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49ers’ defensive coordinator Robert Saleh on Sherman, the intensity level at practice, and more

San Francisco’s defensive coordinator touched on Richard Sherman, two practice skirmishes, the cornerback competition, and more.

Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers are almost done another week of practice as they prepare for their Week 1 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals.

Wednesday’s practice was an eventful one for the Niners. The team suffered a scare when All Pro cornerback Richard Sherman appeared to injure his left left leg during one-on-one drills. The good news is that Uncle Sherman returned to the field, and had a pick-six against QB Jimmy Garoppolo, and the offense during red zone drills.

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh answered questions from the media about the two skirmishes that occurred during practice, an update on Dion Jordan’s progress, how the cornerbacks look so far, and the defensive philosophy in the red zone.

Transcript courtesy of the 49ers’ communications team:

What was going through your mind when you saw CB Richard Sherman go down and grabbing his left leg there just in individual drill and what did you see from him throughout the practice after that?

“First, you get worried for the man. I was hoping it was nothing serious with what he was grabbing. I got a little nervous for him, but once we got over there, realized that when he talked through what he had gone through, saw there was no concern. It was more of a relief than anything, but just worried for him more than anything. To answer the second part of the question, I’m sorry, same old Sherm. He was hobbling a little bit, but he’s fine. He just needs a little bit of rehab, a little treatment. He’ll be all right.”

Just philosophically, when a team like head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense can utilize two tight ends and do a lot of play action and those tight ends happen to be really good pass catchers, obviously with TE Jordan Reed in the mix now, what kind of challenges does that pose a defensive coordinator from a play calling standpoint, in terms of just the versatility you have to prepare for?

“It poses a big challenge, just because you’ve got to make the decision on how you want to play them. Do you want to play them in base? Now one of those two tight ends, we feel confident about our matchups, you’re defending him with linebackers or do you want to go nickel where at least one of them is being defended by a safety and then the other one is being defended by a nickel? You kind of go through that battle in terms of how you want to treat those guys. There’s setting the front on which one is getting run through versus run away. It does pose a problem because they can become very dynamic by giving you a 12 personnel picture or an 11 personnel picture. When you have two tight ends of that caliber, it’s just the sky’s the limit. When you’ve got the creativity of someone like Kyle and his staff, you can only imagine some of the stuff that they can draw up.”

I wanted to ask about your options and the competition at the strong safety position. I know S Johnathan Cyprien had another interception today and S Marcell Harris wasn’t out there, but how has he been progressing, not only over the offseason, but during this camp?

“Marcell’s been awesome. He’s picked up where he left off. He’s playing with a lot more confidence. People forget that he didn’t play his last year of college, and then he really didn’t have any OTAs his first year in the league, training camp, really missed the first eight weeks of the season and then he got thrown into the fire. He’s still relatively young, but he’s got a firm grasp of the system and he’s been fantastic here to start training camp. I love where Marcell’s at. I haven’t gotten an update yet from the training staff on where he’s at, the performance staff, but regardless, he’s had a good start. Cyprien, like I said before, he’s here to compete and just do the best he can. So far, he’s off to a good start, but we love Marcell. We love that safety group. It’s a really good safety group from the entire group. There’s five of them, so it’s a pretty darn good group.”

LB Fred Warner seemed to be a little feisty today, feistier today, dusting it up with RB Raheem Mostert a little bit. He is completely different when he’s talking to us at the podium. He’s kind of like the good guy. He’s reserved. I think maybe part of it was LB Kwon Alexander coming into the group with him because his second year, he kind of showed that. What is it about him that he gets on the field and he’s that totally different personality?

“Most of these players, even his linebackers coach [linebackers coach] DeMeco [Ryans], when they put the helmet on and they step in between the white lines, they become, not a different person, but there’s a different mindset and especially at the linebacker position. You can be a gentleman off the field, very smart, very intellectual, very candid, very polite, just like Fred, and Kwon is, too. You really have a good, genuine conversation with them, but when that helmet goes on, as a linebacker and really as a defensive player or just a football player in general, and you step in between the white lines, there’s a trigger, mentally, that puts you into a different mindset with regards to physicality and presence. Fred, I guess you could say the more he grows up or the more he evolves as a football player, the more confidence he gets from a leadership standpoint. His true character, when the helmet comes on, comes to fruition, and that’s kind of what you guys are seeing. Every day is game day for those guys and they treat it like it is. It’s cool to see. You don’t want them to get in too many scuffles because you’ve got to get back to the huddle and make the call, but it’s better to say, whoa, then giddy up, in terms of those guys.”

Your guys had the three interceptions there in the red zone on QB Jimmy Garoppolo. Obviously, that bodes well for how your defense is looking. What are you emphasizing with red zone defense this year that maybe you didn’t in the past?

“You always do it. I don’t know if it’s any different, but every year you just talk about making sure that we’re contesting throws at a minimum. It’s a contested throw, very tight windows. You look at our red zone two years ago, we gave up a lot of uncontested touchdowns. It just felt easy. A quarterback scramble and an offensive player would sit in a soft spot and it would just be an uncontested throw. So, last year, just reemphasizing and bringing back to life the purpose of red zone. What are we trying to accomplish in red zone? I know the final numbers weren’t good, but up until the last four or five games of the year, I think we were top-five in the league in red zone defense. Didn’t finish like that though at all. It was a rough finish. The emphasis always is to compete like heck in the red zone, create tight windows and make sure that there is no ball that’s uncontested. As long as they’re down there, they’re competing their tails off and triggering and making sure that there’s body on a body when that ball is thrown, we like our chances from a competitive standpoint.”

With the competition, when you’re determining your final defensive linemen, how much more difficult is it to gauge that when you don’t have preseason? For example, today DL Dion Jordan, I noticed he thought he probably would have had a sack, but he can’t touch the quarterback. When you’re watching the film, and I know he’s frustrated after that, so when you’re watching the film, how do you evaluate and give guys credit for situations like that to make sure you do make the right call?

“No, that’s a great question because there is an element of some of those guys, you’re excited to see them in game action because it is different. Some guys, when the game hits, they become this playmaker that you never expected. You get comfortable in practice because you’re playing the same guys over and over again, so you can make the adjustments when game day hits. Some of these guys being able to adjust on the fly and you can just watch it happening in the game, how they react to different players, different schemes, different angles that are presented, that are created by an offense. So, there is a fine line. We do the best we can in trying to put them in as many game-like situations. That’s why Kyle has been phenomenal, just creating situations where those guys have to play a different game rather than the monotony of just practice. We’re trying to do everything we can to make sure that these guys get the best evaluation as possible. To answer your question, not having preseason games is tough for those guys who are trying to show that they’re capable of doing it in the game, that game day environment, but it’s our job as coaches and as an organization to try to create those situations as much as possible.”

The guys who are competing to play opposite of Richard Sherman, CB Emmanuel Moseley and CB Ahkello Witherspoon, what have both of those guys done to improve their game throughout training camp so far?

“Yeah, Ahkello and E-Man. They both picked up where they’ve left off in terms of Ahkello from the first three games of the season, from training and OTAs. I know he came back from his injury and it wasn’t as good as it was before his injury, which he agrees with, but he looks like he did during training camp a year ago. He’s getting better every day. Moseley’s stepped in and he’s picked up where he’s left off. [CB Jason] Verrett looks good, his foot speed and all that stuff is all there. Now, it’s just a matter of getting reps and getting comfortable. [CB Dontae Johnson] D.J. has been competing his butt off, Dontae Johnson. [CB] Tim Harris [Jr.] had a really good play in the red zone today. It’s a group that’s competing and so it’s cool to see them all work and try to bring everything together. Just like the last question, it’s going to be our job to try to find ways to make sure that competition is as fair as possible, where those guys get a chance to showcase all their skills.”

Early in practice, there was a little fracas between DL Javon Kinlaw and the offensive linemen. I know coaches sometimes say they like some of that intensity on the practice field. In other cases, it might be unwarranted. Where do you fall on that particular case?

“I don’t know. I’m going to be honest, I ran to the safeties because there was a call on the next play in the script that had a goofy run fit. I just wanted to make sure that they understood what the run fits were. Those guys always get heated. I don’t look at it any other way than guys competing, as long as they understand and keep your helmet on, don’t take punches to the face. If you guys get into a little shoving match, I don’t read anything into it other than people competing. It’s one thing if it started because of one person being cheap where we’re not taking care of one another on the practice field. It’s another thing where it just gets heated because you’ve been competing your tails off with one another and it just becomes a pushing contest. So, the great thing about this group, and it goes back to Kyle and [general manager] John [Lynch] and their staff, they brought in the right men. You trust that those little scuffles are a product of competition rather than just people being bad individuals, where they’re deliberately trying to hurt people. Hopefully, I’m making sense. So, when our guys scuffle, I really don’t look into it any further than the fact that they’re just competing their butts off and it’s not malicious. They might get into a little shoving match here and there, but I know where their hearts are. I know that when push comes to shove, every single one of those guys have each other’s back.”