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Robert Saleh talks practicing in smoke, Nick Mullens, Eli Manning

The 49ers defensive coordinator was available Friday to talk about practicing in the smoke and what to expect from the defense on Monday. We have a transcript.

Are you going to be changing up the practice tempo at all today because of the smoke? Are you going to be at walk-through or full-speed?

“I believe that we’ll still be full-speed at practice. For sure. No break.”

Going back to Thursday night’s performance, how big of a momentum boost and confidence boost is that for your defense?

“You know I’ll be honest, in the defensive room, they’ve been confident. They know they’ve played well in stretches and the whole focus last week was about finish, and that doesn’t stop. But, it’s a good group of guys. They’re made of the right stuff. It is, it’s always good to have success. But, at the same time, I don’t think our confidence has ever wavered in that room. It’s just a matter of being able to complete four quarters and finish a game.”

Just knowing that the Giants personnel, they have New York Giants RB Saquon Barkley, they have New York Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr. and New York Giants QB Eli Manning’s history, is that enough to keep them on alert and not overlook the record?

“I hope so. No, the Giants have an incredible set of skill players. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for us this week. The tight end, [New York Giants TE] Evan Engram, is really good. Odell is obviously really good. Saquon Barkley is phenomenal. Well worth the draft pick. Even [New York Giants WR Sterling] Shepard’s a really good player. So, it’s going to be a great challenge for us this week.”

Did you go back and compare Odell this year to last year to see if there’s any hitch in his giddy up or anything like that?

“No. I don’t see a hitch in his giddy up at all. He’s still a big problem for defenses.”

CB Richard Sherman was just saying it was kind of a big thing for him to be able to play two games in such a short turn. How do you think he did making that quick turnaround?

“I thought he did well. Sherm knows his body better than anybody, obviously. His mindset, he looked fantastic yesterday. It was probably his best practice in terms of just the freshness of his legs and all that stuff. I’m sure it was a great confidence boost for him, too. Even as much as he’s done in his career, he could always use a confidence booster. But, for Sherm to be able to stack days up and be able to practice and play games consecutively like that, I’m sure it was a big deal for him.”

He’s a little more than halfway through this season. You all are, obviously, but how would you kind of assess the way he’s come along this season?

“He’s been awesome. Obviously, the healthier he gets, the better he is. But, I have zero complaints on Sherm.”

How beneficial have the extra four days been, just for the rest and recuperation?

“Big time, at least for me. I don’t know if I get as much rest. I’ve got five little kids at home. They all jump in bed. But, no, it’s been great for the players. Obviously, we still go through and watch tape and try to piece together some things. [Head coach] Kyle [Shanahan] did a great job, gave us some rest, too. Rest is always the best remedy when you’re in-season. Wherever you can steal time and steal the ability to just rest and sleep and re-energize yourself is always beneficial.”

How do you look at what the pass rush did on Thursday, just given that, yeah, you were credited with eight sacks, but also there were some extenuating circumstances along that Raiders offensive line?

“It is a little bit of both. I thought our D-Line did a great job. Great job, with executing the game plan and being relentless in pass rush. A double-team is a double-team and [DL DeForest Buckner] Buck just manhandling and working through double-teams the way he did. Getting [LB] Dekoda [Watson] back, with him and [DL Cassius] Marsh both, the way they were collapsing the pocket was kind of a great picture of what we’ve been wanting our pass rush to look like with two guys collapsing the pocket and two guys pushing the pocket. So, it was a really good execution. It is unfortunate from Oakland’s standpoint. They are dealing with a lot of issues and having to move people, but I still give a lot of credit because they’re still NFL football players and we still had to go out and execute and they did.”

Along the pass rush lines, is there things you can take from that game that you can use towards the next one, or the momentum to take from a pass rush standpoint?

“It is. It’s showing them the picture that they created. Our players did a great job, when there’s a picture, when you stop the film and show what it’s supposed to look like, there were a lot of really good examples of that in the game. For them to see that, visually see it, and continue to repeat that over and over and over again, is going to be the challenge for the remainder of the season.”

Is Dekoda’s role different just in terms of where he’s lining up this year than last year?

“We’re relying on him a little bit more from a pass-rush standpoint. He still backup SAM linebacker. He is more defensive line-oriented than he was a year ago.”

What went into that decision?

“You know, we just felt like he’d provide some juice off the edge. His speed, power. He can run the hoop and capture edges, and he’s able to transition to power. He’s a very strong player, especially for his size. So, we just felt like if he could just focus on that all offseason, he could get better and he has.”

He was talking about going vegan and losing some weight. Is that something that you were aware of? Have you seen the benefits from that?

“You know what? No. I’m not going to lie to you. We have a tremendous nutrition team with [coordinator of nutrition] Jordan [Mazur]. I think [head strength & conditioning coach] Ray Wright and [vice president of medical services/head athletic trainer Jeff Ferguson] Ferg do a great job from a training standpoint and strength and conditioning. Whatever the plan was for him, I’m sure it was well-executed.”

You mentioned Barkley being a great pick. His rushing average is down, but he has a lot of big plays in the passing game. How big of a challenge is he to match up with in the passing game?

“God, he is dynamic. For his size, it’s very deceptive because it doesn’t look like he is moving, but the son of a gun is moving. He’s got tremendous balance. He’s got great feet. He’s obviously used in the pass game. I think they’re pretty much even rushing to passing yards, but his actual yards per carry are sitting at I think 4.7 so he’s doing a really good job running the ball. He creates holes. I don’t want to put him in [former Detroit Lions RB] Barry Sanders’ world yet, he’s got a chance, but he just has a knack. He’s got great patience. He finds holes. He makes people miss. Well worth the investment, for sure.”

With the bye upcoming, what’s the balance you’re trying to strike with LB Reuben Foster with getting him on the field, getting him the reps that he needs at this point or saying you have an opportunity to give him two weeks of rest to really get healthy?

“Reuben’s got to get healthy. That’s first and foremost. When he’s healthy, he’s a fantastic football player. And so for Reuben, all of his energy and focus right now, with regards to his body, is with Ray and Ferg. Obviously mentally, he’s in all of the meetings.”

Reading between the lines on that then, are you leaning towards not playing him Monday night?

“Again, as the week progresses. He’s got to get right, for sure.”

It seems like CB Ahkello Witherspoon has bounced back these last two weeks. What have you seen from him?

“Ahkello’s mindset. When he finished last year, and it happens to a lot of second-year players, we talked about this a couple of weeks ago, they get into this, I don’t want to say an ‘I’ve got it,’ mode, but they feel more comfortable in their surroundings. They forget what made them great as rookies, it was their mindset to just do right all of the time. The balance of life happens. And right now, Ahkello has got tremendous focus and is spending all of his energy on recapturing what he had his rookie year. His strength at the line of scrimmage, his aggressiveness, his mindset is what’s been helping him through these last four games. We’re starting to see what we saw last year.”

Was there a time that you saw it kind of switch a couple weeks ago?

“The switch came after our home game against Arizona. There were a couple of plays that showed on tape that we were able to pinpoint for him to create a visual. And then from there, he took off. For Ahkello, he’s taken every step he’s needed to take. So, I’m excited to see him finish out the season and see how much better he can get.”

How has DB Jimmie Ward played at free safety and do you look at this as an opportunity, just given his uncertain future, that maybe he could re-solidify himself as this team’s free safety heading into this offseason?

“You know, our faith in Jimmie has never wavered. Obviously, any time you get a chance to step on the football field in any capacity, it doesn’t matter the position, it’s always an opportunity to prove that you can play in this league. For Jimmie, being able to get through the season healthy and to play at the level he has been playing with, we have always felt he is one of our best 11 players. We don’t keep that a secret. For him, the challenge is going to be to stay healthy. When he is out there, he puts on really good tape.”

Eli Manning has been getting sacked a lot and the Giants have been struggling to score points. What have you seen from Eli in particular this season?

“You know what, there’s a lot of things that can go into play there. I still think Eli has great arm strength. I still think he can throw the ball with great accuracy. They’re learning a new system. They’re trying to re-gel with one another. You’ve got to remember that he didn’t have his entire group practically half the year a year ago. Then you’re implementing a new system, a new coaching staff and trying to get re-acclimated with one another. So, I do think they’ve gotten better over the past few weeks compared to the first couple of games of the year and I know there’s always a perception, but the reality is that when you watch the tape, they’re a very talented offense. They’re just a few plays from really clicking. So, it’s going to be a challenge for us and there’s no way we can sleep on them.”

Some of your guys on defense have talked about how competitive QB Nick Mullens is when he was running the scout team, things like that. I’m just curious your perspective on, did you see a lot of the same things from him, from the defensive side?

“The competitive drive and all of that stuff? Yeah. I’m always in his ear like, ‘Dude, you’ve got to throw the ball.’ Because for us in our zone coverages, it’s all about timing, trying to tie our rush to our coverage and he won’t throw it. I’m like, ‘Throw the ball,’ and he’s like, ‘No, I can’t throw an interception. Coach will get mad at me and I’m just not going to.’ And I was like, ‘Alright.’ So, it was always a battle. But, he’s competitive. Guys are excited about him. We’re all excited for him and the one thing about this league is you’ve got to do it every week. So, he’s excited to be able to get that opportunity.”

We didn’t know what to expect from Nick, but the players practice with him, they know what he is. Before he played, a lot of them, RB Matt Breida in particular, said that he’s a baller, that he’s going to do well. Did you have that feeling too just watching him practice?

“Yeah. For one, I think Kyle and his staff do a great job putting together a great scheme and putting players in position to be successful. I think the players that we have here both offensively, defensively and special teams, they do a great job mentally of preparing themselves to be able to put themselves in those positions also. For Nick, Nick is relentless in his study habits. He’s relentless as a competitor. So, the talent gap in the league, you guys know, we always talk about that it’s minimal. When you get guys who have that mindset, it’s just hard for you to envision them failing. And so for Nick, it was very easy for us to envision him being successful because we knew that he put himself in a position to be able to be successful.”