Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh Press Conference

Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh

Press Conference – August 23, 2020

San Francisco 49ers

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When you look at how these first few practices have gone, it kind of seems like historically in training camp the defense is always a little bit ahead of the offense. Are you happy with the way your guys have just kind of stepped in from last year and carried it over here early in camp?

“We’ve got a really good group and there’s still a long way to go for them to be back to even close to what we were a year ago. It’s not saying anything bad. It’s just you’re always looking for more. You’re always looking for that next step. They’re working hard. They’re working their tails off and there’s the timing and efficiency at which we play in our coverages and all that stuff where we can get a lot better, but I trust the group and the fact that they put in the work. They’re working their tails off. They’re trying to find ways to get better every day. So, we’re not there yet, but they’re moving in the right direction. The deliberateness at which they’re working is really good. So, that part is good, but not expecting them to be quite there yet. Hopefully I’m making sense.”

You guys practiced today without DL Dee Ford and DL Nick Bosa but it seemed like you had enough playmakers in the secondary and at linebacker. Was there a specific play that jumped out at you that you appreciated, whether it was maybe LB Kwon Alexander’s finish at the end or maybe DB Jimmie Ward cutting over and helping out CB Ahkello Witherspoon?

“Those are a big-time strain plays. Kwon, linebacker at heart, so that play he made was unbelievable. But, Jimmie and Ahkello on that deep corner route, that play was fantastic. But, the strain for them to get to those points – [head coach] Kyle [Shanahan] and his offense, they do so much to strain you in so many different ways. On any specific down, there’s going to be a particular player that’s strained. To see those guys fight through that and still win on the down when they’re being attacked by an offense of Kyle’s caliber, those two plays clearly stick out. Some of the stuff that goes unnoticed up front, it’s [DL Solomon Thomas] Solly and the way he’s been working. That stuff stands out to me, too, but overall, I just thought the guys fought and there’s a lot of really good plays. Got to go back to the tape and watch it all, but those two plays you mentioned in particular were awesome.”

What have you seen so far from DL Javon Kinlaw? He’s had a couple more practices. Also, defensive line coach Kris Kocurek has kind of said that he kind of preaches to his guys that the most important group on the field is the defensive line. Kind of your perspective on his mentality there?

“We’re all encompassing, but we go as they go and when they’re humming, we can play a lot tighter and a lot faster in the backend. If it’s not working, then you play a little bit looser and you give up leak yardage. But, as far as Javon, that’s the old adage of rush and coverage. The faster the rush gets there, the tighter the coverage can be. You play off one another and there’s sometimes where that coverage is locked down and it gives the D-Line just that extra hitch to get home. There’s times where the D-Line’s not giving that quarterback the extra inch, so it goes hand in hand. But, to answer your question on Javon, he’s getting his feet under him. I think he’s trying to find his way. I think our offense is an S.O.B. to go against on a day in and day out basis with how fast and how physical they are. I think it is a shock to a rookie defensive lineman when they come in here and he’s going against guys like [OL] Laken Tomlinson and he’s got [T] Trent Williams trying to reach him on the backside. He’s just got all this stuff happening to him, and [T Mike] McGlinchey. Just all of them. It’s tough, but he’s coming along every day. He’s made a small improvement every single day, so the focus for him is just continue to get better and hit the ground running come Week One.”

With Javon, when you had a guy who’s probably been stronger than everyone he’s gone against his whole life, to go up against NFL linemen, what is that adjustment like? How is he going about learning, maybe use more than his strength to deal with these guys?

“Yeah, it’s a technique thing where you grow up your whole life and you can just muscle and bully people your entire life. All of a sudden you get into in the league where they’re just like you and it’s more technique, fundamentals, strain, tenacity, all of it comes all into fruition and the intangibles are what wins football games for these professionals. We always talk about the difference between player A and player B is always, it’s minuscule. It’s the intangibles that make the difference, the strain, the mindset, the physicality, the study habits, the understanding what teams are doing to you. All those little intangibles that aren’t glaring on tape are what separate players from one another. As a rookie, he’s trying to figure out all that stuff and fully capable. But, it’s the intangibles that he’s got to work on in terms of just learning how to play football from a fundamental standpoint, where he can use that big body to just create even more power and leverage.”

Just given the unique circumstances of this training camp and the fact that you have fewer practices to work with, I know you guys work closely with the with the training staff to determine workloads for guys. But you as a coach, how difficult is it? Is there any part of you that wants to push back on the training staff and say, ‘Hey, these guys need reps’? What’s that internal balance that you try to find in terms of getting guys the reps they need versus making sure they’re fresh for September 13th?

“I’m going to be very honest, there is a fine balance. I think Kyle and those guys work so good together. I really mean it, they do. I’m a huge fan of the weight room in terms of, I just think the player in their physical ability, their availability, the stamina, all those different things that you can take for granted. We get so caught up on scheme, but scheme’s nothing if they’re not available and at their strongest. So, I’m a full believer in what they’re doing. I’m a full believer in getting the players to 100% or to a certain level that they believe, or practicing them to a certain level, that they believe will get them to peak condition come Week One. So, yeah, you’d love for them to get more reps, but you trust between the way Kyle and the performance staff work together to create reps and workload that there’s a fantastic balance. By Week One, we all got to strain a little bit more from a coaching standpoint with the tapes we create to teach and the players have got to strain a little bit more to make sure they’re taking care of their bodies and studying and doing all those different things. To answer your question, I believe so. I believe so fully in what we do here that I believe that, no matter which way, it’s good.”

We were talking to Solomon yesterday and he said multiple times how excited he was to be probably mostly inside. He said that’s where he excelled in college. That’s where he feels most comfortable. So, of course, a lot of fans will be like, well, how come he hasn’t been doing that exclusively the last three years? I understand there’s a lot that goes into that. Could you explain maybe the challenges of getting him inside over the course of his career and perhaps why it might be easier for him to be in there this year?

“Absolutely. That’s a great question, by the way. For Solly, drafting him when we first got here, there was a lack, I shouldn’t say a lack of edge talent, but you’re trying to get your best players on the football field in any capacity possible. So, you have [Indianapolis Colts DL DeForest Buckner] Buck on the inside, you had [DL] Arik [Armstead] moved outside, but got some inside work. You had [former DL] Earl Mitchell early, so you had inside guys. But,  just trying to get Solly on the football field, on the outside was the best place that we could put him in terms of maximizing the men we had in that room. Year two, same thing. Just the evolution and the process of trying to bring in the players to make all this stuff work with everything. Then last year, coach and [general manager] John [Lynch], just a phenomenal job. We get Dee Ford, we get Bosa and we have a chance to play Solly inside more. So, in the first half of the year, he played a lot on the inside, but then injuries happen. [DL] Ronnie Blair III goes down. Dee Ford goes down for the year. We lose a few more players and so Solly’s one of our best players. We’ve got to get him on the football field somehow and the best spot is outside. So, it’s been our intent to try to keep him inside as much as possible, but he’s such a talented football player that sometimes it’s, ‘Well, shoot, we’ve got to get him on the field.’ But, with what we have now with being able to bring [DL] Kerry Hyder Jr., we have Ronnie coming back from PUP, you’ve got Dee Ford, you’ve got Bosa, you have Arik who can play outside, too. We’re doing everything we can to make sure that Solly stays inside at all costs. When he is in there, if you look at his tape from a year ago, when he’s inside and solely inside, he’s a very, very effective football player. Made a lot of plays for us last year inside and so our intent is to try to keep him in there, because you’re right. That’s where he excels the most. Hopefully just by the fact that we have more defensive ends to withstand injury where it takes two, three, four injuries before Solly ever has to step out there. We have a chance to keep him inside for the entire season. Hopefully I answered the question, but that’s been the intent every year.”

Yesterday, Kyle said, referring to CB Richard Sherman’s two interceptions in two days as he just sees the quarterback’s eyes and really comes out of nowhere. I’m wondering, is that a good example? People often talk about Sherm being in his 10th year, but not slowing down because he has such a strong cerebral aspect of the game. I’m wondering if you consider plays like that to be a good example of that? Kind of on a related note, you saw Sherm earlier in his career in Seattle. Has that aspect of his game, the ability to just kind of pounce out of nowhere, is that better now after 10 years in the NFL?

“Sherm’s always been, that’s always been his game. He’s always been mind over athleticism. Obviously, when he was a young man, he could get himself out of trouble that he may put himself in a lot easier, but he understands stems. He understands scheme. He understands what offenses are trying to do to you. I mean, after meetings today, we sat and talked, just he and I, for about 30 minutes on a particular concept and the way we’re playing things. I know he can wait, but he’s going to be a coach one day and he’s going to be phenomenal. He is so far ahead of the game. It’d be the equivalent of all these older quarterbacks, [New Orleans Saints QB] Drew Brees, [former QB] Peyton Manning back in the day, [Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB] Tom Brady, who, they’re not as gifted as they were. Their minds are playing game. They’re playing a completely different game than everybody else. That’s Sherm out of that corner. He’s just playing a different game than everybody else. You trust that his eyes are right. You talk about the play he made yesterday. You trust that he’s actually going to be where he’s supposed to be, but because he saw the play develop, he saw the quarterback’s eyes, he saw what he saw, he could make a play that probably wasn’t designed for him to make. Those are things that just make him special. He knows exactly how to protect the defense. That’s why Sherm is one of those corners who has always been able to go get the ball his entire career. His mind is what has always helped him. As he’s gotten older, his understanding of scheme and what’s being asked of him has just increased.”

Dee and Nick didn’t participate in full team drills today. I’m wondering, irrespective of that, what differences you’ve noticed from each of them, in terms of, the way they look physically and how maybe that’s translated to what they’ve been able to do and I guess for Dee specifically, just given the fact that he’s coming off that knee surgery?

“Yeah, Dee looks like he’s in great shape. His lower half is a lot thicker and more powerful, it seems like, than a year ago. He looks really good. He looks explosive out there. Nick knock on wood, man. He’s clearly put in the work over this offseason. Just look at him, he’s yoked. He’s leaner, faster. Having those two guys, you can tell that they’ve had a really good offseason. They’ve come in prepared and now it’s just a matter of getting them to Week One so they can go do what they do best.”