With the training camp injuries piling up, the San Francisco 49ers are getting a much-needed off-day. The Niners got a scare at practice Sunday when pass-rushing specialist Dee Ford had to left the field after appearing to injure his calf during one-on-one drills.
San Francisco needs Ford to be healthy if it wants to duplicate its success from last season. The goods news is that the 49ers still have plenty of depth on the defensive line. Rookie Javon Kinlaw is still learning the ropes as a pro, while the much-maligned Solomon Thomas has turned heads with his performance at camp.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh talked with the media and discussed several topics about the defense, including how he plans on using on Thomas next season.
Thomas has played multiple positions along the line, but his best work comes when he is playing inside. Saleh touched on why the 49ers have shifted him around so much, and what they’re hoping to do differently with Thomas in 2020.
“For Solly, drafting him when we first got here, there was a lack, I shouldn’t say a lack of edge talent, but you’re trying to get your best players on the football field in any capacity possible. So, you have [Indianapolis Colts DL DeForest Buckner] Buck on the inside, you had [DL] Arik [Armstead] moved outside, but got some inside work. You had [former DL] Earl Mitchell early, so you had inside guys. But, just trying to get Solly on the football field, on the outside was the best place that we could put him in terms of maximizing the men we had in that room. Year two, same thing. Just the evolution and the process of trying to bring in the players to make all this stuff work with everything. Then last year, coach and [general manager] John [Lynch], just a phenomenal job. We get Dee Ford, we get Bosa and we have a chance to play Solly inside more. So, in the first half of the year, he played a lot on the inside, but then injuries happen. [DL] Ronnie Blair III goes down. Dee Ford goes down for the year. We lose a few more players and so Solly’s one of our best players. We’ve got to get him on the football field somehow and the best spot is outside. So, it’s been our intent to try to keep him inside as much as possible, but he’s such a talented football player that sometimes it’s, ‘Well, shoot, we’ve got to get him on the field.’ But, with what we have now with being able to bring [DL] Kerry Hyder Jr., we have Ronnie coming back from PUP, you’ve got Dee Ford, you’ve got Bosa, you have Arik who can play outside, too. We’re doing everything we can to make sure that Solly stays inside at all costs.”
On how the defense has looked after the first few practices:
“We’ve got a really good group and there’s still a long way to go for them to be back to even close to what we were a year ago. It’s not saying anything bad. It’s just you’re always looking for more. You’re always looking for that next step. They’re working hard. They’re working their tails off and there’s the timing and efficiency at which we play in our coverages and all that stuff where we can get a lot better, but I trust the group and the fact that they put in the work”
Kinlaw has slowed down a bit after a great start to camp. Saleh believes the rookie is still finding his footing as a pro.
“I think he’s trying to find his way. I think our offense is an S.O.B. to go against on a day in and day out basis with how fast and how physical they are. I think it is a shock to a rookie defensive lineman when they come in here and he’s going against guys like [OL] Laken Tomlinson and he’s got [T] Trent Williams trying to reach him on the backside. He’s just got all this stuff happening to him, and [T Mike] McGlinchey. Just all of them. It’s tough, but he’s coming along every day. He’s made a small improvement every single day, so the focus for him is just continue to get better and hit the ground running come Week One.”
Saleh was asked how Kinlaw can improve going forward, and about some of the difficulties the rookie is having against NFL lineman.
“Yeah, it’s a technique thing where you grow up your whole life and you can just muscle and bully people your entire life. All of a sudden you get into in the league where they’re just like you and it’s more technique, fundamentals, strain, tenacity, all of it comes all into fruition and the intangibles are what wins football games for these professionals. We always talk about the difference between player A and player B is always, it’s minuscule. It’s the intangibles that make the difference, the strain, the mindset, the physicality, the study habits, the understanding what teams are doing to you. All those little intangibles that aren’t glaring on tape are what separate players from one another. As a rookie, he’s trying to figure out all that stuff and fully capable.”
Richard Sherman sat out Sunday’s practice for a maintenance day. The future Hall of Famer had a pick-six on back-to-back days last week, and Saleh touched on what makes Sherman so great at his job.
“That’s always been his game. He’s always been mind over athleticism. Obviously, when he was a young man, he could get himself out of trouble that he may put himself in a lot easier, but he understands stems. He understands scheme. He understands what offenses are trying to do to you. I mean, after meetings today, we sat and talked, just he and I, for about 30 minutes on a particular concept and the way we’re playing things. I know he can wait, but he’s going to be a coach one day and he’s going to be phenomenal. He is so far ahead of the game. It’d be the equivalent of all these older quarterbacks, [New Orleans Saints QB] Drew Brees, [former QB] Peyton Manning back in the day, [Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB] Tom Brady, who, they’re not as gifted as they were. Their minds are playing game. They’re playing a completely different game than everybody else. That’s Sherm out of that corner. He’s just playing a different game than everybody else. You trust that his eyes are right. You talk about the play he made yesterday. You trust that he’s actually going to be where he’s supposed to be, but because he saw the play develop, he saw the quarterback’s eyes, he saw what he saw, he could make a play that probably wasn’t designed for him to make. Those are things that just make him special. He knows exactly how to protect the defense. That’s why Sherm is one of those corners who has always been able to go get the ball his entire career. His mind is what has always helped him. As he’s gotten older, his understanding of scheme and what’s being asked of him has just increased.”
Saleh also said Dee Ford and Nick Bosa have looked great so far. Ford left Sunday’s practice with a calf injury he sustained during one-one-drills, while Bosa sat out for a rest day. The defense has avoided significant injuries during camp, which is nice considering what is happening on the offensive side of the ball.
Hopefully, the 49ers will be injury-free over the new few practices, and the players can stay healthy going into the Week 1 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals.