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Robert Saleh talks finishing 2018, 14 points against Bears, Jimmie Ward’s future

The 49ers defensive coordinator was available to the media to answer questions about Sunday’s loss to the Bears and the upcoming final game of 2018 against the Los Angeles Rams. We have a full transcript.

When you look back on this season, what comes to mind just in terms of how the defense played and how some of the young guys developed?

“It’s been a tough year for everyone, obviously. But, I look at the year in review and, obviously not without watching all the tape all at once like we do in the self-scout setting, but all the adversity those guys have faced and the communication, the way they’ve kind of built and rallied together and fought together. There’s never been any quit in this group and that’s been the cool part of it. They’ve just been grinding and taking all the coaching and learning as much as they can. Whoever’s had their opportunity, with reps, have gotten better and better all the way throughout the board. That’s been the cool part, the fact that none of them got down. They just continued to get better and finishing strong so far.”

You obviously had guys finish strong last year, maybe didn’t play as well early this season. Being early in your career as a coordinator, what do you take away from that that you can apply to your job specifically?

“Good question. When you look at whether or not you start fast or not, our system, the way we play defense is always finish stronger than it starts. If you go all the back to Seattle, all the way through, from the beginning of the season to the end of the season, just the cumulative reps, it’s the same guys doing the same things over and over and over again. When we were going through OTAs and training camp, everything was nice and tight. Then, you get one guy here, one guy there. You’re just going through that process. But, as far as a coordinator trying to make sure that it starts fast, again, continuing to stress continuity, maybe looking at training camp which I think is going to happen naturally with all the different competition getting different guys playing with different people so they get used to communicating with everybody. There’s a lot of things that we can look at for sure to make sure that we start fast and we stay fast regardless of who’s in there.”

What’s going to be the primary message for these guys next week going into the offseason? Where do they need to get better most? Do they need to get stronger? Do they need to get more in-tune with the scheme? What is it?

“As a defensive staff, I know we do these things called get better tapes. We go back and we evaluate every single player and everything that they’ve put on tape. Obviously, we already have an idea of what their strengths and weaknesses are. But, when they get back, phase one where we really can’t coach them, when we’re finally able to get our hands on them in the middle of April, whichever phase it is, that’s when we show them what we’ve been looking at, what we feel like they need to get better at and put them in that focus through OTAs. Then, we revisit it at the end of OTAs and the start of training camp to make sure that those guys are always focused on something that we feel like they need to get better at, which goes to answer your question, also, on how we get these guys to go as fast as possible. Starting fast, and again, finishing even faster.”

Your defense gave up 14 points against Chicago, which is fantastic. A lot of that was the two turnovers. Schematically, you allowed Chicago Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky to complete 86-percent of his passes to average about 8.5 yards per attempt. In retrospect, is that something you’re comfortable with or would you like to change up a coverage, change up a pressure scheme and knock him out of his rhythm a little bit and not give up a steady stream of eight-yard catches?

“That’s fair. You know, with Chicago, they run a lot of bubbles, a lot of screens, a lot of short stuff. One of the focal points was taking [Chicago Bears RB Tarik Cohen] 29 out of the game and not allowing Trubisky to throw a go-ball to number one, single-receiver side. Those were the two main focal points, along with stopping the run and making sure they don’t beat us up in the run game. So, for the most part, we accomplished that. 29 had a very quiet day. I think he had 12 touches for 19 yards, which is pretty, pretty good for that kid. When Trubisky had the one drive where he dinked and dunked to start the second half, we went to the sideline and made the adjustment to get to more man coverage to get a little big tighter. We were going to keep giving it to him until he proved us wrong. He had a really nice drive. Even in that drive, I felt like that was one of our better series because we got the ball out twice, had a chance at an interception. So, we believe that if you take 12 plays and go score a touchdown, something is going to happen in our favor and you can’t do it over and over and over again throughout the course of a game. When they’re able to get it done like they did on that one drive, we made the necessary adjustments and we were able to shut them out for the final 19 minutes. Felt like the guys played hard and they played well. Always go back and look at a few calls that we wish we could’ve had back. But, was real excited for the guys and the way they played.”

How do you assess the pass rush plan in which you entered the season? With what pass rush specialist Chris Kiffin brought, I think you’ve got 37 sacks now. You had 30 last year. Is that an indication that the plan worked out?

“Yeah. I think our rush has been much improved. There’s still room for it to get better in terms of consistency of pressure. This is the way I look at pressure; when a quarterback feels like he can two-hitch, he hits his back foot and takes two hitches to throw a football. If a quarterback feels comfortable that he can do that, then the coordinator’s going to feel comfortable to call a deeper developing concept that allows him to take his two hitches. When you have a front that applies pressure over and over and over again, whether or not they’re getting sacks, just pressure, the sacks are the goal for everything. But, you speed up the process of the quarterback, which speeds up the process of the coordinator and the way he calls his concepts, which speeds up the process of your backend. It speeds up the process of everybody. So, if the concepts are faster, the quarterback is getting it out faster. Your hook defenders and your underneath defenders can play a lot faster. Now, those check downs that are leaking for six, seven yards are three and four yards. It all ties in together. So, when we get to the point where we feel like the offense is speeding up their process because they’re worried about our rush, that’s when we’ve achieved exactly what we want to. And it’s been a lot better this year, but there’s still more to go.”

Looking at the big picture, I feel that early in the season we were talking a lot about miscommunications. One of the things we wrote, nine different safety combinations over the course of the year. Now, I feel the last few weeks that hasn’t been as much of an issue or an issue at all. How would you kind of evaluate the improvement as far as communication goes and why that’s happened over the course of a season?

“It’s all continuity. Eight different people have played safety this year, which is an incredible number and an attribute to those guys in how much they’ve studied and attacked their opportunity to be their best. When you get continuity and guys playing the same over and over again with [LB] Elijah [Lee], [LB] Fred [Warner], [S] Marcell [Harris] and [DB Antone] Exum [Jr.] playing and really controlling that backend with [CB] K’Waun [Williams] and [DB] D.J. [Reed Jr.], you just get comfortable and you understand each other. You know how you’re going to play things. You know how to play off of each other. There’s more trust where people can just get lined up. Through repetition, you gain trust. Through repetition, you get more confident that you can align and not have to worry about other people aligning. There’s more communication. So, rather than one person doing all the talking, now there’s three. Everybody is talking. That only comes with repetition and continuity. That’s what we can attribute to this strong finish, is the fact that we’ve been able to play with the same group over and over again for the last four, five weeks.”

Was there some real good teach tape on a number of levels on that last play with DB Tarvarius Moore? One, that’s why you don’t give up on a play. Two, just for him to see in that situation that you’re on an island, what do you do at the line of scrimmage, how do you keep up when you’re put in that situation?

“For sure. There’s a lot of great teaching moments every play. For Tarvarius, how he can be better at the line of scrimmage. But, just love the mindset, the whole group trying to go after the football the way they did. I think we got the ball out on I want to say four different occasions. We recovered two of them. But, always. Guys running to the ball, to be able to finish a play and scoop it up. It was a great way to finish the game for those guys.”

How would you use DB Jimmie Ward if they re-sign him for 2019? He seems to be at home at safety. He’s bounced everywhere. He can do different spots. But, do you see him as a free safety?

“Honestly, with Jimmie, I see him as a free, as a corner. Ideally, it’s one position and let him roll. He was playing really well at free safety. Again, it goes back to the end of the year, going through and evaluating and just to make sure that we pinpoint exactly what he was truly excelling at and exactly what the defense was really excelling at. He was. He was doing a really, really nice job back there at free safety. So, it’s something that we’re going to have to evaluate at the end of the year.”

You called Elijah Lee a steadying force. Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay called him this week a steady Eddy. It’s not the highest praise, but it is praise, especially for a player on a defense that had some issues earlier in the season with communication and stuff. Can you describe exactly the impact Elijah Lee has had?

“When you’ve got a guy in there who is reliable, there’s a saying that there’s three characteristics you ask out of your football team, of a player. Are they smart? Are they tough? Are they reliable? Elijah Lee is smart, he is tough and he is reliable. If you’ve got those three characteristics, then you can play good functional football. Your athleticism, your instincts, your speed, that’s what pushes you into the next level of tier of athletes where they’re just the best of the best. Elijah is a really good football player. But, it starts because he is tough, he is very smart and he is very reliable. He’s out there. He does his job. He knows exactly what he’s supposed to do. He can communicate. He keeps everybody at ease. Between him and Fred, just all the talking they do. It’s not a knock saying that he’s a steadying force or a steady Eddy. But, it’s a really great compliment also from a coaching standpoint because you’re relied on and if a coach can rely on you, then you’ll always have a place.”

Where would you like to see him improve for next year?

“I hit the linebackers this week. The biggest thing that they need to improve on is when they make a tackle, they’ve got to get people going backwards. Linebackers define that point of impact, whether or not you’re going backwards, or whether he’s going forwards. As a linebacker, you always make them go backwards because those two, three yards of leaky yardage, now instead of second-and-six or seven, or third-and-six or seven, it’s third-and-four or five, which is a big difference. So, we’ve got to get more impactful at the point of attack and tackling. That’s the area that I’d love to see both of those guys improve at.”

Have you seen that become more difficult over the past few years with linebackers? I know even Elijah has gotten a little bit smaller over the course of this season.

“Yeah, it’s still bruising in there. It is. When a team decides to run downhill. We also had [Jacksonville Jaguars LB] Telvin Smith, who was 215 pounds and he found a way to get guys to go backwards. They can do it. It’s a mindfulness. Shoulder punch through the sternum or the thigh or their aiming points. They’ll get better at it as they continue to grow.”

Staying low?


You’ve had CB Richard Sherman at the beginning of his career and now. He’s kind of an elder statesman-type guy. I realize his role is to mentor young guys. But, has he, in your estimation, become a better teammate throughout his career?

“I always thought Sherm was a great teammate. The guys in Seattle always loved him. He’s an ultimate competitor. So, if people took it the wrong way then in my opinion they’re being sensitive. Sherm has always been an unbelievable teammate. He’s always put his team in front of him. With that, this year I think has been a great year for him because it’s truly the first year that he’s had to go through adversity. Since he’s been in the league, he’s done nothing but win. Now, he’s on the field with four or five rookies and he’s really, I can’t say enough about him. He’s been unbelievable in that regard in just being the veteran calmness of the group when it’d be very easy for any other veteran to just point a finger or whatever it is. He’s just been a rallying cry. He’s been awesome. I can’t say enough about him. If we could say he grew, I mean, every year every man grows with learning experiences. For Sherm and what he’s been able to do with those young guys, I can’t say enough for him. He’s been awesome.”

Is there anyone you’ve ever come across that can even remotely compare to his personality, leadership style, all that? Is he truly one of a kind?

“That competitive drive?”

The way he leads--?

“Everything? That’s what makes those guys gold jacket. Their mindset, tough, smart, reliable, throw in the athleticism, throw in the team-first mentality and you’ve got superstars. That’s what he’s been his whole career.”