San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh spoke about how Javon Kinlaw has earned his role, mobile quarterbacks, why he let’s players like K’Waun Williams and Kwon Alexander “freelance,” and much more.
In terms of trying to defend mobile quarterbacks, what’s the coaching point in a situation like DL Dion Jordan when Philadelphia Eagles QB Carson Wentz scored that touchdown last week? Obviously, he’s not the only defensive end that that’s happened to, but what do you tell those guys and what’s the key for them in those situations?
“There’s different ways you can approach a mobile quarterback when you’re talking about just designed run plays. When we played [Arizona Cardinals QB] Kyler Murray, we played what you can call a surf technique. We’ve also played them where we take the end and have them take the dive. So, we have multiple ways that we play it. In that first week, I think we limited Kyler to a couple of carries on those zone reads for a minimal yardage. Then when you get to teams like [New York Giants QB] Daniel Jones and we’ll use Carson, you can still play it two ways. You can have the end take it as a base rule and then the linebacker would scrape off the outside, or you can surf it or you can send a guy right up to the quarterback. So, there’s different ways you can play it and so just without getting into too much detail on what the actual design of that play was, there’s just multiple ways that you can play a quarterback and clearly there was a miscommunication on it.”
Along those lines, Miami Dolphins QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is 37 years old, doesn’t have a huge reputation as a running quarterback, but he did lead the team in rushing, his own team, in rushing last year. It that something that you have to be cognizant of this week, that he could sort of get down and do some damage with his legs?
“So, we’re always mindful and respectful to the quarterback. A lot of his rushes come from scrambles, so they’re designed pass plays. D-Line getting after it and so you always have to be cognizant and mindful of the level of the quarterback and making sure that we’re taking care of you know, you’ve got four rushers on five linemen and there’s five available gaps. So, they’ve just got to be mindful on when one is looping, the other one’s two gapping, and it’s just, really, four guys working together to keep the quarterback in the pocket. If a quarterback starts going backwards and makes it a point to start scrambling, then we’ve just got to run him down and make sure that we do a good job in the back-end plastering. With Fitzpatrick, he is a lot more nimble than people realize. He’ll tuck it down. I mean, he had a QB draw, I think, last week for an 11-yarder for a touchdown. So, we are aware of his running ability, which is no different than any other team. We’ve just got to make sure that we’re doing a great job communicating and being mindful of his ability.”
After DL Solomon Thomas went out, with DT Javon Kinlaw, have you found yourself having to ask more of him in terms of snaps or responsibilities and how have you seen him grow over the first four weeks?
“I don’t know if we’ve had to really ask Kinlaw to do more. I think he’s just earning it, to be honest with you when you. When you watch him play, he’s getting better every single week. He’s going to be a dynamic football player in this league as soon as he starts really understanding the techniques and fundamentals and starts picking up on the NFL game and the way it’s played. He does things that are instinctively freakish that you just can’t teach. The more he sees it, the more reps he gets, the better he’s going to be. He’s just got a good knack for football and as soon as he gets into a groove and he really starts to understand this game, he’s going to take off. And it’s going to be very, very disruptive. So, we love the direction he’s going in. We love his mindset, his work ethic, his attention to detail and so as the season progresses, he’s going to earn whatever, just like every other player on this team, your playing time is what you’ve earned. He’s doing a really nice job so far this year.”
In the past, you’ve had issues with guys trying to do their own thing and make a play, kind of a lack of discipline. Has that been an issue at all going forward this year or is it just something you always emphasize?
“It’s twofold. We have our rules ball where we want guys to make sure they understand their rules, but when you get a guy like KK, [CB] K’Waun Williams, or [LB] Kwon Alexander or [LB] Fred [Warner], or you’ve got guys who are, and we’ve got a lot of them on defense, not to skip anyone, but when you have guys who just know something’s happening, they know the play and their rule tells them one thing, but they just know something’s happening, we encourage them to take their shot. Whether or not they’re right all the time, not to say that they’re a hundred percent, but you never want to make these guys robots. They have rules. They’re very comfortable with the rules. They know the rules, but we also, with all the film study and all the cut ups and all the work that they put in, we do encourage that if they do see a play, if they do see something happening, they go play the play. To expect them to be a hundred percent would probably be asking a lot of them, but they understand if they take a shot and they miss, they take ownership to it. But, at the same time, when they do take a shot, like Fred on the interception at the Giants game, he knew the play. If you actually watch his technique, that’s not the way we teach it, but he knew the play. He hung inside. He baited the quarterback and he took it. That’s Fred from film studying. So, you encourage guys to play football out there, but understand what your rules are. Speaking of that play, if he would have just played normal ball and took a zone drop, the quarterback never would’ve thrown it there because he would have been in position to begin with, and he would have went somewhere else with the ball and maybe the drive is still continuing. So, kudos to him. Kudos to [S Jaquiski] Tartt on the communication pre-snap and all of it. From a discipline standpoint, I think we’re one of the more disciplined football teams and defenses in football. For those guys, when something does get blown up or something does miss, it’s not from a lack of discipline more than they felt like they had a play. They had a beat on something, they took their shot and they just missed. Hopefully that makes sense.”
You’ve talked in the past about, you had to be, you, the 49ers, had to be very patient the first two years and get your edge rushers. Obviously, that happened last year. I guess, this happens the NFL, but I guess is there a level of just disappointment, frustration for that to be kind of bare right now?
“The frustration for me is really for [DL Nick] Bosa and [DL Dee] Ford and [DL] Ziggy Ansah and the guys who’ve worked so hard to put themselves in a position to have a successful 2020 and now it’s cut short for them, Solly, who does both. Does that mean that we don’t have faith in Dion Jordan and when [DL] Ronnie [Blair III] gets back and [DL] Kerry Hyder [Jr.] and now [DL] Alex Barrett? Absolutely not. I do think that they’ll come in, they’ll continue to play to the standard that we expect and you still have [DL] Arik [Armstead] on the defensive line and you’ve got a young man in Javon Kinlaw. It’s getting better every day. So, the expectation for that group doesn’t change. I think they’re so much further along on the frontend and the backend with understanding what we’re trying to get done on a play in and play out basis. I don’t think we’re anywhere near that 2018 team. I think we’re capable of so much more and I’m excited to see these guys prove each other right, because they know what they’re capable of and they’ve just got to go out and do it every single day.”
What does your defense miss with [LB] Dre Greenlaw out and what will he bring to the defense when he comes back?
“Man, Greenlaw. We all love Greenlaw. Athletic, he’s dynamic in the sense that he covers a lot of space, both run game and pass game. Really good in man coverage. He’s very, very reliable and as he gets his legs back underneath him, anytime you can add a player of his caliber back to the defense or on the football field, you’re only going to get better. So, when we had him, Kwon and Fred rolling, we were really dynamic in that backend or at that linebacker spot and having [LB] Azeez [Al-Shaair] step up the way he did over the last few weeks, I don’t want to take anything away from him because I thought he’s gotten much, much improved from a year ago. Now for Greenlaw, just an opportunity to get on the field, get his legs back underneath him and know that now, we feel like we’ve got four really, really, really good linebackers. And that’s not to take away from the other guys, [LB Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles] Flan and [LB] Joe Walker and then [LB Mark Nzeocha], who we plan to get back. So, really love that linebacker group and the depth that they’ve shown over the start of the season.”
You guys have had a pretty normal amount of penalties, but it seems like a good portion, about half of those, have been for first downs or just at bad times. I guess two parts. How do you cut down on those penalties, just at ill time periods in the game? And do you sense that the league is sort of cracking down on defensive holding?
“We’re playing an aggressive style of football. When you’re playing your zones and you’re watching the quarterback and you’re playing that style of game, you’re not going to get those little contact penalties, the holding penalties. But, when you’re up there and you’re playing a little bit more aggressive, which we have been these last four weeks, you’re probably going to get some penalties, but always, for our guys is understanding that we win with our feet and understand after five yards, you can’t touch guys anymore. For our guys, that has been a lot of the third and four range, where we’re trying to get hands on people and play tight coverage to get off the field. Some things pop up, but for us, it’s really just over-emphasizing the fact that when you are in man coverage or you are running a pressure or even if we’re in a matchup zone or whatever it might be, we’ve got to do a great job of playing with our feet, playing with great eye discipline and not getting grabby. If we win with our feet, we’ll be in good position to reroute within the five-yard limit and be able to play fast and play good football.”
When you look at Arik Armstead and the season he’s having thus far and really continuing over from last year, can you just talk a little bit about how you’ve seen him grow since you first got here?
“Man, I can’t say enough about Arik. Our first year here, he got hurt and he was starting to come on strong and he got hurt, I believe the Washington Redskins game. Then last year or the second year, he was still trying to work through with what we were trying to ask of him. I’ll give a ton of credit to [defensive line coach] Kris Kocurek, the defensive line coach, and [defensive line coach] Chris Kiffin, who’s now in Cleveland. Really helping him understanding what his style, what his identity is as a defensive lineman and really, really getting him locked into a technique that he believed in. For Arik, he’s such a smart individual and he plays so violent, but he’s one of the few people who can play with finesse too. He’s been able to balance all three of those aspects of his game and he’s turned into a wrecking ball in there. I’m just so pumped for him that he continues to get better and he’s going to be a lasting figure in this league at the rate he’s going. He’s awesome, and his leadership skills, all of it. He’s been fantastic.”
Is all of the increase in blitzing this year a by-product of trying to generate more pressure without Nick and Dee or was that something that you were thinking about this offseason, trying to get some more blitzes in?
“I don’t know. I usually do a self-scout here every four weeks. That’s what I work on on Thursday nights, but I feel like our third down package was blitz heavy a year ago. When you look at it, maybe didn’t blitz as much on first and second down, but it’s not necessarily to make up for a lack of anything because you still see when we are four-man rush, I think our front’s doing a really nice job of getting to the quarterback and collapsing the pocket and making them uncomfortable in there. If there has been an uptake in pressure, I won’t say why, but it’s been more trying to evolve the system a little bit more and trying to make sure that we do a good job staying ahead of the curve and keeping offensive coordinators off balance.”