Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh
Has LB Reuben Foster just kind of picked up where he left off as far as the last time you saw him on the practice field?
“He’s got fresh legs. He looks fast. So, we’re excited to have him back. Love his energy.”
What were you guys able to do with him? Was he staying on it mentally through the time he was away?
“Whatever the NFL allowed us to. I know he wasn’t allowed at practice. To be honest with you, personally, with the linebackers coach we were so consumed with trying to make sure that we had the rest of the group ready to play. To be honest with you, he was here in the building doing his conditioning and whatever he was allowed to do, but as far as football-stuff there wasn’t as much interaction.”
He was able to go to meetings.
“Yeah, he went to meetings and all that stuff. We weren’t allowed the one-on-one stuff.”
You’ve talked about the missed tackles and what you do in practice fundamentally. But, how much have you emphasized taking correct angles and not just the physical act of tackling, but the mental side of it?
“The number one key, the first step we teach in our tackling technique is angles, tracking the narrow hip, eliminating the cutback lane. So, tracking, that’s our term for it, is by far the number one aspect of tackling. If you do not take good tracking angles, you cannot be violent when you arrive. So, everything starts with tracking, taking correct angles. Then, from there at contact it’s wrap, squeeze and drive your legs for five. There’s stuff that is showing up on tape that we’re going to continue to work through with drills, especially today since we’re padded. But, it’s got to get better.”
Is Reuben, in terms of tracking and those angles, is he probably your best defender when it comes to that?
“I’d say [DB Adrian Colbert] AC would probably be one of our best tracking players out of the middle of the field. But, Rueben is very good. That’s one of AC’s greatest strengths, is his ability to track out of the middle of the field.”
Is that something that we should expect and fans, that--?
“Absolutely, absolutely. We get paid a lot of money to be good fundamental football players. So, absolutely.”
I was going to say that in the beginning of the season, that tackling might not be as good as it towards the end because you’re not doing a lot of it in the preseason.
“No. We rep it, we drill it. Even without pads, all of the tracking angles, because that’s the number one emphasis, when you don’t have pads, the only thing you can do is work on your tracking angles. There is no leeway on that one. There’s no excuse and there’s no exception. We’ve got to be better and be better at tackling.”
How has CB Ahkello Witherspoon responded this week in practice?
“Ahkello came out strong mentally, like he always does. I’m excited to see him work throughout the rest of the week for sure.”
When a guy has a tough game, do you pull him aside? It obviously wasn’t the game he wanted. Do you just expect him to know that he’ll be able to respond? How do you handle that approach?
“There’s a lot of young guys on this defense, so there’s going to be peaks and valleys with all of them. With a guy like Ahkello, obviously, they’re going to face adversity. How they bounce back from diversity will define them for the rest of their future or career. So, you do talk to them. I don’t want to say it’s expected, but at the same time it’s being able to push, especially at the corner position. You’ve got to let the last play go. You’ve got to move on to the next one, and I think Ahkello is really good at that. He’s got a strong mind. He’s ready to work. He’s built the right way.”
If he is healthy enough, will he start on Sunday?
“We’ll see as the week goes on. Healthy enough? I don’t know. It depends on how healthy and all that stuff. There’s a lot of work to go through for the rest of this week to see where he’s at before I can even guess on that question.”
Have you considered rolling Colbert over to his side and give him a little help or is that a combination you don’t want to make?
“That’s always tough, just because of the way the structure of our defense works. There’s other ways we can help corners, along with the middle-third safety. Anytime you have to overcompensate, you’re opening up another hole, especially in zone defense. Ahkello has been rock solid for the most part. It wasn’t his best game. But, he’s not a guy I worry about. I don’t think any of us worry about out on the edge, to be honest with you. He’s got to get back to his fundamentals and continue to work and understand exactly the way teams are attacking him. He’s just got to continue to get better, but there are ways to help a corner not just with the free safety.”
I won’t expect you to tell us who would be starting, but if S Jaquiski Tartt can’t go, how do you make that determination? How much of that is matchup based, based on what the Chiefs are able to do?
“Again, there’s [DB Antone] Exum [Jr.] getting his reps. Of course, [DB] Tyvis [Powell] getting his reps. [DB] D.J. Reed [Jr.] can also get reps in there. Again, that’s another area we’re working through to make sure we can put the best player forward. So, there’s three guys working in that spot while JT is not practicing.”
Do you have a sense of what his availability could be this week in practice?
And DB Jimmie Ward stays at corner?
Did you say Tyvis was getting reps?
“Yeah. There’s only so many people on the football team. So, to make sure we get 11 people. You’ve got your different players getting reps.”
CB Richard Sherman said postgame that you called a great game. What goes into calling plays from a defensive standpoint? It’s easy to see if an offensive play-caller is rolling and really has things going. But, for you, when do you know that you are kind of in a rhythm and have your finger on the pulse of a game?
“You’re hitting on run, pass. You’re in a run coverage or run fronts, when it’s run and you’re in pass coverage or pass-run when it’s a pass. Just the overall hitting pressures when you want to hit pressures. That’s basically it from a defensive coordinator’s standpoint. I wish I could’ve had a couple plays back, I’m not going to lie to you. So, I appreciate what Sherm said. But, I always look to myself, too.”
With that, how much is the risk if you guess wrong, is the scheme good enough to where you can overcome that if it’s a run front, but it’s a pass play?
“Every scheme in the NFL, you’re never going to be perfect, especially on defense. You rely on fundamentals and technique, being disciplined with your eyes, being disciplined in your area of the field if you’re a zone defender, being disciplined as a man defender. But, you’re never, never even close to 100-percent from a defensive standpoint. But, you rely on the fundamental teachings that you have and guys knowing exactly what you need to get done. To be honest with you guys, in our scheme as a coach, if there’s guys running around open and nobody knows who that play belongs to, that to me is the worst thing you can do as a football coach to a player, to leave them out there without understanding exactly what they’re supposed to do. When you’ve got guys flying around wide open, obviously there’s a miscommunication somewhere and that’s the biggest onus we take as coaches.”
Sherm said that as players, they have to do their jobs. What’s the hardest part that goes into that? Is it processing information, is it diagnosing what you’re seeing in front of you? What gets in the way of doing your job?
“Trust. Feeling like you need to do more to compensate for something else. If everyone just does their job and does it the best way that they know how, you trust that that man next to you is doing the same, things will just naturally fall into place. There’s a lot of things that have to happen to break down on defense for a really bad play to happen. Usually when you go back and look at the tape, it was either poor footwork, misalignment, poor eyes. It was something fundamentally, especially in our scheme. Very, very rarely is it because someone flat out busted. It’s always going to go back to technique and discipline.”
What’s the toughest thing about facing Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid for you as a defensive coordinator?
“They do a lot of stuff. They mess with your eyes. They’ve got a lot of different jet sweeps and movement. They’ve got a very good vertical pass game. They’ve got a good run game. So, you never know what they’re going to do when they break the huddle and you’ve got to be ready, basically ready for everything. So, your rule has got to be sound. It’s got to be simple for the players. They’ve got to be able to go as fast as possible. The great thing about our scheme is that we feel that we’ll be ready for everything that they could throw at us and it’s just a matter of lining up and going out and playing.”
How much of what they’ve done these first few weeks is different than what they did last year with Washington Redskins QB Alex Smith at quarterback?
“You know, they’re always going to have wrinkles. That’s the other part with coach Reid, he’s going to have tons of wrinkles in his style. They’re always going to have something new. They’re always going to have formations that play off of each other. As a football player and as a coach, you’ve got to be aware of what you’re putting on tape and what he can expose you at. So, I don’t know if it’s much different or a continuation. They’ve got little wrinkles through their scheme that make them very difficult.”
A few of the Steelers players commented that maybe they underestimated Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes as far as his mental ability given his inexperience. Are there things where that shines on tape as far as him being able to process?
“He looks fantastic. He looks really good. He’s got a hose for an arm. There’s a play in preseason where I think he threw it like 75-yards to [Kansas City Chiefs WR] Tyreek [Hill] against, I think, Atlanta. If he can stay alive in the pocket, every ball on the football field is live and every receiver is still live no matter how far the receiver is downfield. But, his ability to process coverage and go through his progressions and make throws has been impressive. So, he’s not being underestimated. I know [head coach] coach [Kyle] Shanahan was very, very high on him coming out in the draft process. So, there’s a tremendous respect for him in this building, for sure.”
With what you know about LB Fred Warner and what you’ve seen from him and combined with what you know about Reuben Foster, how do they complement each other if they were to be on the field together at some point?
“Between Fred, [LB] Malcolm [Smith], Reuben, they all possess great speed. They all possess the ability to communicate and they are very smart, they’re very instinctual. So, with all three of those guys, you’ve got a really good combination of speed, instincts and communication. That’s all you really could ask for out of that linebacker spot, not to mention their physicality. It’s a good problem to have. We’ve got three really good ones, along with [LB] Elijah Lee who had a really good game last week and [LB] Mark Nzeocha had a good game. He’s been very good. We’ve got good depth right now with those guys coming back at that linebacker spot.”
Would you like to see Foster, Warner and Smith on the field together at some point?
“We’ll see. That all depends. It’s the same thing, we’re going to dress our best 11 however it fits out. So, it could be whatever. Saying Malcolm is going to be the SAM is not as easy because the SAM is totally different than the MIKE and the WILL and that’s hard. So, we’re going to evaluate everything we can to see how we can get our best 11 on the field and see how it plays out.”
Has he played that position before?
“A long time ago.”
There was a play that Kyle was asked about where Elijah was covering Detroit Lions WR Marvin Jones deep and Kyle said he was explaining about hook routes, which I know all about, that that wasn’t a bust, that it’s just a part of the defense. Can you explain why that is because to the casual fan, that looks like a mismatch?
“So, it could happen. With our scheme, it’s very clear on tape for the league so I’m not keeping a secret here. In our scheme, sometimes a linebacker can get matched up on a wide receiver on that deep over route. That’s very well known within our scheme. We do things to try to minimize the amount of times that that could happen, but at the same time, that’s why you have guys who can run like Reuben, like Malcolm, like Fred and Elijah for that matter. Elijah actually had a misstep on that one. That’s why it looked like he was trailing by so much. But, you guys have seen it throughout the preseason where Reuben made that dive and play on [Dallas Cowboys WR] Tavon Austin in the preseason against Dallas. That’s his man. Even though it was a great play, my argument was that he was completely late on his read and that’s why he made a spectacular play when it was actually a poor play. Later on in preseason, he gets them all the time and he gloves it up like it’s nothing so no one really sees it. The only time it’s ever really seen is when it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, that could have been a touchdown’ or, ‘Oh my gosh, what a great play.’ But, about 10 times a game, they’re matched up that way and once every four games, you’ll see it and be like, ‘Oh, that’s a mismatch,’ because it looked funny. But, it happens all the time in the game but for the most part it goes away from the naked eye because nine out of 10 times, it’s really not a problem.”