San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh discussed how he’s evaluating the current cornerbacks on the roster for the future, what the defense will miss with Kwon Alexander, what Emmanuel Moseley, and much more.
As far as CB Brian Allen against the Dolphins, given his lack of experience, was there a way to give him more help in hindsight? Were there things that you could have done with the safeties to possibly prevent some of those early, deeper passes against him?
“Obviously, with every situation, you learn a lot. Absolutely, there could have been more. I know that we had a certain game plan going in throughout the entire course of the week and we still thought we, after that first series, did our best to try to give him some safety help. Again, I’ll give credit to Brian. He did fight his tail off and it was unfortunate that on a couple occasions, when we felt like we needed to take a shot based on situation and third down, [Miami Dolphins QB Ryan] Fitzpatrick did a really good job in making the right read and getting the ball where it needed to go. But, like I said, there’s always opportunities to grow and learn as an individual and I look at that situation a little different.”
Watching the Rams, it looks like they’ve improved the pass protection and they’ve really dialed it back to shorter passes, focusing on YAC, kind of like your own offense does. I’m wondering if there’s been any, not I guess déjà vu in practice, but working with the scout team, if what the Rams are giving this year reminds you a little bit of what your own offense ran, especially last year?
“There’s definitely some similarities. I think [Los Angeles Rams head coach] Sean’s [McVay] done such a fantastic job with regards to building his own identity within the system. They are so precise in what they do. It seems simple because you only see a couple of formations, but they’ve got little nuances within everything they do, whether it’s run game, pass game, boot, play action, drop back, all of it. They do such a nice job of creating little wrinkles that keep you guessing all within a system that just seems so simple for their players because they execute at such a high level. They’re very, very precise in what they do. They’re always moving forward and they create very advantageous situations for themselves, which allows them to get the ball out of [Los Angeles Rams QB Jared] Goff’s hand very quickly. So, kudos to Sean. I think he’s fantastic and they’re definitely much improved from a year ago.”
With all the injuries you guys have had at cornerback, how important has CB Jason Verrett been and how have you seen his game just sort of progress as he’s been able to put a couple of weeks together now in a row?
“Yeah, he’s gotten better every single day. He’s got such a great mindset to him. There’s a reason why he was an all-pro in his earlier years before all the injury luck hit him, but his film study, his practice habits, his attention to detail, all of it is fantastic. So again, same thing for him. I’m really impressed by him as an individual. You can see why he’s been so good throughout his entire life, but for him to just continue focusing on getting better every single day and continue on the track that he’s on, really excited to see how far he can get it.”
CB Emmanuel Moseley has been such a stabilizing force for your defense ever since he started playing in it last season. What are his strengths as a player and how did he slip through the cracks of the NFL scouting community?
“That’s a good question. When you’re talking about Mose, it’s so subtle because, first of all, first and foremost, he’s got such a great mindset with regards to being fearless. He does not care who he’s going against. He does not care the situation. There’s no situation too big for him. He’s got such a great mental toughness to him and a great mindset to him. He plays with unbelievable technique and strength with the line of scrimmage. He does not panic at the catch point. He doesn’t panic at the top of the routes. So, all of it, from a mindset standpoint and just a personality standpoint, he’s got no panic, no fear and great technique. Then on top of it, you get into the mental aspect with regards to understanding route combinations and understanding plays. You’ve got yourself one heck of a corner. Sometimes kids slip in the draft process, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not good enough. It just means that they got a different opportunity than people who are drafted and so that’s what makes those undrafted guys who make it special because they’ve got that mindset. When you talk about Moseley and his mindset, shoot, after practice, he came right up to me after a period and he was like, ‘Saleh, what was that route? I hadn’t seen it before,’ and I was like ‘The card, they messed up the card.’ So, he was able to recognize like, I hadn’t seen that route on tape, but the card had gotten messed up. So, I was like, ‘Good job, man. I see you.’ So, for him, he’s awesome.”
What has to change or how did you guys address sort of what happened with CB Ahkello Witherspoon last week and whatever lapse in communication there might have been that led to you guys having to start Allen on Sunday? And also, do you wish you took Allen out and made that switch a little bit sooner?
“For the first question, coach [Kyle Shanahan] had already covered it on Monday. It’s like the perfect storm in the sense that we led all the way up until Thursday night with an assumption that Ahkello was trying to fight through what he was trying to fight through and it just didn’t work out. That’s well documented with what coach had to say. I don’t know if there’s much to add to it. But, with regards to the events that transpired actually on Sunday, you watch it go and on that first series, very first play of the game, Brian’s in fantastic position on the go ball. He loses at the catch point and so when you look at it, it wasn’t anything alarming at that point. We get through that series and then the next series things are going good and we took a shot with a pressure and he got found right there. So, at that point it became more, let’s see if we can get him a little bit more help, which led to that third series. Then that third series, I believe we got off the field on a three and out. Then the fourth series, same thing. We went in with that same approach, but as soon as we took a shot, Fitzpatrick took his shot. At that point, it was evident that from just a structural standpoint and for Brian, we had to give him a break and see if we can settle it down. Again, I’m going to say it for Brian. I’m very proud of the individual and I mean this sincerely. He’s got a bright future ahead of him. Sometimes people get thrown into a fire, not that he wasn’t ready for it, but there’s still a lot of room for him to grow and get better and I’m still excited to work with him on a day to day basis.”
You finally got your linebacking core all back healthy with LB Dre Greenlaw coming back, but now you’re without LB Kwon Alexander. We’re all aware of the intangibles that he has, but what do you miss with him not being on the field and have you seen any improvements in him in his second year in this defense?
“Yeah, I thought Kwon had his best game of his time here as a Niner last week. I know it doesn’t go noticed when things go so bad, but his tackling has been much improved over the last couple of games. The thing that you lose in Kwon is just the hair trigger, do something that just wasn’t coached aspect of a player’s game. You’ve got guys who play things by the book and they’re not going to, you know, they do things right and they’re not going to hurt you. But, they’re not going to do anything outstanding. Then you get a guy like Kwon who is just fantastic in terms of taking shots. Earlier in the system, he’d take a shot and be like, not that time, but as he figured it out and figured out where he can and can’t cheat, his shots became more and more consistent. You just lose that instinctive nature with Kwon, along with, like you said, all the intangibles, but the instinctive part of the game that he’s got is what makes him special and why he’s had so much success in this league.”
I assume your job involves some part time psychology. I’m just wondering if this week, you’re like, ‘Hey, that performance, it’s not who we are as the 49ers’, or is it like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to piece this together and we’re going to figure it out,’ or is it a little mixture of both?
“You’re always trying to get better every single day. Every once in a while, even the greatest ones get punched in the mouth and I still believe that this is a top 10 defensive unit. Top five if we’re on our stuff and it doesn’t change on who’s on the football field. We’re a fantastic group. It’s got a fantastic mindset and one game doesn’t define what I think is an unbelievable defensive unit. So, for those guys to understand and recognize what they’ve done and what they’ve been able to accomplish in this league is not defined by one game. You just talk to each individual by themselves and they’ll tell you the exact same thing. They’re not shook at all. They’re ready to get back on the football field and continue to prove how good they are.”
With the Emmanuel Moseley making his way back, is your cornerback situation still in flux going forward? Then also, what have you seen from CB Jamar Taylor? What’s your assessment of him since he’s arrived here in Santa Clara?
“On the first product question with Emmanuel, anytime someone gets healthy and gets a little bit more stabilizing, you just kind of get the guys back who’ve been through the fire and continue to do things in the way that you want them to. So, that’s always helpful. With regards to Jamar, I think he’s doing a really nice job and I mean that. He’s incredibly smart, very detailed. He’s a competitor, a fighter. He’s already made some plays for us. He’s a calming force also, just because of his football IQ and his ability to get people lined up and communicate. So, really happy Jamar’s here and I’m looking forward to him getting better every single day and holding down that nickel spot.”
I don’t believe you have any cornerbacks on this roster who are signed for next season, but you do have a bunch of young guys: CB Tim Harris Jr., CB Ken Webster, CB Brian Allen and CB Parnell Motley. Are you evaluating these guys? Is that a season long evaluation for all of these young guys who may not get up to the active roster? Are you kind of conscious of which young guys might be part of the plan for 2021?
“One hundred percent. That’s a really good question. So, with all those guys, one of the greatest things that I think this organization does is we develop football players better than anyone in football. I believe that. All the way from our training staff, to our strength crew, to management, to coaching, all the way down. We spend so much time watching their scout team reps, so much time after practice trying to make sure they’re getting reps that they may not have gotten because the one’s are getting the reps. There’s a lot of extra time put into continuing the development of those guys. So, to answer your question, with that coaching and investment goes into an evaluation on whether or not they’re capable of taking that next step because we’re constantly engaging ourselves with them and just not, ‘Oh, you’re on the practice squad, go do whatever you do for the scout team.’ It’s, we take those reps. We have individual meetings with those guys and we’re continuing to try to get those guys better every single day, because reality is, just like last week, you never know when that guy might get called up because of injury. So, we’re constantly trying to stay engaged with those guys to get them better every day.”