Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh Press Conference

Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh

Press Conference – December 23, 2020

San Francisco 49ers

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Kind of like looking back to Week 1, obviously so much has changed with this team, but the Cardinals still have a lot of their key weapons. What do you hope to see differently out of your defense and how they can stop Arizona Cardinals WR DeAndre Hopkins and Arizona Cardinals QB Kyler Murray?

“It’s always internally driven with respect to the fact that we want to compete. We want to compete at the highest level that we’re capable of and let the chips lie where they may. Schematically, we’ve just got to find ways not only to be able to defend him, but they’ve got so many other weapons with [Arizona Cardinals WR Larry] Fitzgerald and the quarterback running, so we’ve just got to be cognizant of that. They present a lot of different challenges, both schematically and personnel wise. So, it is going to be a challenge, but when we talk about what you want to see from your players, it’s the absolute ultimate level of competition and competing at their highest level and giving everything they’ve got with regards to effort, technique and the violence that we ask them to do it with. So, that’s first and foremost, and that’ll never change.”

CB Ahkello Witherspoon said that his game on Sunday was his best, what he called his best head space game. He was very comfortable out there. Wondering whether you saw the same thing and whether head space, thinking too much has been an issue with him at times over his career?

“No, with Ahkello, it was probably one of his better games that he’s had since he’s been here. He played very well. His press technique was awesome. His man coverage stuff was on point. I can’t speak for him with regards to head space and all that stuff. I do know that last year during OTAs, training camp and the first three weeks of the season, he was playing at such a high level and then he got hurt. Things didn’t go his way when he came back and then training camp just didn’t go the way he wanted it to. Sometimes that happens, but credit to him and the work that he’s put in for the last eight weeks, taking advantage of every day that he’s been in this building and the way he’s been working, he hasn’t been pouting. A lot of guys can go in the tank. Credit to him and his attitude and his effort, not only on the field, but in the weight room to get himself stronger and to take advantage of all these days and eating right and doing all the different little details, scout team reps, going against all those receivers and doing everything you can. So, for him it wasn’t a fluke what he showed on Sunday and now hopefully he has a chance to stack them up and continue to finish the season strong.”

With you guys using CB Richard Sherman for a few snaps the last couple of games in the deep middle, is that something that you and he have spoken about as far as at some point at some unforeseen time down the road, that that could be something that he kind of plays to finish his career, and how receptive has he been about kind of dipping his toe in that water?

“We haven’t talked about that, with regards to position changes. Just felt like it’d be a cool, different way to use him and his instincts and his vision while getting some guys who have deserved some opportunities to get on the field. We always talk to Sherman and really all our players, [LB] Fred [Warner]. I think it’s just so important to be able to get their input, get their thoughts with regards to how they see things and players, they’re out there shooting bullets. They know how things feel. They know what they can do. They know what’s being asked of them and whether or not it’s real or not and so always being in constant dialogue so we’re all on the same page and playing at our absolute best. To answer your question, never really talked about position changes, but just thought it’d be a really great opportunity for him to utilize his asset, one of his greatest assets, which is route recognition, ball skills and playing with a great vision.”

Do you expect DB Jimmie Ward back on Saturday and if he’s not available, what sort of a void does that leave you given how much he does for you in coverage and how many ways you can use him?

“So, Jimmie, we’re still working through Jimmie, obviously. You guys know how I feel about Jimmie. I’ve said it over and over again, he’s one of the top five cover guys in all of football and the reason why he doesn’t get his stats is because his guy doesn’t exist on the football field. He just eliminates him. So, he doesn’t get many opportunities and so being as good as he is, that’s his curse is that he just doesn’t get as much action. So, not having a guy like Jimmie Ward hurts, but we have a lot of faith in the guys who will come in and step in if they need to and pick up the slack where he may not be there, if that makes sense.”

You’re going against a mobile quarterback again. It’s been a challenge throughout the whole season. How do you see your defense evolving as you’ve progressed, going from Week 1 facing Kyler to now?

“These mobile quarterbacks, they are a challenge. I think they’re a challenge for everybody. We’ve had some opportunities to go against some guys, obviously, throughout the year and the QB run game, we feel really good about our scheme and how we defend the quarterback run game. Don’t think, Kyler especially in that first week, it was still a challenge, a tremendous challenge to try to keep that in check, but the quarterback scramble, I feel like our guys are really starting to understand what we’re asking out of them, especially with [DL] Kerry [Hyder Jr.] and [DL] Dion Jordan and the two interior guys in third down situations and pass rush. Understanding rush lanes and understanding the discipline of keeping quarterbacks in the pocket and not making it easy for them to just exit out, if that makes sense. So, this will be the ultimate challenge. Obviously, with Kyler, he’s one of the best in the world with regards to getting out of the pocket and extending plays and getting first downs with his feet. So, I guess Sunday will tell us everything we need to know about how far we’ve come. So, great challenge ahead.”

Going back a couple of years, you prepared for QB Josh Rosen and he wasn’t the most efficient in either of those games, but he did win. As a defensive coordinator, what were the things that you really had to be mindful of when you were going against him?

“Josh, obviously, he’s got a first-round talent arm. So, anytime you’ve got somebody with the arm talent that someone like Josh has, he’s always going to be dangerous in terms of being able to get hot and get in rhythm and get the ball where it needs to go. So yes, we had success. Unfortunately for the first game we played him, I thought we did really well. The second game, same thing. It was just that two-minute drive he got hot, and then it was over. That’s just one of those things when you’ve got a talent like him, when they get confident and they get hot in combination with the arm talent that they have, it’s always a worry, I guess.”

Have you had a chance to keep in touch with DL Nick Bosa and DL Dee Ford and can give us any update on their condition?

“Yeah. Nick is in great spirits. He’s working his tail off trying to get through and get his strength back and all that stuff and he feels great. Then Dee, we see him, he’s here. So, we see him every day. He’s working through his stuff and not exactly sure where he is with regards to everything, but he’s in great spirits. Both of them are in great spirits and working through their ailments and trying to get better every day. So, love that Dee Ford is around because he does have an amazing smile and he’s a hell of a personality. So, we enjoy his presence and then obviously, Nick, we miss his presence being around the building. He’s one of those lovable guys, so.”

To follow up on the talk about Richard Sherman and using his instincts and vision, is he unique in the way that he plays cornerback, even it seems like when he’s in man coverage, it’s like he’s in zone coverage because of his vision toward the quarterback. What enables him to get away with that and thrive using those techniques?

“He just has such a feel for what he’s going to get on that particular play. He understands stems and so it feels, rather than battling these young guys at the line of scrimmage, he could just run with them because he knows what routes he’s going to get. Does it get him in trouble once in a while? Sure, but more often than not, he’s usually in good position. The ball’s usually not coming to him because a quarterback is just not wanting to throw to a corner who’s just looking at him. He’s made a living doing that, just looking at the quarterback and understanding where the route is taking them and waiting for the quarterback to throw the ball so we can go take it. So, it is a very unique skill because a lot of corners get nervous when they’re running and they have somebody in man coverage and they’re not looking at them. Sherm has that unique ability to play man coverage, feeling his coverage while looking at the quarterback and he can still run the routes where those things don’t separate as much. It’s a skill, that’s why he’s a Hall of Famer, you know? So, it is unique. Sometimes it makes me nervous, but he gets it done. So, you can’t argue with him. You can’t argue with the results.”

I know you talked a little bit about DL Kevin Givens throughout the season. How has he progressed and what does he need to do to have an even larger role potentially next year?

“To answer the second part of the question for him next year, and even just these next two games, the focal point is always to get better, right? I know it’s not the most exciting answer in the world, but going through his process and understanding that if you’re not finding ways to get better every single day, you’re not going to get better. So, consistency, obviously, for Kevin will always be a big thing, but that’ll be something that he’s got to continue to work through people. This is his first year playing football in the league, if you think about it. So, he’s learning every day, just like everyone else. So, I do think Kevin’s only going to get better. I think he’s made of the right stuff. I thought he had an unbelievable offseason and he came in here strong this year and had a really nice training camp and earned everything that he’s had coming to him. Now it’s just a matter of taking advantage of your reps, doing the things that [defensive line coach] coach [Kris] Kocurek is asking him to do, playing with all the explosiveness that he has in his lower half and finding ways to learn off the different blocking combinations that he gets, the different pass protection sets that he gets and if he does that, I think he can accelerate into this offseason, have another phenomenal offseason and really make an even bigger impact next year, but it all depends on whether or not he approaches every day with the full intent on getting a little bit better than he was when he woke up.”

The NFL said yesterday that teams can start interviewing prospective head coaching candidates virtually. Is that something you’re open to before the season ends? Has anybody reached out yet and have the 49ers told you one way or the other whether they’d block you from doing that?

“No, I’ve had no dialogue. I haven’t really spoken to anyone and I really haven’t thought about it. We play Saturday and we’ve still got a game the following week with Seattle. So, they’ve got my full attention.”