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Robert Saleh on violent defense, next man up, plenty more

We have a successor to the Bludgeon t-shirt!

The San Francisco 49ers Monday practice featured defensive coordinator Robert Saleh speaking to the media after the session. Head coach Kyle Shanahan has been handling most of the press conferences, but the 49ers defensive coordinator gets one press conference a week.

Seeing Saleh out there talking about the defense feels like night and day compared to Jim O’Neil’s press conferences last season. It was an awful situation for O’Neil, and by season’s end, he sounded like a broken man. Saleh has a lot of work in front of him, but he projects a level of quiet confidence we didn’t see from O’Neil.

In his Monday press conference, Saleh offered up a line that belongs on a t-shirt. He was asked if there was anybody he was particularly eager to watch this Friday in the preseason opener. He was clearly about the entire defense, and he offered this up:

“I can’t wait for the whole defense. I’m not sugar coating that. I can’t wait to see them against somebody new. I can’t wait to see us against another offense. I can’t wait for all that. I can’t wait to see us tackle. I can’t wait to see us hit. I can’t wait to see the violence at which we play.”

Clearly we have a follow-up to the Bludgeon! shirt.

Here’s his transcript.

Is it kind of sink or swim time now with LB Reuben Foster after LB Malcolm Smith’s injury?

“Again, it’s still training camp so we’re still in the evaluation process. Reuben got first dibs today with the ones. You’ll see [LB] Ray-Ray [Armstrong] get some reps with the ones. It really doesn’t mean anything today.”

How was Malcolm playing before the injury?

“He was unbelievable. Looked like the Super Bowl MVP. I don’t hurt as much for the organization as I do for him and all the hard work he put in this offseason to position himself to have the best year of his career. For that to happen to him when it happened to him, I feel sick for him.”

How helpful can he be to still be around?

“He’d be an unbelievable help. He was here today and didn’t have to be. He’ll be here after his surgery, when he doesn’t have to be. It’s just the person he is and how he’s built.”

At what point during the week do you decide who’s going to be starting and who’s going to be playing with the twos, etcetera?

“Later on in the week. For Kansas City? It would be later on in the week. We’re going to have a staff meeting here soon.”

You just talked about the way he was playing. Is it possible that one person can replace him or will you have to use multiple people in multiple roles?

“I don’t want to use the cliché of ‘next man up,’ but it’s going to be. The next person has got to play some great football. Thirty-one other teams are going to suffer an injury that just hurts them, and 31 other teams are going to have to replace that person. Like I said, I don’t feel bad for the team or the organization as much as I do for him and all the work that he did, for this to happen.”

What are the main areas that Reuben needs work on to get up to speed?

“He needs reps. He’s still a rookie. The game is faster, the linemen are faster, they’re stronger. The scheme is different. So, he just needs reps, over and over, and over again. He just needs to get attacked, and all the different fundamentals that we’re asking him to do, he needs to get attacked in those situations just so he understands what his weaknesses are within the scheme.”

I think LB NaVorro Bowman was saying the other day that Ray-Ray is really good in coverage and Reuben is really good in terms of attacking the line of scrimmage. Is there any thought of splitting that role between the two of them and sort of taking advantage of their strengths?

“I think they’re both good in the run and pass, to be honest. Maybe I’m being biased as a coach. I think they both have great strengths. We’re so detailed in our run game that I think they’ll both be good in the run. We’re so specific in our coverage that they’ll both be good in coverage. It’s just a matter of who’s, it comes down to production and people making plays and doing things the right way. Fundamentally being sound and performing once these games start.”

Is there hesitancy to play Reuben because he could make mistakes that hurt the entire defense early on that he needs to see more of it?

“You know, he’s had flash plays and he’s had busts that a common person won’t notice. But, at the same time, he’s been asked to learn a lot in a very short amount of time. So, for Reuben it’s just a matter of getting those reps. What’s great about him is that when he sees it once he’s good. So, even if he’s made a mistake he’ll be able to recoup, regather himself back up.”

Head coach Kyle Shanahan was saying he’s better in the film room than he anticipated. Do you see--?

“Oh yeah. He’s much better in the film room, much better in the playbook than I had anticipated for sure. He’s actually really, really, really smart.”

What is his ability though, when you see that he makes a mistake and then he doesn’t make it again? Is it just because he has a great memory in that or does he recognize it?

“That part to me is more instinctual. Linebackers, the great ones have a great instinctual feel for the game in the box. So when he sees it once, they just have that feel and instincts so when they see it again they know exactly what they need to do.”

Kyle said those inside linebacker positions are interchangeable. Obviously they are a little bit different based on where you are. How different are they and what is the learning curve when you’re learning one or the other?

“The learning curve, really, I mean they are interchangeable. The MIKE linebacker has to do all the communicating, the close call, talking to the defense, getting up in front of the huddle. He’s got all the checks, getting people aligned. The WILL linebacker can just play back and play football. But, at the same time, the techniques that we’re asking them to do, whether it be a hook-drop or man coverage, they’re the same. A hook-drop is a hook-drop throughout our entire defense. And so, from a fundamental standpoint and a technique standpoint they’re the same. Alignments might be a little different, communication might be a little different, but fundamentally, physically it’s the same.”

How’s the back and forth been with you and Kyle? Obviously he’s an offensive guy, but he’s interested in defense. Has there been a lot of communication or has he said “You know what, you go run your D?”

“No. He’s been fully involved. He has lots of questions, and I want the feedback. I don’t ever pretend like I have all the answers, so even his questions, the things that he brings to my attention always spark a really good study for our defensive staff to make sure that we’re on course and doing things the right way. So, he’s been fully involved. You see him over there in our group install playing quarterback. He’s over there manipulating the cards, trying to attack our scheme. So, having him around has been great. He’s been good.”

We’ve seen you two guys actually interact a lot at the start of practice. Is that important to you or players to see the head coach and defensive coordinator are in lockstep together?

“I don’t know if it’s important to the players. I know it’s important for me, like I said, just to get his feedback to make sure that we’re doing things in accordance to the way he wants it done.”

CB Dontae Johnson had a nice interception. I know the ball had been kind of tipped at the line, but it’s his fourth year with his fourth coordinator with a fourth head coach. What have you seen about him working with you, learning a new system yet again that kind of sticks with you?

“I think Dontae is a very consistent football player. I think he’s very smart. I think he’s technically sound. Dontae for sure is someone who definitely will not get you beat. He’s going to be in position to allow himself to make plays. So, what Dontae is showing over training camp and OTAs is his consistency, and that goes a long way.”

DB Lorenzo Jerome and S Chanceller James have been very physical, knocking guys to the turf. Do you encourage them to do that?

“No. You know, we want to protect our own. It gets physical out there, and sometimes it just gets heated. And I get it. But, we’re trying to make sure that they understand that we protect our own first.”

How is Lorenzo playing? It seems like he’s adapting pretty well?

“He’s an instinctual football player. Sometimes I look at the tape and I’m like, ‘I don’t know if you can do that bud.’ But, he always ends up in the same spot. He has a good feel, and again he’s a rookie and he’s going through and he needs all the reps, and he needs to see it over and over again. He’s been doing alright.”

On those plays where you kind of cringe, is it where he’s taking chances, where if he doesn’t make that play the guy is gone?

“You know what, eventually if he earns trust, I’ll believe it’s calculated risk, but right now he’s earning it. He hasn’t gotten burnt yet, but it’s still nerve wracking.”

Do you plan to be on the field for game?

“Yes sir.”

There was a series of plays where there were a lot of pre-snap penalties. Can you talk about that?

“Backed up situation, hard count indicator. Offense was, I don’t want to point the finger but they were kind of struggling with the hard count today.”

Are you eager to watch anyone in particular in the preseason game Friday?

“I can’t wait for the whole defense. I’m not sugar coating that. I can’t wait to see them against somebody new. I can’t wait to see us against another offense. I can’t wait for all that. I can’t wait to see us tackle. I can’t wait to see us hit. I can’t wait to see the violence at which we play.”

Is DL Solomon Thomas on schedule with where you guys want him to be? Because I know DL Tank Carradine seems to be with the ones most of the time?

“Solomon is starting to show up. Again, we’re going to have fresh bodies rotation in and out. So, if being a starter is important to a D-Lineman, if they want that first play we’ll talk about that. In the end we’re trying to get a good rotation going, where they are fresh and rolling. Where at the end of the day they may look like they have equal reps. But, in my mind they’re both starters.”

I know you said you’re going to meet at the end of the week to decide who’s going to play and how much, but knowing that you’re going to have a full roster for the entire four preseason games as opposed to last year where you had to do cuts, does that change how much playing time certain players get?

“That part I don’t know. Again, we’ll talk with coach in a second.”

I saw S Jaquiski Tartt getting some work on the hill with head strength & conditioning coach Ray Wright during stretches and whatnot. Any update on his progress as far as coming back?

“I believe he’ll be ready sometime this week. Kind of on a day-to-day basis I guess.”

Do you see him getting some time on Friday or is that just too soon to call?

“I’m not sure, definitely will have to talk to [vice president of medical services & head athletic trainer Jeff Ferguson] Ferg and the training staff.”

I talked with CB Ahkello Witherspoon. Are you looking to get him to use his hands more than he has been so far in practices?

“There’s a physicality that we’re trying to get all the corners to play with. [Defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley] Haf has had a great training program that he’s going through. Our DB coach has got a great plan, and a great system that he’s got great conviction over. So, it’s not just him, but it’s the entire group that we’re trying to get to match a style of play that at least resembles what we’re going to be doing inside the box with the D-Line and linebackers with our physicality.”


“Going back, he’s got such great feet. You know, they can’t have contact way up the field, but in the NFL it happens quicker. So, you know, they just have to learn how to use their hands quicker at the line of scrimmage. In college they can hit it all the way up the field, from my understanding. It’s been a while, but yeah for the entire group we’re trying to get them to show a little bit more physicality at the line.”

Why do you wear cleats to practice?

“It goes back to my days with Seattle with coach [Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete] Carroll. Everybody’s running. You ask the players to run, we run. You never know, they might ask me to run a route. I don’t want to pull a groin or anything.”

Were there other coaches on the Seattle staff that wore cleats?

“Everybody. On defense at least. [Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator] Ken Norton, [Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator] Kris Richard, [former NFL coach] Rocky [Seto]. Everyone, [Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator] Marquand Manuel, who is the coordinator in Atlanta, it was like a prerequisite. You never know what coach wanted.”

Do you run every one of the sprints that your defenses had to run?

“After practice? Yeah, but I’m not running.”

Does your staff run with you?

“I don’t know. I do it. It’s a good little workout.”

How much do you know about LB Austin Calitro?

“Just a little bit. We’ll learn them as we go. I know he had some good tape out there and we’re going to give him an opportunity to showcase his stuff during the preseason game. So, again we’re still learning.”

LB Jayson DiManche came back with you guys. What did you see in him that you wanted to bring him back?

“When he was here he showed good consistency. He showed that he does have the skill set, and he does know the system, which was also an added bonus. He’s played in this league, so he can come in and he can help us.”