That’s why they get paid the most money. The one position that can disrupt the quarterback without having to make stuff up is a defensive lineman. You get two rushers, those guys can disrupt the way the quarterback plays and can ruin all of his timing, can ruin everything without exposing people in the backend. So, if you can play with seven guys in the back end while four guys are just disrupting his life, that is the best way to disrupt the best player on the football team or the most important player on the football team. It’s our philosophy, because even great quarterbacks, if you try to play great man coverage and manufacturer pass rush, those quarterbacks, the great ones are just, they’ll dime you. They can throw it in tight windows. They see man coverage. They’ll eat you alive, but when you’ve got a four-man rush that doesn’t allow routes to develop, where routes, it takes a hitch, a second hitch for a route to come open and you’ve got a D-Lineman who can win a one-on-one. That’s why you look at all the great defenses in this league have people up front who can absolutely just bother the quarterback. You’ve got the Rams who are doing a phenomenal job. Their scheme is very, very sound. Then you’ve got [Los Angeles Rams OLB] Leonard Floyd, and [Los Angeles Rams DL] Aaron Donald just wreaking havoc in there. Last year with our D-Line, back in the Seattle days, you had [former Seattle Seahawks DE] Cliff Avril, [former Seattle Seahawks DE] Michael Bennett, [former Seattle Seahawks DE] Chris Clemons, [former Seattle Seahawks LB] Bruce Irvin. Arizona, when they were rolling, had [Arizona Cardinals LB] Chandler Jones rolling. So, just go through every great defense in football. Chicago Bears when [Denver Broncos head coach] Vic Fangio had [Chicago Bears DL Akiem] Hicks and [Chicago Bears LB] Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd. The front is the best way to disrupt the quarterback without having to get too careless or too aggressive, and so you just sit back and you play a good sound coverage and those guys on the back end, when they know how to play sound coverage and they take away throwing lanes and they position themselves where they’re supposed to and you allow that front to get after the quarterback, if he has to hitch more than once, it just makes people pay. So that blueprint, it’s a lot easier said than done to create that blueprint because there’s so much draft capital and so much money that has to go into it, but still there’s nothing better for a defensive front or a defense than having a front like Washington has with all those first rounders.”

When you get in a situation where maybe that front four isn’t able to generate the pass rush the way you want, perhaps like the other night, what kind of a bind does that put you in as a defensive play caller in terms of what coverage you want to play behind it?

“For us, we try to create a lot of one-on-ones. So, it turns into a one-on-one game because if you go back and watch the game, we were sending some pressure and at that point, you want to do something. Try to puncture the line, try to create push, do something. Just for the whole entire group from front to back and even myself, we were just a step off. It’s not the worst thing in the world to always want to pressure, but the more aggressive you get, high-risk, high-reward. The more aggressive you get, the more likely you are to give up explosives like we just talked about with Alex. Explosive plays create points, and the more you pressure and the more you expose guys to one-on-ones in the back end, the more you’re exposing yourself to explosive plays. So, you’ve got to be selective in how you do it. Some people are a heck of a lot more aggressive and they’ve made a heck of a living doing it and some people are a heck of a lot more conservative. So, there’s a million ways to skin a cat. It’s all philosophy and how those guys, how the back end and the front is all constructed so that way you can function as a team. So, in those situations, it’s not necessarily that it puts you into a bind because it’s still part of the chess match and trying to create the things and keep the offensive coordinator and quarterback off balance. On Monday, it was one of those dialing offense type plays. It just seemed like everything was working for them, so.”

That was an incredibly eloquent ode to the pass rusher just a minute ago. It seemed though, against the Bills, that your defensive backfield had some problems covering Buffalo Bills WR Cole Beasley and Buffalo Bills WR Stefon Diggs. Now you’ve got Washington Football Team WR Terry McLaurin coming in. How good is he and how much extra attention will he require from your defensive backs?

“They’ve got some good ones and the back is really good. Tight end’s really good. McLaurin, they’re very talented and that’s the thing is that I don’t think people give that skill group enough credit because they look at the raw numbers of what they’ve done all season and like, well, these guys aren’t any good, but Alex is getting them the ball and they’re showing how good they are. They’ve got our full attention and obviously we’ve got to do some things to make sure that they don’t kill us, but it still comes down to, football is always about, it’s a one-on-one football game. As a football player, you can never ask for anything more than a one-on-one football game. So, when you get those opportunities, whether you’re in the front, the back or at the linebacker level, you should savor and cherish those one-on-one moments because that’s your opportunity to go dominate. It’s our job to find ways to create one-on-ones with leverage, always with leverage, but at the same time, it’s going to be a challenge. They’ve got some pretty good football players that I don’t think the league really is giving enough credit to.”

Going back to Arik Armstead as the Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee, he’s really used his platform, when he talks to us, he always brings light to an issue of social justice. How have you seen that trickle down and influence his teammates on the defense and beyond?

“I think it’s a tremendous influence. I think he influences his coaches, too. I think he influences people in general. A lot of people forget that these are 25-year-old men and they’re still scratching the surface on life. Arik is an old soul for that matter and so you get guys like him and [CB Richard] Sherman who are ahead of their years with regards to just life. So, they’re further along than their age will tell them. I know what I was doing at 25 and keep that quiet. They’re tremendous influences, not just on their teammates, but on everybody in the building, on everybody who follows the Niners. Arik is, like I said, a very thoughtful, very smart, very calculated man and he’s very aware of his surroundings. He’s not just a football player and you can get into any kind of conversation you want with him. He is a very unique individual in that he is as bright as he is and with the skill set that he has.”