“Limited today will be [CB] K’Waun [Williams] with his knee, [S Jaquiski] Tartt with his stinger. Out, [T Joe] Staley with his vet day, and [LB Mark] Nzeocha with his groin.”
I’m curious, with QB Nick Mullens’ performances week over week, how has that affected you as a play-caller? Has it given you a little bit more confidence to throw some more things at him?
“Yeah. You always have an idea of what they can do. But, the more you play with a guy, the more you realize you can take more risks because you know if it’s not the exact look, it’s still not always going to be a bad play. Or, vice versa, sometimes it’s, ‘Hey, I can’t take too many risks because I know if I call it right it’ll be good. But, if I call it wrong, it’s going to be second-and-20.’ So, those are the things you kind of learn how to manage the game within the game.”
Has it opened up more of the playbook for you, though?
“Yeah. Nick’s been real consistent. There’s definitely a number of times I haven’t called a good play and it hasn’t ended up bad. That’s what allows you as a play-caller to be more aggressive. You always want to call the perfect one. Sometimes, you’ve got a smaller chance of getting it, but if the risk isn’t as low, then you feel a lot better doing it more.”
When you’re coaching Nick to go against a defense that disguises coverages as well as Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s does, what’s your approach to that?
“You talk about the coverages all week. But, you also try to put in plays where the coverages don’t totally matter, that you don’t have to read the coverage to know exactly where to go. There’s a progression. You can see it with a clicker in your hand, and you can see it sometimes from the sidelines as a coach where guys are moving. I think it’s a little harder to see it in the pocket when some pretty good pass rushers are going at you. Sometimes when one guy is covered, that tells you what the coverage is without having to see the whole thing. You just try to simplify it that way to where he doesn’t have to decide before the snap.”
Is Vic unique in that sense, the way he disguises coverages as far as coordinators go?
“Vic’s just unique in that everything is tied together. Whatever you think you have on him, it could be good, but they have a counter off of it. It’s very, very similar to our offense. There’s a scheme you’ve got to run to stop a certain play. Whatever scheme you do to stop that play, you opened up another play. That’s really how their defense is. They’re going to have a defense that completely shuts down a play. Then, you’ve got to go to the next play and if you hit them on it, they’re going to adjust something and that play is going to be over very fast. So, you’ve just got to keep playing the game within the game.”
Along those lines, what are the characteristics of a Vic Fangio defense? What do you know you’re going up against?
“It’s very sound. It’s not risky. They play sound, but they keep everything boxed in. They’re very good in their front seven. They have the personnel to do it and the scheme to do it. With their edge setters, they have big guys inside who don’t have to move at all because of how well they set the edge on the outside, which helps your linebackers not have to be in much space. And they play physical. They’ve always had a pass rush. They do different ways of it. They do have some pressures and stuff, but they rarely run pressures that makes their coverages vulnerable.”
They have some continuity at the coordinator position now. Do you see that studying this year versus when you played them last year for example? Do they seem faster, more well-versed in what they’re doing?
“I thought they were very good last year. There weren’t many holes in their defense last year. It was tough to get a big play on them. They had some good players. They’ve always had a good scheme, and then they added an elite player. Their whole defense has played in this scheme another year. They’ve stayed healthy, which makes everyone get better, which I thought they were close to one of the better one’s last year. Then, you add in a guy like [Chicago Bears LB] Khalil [Mack] and the results are pretty predictable.”
Are there similarities between Fangio’s defensive philosophy and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s?
“Yeah, very much so. I think the way they run their coverages and stuff, there’s different foundations and stuff. Their three-deep is different than our three-deep. But, the way I just described Vic, it’s extremely similar. I think Saleh’s worked with him before. They’re very sound. They take calculated risks, but they never do anything stupid.”
Has he specialized certain plays for Khalil to make those plays or is that just Khalil?
“No, that’s just Khalil. I mean, they drop in coverage a lot of the times. He plays their defense, just like the same outside backers did when they were here, just like the guys did last year. Khalil is just as good as anyone to every do it.”
In overtime, when RB Matt Breida had to come out, why did you go back to RB Jeff Wilson Jr.? He’s been putting the ball on the ground a lot. Why have that confidence in him?
“Well, you have three backs up and our third back was mainly for special teams. We would’ve gone with him if Jeff didn’t feel that he could go in. But, Jeff did struggle with those plays. He did come back and make a number of special teams plays during the game, made a big tackle after his fumble. The personal foul that he got was unfortunate. I haven’t seen it, but he was throwing the ball back to the ref and it hit a D-Lineman walking between it. I’m not mad at the ref for it, too. He can’t really tell that. The fumble was huge, especially doing it a few weeks in a row. That’s why he didn’t get many opportunities. But, when Breida came out, Jeff’s the one we talk to throughout the game. It’s someone [running backs coach Robert Turner Jr.] Bobby’s looking at his eyes every single play. You can tell a guy who wants to go back in and a guy who doesn’t want to go back in. Jeff wasn’t trying to hide and just hope to get out of it. He wanted an opportunity and we were confident to give that to him if it presented itself and it did when Breida went out.”
Now, what does he have to do to eliminate these fumbles? Is there a common thread that’s the reason he’s putting the ball on the ground?
“You’ve got to hold on to it. They say there’s six points of pressure. There’s probably 100. You’ve got to get up and hand the ball to the ref at the end of it. He tries to finish runs strong and lower his head and go through people. But, you’ve got to make sure that ball’s covered and doesn’t get loose in any way at all. It did show up in college and it only gets worse in the NFL because everyone tackles. But, almost every time there’s a tackle people are going for the ball and if there’s any space in that at all, which usually happens on contact, it’s coming out.”
What gives you hope or confidence that he’s the kind of player who can fix this issue?
“We’ll see it. I do hope, and I do have confidence that he can because we see him every day. We like the person. He works at it. The game doesn’t seem too big for him. He’s very well-liked around here, not just because he’s a friendly guy, but because people respect how he works and what he does. Jeff’s not going to sit there and make excuses. He knows exactly what he did and how big that could have cost us. He’s going to get another opportunity. I hope he lives up to it.”
You’ve done a lot of your work on offense in that 21-personnel grouping. Is the next step maybe going into next year being able to build out the roster so you can be a little bit more versatile and strong in other personnel groupings as well?
“I wouldn’t say it’s the next step. It’s just what’s your personnel situation. We’ve always used 21 a lot and we always will. We’ve used it more this year than ever. That’s just because it’s our best personnel grouping. You have a fullback out there that can help you manage the game better, always put you in a position where you can run or pass. You try to be 50-50 in those situations and it takes a lot of pressure off the quarterback, which leads to the O-Line and even the receivers. We didn’t go into this year planning, saying, I don’t even know what the percentage is, but I’m just going to say 65, 70. I don’t know. We didn’t plan on it being that much. It’s just how the year plays out.”
Your most productive pass rusher is a defensive tackle. Los Angeles Rams DT Aaron Donald is leading the league at defense tackle. It hasn’t happened in a long time. A couple other guys, interior guys, are pretty close to the top. Do you see anything around the league, generally, that would explain that trend?
“I just think the guys you mentioned are pretty good players. I don’t know if [former NFL DT] Warren Sapp was up there, but I would guess he was. He was pretty hard to block. Going against [former NFL DT] Albert Haynesworth in his MVP years when he was in Tennessee, that was extremely tough. To me, it just makes sense. If you’ve got a real good pass rusher, wouldn’t you want him to be closer to the quarterback than farther away? But, you can’t just put your best pass rushers inside all the time. You’ve got to have some size to you, also, because there’s a lot of different types of runs you’ve got to deal with. But, if you do have the size to handle those runs and you can be a pass rusher like the guys we’ve mentioned, I think it makes more sense to be closer to the quarterback than farther away.”
How disruptive is it if you look at DL DeForest Buckner applying that kind of pressure in the middle, not just individually, but how disruptive is that for an offense?
“Extremely. You can have guys get up the field all day and if there’s nothing in the middle, all the quarterback has to do is step up and just let those guys run around them and have a true pocket. Even if the tackles aren’t truly blocking the guys one-on-one, just stay inside out, run them up the field and tell the quarterback not to get deep. That’s extremely hard when you have guys on the inside. You tell them not to get deep, but guys are in his face so you either run into them or get balls tipped or you back up and that’s when the edge guys get sack fumbles.”
When general manager John Lynch said over the last few months that he thought you were competitive in the trade for Khalil Mack, have you gotten any closer to what the details were, what ultimately swung it for Chicago?
“I think you’d have to ask the Raiders. But, it takes two teams to get it done and we went as hard as we could on it.”
Did you have an idea that there might be an opportunity or two for TE Garrett Celek to make a play given the attention paid to TE George Kittle?
“Yes and no. It’s also their coverages. It wasn’t man coverage or anything, that’s the way they play their three-deep and who the safety is responsible for and things they’re going to carry. They don’t just play cover-three and say, ‘Watch out for Kittle.’ It’s cover-three, it’s three-deep, four-under and they have certain rules. If it’s man and things like that, you have a pretty good idea that if they’re going to choose to double someone, they’re probably going to choose Kittle. That’s when you design things for other people. But, cover-three is a little bit different.”
It seems like DeForest is probably the obvious candidate, but when the Pro Bowl rosters came out yesterday, was there anyone left off the list who kind of surprised you on your team?
“I thought we had a number of guys that I thought had a good chance. The DeForest one shocked me. I thought that was done. So, that was the one I felt for the most. I always get sensitive if I leave someone out. But, I thought [T Joe] Staley had a chance. Definitely thought Buck would make it. I thought [K] Robbie [Gould] had a real good chance. I thought [CB Richard Sherman] Sherm had a good chance. I’m sure I left someone out, but those were the guys.”
WR Dante Pettis doesn’t seem like that much of a burner and he doesn’t look that shifty, but he keeps getting open, keeps making plays. Is there a sense that we couldn’t pick up, as people who haven’t played the game, that you could notice from guys like a Pettis who have kind of broken through lately?
“If you just watch how Pettis moves, I think he has pretty freakish body movement. The way he glides, he almost euro steps as he runs routes and stuff and that’s talent. The obvious talents are the guy who runs 4.2 or the big explosive guy where you have a [Atlanta Falcons WR] Julio [Jones] or, you all can see [WR] Marquise’s [Goodwin] speed. But I mean, you go look at some of the best receivers, it’s not usually always that. Over time, [former NFL WR] Jerry Rice is always the best example. Pettis is pretty unique in how he moves and how coordinated he can control his body in some awkward positions. That’s why I think he’s been such a good punt returner. He’s got the hands too.”
How encouraging is it to see him now kind of find his way on the NFL field leading into next year?
“It’s very encouraging. I’ll definitely make a point that he hasn’t found his way fully yet. He’s still got to keep going. But Pettis, he’s has had the ability to do it since he got here and that’s why we were excited to get him. It always takes time for rookies and my history with receives it’s been huge with receivers. The college game is so different. It’s so hard to find a clip of a college receiver going against man-to-man, unless they play Ohio State. It’s very rare you see bump man or anything so guys aren’t totally there in their routes. They’re not totally used to how you have to beat holding. They expect when they’re held to just stop. You get held in the NFL and you’ve got to be able to beat it regardless. He’s worked through it. He’s shown some real signs of improvement these last few weeks and he’s got two more games to finish strong. He’s going to come back next year better or worse and it better be better.”
How would you assess T Mike McGlinchey at this point?
“McGlinchey has been great all year. Just the pressure that was put on him in the first day to come in, replace [New England Patriots T] Trent [Brown] and take over that spot. He showed it wasn’t too big for him the first day of OTAs and he’s continued throughout the year. He definitely has plays that aren’t perfect, like all O-Linemen do. But, like I said before, McGlinchey plays within the game very well. He’s always up for the challenge of whoever he’s going against. He’s very prepared. If he gets beat by somebody, he doesn’t panic and overcompensate. He thinks of why he did and he usually gets better as he struggles in a game. So, that’s what a true O-Lineman is like and the type that usually, as long as they stay healthy, they get better as their career goes.”
He said the Chargers game was his kind of wake-up moment with Los Angeles Chargers DE Melvin Ingram. Did you see kind of a turning point there for him after that?
“Yeah, I think we had a number of guys get banged up in that game which was a huge challenge for him. Then going against, I want to say at the time was probably the best rusher he had gone against. I know the guys the week before in Kansas City were pretty good too. I thought he felt Melvin’s talent and had to adjust through the game where you feel how talented people are like that early on. Some guys, the first time they see that, they’re like, ‘Holy crap, I’m not ready for this, I’ve got to get out of here and find another time to do this or I’m going to get embarrassed.’ That never enters McGlinchey’s mind. He thinks about what just happened, tries to get through it and I think him getting through that game and being able to make it through an injury and playing against a good player, that always gives guys confidence.”
Is wide receiver, like what you were saying about Pettis, is that the most difficult to project from college to pro or is there a certain position, in your experience, that’s the toughest?
“Quarterback is always the hardest just because there is so much more that goes into it than just how they throw. So, you’ve got to see how they play within their scheme and stuff. So many schemes are different. Wideouts definitely can be hard if you just turn on a college tape and watch it. The odds are, everyone will tell you how many catches they have and how many yards they have and you’re going to watch 90 catches and you’re going to watch 80 bubbles. That’s not going to tell you anything about the guy except that he’s not scared when he runs with the ball in his hands. So, you don’t really know about his route-running abilities and so you’ve got to take everything into play with receiver. Sometimes you look at the Combine and it’s the first time you see him run routes on air. They haven’t been working on it very much so you’ve got to take that into account that they might not be a finished product. You go work them out. It’s awesome when they go to bowl games because that’s where they get one-on-one tapes, but very few of them do. So, you’ve got to dig and find everything. But, that’s always what the risk is. Sometimes you can’t see it on the routes. Sometimes you’ve got to watch a guy like Pettis on a punt return and be like, ‘He doesn’t do this move on any of his routes, but look what he does when a guy’s right in front of him and he has the ball in his hand and he can double a guy up and make him miss and that’s exactly what he should do on his routes.’ So, you know his body is capable of doing it. Can you coach him? Will it transfer over? Then you look at all of the other stuff, coachability, test scores, how great they want to be.”
His movement is so unique, like you were saying. Why did you think it would transfer well?
“Because that type of movement is just hard to cover. So, then you go to, are they fast enough? Pettis is fast enough. He’s not the fastest guy on our team, but he’s definitely not slow either. That’s why he’s got the capability, I think, to play all three positions. Then if they do have that, they should be able to separate. Do they have the hands to consistently catch it? If they do, alright, are they fearless? Are they going to drop it every time they go over the middle? I know Pettis has had a couple of those, but he’s also shown to us that he can be tough too. He’ll go in there and crack on guys. He doesn’t just turn stuff down. He can get more consistent on that, but he’s shown he has all of the tools to be a very good receiver. We’ll see how high that ceiling goes to.”