Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh Press Conference
Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh
Press Conference – December 31, 2020
San Francisco 49ers
I had kind of a philosophical question for you about Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks and what he’s built there. How has a defensive minded head coach managed to construct a roster, a coaching staff in a way to always keep the offense running at a high level?
“It starts with the mentality, I believe. Obviously, it starts with the quarterback first and foremost. [Seattle Seahawks QB] Russell’s [Wilson] a special football player, but then to create an identity within the entire organization, not just offense, but defense, special teams, the way people speak to one another, the way people treat one another in that building. Just being there and what Pete [Seattle Seahawks general manager] John Schneider have done just from a philosophical standpoint in creating a culture where there’s a genuine respect for one another and what each person is being asked to do. And then as you get to the football field, creating an identity within each aspect of the game and so when you watch Seattle, they have a clear identity in what they’re trying to achieve, play in and play out. They play hard, they play fast. They play together. It’s just a really cool group to watch and it’s one that has been able to keep consistent throughout the years, mainly because of the messaging, obviously, that Coach Carroll has and again, like I said, the respect that everybody has for one another within that building.”
I have kind of a general question for you. What are the biggest strides your defense has made in the four years you’ve been here and then where do you want to see more improvement in 2021 from them?
“Absolutely. Obviously, the players we have here, they’re unbelievable. Like I’ve said over and over again, [general manager] John [Lynch] and [head coach] Kyle [Shanahan] have done such a good job bringing in tremendous character people who love football and they’re pretty darn good football players too. So, that always helps, but the scheme, they understand the scheme. They understand what we’re asking of them. After four years, there’s just a wink and a nod, if you will, in terms of we can just make eye contact and they know exactly what we’re already saying. So, their grasp and understanding of the system is at a very, very high level. So, it allows them to play extremely fast. Secondly, obviously with the players and what we’ve had and just always being able to communicate with one another and share thoughts. I feel like the system has kind of evolved into its own unique deal within the league. We’re not old-school Seattle like when we came in here and we’re not anyone else. We’ve just kind of created a system that’s unique to the San Francisco 49ers. Our play style and demeanor, I feel like, is unique to us, so it’s been cool because we’ve been able to do it together, not only as a staff, but as players who have been here. It’s been a group effort and it’s been a pretty great experience. As far as next year is concerned, obviously you’re always trying to add a little bit more and create, you know, you go through the self-scout and all that stuff, but really, there’s just trying to, you go back and study and you just want to see what teams were attacking throughout the year and which hole you can close and by adding to the system without overloading the players. That’s always the key is how much more can you do without putting too much on the player’s plate so they can continue to play as fast as possible, as instinctively as possible and with no gray area. So, that’ll always be the challenge and so we’re always going to try to evolve the system and make it and set it up in a way where our players can play extremely fast, but at the same time making coordinators have to work extremely hard to call the perfect play. Then obviously teams on the opposite side, having to perform at their highest, from a precision standpoint, at their highest level and that will always be the goal.”
Earlier this season when you faced Seattle, you really struggled defending Seattle Seahawks WR DK Metcalf. What did you learn from that game and why are you confident your defense will do a better job against him this time?
“DK, his rookie year, obviously he did a lot of good things and everyone talks about his size and all that. The big thing we learned is that Russell was not afraid to throw those slants, glances through the middle of the field. He’s such a big body. He’s darn near a tight end. When safeties are coming out of the middle of field, we call it get on course and we have such respect for the strike zone and what we’re trying to get done with regards to below the neck and above the knee, and make sure that everything is legal, which we always will be, but we do it to maintain a certain level of physicality. When you do that on such a big body and a big human, like a guy like DK, he is a very physical human to where it’s almost not very good from a safety standpoint, for a defensive player of the size of a defensive back. So, just emphasis of Russell’s going to continue to throw those things over the middle. Just again, being conscientious of playing within the game, keeping our violence, but understanding that we have to really lower our strike zone a lot more than what we normally teach in order to give ourselves a chance to defend him.”
If this is the end of the road, it’s been nice working with you, but maybe we’ll see you again. I wanted to ask you about DT Javon Kinlaw. I understand at that position, fans, journalists maybe not notice guys for long stretches and there have been plenty of splash plays he’s made, but there are also times where you maybe not notice him for a while. Do you kind of agree with that? Is that just normal? And what is your overall assessment of his rookie season?
“With regards to Kinlaw, like I said, it’s just my opinion that the second hardest position behind the quarterback is the interior defensive lineman. It’s a different animal in there. You can’t bully people like you have your entire life. You go through high school, college, you’re just bigger, stronger, faster than everybody. Then you get to the NFL and the blocking combinations are different. The speed’s different. The power’s different. Their pass rushing is different because those guys play a game within a game. So, there’s a huge learning curve with regards to being able to go in there and play at a very consistent level. So, you’re right. That can disappear at times because they don’t have stats. There’s no splash plays, but with regards to Javon, I think his track this year and what he’s been able to do as a rookie has been awesome. I think a lot of people, especially in this area, got spoiled with [DL Nick] Bosa last year, because it’s kind of a unicorn type season that he had a year ago for a rookie. For Javon, I just think the world of him and what he’s been able to do this season. I love his mindset. I love his practice habits. I love his want for more knowledge and because of it, I just think once he puts together a great NFL offseason and continues to build all that strength that he has and really hones in on his weight, he learned what kind of weight he wants to play at, and so I just think the sky’s the limit for him. I think he’s going to be very, very disruptive in there. I think he’s going to be a force on the interior defensive line for a while. Obviously for him, it’s going to start with this offseason and doing everything he can to get a little bit stronger and then obviously if he plays with the same mindset and the same intensity that he has all season, it’s only going to become easier and he’s going to get to that point where he just overwhelms people.”
Apologies, I was a little late, you were actually early, which is a rare occurrence. I did want to say, if this is the last time we do this, I appreciate your professionalism and how helpful you’ve been through this and you’re going to leave big shoes to fill. I’m also curious in terms of the last four years in how you’ve developed as a coach, what are the lessons that you’re going to take with you if you do end up becoming a head coach and how did those sort of materialized do you think?
“Through four years, I’ll be honest, I’ve been very, very fortunate of just being able to, just throughout my career, being able to learn from many people. So, when I look at the leadership that John and Kyle have provided here, it’s been eye-opening in terms of the way organizations run and what those two have done just from a, not only a collaboration standpoint, but from a vision standpoint in terms of getting everybody on the same page and creating a mindset within an organization where we all, again, in this building, we just all have such a great appreciation for one another. We’ve been stuck in this hotel for over a month, but I don’t think there’s a team in the league that can handle it like we have, because we actually like hanging out with each other. So, there’s not a lot of teams that actually like one another and I think that this team has built a genuine appreciation for that. It starts with Kyle and John and the way they’ve operated. So, obviously, scheme is always going to evolve, but when you just look at the way teams run themselves, when you look at Kyle and John, to me they are the, in my eyes, they’re the standard. They’re phenomenal, so.”
Kyle talked about LB Fred Warner yesterday and how he’s so deliberate in his preparation. What do you see from him that stands out in his preparation and how he approaches every day, just in his progress since his rookie year?
“Fred, he’s special. The way he watches tape, the questions he asks, he’s so coachable in the sense that if he’s off an inch, he wants to know. He’s one of those rare guys that you can give all that information to and he’s going to be able to make it work for him. So, his preparation, he is relentless, not only off the field with practice habits or a film study and being coachable and staying ahead of it by watching tape. I think what makes him even more special, for lack of a better term, but when he gets out to the practice field, whether we’re in walkthrough, the deliberateness at which he operates there, we go to individual and every rep is as important as the next one, every rep is so important to him. Then when we’re in practice, he reps every rep as if it’s a game, which is what you strive for as a player, but there’s days where, I just know it, there’s days where I’m sure he doesn’t want to get up, but he finds a way to get up for every single meeting, every single practice, every single walkthrough, every single individual period. He doesn’t waste a rep. Because of that, he’s finding ways to get better every single day. There is not a day that goes by where I don’t think he goes to bed better than he was when he woke up and that’s the ultimate goal of every person in life, in my opinion. He is the example of that and that’s why, just in my eyes, I still don’t think he’s scratched the surface. I think there’s going to be more for people to see out of him.”
I thought that CB Ahkello Witherspoon had an interesting thought on CB K’Waun Williams the other day, where he said that K’Waun’s presence, just because he’s able to disrupt and blitz and do all this, actually makes the game slower for the other defensive backs, in a good way. I wanted to ask about that kind of impact. I know you’ve preached interconnectedness on the defense. Do you view K’Waun as kind of a piece that can facilitate a domino effect for the other defensive backs? Is there another position or another player that may not get as much press that facilitates a similar kind of positive domino effect as the one that Ahkello was talking about with K’Waun?
“For sure. The nickel position, in our scheme, we want our guys to go as fast as humanly possible. The faster you go, the faster you clear it up for other people. So, with KK and with all his preparation that he goes through and his instincts and understanding of football, when he makes a decision, there is no gray area in how he reacts. Because of it, it is very easy for players to play off one another. They feel color, they feel him going. He clears up the picture. It’s when players are what we call floating that it just muddies up because you just can’t feel where he is and what he’s about to do. The reason why everyone loves KK is, especially yours truly, the speed at which he operates and the instincts and the trigger, we call it trigger, and the way he triggers on game day and within each play. It clears everything up for everybody. We allow KK to do some things that are not in our playbook because we know he’s going to go a hundred miles an hour and if he can, like I said, it clears it up. The nickel spot probably is one of the more important spots on our team, just because of the fact that it does, it clears up a lot of people. It’s really all of the positions. They all play off one another. To give one over the other, like I’ve said [DB] Jimmie Ward, I know he gets a lot of love from us in the way he plays. Obviously, the two linebackers, Fred and [LB Dre] Greenlaw, when they’re in their nickel situations, the D-Line with how fast they go. We strive for that at every single position, but KK, when he’s in there, because he is uniquely good at that nickel spot, he does clean it up for a lot of the guys.”
Is there a player on your defense this season who stepped up and exceeded expectations more than DL Kerry Hyder Jr.?
“Oh man, I can go through the whole list. I think I’ll start at the D-Line. I think DL Dion Jordan, I know people are going to look at stats, but I think Dion Jordan, what he’s been through in his career, what he’s been going through physically this year and what he stands for is unbelievable. To me, I can’t say enough about that man. Let’s see who else. Obviously, I can go through the list. I’m sure I’m going to forget someone and I don’t to, but just overall the D-Line and the way they’ve been able to play off one another with all the injuries and the shuffling and all that. Fred and Greenlaw have been steady. [LB] Azeez [Al-Shaair] has stepped up. Obviously, we had to trade [New Orleans Saints LB] Kwon [Alexander] and he stepped up and he’s played very well at that SAM linebacker spot. I’m so happy for [CB] Jason Verrett and what he’s been able to accomplish. Having gone through everything he’s gone through, and now he’s got one more game to finish and he just loves playing football. Obviously, we [CB] Jamar Taylor, I know he’s not here, but, I mean, the stuff he did for us when KK was down. For him to step in and take the coaching and do what he did despite the fact that he’d been everywhere and he’s played at a very high level. [CB] Dontae Johnson, still rolling, and we’ve asked him to play multiple roles on this defense, and he’s been able to play very well. When you just look at the shuffling, T-Moore stepping in and getting some really good playing time without [S Jaquiski] Tartt and Jimmie Ward being in there, [S] Marcell [Harris]. There’s so many guys that I can go through on the defense in terms of them getting their opportunities and then at the same time, making sure that they do everything they can to maximize their opportunity. None of those guys have made excuses. None of them have talked about lack of reps. Nobody has talked about the scheme, nothing. It’s just, they’ve all put their hats on and they’ve played for one another and it is a very, very special group. Again, it starts with Kyle and John and the men that they brought in here. They love football, they want to play and so I’m sure I missed somebody, but with what’s happened this year and all the circumstances, the way they’ve played for one another and every guy has such an unbelievable story. I would be doing somebody a disservice by trying to go into detail on each one.”
I’ll kind of book end this. The first question was about Pete Carroll and what he’s been able to build. I think probably the same could go for New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, a defensive head coach. I think you probably kind of know where I’m going with this. I know you don’t want to look ahead to any job possibilities, but when you talk about the identity of a defensive head coach, intertwining defense with offense, are you talking mindset, are you talking style of play? If you want to take it this far, what can we expect from you when you get that opportunity of how those two pieces of the puzzle fit together?
“I’ll use this building as an example, because I know Kyle, I think people get lost with offense, defense. I’m going to use Kyle as an example. Kyle, obviously, he’s an offensive mind and he got here because he is one of the best offensive coordinators this league has ever had. I think what people miss when they watch teams like ours, when they watch the Rams and they watch these offensive mindsets or whatever, whatever head coach is, when they label them that way. I think what people miss is that these guys, Kyle Shanahan is an unbelievable leader with regards to tying an organization together with one vision. There is a toughness, there’s a mindset. We’re a team that will stand in the middle of a ring up with anybody and punch and punch and punch until the final bell rings and that’s because of the mindset that he brings day in and day out. The mindset of the players that they bring day in and day out. So, offense, defense, special teams. It doesn’t matter. It’s the mindset of the person in charge that creates an atmosphere in which players compete and players fight for one another and players have a genuine love for one another and that’s what this building represents. So, all of the stuff that gets talked about with regards to that, just look at the leader in charge. You look at a guy like Kyle Shanahan, sure, he’s offensive, but the man’s a leader. The way he communicates with one another, with all of us, the way he communicates with John and vice versa and the expectations and the standards that he has is why he’s an unbelievable head coach, not because he’s a good play caller. It’s because of what he represents as a leader and the way he communicates with us. All of that stuff aside, I think just that our building’s a living example. Our players are the best in the world, man, and I’m just excited to work with them again. So, it’s going to be fun.”