Robert Saleh Breaks Down the Strong Play of the 49ers Defensive Line

Saleh reviewed the play of DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas and spoke about the defense's tough luck.

How would you rate DL Solomon Thomas’ last game?

“I thought he did a good job. I don’t want to say he’s starting to figure it out, it’s just the natural progression. He’s been getting some good amount of reps and trying to find his way through and try to find his niche. I think he’s been doing a good job. Sunday’s game, he made some impact plays that didn’t land on the stat sheet, but he had a presence.”

Is he somebody that does benefit from a lot of reps, just getting used to playing?

“I think they all do. They really do. When you’re talking about young guys coming into the league and just the different things that they’ve seen, what they’ve been exposed to, there is a progression that they go through. They all need reps. I don’t think it’s a surprise that [DL] Arik Armstead’s probably having his best year. It just takes time. Love the direction he’s going.”

In your time with DL DeForest Buckner, what have you seen from him that has allowed you to maybe alter or adjust scheme to allow him to be so successful at getting to the quarterback?

“Buck, we talked about it last year, Buck had so many pressures on the quarterback and so many QB knockdowns. But, the number of sacks wasn’t matching up. We talked about him needing to find that extra half-a-step. That was what he was missing. He’s done a really good job working on it this offseason and just working on his ability to close on quarterbacks once he wins his one-on-one, disengaging and getting off blockers. He’s really taken it to heart and he’s found that step. He’s still got a couple more, and he’s left a couple out there, too. He’ll even tell you that. He could very easily be around 15 if everything went his way.”

What will be some of his challenges to get to Chicago Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky?

“They do a really good job protecting the quarterback. They get the ball out quick. Again, it comes down to winning your one-on-ones. Trubisky is very good. He’s like a young [Seattle Seahawks QB] Russell Wilson back when Russell first came out, where he just runs and he’s got tremendous speed. I mean, Russell still runs. It’s another challenge to try to make sure that we’re great with rush lane discipline and keeping him in the pocket so we can get him down if the coverage can hold up.”

What improvements have you seen from him from last year to this year, Trubisky?

“He looks decisive. He’s making plays with his feet, I feel like, more than he did a year ago. Shoot, he’s not afraid of taking shots down the field. Obviously, the scheme allows him to locate a lot of one-on-ones so he can take advantage of those. So, he’s doing a really good job within the scheme, moving the chains and getting points.”

What have your impressions been of LB Elijah Lee these last couple weeks?

“Elijah is a very steady football player. He’s very smart, knows where to be, knows where to go. The cool thing about Elijah is when he’s been in those positions, he’s been able to make plays. I like where he’s going, too. He’s a very steadying force in there, you know.”

He visited here I think before last year’s draft. Did you get a chance to meet with him and form an impression then?

“Yeah. He was a guy that we were interested in. We actually tried to get him one time before we actually got him. We were trying to get him over to the practice squad initially and then injuries happened early in the year and it allowed us to get him on our active. So, he was someone that we were trying to get all the way through, even after the draft. He made a good first impression.”

What did you like about him as a player?

“His demeanor, his speed, his versatility. The fact that he was raw and he hadn’t played a lot of linebacker, and the fact that he put on good tape as a linebacker. We knew that he had a lot to learn, but could. From the day he got here, from first day of practice all the way until now, he’s just done nothing but get better. He’s actually one of our better zone defenders in terms of drops and demeanor, feet in the ground with vision on the quarterback. He’s coming along. Excited to see. He hasn’t reached his ceiling yet. So, I’m excited to see where that goes.”

It feels like there’s some of Solomon Thomas where he’s got that DeForest Buckner syndrome last year, where it feels like there’s so many plays where he’s close. You’ve seen that the last couple of weeks where he almost looks right there getting the sack. Do you just tell him to keep working, it’ll come? Are there technique things that you see like, ‘You’re right there, if you switch this then you’re good and you’ll make that play?’

“For sure. [Defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina] Z and [pass rush specialist Chris Kiffin] Kiff do a great job in terms of, there’s a part of transition to Solly because he doesn’t have a problem capturing edges. He does. He can win on the edge. It’s when he wins on that edge, his ability to drive through and capture that edge and finish on the quarterback. That’s a part he’s working through. He’s left a couple sacks out there. Over the past three or four games, he’s had some presence out there that’s not going to show up on the stat sheet. But, he is moving in the right direction. It’s the same thing. You’ve got to keep coaching him. He’s got to keep seeing different looks, different linemen, different sets. He’ll get better. He’ll continue to get better as he continues to get reps.”

Is inside going to be his home now? Have you kind of settled on this is where he’s going to live?

“He still gets outside. I think last week he had, I’m blurring to be honest with you, it was around 50 snaps. I want to say it was split inside and outside. So, it’s still the same thing. Trying to utilize him to spell Buck every once in a while. Run downs, there’s only one three-technique. That’s Buckner. So, to try to utilize that, along with our pass downs to make sure we get two three-techniques out there. It’s a balancing act. It’s no different than what the plan has always been. It’s just a matter of trying to find even more opportunities somehow, someway.”

What do you make of the fact that Chicago, I think, is 22nd in yards but 10th in scoring? That’s kind of a weird combination.

“Shoot, one game I think against Buffalo, they had 40 points and 195 yards. The game was over at halftime. They don’t need to put yards up anymore. They’re very efficient. They score points. They’re very good in the red zone. They protect the quarterback really well. They get very exotic in critical situations. They play good complementary football with their defense. I don’t think yardage really tells the story of what they’re capable of offensively.”

There’s a line of thinking that turnovers, year to year, can vary drastically. Does that give you confidence that maybe next year you could get some progression and things can go your way and you could force more turnovers?

“There’s no doubt. I’ve never seen it like this before in my life, where the ball just sits on the ground and the bounces that other teams have gotten, the drops. I’m baffled, I’ll be honest with you. It can flip in a hurry. I look at Chicago from ’16 and ’17, they had I think it was 24 interceptions combined. This year, they have 28, 27, something like that, whatever they have. They come in bunches. It’s all rush coverage, everything tying together. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be in the middle of the pack with all the opportunities that we have had. For one reason or another, I swear I’ve never seen this, or more snake-bitten. I should probably go to church a little more.”

Is opportunities a stat that you guys track league-wide? Do you see turnover opportunities?

“Missed opps and all that, absolutely, yeah. We’ve had a lot of them.”

Where do you guys rank in terms of opportunities versus missed opportunities?

“You know what, that part I don’t know compared to the league. I just know what we have had. If you just take half of our missed opps, we’d be somewhere in the middle of the pack. I’ve never seen it as snake-bit as we’ve been this year.”

I know you haven’t studied the Bears defense, but you’re familiar with Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. You’ve worked with him, and in the same coordinator fraternity. From one coordinator to another, what do you admire about the way he does his job? What are the hallmarks of a Vic Fangio defense?

“Vic, he’s very meticulous. This was a long time ago, now. So, I’m trying to recall as his quality control. But, he is very detailed. He’s very meticulous. He’s got a great understanding for numbers in terms of what offenses are trying to do to them and all that. But, as far as from a philosophy standpoint, we share the same philosophy in regard to do not give up explosives. Do not put the players in a position where they don’t know what they’re doing. Let them go play hard. Let them go play fast. So, it’s predicated on being sound and making sure that you keep everything in front and offenses cannot go 10 plays consistently. When you mix that type of mindset with what he has right now, you end up with a defense that just destroys people. Right now, everything is hitting on all cylinders for them. So, it’s good. I’m glad he’s having some success.”

CB Richard Sherman mentioned on Sunday after the game that you guys showed them a highlight tape of the Seahawks making big plays after big plays. What was the inspiration behind that? Do you feel like guys responded, didn’t enjoy watching that?

“It was the game in Seattle. It was embarrassing for everybody because that’s not who we are. We were two weeks removed, we were all feeling really good about that Denver game. It was just something that I felt like we needed to be reminded Saturday night of what that felt like, and to make sure that that did not happen again. Complacency leads to failure. I wanted us to go in knowing exactly what that felt like so it wouldn’t happen again.”

Did you get a sense that it resonated?

“I think they were ready no matter what. I’m not going to put too much stock in the video. I think they were ready to roll. I think they all felt it and knew what they needed to do to get it done on Sunday.”

With S Marcell Harris having missed his senior year with an injury, what kind of things did you like about him coming out of college that maybe offset not having the whole body of work of his to see?

“We mentioned it last week. It’s his violence, the speed at which he played. We felt like he was a very instinctive, short tackler. He had no hesitation in his game. All of that stuff is showing up. He’s still trying to get healthy and trying to get familiar. If you think about it, it’s like his fourth preseason game that’s coming up. He hasn’t had that opportunity to play. So, we’re excited to have him and we’re excited to continue to try to develop him.”

Regarding Elijah Lee, it looks like you’re going to try to find the person next to LB Fred Warner for next year. Has he done enough to think about him to at least be in the competition to be a starter there?

“For sure. Elijah has done enough. [DB] D.J. Reed [Jr.] at nickel has done enough to talk about competition. Same thing with Marcell at strong safety. All of these young guys that have stepped up over these last four games have done enough to make sure that they’re part of the conversation where it’s not ones and twos in terms of reps. Come OTAs, it’s 1A, 1B and go sort it out.”

Has Fred become a leader of this defense as the year has gone on? If so, what’s his leadership style?

“I believe the strongest form of leadership is servant leadership. I think everybody in the world can be a leader, so long as you serve the person next to you and your objective is to help the person next to you get better. With that said with regards to Fred, I think he’s been leading all year and his style of leadership has been the fact that he’s helping 10 other guys be confident in what they have to do. So, he’s helping them in that regard. In terms of vocally and holding people accountable and being one of the guys that calls people out, I don’t know if that part is there yet. That will come as he continues to gain more experience. But, he has been a tremendous servant leader in the sense that he’s been owning his job, taking care of his job and helping 10 other people get ready. So that, in a way, has made him a leader.”

What did you think of DB Tarvarius Moore last week and what are some of the things that you’re stressing to him right now?

“Same thing as all of those other young guys. I think we had five rookies out there at one point against Seattle. But, he’s got to get his reps and continue to get better. It’s all new to him. There are things that happened to him that are just ‘ah-hah’ moments and that’s what we’re going to have. Especially over the next few weeks, you just hope those ‘ah-hah’ moments don’t get him caught. Last week there were a couple that went unnoticed to the naked eye but could have been really, really bad. So, I love his demeanor, I love his physicality, I love his mindset. So again, he’s got to continue to learn how to play corner, which he has. He’s come a very, very long way. These two games will, hopefully, solidify that for him.”

You have quite a young defense. I understand Warner is a rookie, but has he had sort of a veteran’s impact just in terms of his maturity and professionalism?

“Yeah, for sure. We could ask him to do things that you’d never ask a rookie to do. Every week we add a little something onto his plate just with checks and all of that stuff. I said it before, [former NFL LB] Paul Posluszny is probably the smartest linebacker I’ve ever had the privilege to coach and he would have the whole playbook on his back. Fred doesn’t have that, but he’s very capable. Obviously, we won’t do that to a rookie, but that veteran presence, he speaks like he’s a veteran. He’s been good.”

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