San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh discussed Dee Ford, not having fans, the cornerback competition, depth on defense, and much more.
The last five games of the regular season last year, the defensive production dropped off quite a bit. Obviously, you set a pretty decent standard in the first 11 games. I know there’s a lot that went into it, I was just wondering how much do you point to DL Dee Ford’s absence as being, I guess, perhaps the most significant reason for what happened there?
“Dee Ford is a big piece of the puzzle. His speed has got to be accounted for when he’s out there. It just kind of opens it up for everybody else on that front and by opening it up, it just stretches the offensive line and the way they’ve got to protect. The attention that he gets, that they’ve got to pay attention to with regards to chipping and the different things they’ve got to do, just frees up everybody. Yeah, he is a big piece of the puzzle and there was a lot of things, [DL] Ronnie Blair [III] was out, [DL] D.J. Jones. [DL] Julian Taylor was out. So, there was just a lot of attrition happening on that defensive line as we got to the last half of the year, but we’ve still got to go out and execute. We’ve still got to perform at the standard that we’ve kind of created here. To answer your question, Dee is a big piece of the puzzle.”
A lot of your guys have talked about, with the probability of not having fans in the stands and things like that, just making sure that they keep their energy levels up. I know that’s something you’ve always kind of emphasized and it doesn’t seem like it’s been much of a problem, but what is your confidence level and how much do you kind of maybe reemphasize that going into a real unique year like this?
“I kind of equate it to, and who knows what it’s going to be like, it’s a first time for all of us, but when you go on the road or you’re at home and a visiting team comes to practice against you, the intensity level of those practices are every bit of game-like except you don’t tackle. I feel like it’s going to have that same game-type intensity. These guys are going to come out there, they’re going to play and not having fans, it is a thing, obviously, but as far as intensity goes, I think our guys are going to go out there. They recognize that it’s a game and the intensity level and the challenge of going against another person other than your own teammates, it just elevates everybody in the building. So, like I said, it’s going to be new for everyone, but the closest thing I can compare it to is going to practice against another team and that intensity that you feel during those practices are every bit of game-like.”
Wondering two things: one, have you been able to kind of keep in constant communication with LB Fred Warner? Then the other is, just in terms of a right cornerback, whether you’ve settled on CB Emmanuel Moseley or CB Ahkello Witherspoon or even CB Jason Verrett as a starter?
“First off with Fred, we’ve been checking on him every day. Obviously, the performance staff has been checking on him and he’s going through his stuff. But, as far as the corner spot, [head coach] Kyle [Shanahan], obviously, he’s heavily involved. We’re evaluating it every day and when coach Shanahan is ready to pull the trigger, he’ll pull the trigger. As of now, it’s still a work in progress.”
Sort of on the same subject, what strides have you seen LB Azeez Al-Shaair make this season and are you noticing a significant difference in him physically now that he’s a little bit further removed from that knee injury? Second question, is your arm a little bit sore from taking over for Kyle in that coverage drill you did at the beginning of practice?
“My arm’s always sore. I don’t know how he throws the football so much. Azeez looks good. He’s in his second year in the system. Physically, he looks good. He’s got more control of the huddle. He’s much cleaner with his check. So, it’s just a matter of continuing to build trust and not necessarily with the coaches, but with his teammates, to know that he’s going to put them in the right position and get them lined up as quickly as possible so they can play as fast as possible. We like the direction Azeez is going in and he’s just got to continue stack up great days. He’s been doing a good job.”
DL Arik Armstead, obviously, he had a big breakthrough season last year for you guys. What are the areas that he’s looking to build on and how have you seen him just in camp, sort of building on the improvement that you want to see?
“Arik, he’s, not to put down D-Linemen because they are smart, but he’s incredibly, incredibly intelligent. He comes to me all the time with thoughts on how to kind of evolve the position and make it even better. One thing that he is, is a very violent, powerful human being out on the edge who has the ability to play with finesse if he needs to. So, he’s getting better every day just by getting reps, but we love having him here and he’s a very dominant person and he completely shuts off that side of the football field in terms of running the ball. For him, the leadership role, trying to step up and be more of that voice and continue to lead by the example that he set. We’re very happy with Arik and where he’s at right now. It’s just a matter of getting him ready for Week One to go be himself.”
I know you’re not going to talk about exactly how you plan to use everybody during the season, but with D.J. Jones, he’s obviously looked like he’s added more of a pass rushing element than he might’ve had last year. Do you anticipate that you could potentially get him off of just mostly being a first and second down guy and potentially mix him in on third down snaps?
“You never know. With the way we train those D-Linemen, I’ve said it up here before, it’s like four quarters on the dollar. You send four guys out there, they’ve got to go be able to play end, three technique, nose, a big end. It doesn’t matter. D.J., he still looks explosive. He’s understanding how to create leverage in pass rush, and all that stuff. So, for him, it’s cool because he’s not a one-dimensional football player anymore. He does have versatility to him. For the organization, that’s cool because you’ve got an extra person to be able to send out there on third down so we can have waves of personnel coming at offensive lines on game day. That’s always been the philosophy. We’re trying to roll them all in constantly, but yeah, to eliminate him from a role on third down would be silly.”
One more defensive line question. DL Kerry Hyder Jr. is a guy that you were very complimentary of, comparing him in a good way to Ronald Blair a couple of weeks ago. One other thing I’ve read and heard about him is he’s really tough. I’m wondering how you’ve seen that toughness embodied and do you see that being able to carry over to some of the other younger defensive linemen on the team this year?
“Yeah, Kerry is mentally, physically, all of it, just like Ronnie. When I say they’re very similar, they are relentless in pursuit, they’re relentless in effort, their strain is relentless. They’re just relentless human beings in terms of physical habits, study habits, play demeanor. Any time, I don’t care who you are, if you are a person who strains, especially on the D-Line and runs to the ball and strains and just does things the right way, and you play with the violence that he plays with, it just shows up on tape. If you’re any kind of a person watching football and you see that happening, you can’t help but gravitate to that because that’s what it’s supposed to look like. He doesn’t talk very much, but the example he sets out there has been phenomenal. We’re very happy he’s here.”
Another question about Dee Ford. Obviously, since he arrived, no fault of his own, but he just hasn’t been healthy between the knee and hamstring and now the calf. Is there a level of optimism he could be a 500, 600 snap guy? Do you think that maybe he has to be in more of a situational role, more like last year?
“There is optimism. That was the goal last year and it’s the same thing this year. To get him out there. When he’s out there, he is an asset to this football team and when he’s out, he’s a problem for all offenses. So, absolutely, we want to get him out there as much as possible and have guys rolling again in waves with that defensive line. Yeah, I believe he’s got it in him. He looks good. He looks like he’s getting closer and ready to go. To answer your question, absolutely. It’s always the goal to see if we can get our best players as many snaps as possible.”
There has been a cycle of wide receivers kind of going through, having placed another on injured reserve today. When you see them going against your defensive backs, do you see that it takes them a little while to kind of get involved, get on the right foot with this offense, or are they pretty quickly adapting to what Kyle asks of them?
“Are you talking about the wide receivers?”
Yeah, because your defensive backs face them, do you see that the learning curve is steeper or kind of more gradual?
“That one would be more of a question for the offensive guys. I believe our offensive coaches are phenomenal in the way they teach and they get guys going out there running a hundred miles an hour. To the naked eye, you wouldn’t be able to tell a difference one way or the other, but that would be more of a question for Kyle and his staff.”
I can’t remember if we’ve talked to you about this, but what was your initial reaction when you found out the Arizona Cardinals got WR DeAndre Hopkins and that’s going to be your Week One opponent?
“We we’re blessed to be able to play Hop when we were in Jacksonville. He’s an alpha dog. Phenomenal wide receiver, very, very physical. It’s fun, you get the most physical receiver in the game in Week One, and it’s going to be a tremendous challenge. I’m sure that they’re excited and they’ve got a million ways that they can already use him. We’ve just got to play our game and do the best we can.”
Given that training camp was sort of truncated this year, did you feel like you got enough practice time for yourself? I don’t know if you want to speak for the other coaches, but was there enough practice time for you guys to feel comfortable of your evaluations, of everything, solving all the questions that you had going into the season?
“I’ll just speak for myself. Even in a normal training camp, you never feel like you have enough time. You always want more. You want more time. You want more practice time. You want more reps. You just want more time. So, it wouldn’t matter one way or the other. I think Kyle has done a phenomenal job with scheduling, on getting together with the rest of the staff and how we needed to prepare these guys to be able to give them the evaluation that they deserve. We’re very confident with what we’ve been able to accomplish. Kyle has been absolutely fantastic through the whole thing. We’ve just to trust what we’ve been able to do over the past month and roll with it. Yeah, it doesn’t matter. Short, long, Thursday Night Football, Monday Night Football, it doesn’t matter. You always wish you had more time to prepare and evaluate.”