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Robert Saleh talks Marcell Harris, helmet to helmet penalties, Fred Warner

The 49ers defensive coordinator was available to the media to talk about his side of the ball in anticipation for the Oakland Raiders. We have a full transcript.

You seem to have a unique challenge this week at strong safety given the injuries. What have you seen from S Marcell Harris to this point and is he ready to come up if the case warrants that?

“We’ll see through this week going through communication and all of that stuff. But, he’s going to get his opportunity sooner than later, for sure.”

DB Tyvis Powell was thrown into a pretty tough situation. How did he fair and what would he have learned if he has to play a big role Thursday?

“He kind of got thrust in there. There’s only so many reps you can get during the week from a repetition standpoint. He did some good things. Obviously, there are some plays, some things that he wants back. If [S Jaquiski] Tartt is unable to go this week, he’ll have another opportunity to prove himself. We have tremendous faith in him. He’s a good football player, that’s why he’s here. So, you can go throughout the entire game, I’m sure every player would like a few things back. It’s just the fact that it happened in the fourth quarter and the way it did. So, I haven’t lost faith in Powell and his ability to play football.”

How’d you think DB Jimmie Ward did moving back to free safety?

“Jimmie did a really nice job, a really, really nice job. He made a couple of plays. There was one that we were talking through that he would like back, but other than that, I thought he did a great job communicating. He looked very comfortable back there and he looked good.”

You’ve seen him in both spots. Is he a better free safety than a cornerback?

“I’m not lying when I say this; I think he’s an unbelievable corner and an unbelievable free safety. When I say it, I really mean it. He’s one of the best 11 football players on this team on defense. He’s a tremendous athlete. The issue for him has always been his durability and as soon as he figures out how to stay healthy, he can be a very, very, very good football player in this league.”

What could you have done on those last two touchdown drives to get a better pass rush?

“The first touchdown drive, they had the explosive play. I’m going back to the two-minute drive. That first touchdown drive happened. We got the takeaway in the second drive of the fourth quarter. On the last drive of the fourth quarter, you could easily get into calling pressures and all of that stuff. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into it, and I’m always going back to self-evaluating things that I could have done a little bit better for the group. You know what? We had played great defense and the quarterback did a great job. He orchestrated a 12-play drive, something that they hadn’t been able to do the entire game. It’s very easy for me to go back and say I should’ve, based on game planning and all of that stuff, just like the Green Bay game, Green Bay we went in very aggressive and got beat. This game, we were still aggressive in our man coverages and all of that stuff and we got beat. So, it comes down to coaches making the right call and players executing and in those fourth quarters, it’s about finishing. And it’s not just players finishing, but it’s coaches, players, it’s the entire organization. We’ve just got to find a way to finish these games. That’s why we’ve had five opportunities this year in the fourth quarter where we have been tied or had the ball or had the lead and one of the three sides of the ball have to stand up. There’s a big emphasis this week on finishing what we’ve been able to do for three and a half quarters.”

Are there any trends that you see in any of those fourth quarter collapses that you can take as a coaching staff?

“Situational awareness, obviously. Understanding down and distance. Understanding what you’re being asked to do. Understanding what you did the entire game and how two-minute does not change anything. It’s just a continuation of dominating your technique and doing your job. But, you could always take some stuff, especially when it doesn’t work. Especially when you don’t come out on top, you could always go back and look and pinpoint every little detail. But, it always comes back to technique, execution from a players’ standpoint and it comes down to coaches making the right call and putting the players in the position to be successful.”

Because of the way he was used in college, I think there were some questions about if LB Fred Warner was going to be able to handle the rigors of inside linebacker in the NFL. Has he answered those questions to you?

“I think so. I think he’s getting better every week, I do. He’s learning new things every week with regards to how to defend himself in the run game. But, he’s coming along and he’s only going to get better. He’s getting into the part of the season where that rookie wall starts to hit and so he could use a break. But, he’s tough, he’s got a great mindset. He’s a film junkie so I’m really, really excited about the direction he’s going in.”

Where are the areas where Fred needs to improve?

“The biggest area where he needs to improve, in my opinion, would be getting another tool to himself in block protection which is run game, taking on second level blockers, O-Linemen. Being able to set edges in a different way. We had [Jacksonville Jaguars LB] Telvin Smith in Jacksonville who is 215 pounds and would sometimes get washed. Fred’s a bigger linebacker, but being able to utilize some of those tools that Telvin kind of adopted to be able to ward off those big, 300-pound linemen, where you’re not just beating yourself into a wall. So, he’s working on that. [Inside linebackers coach] DeMeco [Ryans] does a great job of drilling it and putting him through those to get him those extra tools in his toolbox, the stuff that he never had to do in college. So, he’s going to be good.”

How much are you involved in this time of year, with the trade deadline coming today? Are you completely separated from all of that stuff? Do people in the personnel department pick your brain about someone you might have coached?

“No. If something comes up, I’d be asked, but I’m not.”

If you guys have to play Marcell Harris because of injuries, do you have a good enough handle on him to know what positions, what spots you could put him in?

“He’s been exclusively at strong safety. So, he’s been getting mental reps and all of that stuff at strong safety so that’s what we’re sticking to.”

I mean, what his strengths are, what his weaknesses are?

“We feel good about what we saw in college and what he can and can’t do. There’s going to be some fundamental stuff that he needs to work on. Obviously, he hasn’t had the tracking reps, the tackling reps, the going through the fire of snapping things out of his mouth from a communication standpoint. So, it’s going to be trial by fire just like it is for a lot of these young guys. But, I feel confident of what we saw in college and how he’s been able to communicate in meetings and practice and all of that stuff. So, it’s just a matter of continuing to work and progress so that way when he does take the field, he’s full go.”

When LB Reuben Foster left the game, did both LB Malcolm Smith and LB Elijah Lee play at that WILL spot?

“Yeah, Elijah started off and then at halftime we got Malcolm in there also.”

Is that because Malcolm had played SAM all week?

“Yeah, didn’t want to mess with having to change two different people to satisfy one injury.”

Does that mean if Reuben doesn’t play this week that it’d be Malcolm as the WILL?

“It could be. Him and [LB Mark Nzeocha], Zeoch we’re going through that right now and we’ll see with walk through and as the week progresses with regards to their bodies.”

When you mention the communication, how many guys are talking at once? Is everybody on the defense trying to say something before a snap or does that kind of rely on only a couple of people on the field?

“From a communication standpoint, it starts from the huddle, WILL linebacker giving down and distance, free safety giving personnel, MIKE linebacker giving the call. Making sure that everyone is on the same page of exactly what the situation is. The huddle breaks, MIKE linebacker gives a close call to set the defense and then from there, it’s corners talking about receiver splits, to talk to the linebackers, it’s in box defenders, if there’s a Y off, talking about a possible cut from a Y, like from a tight end, to alert the D-End. There’s just constant communication on everything that you see, back is tight, gun sets, whatever you see from an indicator standpoint to make your buddy around you more aware of the situation or the play that could be coming. So, we always talk about don’t keep secrets. If you have something, talk about it. You might be wrong, but that’s okay. As long as we’re talking and communicating, you’re just triggering and people are constantly talking. It just helps everybody around them.”

Does the strong safety have a particular job?

“So, post-snap, strong safety, again, he’s talking about things that are included in the box. If it’s man coverage and he’s over the Y and the Y is in the position where he can go behind the line of scrimmage, he’s got to talk to the WILL linebacker. There’s a possible back-back we call it. A possible three on two if we’re in man coverage. If he’s in a position where there’s a receiver in tight talking to our linebacker in three-deep who’s got those over routes. Corners if there’s cut splits. It’s all the same. They all talk, they should all be talking.”

What went into the decision in August to switch Powell from corner to safety?

“Part of the decision was that Powell is a good football player and we had some good corners. At that strong safety spot, when [S] Chanceller [James] went down, Marcell was hurting, we got very thin very quick. So, we needed to find a backup strong safety. We really liked Powell and what he can do in his athleticism. We really like [DB Antone] Exum [Jr.] and his athleticism. So, we transferred both of those, free safety and Powell over to strong safety to give them an opportunity to go win that job as the backup strong. They’ve both done a great job, to be honest with you, to answer your question.”

Is that similar to what he played in college? He was a safety in college?

“I believe so. He did play strong in college.”

Have you heard secondhand or otherwise from the NFL about the helmet to helmet penalties? I think there’s only been three called in the regular season. Obviously, it was a big deal in the preseason. Do you understand why it’s not called?

“This is just me guessing, I haven’t really talked to anyone, but I believe when they went and changed the rule and talked about intent, kind of clarified the rule for everybody. Players, it happens in a millisecond. You can tell when there’s intent to lead with your helmet and use you helmet as a weapon and you can tell when the helmet made contact because a guy was trying to make a good for tackle and his head got in the wrong position. So, I think the NFL did a great job in cleaning up the rules so it was much easier to call.”