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Robert Saleh on how to coach communication, Greg Mabin’s play against Aaron Rodgers, facing Rams

The 49ers defensive coordinator met with the media Thursday afternoon. We’ve got a full transcript, and you can watch video here.

When you guys get back to work, what’s the main focus? What are you guys really trying to hone in and emphasize this week?

“Like it is every week, the main emphasis is always getting better. Be your best you. That takes great preparation throughout the week with film study, playbook study, everything that goes into being a professional athlete and football coach.”

When you come out of Monday’s game, where do you feel like you have your best opportunity to get better? Where do you need to improve the most specifically?

“For us, that first quarter, it’s getting very frustrating because when we play clean ball like we did in the second, third and 12 minutes of that fourth quarter, it was pretty good, pretty darn good. When we’re not communicating and there’s a lack of execution, it is not pretty and that’s the thing that’s happening is we make the smallest mistake and it’s going for a lot, a lot of yards. But, when we’re locked in as a defense and we’re executing exactly what’s being called, it’s up there with some of the better teams in the league in my opinion. So, the consistency is what we’re looking for coming out of the Green Bay game, is to be consistent and how we take every play.”

When you watch just the first play of the last two weeks, it’s pretty easy to just say, “How can that happen on the first play of the game?” So, how does it happen on the first play of the game?

“Always look to myself first. What are we installing, what are we teaching, and whether or not a player can or cannot learn what we’re asking? Is it too much? Big lights, big stage. What are we doing schematically? Then, from there, it’s evaluation all the way top down. For it to happen on the first play of the game like that, very, very frustrating. But, what I do think was great was the fact that after the first 15 plays where we got punched in the mouth on defense the way we did and gave up 17 quick ones, we did have a good red zone stand in there, but after that, those guys rallied up and fought their tails off throughout that game and did a really, really good job really up until that three-minute mark where [Green Bay Packers QB] Aaron [Rodgers] got the ball at midfield, had a chance on the third-and-six that scored and then even in that last scoring drive, the guys fought their tails off, get the sack to force a punt, backed up that I thought won the game. I thought we were going to get the ball at midfield. I thought we were going to get a first down, thought we were going to kick a field goal and go home. It was very unfortunate with the flag, but it is what it is. From there, Aaron did Aaron.”

You mentioned the communication. It seemed like that first play there was a miscommunication on the coverage there and then also there was a miscommunication on the touchdown, the bubble screen. As a coach, how do you coach communication and how do you go about improving that?

“For one, you put them through it as many times as you can in practice. That’s first and foremost. So, you go through your teaching throughout the week. You put them through as many clips as possible, just from the classroom standpoint. It’s like we talked about, there’s five things that we take pride in as coaches, at least in this building. Number one is giving it to them in writing. Number two is show it to them on tape. Number three is get them a walk-through rep. Number four is get them a rep when we’re out there in individual or group install. Number five is to get them a live rep of it in practice. It’s our job as coaches to find a way to get them all five of those for them before we can ever look to a player. So, it’s always to us first. For the communication standpoint, to continue to push, and on the flip side, players, we’re all in it together. We’ve all got to take heart to what we’re trying to teach and what’s being asked of everybody. Like I said, it comes back to us and filters down from the top down.”

When there’s an experienced team that communicates really well, what are the characteristics of that? A lot of these guys are young guys, I understand that, and they are relatively new to the system. But, what’s the difference between where you guys are at and some of the veteran defenses that really have that communication down?

“A veteran defense has seen a lot of football. They’ve seen it before. For me, I turn on the tape and I see, it just pops off the tape. ‘Well, of course they ran that play. What else are they going to run?’ To a veteran who has been in the league four, five, six years, they start to see that and it’s very, very easy for them. They start to see it as a football coach. There’s a lot of recall and there’s a lot of things through experience that can happen to them. So, some of the stuff that happens is new to the guys because they are a young group. But, at the same time, it is no excuse because the whole point of our scheme and what we do ask our players because we don’t do a lot, we ask our players to know a lot. We have to, as a defense, start understanding what offenses are trying to do to us at a much faster pace. That’s how we can get those young bodies playing at a very, very high level rather than being at the tail end of your career where you’re not as fast as you used to be, but you’re a lot smarter than you used to be. How can we get those young, fresh, fast bodies to play like a veteran? That’s where we’ve got to get better and that comes with, again, getting better every single week.”

Those plays that Sacramento Bee reporter Chris Biderman referenced, did you get all five of those teaching points in last week?

“Throughout camp, throughout OTAs, you get them in. Obviously, you can’t cover everything every single week. It’s impossible. That’s where the players come in to play. That’s where everyone working as hard as they can to get their work in. You go off of what they show on tape and you just continue throughout the process of your rules, just following your rules so if something pops up that you’re not familiar with or you have not seen, you just play by your rules. ‘My rules tell me to do this,’ and you trust that nine out of 10 times your rules will steer you in the right way. That’s all you can ask for. Other than that, yeah, I mean hopefully I answered your question.”

What was the breakdown during Rodgers’ 20-yard scramble on the final drive? Who was responsible for the A-gap on that play?

“The play seemed to have gone on forever. I think he was in the pocket and at that point, when Aaron starts extending plays, we talked about plaster last week. It basically turns into man coverage. In the backend, everyone’s back is to the quarterback and we are just running and trying to grab coverage so he doesn’t have a freebie. So, from there, space gets created. Whoever’s responsible for the A-gap at that point, it doesn’t matter. I’d love to sit here and say we should’ve won our one-on-one early in the down, got him down. There’s no reason for him to be able to sit in the pocket the way he did. That 21-yard scramble or whatever it was, that one hurts, especially in zone coverage.”

After that play, Rodgers targeted DB Greg Mabin pretty relentlessly. In retrospect, was there something you could have done to help Mabin in that situation or force Rodgers to throw a different direction?

“100-percent it could have been better. It could have been a lot better. Protecting the sideline, there’s a lot of things that go into film study and what we were seeing on tape. Ball at midfield, trying to protect points. One first down, now it’s a 50-yard field goal for [Green Bay Packers K Mason] Crosby who seemed to get his leg back. You can protect the sideline with zone and they’d dump one over the middle and they had plenty of time to just go spike it. So, there’s a lot of things that went into play. I won’t get too much into schematics. I’m always looking to see how we could have done a lot better as a staff and felt good about it at the time. It’s unfortunate the way it ended.”

Head coach Kyle Shanahan said yesterday about DL Arik Armstead and DL DeForest Buckner maybe not getting a lot of snaps on Monday and how they lost position during the week. What do you want to see out of those guys and DL Solomon Thomas as well over the course of this week?

“You mentioned Armstead and Buckner? Buckner had a good amount of reps. Again, it goes back to the first question I answered, but it is just getting better, being relentless through practice, showing that you deserve the right to play. From a D-Line standpoint, I’ll speak about them, [DL] Sheldon [Day] has produced a lot with very little playing time. So, we felt like we owed it to him to get him out on the football field to give him a chance to go rush the passer. And he produced. He had some good production in there, forced a hurry on one throw where it would have been a challenging route to defend. And then he also had a sack. But, it’s through linebackers, DBs and D-Line showing in practice that you deserve the right to play by being relentless in your approach and being deliberate in how you go about it.”

Last year you weren’t able to sack Los Angeles Rams QB Jared Goff. How much is that him being able to kind of slide around in the pocket and how much of that is the way the scheme, the way they protect him?

“They do a good job. He does a really nice job of getting the ball out on time. We did sack him. We had an illegal contact, if I remember right. That was [LB Elvis] Dumervil’s 100th sack that got called back. But, they do a really nice job. They do a nice job. [Los Angeles Rams QB Sean] McVay does a great job, the quarterback does a great job. They’re very efficient in how they operate. So, it’s going to be a great challenge.”

Whose job is it to call a timeout before that bubble screen happens for that easy touchdown?

“You know, Kyle give us leeway to call it if we need it. I thought we were going to be able to recover and get to it based on where people were aligned initially. In hindsight, it’s always easy. But, the way we initially broke and the way I saw it happening, I thought we were going to have it covered and one missed it.”

CB Richard Sherman after the game gave a pretty spirited defense of you saying, unprompted, that we’ve seen a lot of stuff in the atmosphere, like social media, criticizing you. Does that stuff get back to you and if so, does it affect you in any way? How do you deal with that?

“No. In our profession, there’s two types of coaches. There’s those who have been fired and there’s those who are about to get fired. So, you just put that to the back burner. We get it. It goes with the territory. I have tremendous confidence in what we teach and how we go about our business. I’ve got tremendous confidence in the players. I’ve got tremendous confidence in the assistant coaches. So, if you allow yourself to get in a world of things you have zero control over, which is people talking, it just takes away from your ability to do your best at any moment. Social media, I don’t do it, I don’t have it. To be honest with you, it’s a very uncontrollable aspect of life. The more you focus on things you have no control over, the less you can focus on things you do have control over. To make a long answer short, I don’t get involved in it.”

You kind of referenced the fact that your scheme is not crazy complex, it’s fairly straight forward. Given that, are you surprised that there are still those types of major miscommunications?

“Frustrated, very frustrated. But, at the same time, I know our guys are working their tails off, I know they are. I know that they’re very deliberate in how they practice. I know that it’s very, very important to them. So, I know it’s going to get better. You see the flashes. Again, you can go every game and there’s a block of plays where those guys are executing and performing at a very high level and they look unbelievable. When we trip over ourselves, it looks horrendous. But, they are getting better. They have great intent. So, there’s no doubt in my mind that we are going to finish this season very, very strong not only as a defense but as an organization. So, I just look forward to this next challenge and being able to compete with the Rams. It will be fun.”

When you watch the Rams offense on film, how similar does it seem to the offense that you see every day and what unique challenges does it present?

“It’s very similar. Obviously, they’ve got their nuances, but the efficiency at which they operate, it’s the same thing as with Kyle. They’re very efficient. They’re very precise. They’re relentless in the way they attack you. Then you mix it in with the quarterback playing the way he is, their O-Line, the receivers, the back. It’s a special group and they’ve got a great scheme to go with it. When you have a great scheme and a mixture of all of those guys, it’s pretty cool to watch because I feel like it’s the offensive version of the way we try to operate on defense. It’s very efficient, very precise and so again, it’ll be a great challenge.”