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Robert Saleh talks turnovers, coverage struggles, Jameis Winston

The 49ers defensive coordinator met with the media on Wednesday to preview Week 12 vs. the Bucs. We’ve got a full transcript.

Week 12 Media Availability

Kyle Shanahan, Robert Saleh and Nick Mullens preview Sunday’s game in Tampa Bay

Posted by San Francisco 49ers on Wednesday, November 21, 2018

We’re picking apart the turnovers this week obviously with the Bucs and you guys struggling to get takeaways. Is there something you guys can do in terms of the cornerbacks to study this more than you have and emphasized over the last three months?

“I wish there was a magic button you could press. Everybody in the league would push it and turnovers would happen. But, we’ve had our opportunities. I know it’s very hard to see when you’re not winning football games and the results aren’t happening. It’s very hard to see. I think we’re 15th in forced fumbles so the ball’s on the ground, we’re getting balls, we’re getting our hands on them. We’ve had multiple dropped interceptions and eventually the tide has got to change and the ball has got to start bouncing our way. So, we’ve just got to keep plugging, keep being mindful of the ball and the message that [head coach] Kyle [Shanahan] preaches every day that the ball is everything. Eventually it will flip, hopefully soon.”

Did you guys have an interception, did CB K’Waun Williams have one against the Giants?

“I think he did, but the tie always goes to the offense. I felt like he had it first, but it’s what they called. It was still a really good play by [LB] Fred [Warner] to get the ball out and I think [DL] Sheldon [Day] tipped it. So, that’s what I’m talking about. We’re inches away, we’re so close, but it just hasn’t bounced our way.”

You said eventually it will flip. Obviously, the Bucs are committing turnovers at a near record level. Do you see this as an opportunity to take advantage?

“Not necessarily. I think every day you go out there is an opportunity. Every play, every time the ball gets snapped, it’s an opportunity to go get the ball. So, I know that they’re talking about turning the ball over as much as we talk about takeaways. It’s something that I think every team in the league talks about religiously. It’s always a challenge. Can an offense take care of it? Can a defense take it away? So, them having turned it over as much as they have is no different than a team that hasn’t turned it over. It’s another opportunity to attack the ball for us defensively.”

I know hindsight is 20-20, but looking back at the way you guys handled DB Jimmie Ward in training camp, working him almost exclusively at cornerback or at least in games, do you see the way he’s played free safety and said that maybe we should have given him more of a shot there for that starting job?

“No, I stand by what we always talk about with Jimmie being a really good football player. I always felt like it’d be easy for Jimmie to transition back to free safety. Obviously, [DB] Adrian Colbert finished very strong, felt like we were good there. With [CB Richard Sherman] Sherm coming off of his injury, we wanted to make sure that we had a solidified backup for him. The way it worked out, I don’t regret it. I think Jimmie, wherever we put him, is going to be a good football player. So, I’m excited for him over these last six games and the opportunity he has to really showcase what he is and if he can stay healthy, he’ll have a really good offseason.”

Are you guys open to, if Jimmie plays well enough, him solidifying himself as a possible starter the way Adrian did last year?

“I’m sure it’ll be something that is addressed in the offseason. I love Jimmie. I’m not going to hide that. So, obviously it will come up in the offseason when the time presents itself.”

Have you seen a progression with Richard Sherman, just injury-wise, health-wise, just from Week 1 to the most recent game?

“I was just talking to him during walk-through. The Thursday night game with a little break and then the Monday night game with the Bye week I think has been really beneficial for him to solidify his ailment. So, he looked really fresh going into the Monday night game and had probably his best game. He feels really good leading up to this game. So, that rest has really done him well and I’m excited to see him finish out these six games also.”

What stands out just preparing for a guy like Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston? Obviously, he’s been out of the lineup for a while too.

“Jameis is a very good quarterback. He’s going to sling it. He’s very aggressive with the ball. Obviously, they’ve got great receivers. The running back is actually pretty talented also, [Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Peyton Barber] 25. The O-Line is good. So, it’s a challenge. They’re number one in the NFL for a reason. With as many yards as they rack up, they can do it in a hurry. So, it’s going to be a great challenge for us. Jameis is no different. When he played, they put 500 up when he was the starting quarterback also. So, it’s no different. They score and move the ball almost at will. It’s going to be a great challenge for us this week.”

What are you seeing from CB Ahkello Witherspoon?

“Ahkello is getting better. The thing that gets frustrating sometimes is when you’re losing football games, it’s very hard for people to see what’s right. They all want to point out what’s wrong. Why are we losing? They’re trying to figure out why we’re losing. So, we get lost in the world of what’s wrong rather than trying to find out what’s right. So, with Ahkello, I think he’s getting a lot better from his coverage standpoint. I think the whole entire unit has gotten better. Offensively, defensively, special teams. I think we’ve all gotten better. Ahkello has got to step up and play great in the run game, from a tackling standpoint. He’s got to reconnect himself to what he was doing last year in that regard. So, every day you have to own your job and if you allow things to seep in, people will try to pinpoint it. With Ahkello, I do see him getting better. Obviously, like everybody in our organization, we all can find a way to get better. But, I see it with offense, special teams, defense. We’re all getting better. I know the result is not there, but when you sit back and really dissect it and really look at the team, it’s moving in the right direction.”

It seems at key moments teams target him, in the red zone or with two minutes left. If their backs are against the wall and they need a play, they go after him. Do you feel at those moments you need to cheat coverage his way or break certain rules of your scheme to force a team to beat you some other way?

“We think about it, obviously, for sure. That’s a good question. Sherm gets a lot of respect out there on the one side and then when you get to Ahkello, I believe in Ahkello. I think he’s a really good receiver. I think he played well in coverage. There are some things obviously he can do better. But, simple things for him to learn. On the PI, if he just turns around, that’s a great job, not just a good job but a great job, on [New York Giants WR] Odell [Beckham Jr]. He had a one-on-one on Odell where obviously Odell almost made the circus catch, but he was in good position and just needs to continue to accelerate through. So, he’s got the skill set and yes, to answer your question, you could with coverage and cheating and all of that stuff. But, at the same time, when you’re dealing with a team like the Giants where they’ve got weapons all over the place, you’re just robbing Peter to pay Paul. So, eventually in a two-minute situation, it comes down to one-on-ones and I always go back and look at how we can do things a little bit differently or better. But, to answer your question, yeah, we could.”

Did he play that touchdown pass correctly, the 30-yarder to Odell?

“We should have been in two-man, we were in two-man. So, even with the way we teach our technique, he should still be a lot closer and still get a hand to hands and make it a lot tighter throw. We always talk about even though you have help, never count on help. Do your job the best you can to keep things tight. It’s unfortunate the way it happened and I wish we could have that one back too.”

After that touchdown, Kyle said he didn’t like the way he reacted, like hey someone screwed up here. It’s something he’s done this season where on Odell’s first touchdown he clapped his hand. Did you address that directly with him?

“Yeah, his teammates did, everybody did. You never want to show up your teammates. You never want to show up the organization. It’s no different from a player’s standpoint, they never want a coach showing them up either. So, mistakes happen, people make mistakes. We get to the sideline, we fix it and we’re a group, we’re together, we’re a brotherhood. So, he learned. Like I said, he’s a pup, he’s young. Every day is a learning experience and he is getting better. I still have high expectations for him”

You mentioned him in the run game and tackling was a big discussion when he got drafted. By all accounts, he did well last year. Is that concerning that that’s cropping up?

“No, with Ahkello, when you really watch it, he’s trying to go for the ball too much. He’s trying to punch out, he’s trying to take whacks at the ball. Sometimes it looks really bad when you look at it. Ahkello, just like I stood here last year, he’s not a coward. He’ll go and he’ll hit. He showed that last year. So, he just needs to get reconnected to putting his body in there and getting people down. Don’t worry about the ball so much, especially when you’re the first person in. The second person is the one who goes and gets the ball. So, he’ll get himself reconnected to tackling and he’ll put that one to bed like he has a lot of things throughout this entire year.”

Are you going to see CB Tarvarius Moore at cornerback in these final six games? Do you need to see him?

“We’d like to, for sure we’d like to see him. Don’t want to play the musical chairs either so if the opportunity presents itself, we’ll find ways to get him out there.”

What about DL Jullian Taylor? Where is he coming in?

“He’s coming along. He’ll get his opportunity here very soon.”

You’ve kind of placed different players at different positions. Richard Sherman talked about how that kind of is challenging for a young player, particularly DB D.J. Reed Jr. and for Jimmie. Can you talk about why that is? Obviously, injuries are a part of it.

“Injuries have popped up. Ideally, in our scheme, the player does the same thing over and over again. For young guys, when we brought in a guy like D.J., the plan was free safety, backup nickel. Mold him into that role, backup free, backup nickel, and if he gets an opportunity to start, he gets an opportunity to start. It is always challenging for a young guy. Ideally, you would love a guy to play one position every single time and do nothing else. But, injuries pop up, things happen and playing your best 11 is so important to all of us to make sure that your best guys are on the field at all times. So, sometimes you get handcuffed and the learning curve has to accelerate.”

How do you evaluate the approach you guys have taken with DL Solomon Thomas and do you feel like you might need to make some changes just in terms of the way he is deployed or the way you are approaching his workload?

“With Solomon it’s the same. You have to understand, we’re very blessed, we have a lot of really good inside guys. Solomon, I do believe, is one of our better football players. So, to get him on the football field in one form or fashion, especially from a base down standpoint, first, second down, run-pass, where I do believe he is a really good edge run defender and he does provide some stuff off the edge. In pass downs, we do want to get him inside. But, it goes back to earning, winning one-on-ones consistently and producing at that spot. So, he’ll get his opportunities here in the next six weeks, along with [DL] Arik [Armstead] and Sheldon and all those guys. But, there comes a lot of impatience when it comes to a number three pick and there’s a world of pressure and a world of stress. The pressure that is on Solomon to produce and be his best is where we want to keep him in because he’s got control over what he can produce as an individual football player, just by his work ethic and the way that he approaches his job. Trying to get him in a stressful world where now it’s about results, that’s different. Now you’re dealing with a player who’s pressing. With Solomon, it’s just continuing to build and grow and get better every single day and that’s kind of where we’re trying to keep him, in that world of pressure. He’s doing a great job. I do think he’s going to end up on the top end of this. In a world of immediate gratification or satisfaction, patience is non-existent anymore. So, he’ll be fine.”