Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh Press Conference

Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh

Press Conference – December 17, 2020

San Francisco 49ers

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With the Cowboys and Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott coming, you know they’re going to try to run the ball. Just wondering how DL D.J. Jones has looked in practice and your thoughts on your interior defensive line there against a Cowboys team?

“Always with the Cowboys, they’ve done such a great job investing in their offensive line. I know they’ve had injuries on their front, but they’re still pretty darn good and pretty deep. So, it is always going to be a challenge, especially in this league, especially when you get 21 rolling downhill. He’s a big, big boy and he’s very, very hard to tackle. So, it is going to be a challenge, but I do feel really good about our interior guys with [DT Javon Kinlaw] J.K., getting [DL] Kevin Given back, [DL Kentavius] Street. Hopefully D.J. finishes this week strong and is able to roll and even our edge setters outside with [DL] Arik [Armstead] and all that stuff. So, I feel good about our D-Line and feel good at the linebacker level and safety. So, it’s going to be a challenge, but I feel good about where we’re at.”

How has DL Jordan Willis progressed? I know you talked about when you first acquired him he might benefit from a little change of scheme and responsibilities. Can you maybe outline a little bit how it’s different from what he was doing maybe with Cincinnati and the Jets?

“For here, I’m not really sure exactly all the nuances of what they did at Cincinnati and the Jets. I do know what we’re asking him to do here with regards to getting off the ball, just playing defensive end and not having to worry about coverages and all that. That’s not to make the assumption that that’s what he did at other places, but here, with our D-Line, there’s so little gray area that they work in. It’s very, very black and white in terms of getting your hand in the dirt and getting off the ball with everything you’ve got, setting edges. We like the progress that he’s making. There’s a lot less thinking on our defensive front in terms of what we’re asking him to do and so with that he can play as fast as possible, and he’s been doing a good job. He’s getting better every week. I know he had the one week where he missed, but we like the direction he’s going and we’d love for him to finish strong over the last three games.”

In terms of Sunday’s game, how uncomfortable was it having a defense out there most of the second half without LB Fred Warner, pretty much for the first time in his career being gone so much?

“God, I’m going to credit [LB] Azeez [Al-Shaair] on this one because for every anxiety a coach might have, our players have stepped up over and over and over again and have relieved those anxieties by proving that they’re up to the task. Azeez did a really nice job in there. A couple of plays that I’m sure he wants back, but to have Azeez step in and still run the defense, get everybody lined up and everyone trusting him that he’s giving them the right calls, he’s putting them in the right situations and getting them lined up as quickly as possible, credit to obviously [inside linebackers coach] DeMeco [Ryans] and the way he coaches those guys and then Azeez to go out there and not even blink. So, he did a really nice job. Never good to lose someone like Fred, especially with how much he does for us, but I thought Azeez, credit goes to him and the way he’s prepped and the way he was ready to go in when Fred did go down.”

Forgive me for asking about somebody on the other side of the ball, but as a defensive coordinator who studies a lot of receivers throughout the league, just curious how you think WR Brandon Aiyuk’s skillset stacks up to some of the better veteran guys who have been established based on what you’ve seen going against him, maybe in training camp and just watching from afar?

“Yeah, obviously I’ll be biased and say I love him. His mindset, the way he practices. I think our offensive staff does as good a job as anybody in terms of developing, preparing receivers to play football. His range, his length, his catch radius is off the charts. He hasn’t been able to showcase it as much, I’m assuming, but his run after catch is going to be elite. I haven’t talked to the offensive guys, I don’t want to speak for them, but just from a skillset standpoint, I don’t know where he is in their eyes, to be honest with you, but I just think he’s a really talented player and he’s got the entire world at his fingertips. It’s just a matter of how much he’s going to put in over these last three games, getting into the offseason and prepare to have the best year of his life.”

Fred Warner clearly is a superstar, but when he left the game, it didn’t seem like you were defense had any type of drop-off. Clearly that speaks well of all your players, but in particular, Warner’s running mate LB Dre Greenlaw. How good is he at this point in his career?

“Dre has got a chance, he’s got a chance to be really, really, really good. Darn near special. Obviously, there’s always going to be things that he can clean up. There’s going to be little nuances that we feel like, and he will admit that he can get better at, that may not be seen by the naked eye or the fan, but he’s got to continue to work. The deliberateness in which he works, that entire linebacker room, they’re so close knit in the way they operate and the way they communicate with one another. Like I said, DeMeco does such a great job with that group. So, he’s got a chance. He hasn’t even scratched the surface yet of what he’s going to be three, four years from now. So, he’s special. His tackling ability, his speed and his range is up there with anyone. As he sees more and more plays and as his football IQ continues to increase, he’s only going to get better.”

Yesterday head coach Kyle Shanahan mentioned that you guys sometimes have conversations about if a head coaching job arises for you and what you can do with assistants and things like that. I know your focus in season is on the opponent, but in the offseason, what is your process like for preparing for those interviews and what did you take away from your opportunities that you got to do that last year?

“For sure. Obviously, most of the prep happens in the offseason for all that stuff, but from the opportunity that I had a year ago, which was awesome and I thank Cleveland and [Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam] Mr. Haslam. I can thank them forever about giving me the opportunity and putting me through that process, but all of that stuff really goes through the offseason. I know Kyle and I, and Kyle is unbelievable. There are many different conversations he and I can have and that he has with his entire staff, because his door’s always open. He always wants to talk and so during the season, if we talk for 10 minutes, I can promise you nine minutes and 30 seconds is about football and 30 seconds might get personal, unless you really need him. Then he’ll close the door and it can get personal in terms of just what he needs, in a good way, of what that person needs at that moment. As far as all of that stuff, it’s all before the season because once the season hits you, it’s exhausting enough to prepare for one game, let alone trying to prepare for your life after football. So, all of that stuff goes before the season starts and after that, it’s minuscule in terms of the amount of work and thought that goes into it.”

I know that as a coaching staff, it’s not a priority for your players to make the Pro Bowl, but Fred Warner hasn’t done it yet. It looks like he’s getting more notoriety this season. Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said he’s one of the best linebackers that they’re preparing for this season. What is it about this season for Fred Warner that’s kind of made him stand out and do you think finally people are starting to realize how good of a player he is?

“I think he’s getting the media recognition. What he’s transformed into over the last three years is remarkable. In college, he basically played nickel. He comes here as a rookie and we put him behind the ball at MIKE linebacker to make all the checks. So, he’s seeing things for the first time in a long time with regards to football, behind the ball, all the reads are different. The feel is different and then on top of that, we’re asking him to make all the checks. Last year, I thought he had a phenomenal season for a second-year player where he was still able to play at a high level. I don’t think he got enough credit a year ago because of the fact that our front four just stole the show every single game, but the things that he did and the way he gets us lined up, it’s [former NFL QB] Peyton Manning-like in what they did for, from an offensive perspective, just as a comparative measure. Now this year, now that he’s got a third year behind the ball, he’s only getting more and more comfortable behind the ball. He’s seeing more and more concepts, formations, being put in different situations. And again, he’s only going to get better. So, I will be biased and say that he is by far, by far the best middle linebacker in football. It’s not even close in my opinion. With what he does and what we ask him to do and his energy, his positive energy, his leadership, his off the field stuff, you can’t make them like that, not very often anyway.”

CB Jason Verrett said on his interception that that was a product of some film study. He said he saw some tendency there with Washington. I noticed you rushed only three. Did dropping eight on that play allow him more free reign to take that kind of risk or be able to pounce on that kind of ball?

“Not on that particular concept. That right there, where they came out of those bunches, there’s only a couple of concepts that they ran out of those bunch of concepts out of empty and J.V. did a really, really nice job doing his responsibility with vision. Those corners, when you know what you’re doing, and you can play with vision and you’ve studied tape, you can make plays that you’re not supposed to make. He was right in position to make that play and it was awesome. Great timing, great job by him to darn near bait it and I thought it was clearly a clutch play right there before the half, too.”

Circling back to the linebackers talk, when you’re talking about DeMeco doing really well with them, what qualities do you see in DeMeco that would make him a really good defensive coordinator if he wants to take that next step?

“DeMeco is well-spoken. He’s got a lot of respect from his players. He’s incredibly intelligent. He is a sponge for knowledge. Even though he’s played in this league, he’s been a Pro Bowler, he was Defensive Rookie of the Year. He still learns. I see him taking notes every day. Coach is talking, he’s taking notes. I’m talking, he’s taking notes. DB coach is talking, he’s taking notes. He is an absolute sponge in that regard, which tells you that he’s not just going to take a system and go, he’s going to evolve. So, because of that, I just think he’s got a really good chance to continue to evolve and be a head coach one day.”