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Robert Saleh talks defensive communication, Josh Rosen, Jullian Taylor

The 49ers defensive coordinator met with the media on Thursday. We’ve got a full transcript.

Could you explain the reasoning behind the cornerback rotation you went through on Sunday?

“[DB] Greg Mabin, over the last few weeks, has been doing an excellent job with his practice habits and being deliberate and he earned the right to at least be part of the rotation with playing time. So, that was more of a testament to Mabin and what he’s been showing at practice, going through his reps, than it is an indictment on anybody else in that DB room.”

What did Greg Mabin show in the game?

“Great intent. Everything he showed in practice. Great physicality, competitive toughness, communication skills. So, he did play very well in the game. He gave up one, but it was well contested.”

Where are you at in terms of making a decision as to whether or not one guy deserves that spot for the majority or all of the snaps?

“Really looking for one of them to grab hold of it and have a stranglehold on it and not let it go. When you get your opportunities in this league, never leave doubt. That’s all the way across the board. Own your job. Do your job exactly the way it’s being taught, exactly the way it needs to be done and take it personal that every rep needs to be 100-percent in both technique and assignment. It’s a challenge to the entire defense to grab your job by the neck and choke it out.”

So, you’re still going through that then? Sunday, we shouldn’t expect for just one guy to have it?

“Absolutely. Same thing.”

It seemed that Greg came on really strong last year when you put him in against Houston. Did that calf strain of his really mess up kind of the plan to get him involved in December?

“Yeah. It was the same thing that happened last year. His intent, his practice habits, his competitive toughness, all that stuff, it led to him having a chance to get some more playing time towards the end of the year. It’s unfortunate that the calf strain happened.”

There was a Chargers drive late in the first quarter where DL Solomon Thomas was covering Los Angeles Chargers TE Antonio Gates. Then, the touchdown where Gates was wide open. Can you just walk us through those two plays? I don’t know if the Solomon thing was a bust or just what happened on those two plays?

“I’ll start with Solomon. We went into the game with a game plan to try to be very, very aggressive with [Los Angeles Chargers QB] Philip [Rivers]. When you live by the sword, you die by the sword. We call that a zone pressure. There were three of them before the Solomon play happened. [DL Ronald] Ronny Blair [III] was in coverage on three different occasions. Once on Gates, once on a wide receiver. The first three were on third down where we got off the field on all three of them. Then, the play with Solomon happened. If he gave himself a chance with technique, he would have been in better shape, but it’s never ideal. You need somebody to come home. It’s obvious you’re trying to run an overload pressure. Any time you pressure, any time you pressure, you’re leaving something open. You’re trying to gain something. You’re giving something to gain something, and they caught us. So, that was the Solomon play. As far as the Gates play in the end zone, a lack of communication and that’s very, very frustrating. Very frustrating. As a group, both coaches and players, those are the things that we’ve got to take personal because that should not have happened. I’m not going to get in straight detail on what should’ve happened schematically, but for that to happen is unacceptable at all levels.”

Did that play lead to the decision at that particular time to bring Mabin in?

“No. We went in to the game with Mabin, planning to get him reps.”

Did LB Reuben Foster missing all that time in spring, has that been hurting the defense where maybe from the communication aspect or assignment purposes?

“I think one of the more underrated things that happen, it’s happening throughout the team, it’s a team game, it’s a team effect. So, when you lose players on defense and people are in and out of the lineup, the biggest thing that hurts is the communication part of it. Communication from a defensive standpoint is critical to your ability to have success. When you’re looking at the linebacker’s standpoint, the combination of [LB] Fred [Warner] and [LB] Brock [Coyle], and then Fred and [LB] Elijah [Lee], then Fred and Reuben, Fred and [LB] Malcolm [Smith], the communication part of it, even though they are comfortable with each other, they’re not battle tested together. Same thing at the back-end level. When the linebackers are used to hearing [S Jaquiski] Tartt and now it’s [DB Antone] Exum [Jr.] or [DB] D.J. Reed [Jr.], that combination, there needs to be continuity in there. It’s a trickle-down effect. The biggest loss isn’t so much the level of play because everyone’s expected to perform, that’s the whole next man up. But, what needs to be great is the ability to communicate. That has to accelerate. When one person is gone, the next person has to come in and elevate his ability to communicate so there is no hitch in the defense. So, when you’re having all the mixing and matching, especially between the two safeties and the two linebackers, communication is where it hurts.”

Do you feel the communication issues and the continuity issues are contributing to the tackling issues?

“No. That part, we’ve got to do a better job. I thought we did a much better job in the first half. We were down, obviously, but it’s on everyone’s mind. You can see the intent in the first half. The second half, I just felt like we were trying to go after the ball a little bit too much. When you play a guy like [Los Angeles Chargers RB] Melvin Gordon [III], the first guy has got to go and get the tackle. It’s the second man that gets the ball. When you watch a couple of those, Melvin just kept chugging and chugging. He did a really good job as a back. It was better. It needs to get better, still, but I do like where it’s going.”

I noticed the same drop-off. Is that a function of fatigue or a lack of concentration in the second half?

“No. It’s what makes the run game cool, right, when you’re defending the run. That’s why it’s important. If you let a back start churning and let him gain momentum, they’re hard, especially a guy like Melvin who has such great balance. The run that triggered the whole thing was that first one where it looked like he broke a million tackles and almost did a somersault on one leg. It was a pretty cool run. When you give a back confidence, who is already good, it adds to it and now you start trying to get the ball out as a defense. You just lose your fundamentals because you’re trying to chase something else. The main thing is to get him down the first time. First guy in, wrap up like we talk about. Step on his toes, take the grass, however you want to word it. We can’t allow these backs to gain momentum.”

You mentioned wanted to be very aggressive against Rivers. Is that a product of maybe not getting as much as you want from the pass rush previously or was that specific to just the game plan with Rivers?

“Just specific to the game plan with Rivers. Most teams who play Rivers are usually probably a little scared of his ability as a quarterback, and rightfully so, he’s a Hall of Famer. We felt like it was time to give him a changeup.”

You traditionally don’t blitz a whole lot. When you do, is there still a feeling out process there on who’s best deployed where in that situation?

“No, we’re very comfortable with who’s pressuring, who’s dropping and all that stuff. But, this whole league is based on explosive plays and the elimination of explosives make offenses earn their paycheck. Yes, pressuring is awesome at moments, but if you live by the sword, you die by the sword. If you continue to pressure and you continue to be aggressive, you’re going to pay a price and that’s what happened on one of them. But, at the same time, it gave us a lot of wins on third down early in the game. It gave us a chance to jump 14-0. So, had him on his heels for a little bit and then we just had to continue to fight.”

But, what can you tell by watching a quarterback who made his first start against a defense that’s similar to yours? Is there stuff that you can pick up preparing for Arizona Cardinals QB Josh Rosen, seeing how they tried to attack Seattle last week?

“There’s always stuff, for sure, that you can pick up. But, every week is going to represent new wrinkles. I’m sure they’re looking at what they put on tape, too. So, we’re prepared to play our game and do the things that we do. As far as Rosen is concerned, he’s got some tape on there. Obviously, it’s not nearly as much as you’d like. But, he’s a very, very talented quarterback, incredibly accurate. So, I know their numbers on offense don’t look as good as what people think it is. But, all you have to do is watch that tape from last week and they probably should have had over 400-yards offense and 28 points. So, we’re excited for the challenge.”

You mentioned continuity and communication like that, but how do you reconcile doing your rotation at cornerback or how do you balance that?

“There is balance, for sure. You don’t just do it to do it. It’s well thought out during the week. Just like last week, the plan for Mabin, he’s deserved it. When you have a fighter like him and a competitor, and that goes across the entire board, these guys work their tails off to get a chance to shine. As coaches, when you see a player fighting tooth and nail for that opportunity, they deserve it and it’s our job to make sure that they get that chance to show it. And so, Mabin went out there and he showed it. He played really, really well, forced a fumble. On that whole series, critical tackle, first play on a run fit. Second play of that series, caused the fumble. Third play of the series, did a great job in communication to get the coverage rules down so we could get off the field. So, he came on and did a really nice job. So, he’s deserved the right to be a part of the mix throughout the week.”

With CB Ahkello Witherspoon, do you attribute his slow start, I know you don’t want to make excuses for him, but do you attribute it to the ankle and I think he’s got a hip injury too?

“It could be. If it is, Ahkello’s not talking about it. He’s a very strong-minded player and he’s doing everything he can to prepare every week. No one’s down on Ahkello at all. Mabin went in and played for [DB] Jimmie [Ward] too and no one’s down on Jimmie. It’s more of a product of the fact that Mabin has been playing very, very well and he deserved a chance to shine.”

Does the fact that Rosen played the Seattle scheme last week and almost had a dry run for the scheme he’s going to face this week give him an advantage?

“Always. You get a chance to play a scheme, he’s got two consecutive weeks to prepare for us. With how accurate he is and all of that stuff, it’ll probably allow him to be a little bit more comfortable. So again, I’m excited for the challenge for him. It’s going to be cool because he is pretty good.”

How is DL Jullian Taylor progressing?

“Jullian is doing good. He’s working his tail off. I actually just talked to him during walk-through on what he needs to do just to get better. I’ll leave it between him and I, with respect, but he’s moving in the right direction and we’re trying to find a way to get him up.”

Same question for LB Pita Taumoepenu. Any chance that he gets moved up at some point?

“He could. He’s doing a great job, too. It’s just the amount of injuries that we have on our team right now, there’s not much wiggle room to try to get people up.”

This is a league-wide question so it’s not specifically like the Niners are making an excuse or anything. But, across the NFL, there’s a record pace for points scored, for passing touchdowns, total touchdowns, etcetera. Do you think there’s any connection to the new rules this year and the fact that offenses are going crazy?

“You know, it’s crazy, right? The amount of points and yards that are being put up are unbelievable. With as good and as bad as we’ve looked at times and the offenses that we’ve played, four of the top 12 or whatever, to attribute it to rules, I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to attribute it to that or if it’s offenses being more creative. I know the quarterback play is getting a lot better, but the skillset is a lot better and there’s a lot of creativity in the league right now. It’s a challenge, for sure, especially with some of the stuff that’s showing up. But, as far as the numbers go, that’s a good question. I don’t get a chance to see everything that’s going on, I just know what’s going on in our building. But, it could be. The new rules with tackling, I’m not sure how much tackling has affected other buildings. Whether it’s making guys a little bit timid or indecisive, it’s a good question. I don’t have an answer for that though.”