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Kyle Shanahan discusses 4-3, 3-4 nuance and what he expects from Seahawks-style defense

The Seahawks defensive philosophy, passed on to the Falcons and Jaguars, is what we can expect from the 49ers moving forward.

New San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan made an appearance on KNBR Friday morning, marking the first of what should be many head coach interviews with the 49ers flagship station. He talked about just about anything you can imagine (audio), but the defensive discussion was what fascinated me most.

Shanahan confirmed Robert Saleh would be his defensive coordinator, and they got into a lot of detail about where Saleh comes from, and what this means for the defense. Shanahan said they would run a defense similar to what Seattle has run. Saleh worked extensively with Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn in Seattle, and then followed Bradley to Jacksonville. Shanahan pointed to the Jaguars, Falcons, and Seahawks style of defense in describing what he expects.

At one point, Shanahan got into detail about the notion of 4-3 vs. 3-4. He said they would be running a 4-3 defense, but there would be some elements of 3-4 mixed in, and he thinks, “all of that is such semantics.” He went into detail about some of the things the Seahawks and Falcons do to explain some of the roles. I can’t find this portion of the audio, so these comments come via Matt Maiocco:

“It’s a 4-3, which I think all of that is such semantics, to tell you the truth,” Shanahan said. “Seattle has a linebacker on the ball every single play. So does Atlanta. That’s five guys on the line of scrimmage. Whether you call it a 4-3 or a 3-4, for the most part, we call it a 4-3, just to tell you guys the way I look at it, as a coach.

“Can your halfback block that Sam linebacker on the ball? And that just depends how big he is. And if he’s a big guy and he’s Ahmad Brooks, then call it a 3-4. If he’s a smaller guy like K.J. Wright, who’s not that small, but you’re going to put your back on him, then call it a 4-3. There’s really no difference. It’s the same kind of fronts.

“In a 3-4, sometimes they one-gap, sometimes they two-gap. But we plan on having a linebacker on the ball. That’s five guys on the line of scrimmage. Depending on how our personnel plays out, I’ll have a better answer for what you want to call it.”

Here is the full rundown of Shanahan’s other comments about hiring Robert Saleh, and the kinds of physicality he would want from his defensive players.

Shanahan on hiring Saleh:

Robert, I got to meet in Houston when I was there. I came to Houston as a receiver coach, and when I was there, Robert was defensive quality control. And he did that for the four years that I was in Houston. Then we both went our separate ways. I went to Washington, and he actually ended up going up to Seattle. I’m not sure exactly how many years, I want to say about five years in Seattle, but he got to learn Pete Carroll’s system. He got to work for Gus Bradley, and go through that whole process — get to a Super Bowl. And then he left with Gus and went to Jacksonville, and that’s where he was the linebacker coach for Gus for four years. Got to know that defense inside and out.

And just after me spending my last two years in Atlanta, having to go against that type of scheme every single day in practice. Getting to know Dan Quinn very well, who Robert Saleh also worked for. And playing against Seattle over the years and knowing how hard that system has been to go against. It’s not necessarily how hard it is, it’s how sound it is. They make you work for everything. It’s always an eight man front. It’s very tough to run the ball against. And they’re very sound in their coverages. You can get some completions and things like that, but they make you work all the way down the field.

And when someone makes you work all the way down the field, no matter how talented they are, you have to be on as an offense to score points. Because you can get to the red zone, you can get yards, but in order to get touchdowns, you have to execute. And it’s a defense that makes you execute. And always when they can make you one-dimensional, which, when you’re playing an eight man front, it’s tougher to run the ball. And if you can make an offense one-dimensional, it makes it a lot tougher.

So, knowing Saleh, knowing the type of person he is, getting to know him in Houston when he was a QC, Robert Saleh’s as smart as anyone I’ve been around. He studies everything. He knows a lot of different systems, but he knows the true Seattle/Atlanta/Jacksonville system inside and out, as much as anybody I’ve been with. And went through a hard interview process with him. I wanted to see where he’s come in the last eight years that we haven’t been together, and it was extremely impressive. I’m very confident in Saleh, helping me put together this defensive staff. He’s going to build a scheme and we’re going to try to get players to fit that scheme. But we also know we’re going to adjust to the players that we have, too. And regardless of what we have, we’re gonna make it work, and I think you guys are gonna be real happy with what we put out there.

On wanting physical DBs in that kind of defense:

Yes, and to me, it’s physical everybody. You want violent people. You want to run and hit people and make that field smaller for everybody, especially the receivers. And that starts with the safeties and corners being able to hit. It’s not just about hitting. You gotta to be able to cover, you gotta be smart, you’re trying to get everything. We look for certain traits in people, and usually when you have one of those traits, we can make it work. If you have all three of those traits, then you got a special guy, and those are the guys you try and keep ahold of.