Robert Saleh outlines 49ers' defensive blueprint

Robert Saleh outlines 49ers' defensive blueprint

SANTA CLARA -- First-time defensive coordinator Robert Saleh inherited the worst – by far – run defense in the NFL.

The 49ers last season surrendered 165.9 yards rushing per game, including 4.8 yards per carry, and 25 touchdowns to rank last in the league in each of those categories. The 49ers finished 2-14. Coach Chip Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke were fired. Kyle Shanahan was hired.

After being unable to hire Gus Bradley or Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator, Shanahan filled the position with the hiring of Saleh, who previously worked as an assistant with Houston, Seattle and Jacksonville.

So it was not difficult for Saleh to find a reasonable starting point for what he wants to establish with the 49ers’ defense in 2017.

“Stopping the run is our No. 1 priority,” Saleh said Monday, on the first day of the 49ers’ offseason program. “The way we align, our demeanor, the responsibility of the defensive players. . . We will stop the run on this defense.”

General manager John Lynch has spoken often in his first two months on the job about deploying an attacking style of defense. Defensive lineman DeForest Buckner spoke about playing more aggressively – unlike the read-and-react style of last season.

“All gas, no brakes,” Buckner said.

Saleh, speaking publicly for the first time since joining the 49ers, described the demeanor he wants from his players as “extreme physicality.”

Saleh spoke about the design of his defense, as well as which players fit in the different spots:

--“We are a single-high (safety) defense," Saleh said. "The system you could say, it originated in Seattle. I was there from the get-go. Three teams currently, Seattle, Atlanta, Jacksonville, if you’re looking at tape, all of them have their nuances and how they operate. I don’t want to say it will be a very different scheme, but there are going to be differences and there will be nuances within this scheme that makes it unique to us.”

--Saleh agreed with the observation that the 49ers will run a 4-3 base defense using what amounts to 3-4 personnel. He emphasized that the strong-side linebacker (Sam) will be more of a pass-rusher because of the high volume of snaps that teams now play with five defensive backs in passing situations.

“It’s almost 70-percent nickel, and the nickel who doesn’t get talked about as a starter, he’s starting to come up as an individual piece to the puzzle,” Saleh said. “So when looking at the Sam linebacker and what they’re asked to do on a day-to-day basis, 70-percent of the game their hand will be in the ground.

“So we’re looking for more of an edge rusher as opposed to what it was in years past with a brut Sam linebacker, a Bill Romanowski-type. We’re trying to move forward from that.”

--The best fits for the Sam linebacker on the 49ers’ current roster are Ahmad Brooks, Eli Harold and Dekoda Watson, Saleh said.

The Sam is similar to the “Leo” position, which is similar to the “elephant” position that George Seifert implemented in the 1980s and ‘90s with the 49ers.

Saleh said Aaron Lynch is a Leo type. And Arik Armstead could find a role for himself in a Sam/Leo role, too. Said Saleh, “Even Arik, he’s not a prototype, but he’s capable just from his flexibility.”

--When asked what kind of player he is looking for in the Leo role, Saleh ticked off some names of players who have fit in that role – or players in other systems who have the attributes he desires:

“Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril, Yannick Ngakoue, Dante Fowler, Vic Beasley. People outside of the system, you’d look at Von Miller, Khalil Mack. Back in his heyday, Charles Haley would have been a guy that would have been a Leo.”

--Saleh said there is no difference between the Mike (middle) linebacker and Will (weak side). Whichever player is best at communicating with the other members of the defense will be designated the Mike.

“Yeah, the Mike-Will, they’re interchangeable,” Saleh said. “So if you look at Seattle, their Will linebacker, K.J. Wright, is 6-4, 245 pounds. If you look at Jacksonville, the Will linebacker was 6-3, 215 pounds. If you look at Atlanta’s Mike linebacker, he’s 220 pounds. Bobby Wagner sits at 240.

“So there’s no height-weight parameter. But, what there is, is one person can communicate and the other one might be able to communicate, but one is better than the other.”

--The 49ers reacted quickly to release starting cornerback Tramaine Brock last week after his arrest on suspicion of domestic violence. The 49ers are keeping an open mind whether to keep Jimmie Ward at cornerback or move him back to free safety to fill a role similar to what Earl Thomas has played with Seattle.

“Jimmie is a very, very versatile athlete,” Saleh said. “He can play corner, he can play safety and whatever is best for the organization is exactly what we’re going to do with Jimmie.”

--Meanwhile, Eric Reid will be a “box safety” – playing closer to the line of scrimmage in a role that Kam Chancellor has filled in the Seattle defense.

--The 49ers have spent first-round draft picks the past two years on defensive linemen Armstead and Buckner. Although selected to play in different systems, Saleh believes both can be versatile enough to play multiple spots in the scheme he is installing.

“The cool thing with the way the front has been built in the past, they are very versatile,” Saleh said. “So you can do anything, we can do anything we want with them. They’re not traditional. When you look at Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, they are very, very unique in the sense that they can play up and down the line however you need them to work. We’ll find what’s best for them.”

Eric Reid embracing new role with 49ers: 'I was made for this position'

Eric Reid embracing new role with 49ers: 'I was made for this position'

SANTA CLARA – Despite recording seven interceptions in his first two seasons and being named to the Pro Bowl as a rookie, Eric Reid said he believes he is now in a role that best fits his skillset.

Whereas in the past, the 49ers’ safety positions were considered interchangeable, there is a clear delineation this season under first-year defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.

“Even dating back to college, this is the first time there’s a distinct strong (safety) and a distinct free (safety),” Reid said. “I’ve been used to the interchangeability type of role.

“(In) some situations, certain calls where there’s a motion, we might flip. There are a couple situations where I might be in the post in the free-safety role, but it’s not nearly as much as it has been in the past.”

Reid, who is listed at 6 foot 1, 213 pounds, said he is excited to be stationed closer to the line of scrimmage for run support while free safety Jimmie Ward patrols the deep middle of the field.

The 49ers offseason program concluded Wednesday, and Reid found himself in the middle of the action with an interception on a short Brian Hoyer pass over the middle. While he will still be counted upon for coverage, his biggest impact could come to assist a run defense that last season ranked among the worst in NFL history.

“I love it, being around the ball more,” Reid said. “I anticipate making more tackles, hopefully making more plays. I feel like I was made for this position with my body type, being a bigger safety. I’m excited about this year.

“I feel like I’m using what God has blessed me with, more, which is my size and being in the box in the run game. In the past, I felt like I could do more. And being in the post, I can’t use my size as much when it comes to the run game.”

After producing seven interceptions in his first two seasons, Reid recorded just one interception in 26 games over the past two seasons.

As a first-round pick in 2013, the 49ers picked up the fifth-year option this season for $5.676 million. He is scheduled for unrestricted free agency at the conclusion of the season. Reid said the 49ers have not spoken to his representation about a long-term extension. That will come, he believes, if he lives up to his end of the bargain in his new, streamlined role.

“I look at it from a business standpoint,” Reid said. “I majored in business. They have me under contract. They don’t have any reason to talk to right now. I imagine if I play well in the first half of the season, they’ll reach out to me. Maybe they’ll reach out to me before training camp, I don’t know. It’s whatever route they decide to take. It’s a business. I’ll treat it as a business. I have a job to do, so I’ll do it.”

 

Mike Shanahan's official role with 49ers: Father of head coach

Mike Shanahan's official role with 49ers: Father of head coach

SANTA CLARA – Kyle Shanahan always wanted to coach football with his father. But, first, he knew he had to prove himself without any boost from his well-known dad.

Once the son established himself as one of the NFL’s respected offensive minds, the Shanahans teamed up for four up-but-mostly-down seasons with Washington.

Mike, the two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach, hired his son to serve as his top offensive assistant in 2010.

“I thought we saw football similar, but we quickly realized after a few weeks that we saw it differently,” Kyle Shanahan told NBC Sports Bay Area in February. “We grew together. He gave me a lot of leeway while I was there. It was fun to try a bunch of different things, having to even incorporate the zone read when we got Robert (Griffin).

“We did our deal in Washington, and I wouldn’t take that back for the world, but that was pretty much the end of it.”

Kyle Shanahan broke into the coaching ranks under Karl Dorrell at UCLA. He moved onto the NFL to work with Jon Gruden on the staff of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Gary Kubiak with the Houston Texans. But nothing prepared him for the scrutiny he would face as offensive coordinator under his father.

Kyle Shanahan adjusted the Washington offense to take advantage of Griffin’s skills as a dual-threat quarterback as a rookie 2012. The club qualified for the playoffs with a 10-6 record.

But things blew up the following season as the Mike Shanahan-Griffin relationship soured. Shanahan and eight assistant coaches, including Kyle, were fired the morning after Washington’s 3-13 season concluded.

Mike Shanahan has remained out of coaching, though he was a finalist for the 49ers’ head-coaching job after the 2015 season. The 49ers hired Chip Kelly.

Kyle Shanahan rebuilt his career with one season as offensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns and two successful seasons with the Atlanta Falcons to enable him to become CEO Jed York’s choice to replace Kelly.

There is no official role for Mike Shanahan, 64, on his son’s staff with the 49ers. But the father has attended several of the team’s practices this offseason, including both days of the 49ers’ mandatory minicamp this week. Mike has been issued his own iPad that gives him access to the 49ers playbook and coach's film. He will likely visit for an extended stay during training camp. But Kyle said he believes his dad will mostly remain home -- only a phone call away -- during the regular season.

“He’s enjoying life right now,” said Kyle, 37. “He’s got a pretty good deal in Denver, where he lives. He can help me out in other ways anyways without having to be here every day.”

Mike Shanahan does not need to be in the building every day to counsel and have influence on his son as he tries to navigate his first season as the head coach while also maintaining the responsibilities of running the team’s offense.

“You’re going 1,000 miles an hour,” Kyle Shanahan said. “Sometimes to see everything you’ve got to really slow things down and take your time to look at stuff and you don’t always have that time as a head coach.

“It’s nice when someone you know who thinks similar to you has a similar background and he just sits in a room all day and watches stuff. He doesn’t have any other responsibilities. He can see some things that I’m not always seeing and just to bring things to light that maybe I missed or other people have missed.”

Mike Shanahan was a successful NFL offensive coordinator for seven seasons. He won a Super Bowl on George Seifert’s staff with the 49ers in January 1995. His dad believes his time around the 49ers has a lasting impact.

“When I was with San Francisco, Kyle was at the 49ers training camps in Rocklin,” Mike Shanahan told Fangirl Sports Network. “He stayed with me at camp and we talked about football every night.

“He had the opportunity to experience an organization that had won four Super Bowls in nine years. He also had the opportunity to be around some great people and leaders. He still tells stories and talks about people like Steve Young, Joe Montana, Harris Barton, Tom Rathman, Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Deion Sanders, and many others. What a great experience to see how these men handled themselves on and off the field.”

The Denver Broncos hired him to become head coach shortly after the 49ers’ 49-26 victory over the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX. Shanahan went on to win two Super Bowls in his 14 seasons with the Broncos.

Kyle Shanahan was a wide receiver at Duke before finishing college at Texas, where he caught 14 passes for 127 yards in two seasons. He figured he would have a career in football and it would not be as a player.

“I’ve wanted to coach my whole life,” Kyle Shanahan said. “This is all I’ve known, just growing up around football. It’s almost all I’ve been into, too. Since I was little, it’s distracted me from everything I’ve done, especially school. I always tried to tell my mom, ‘Just be patient, it’ll play out for us in the long run.’ Fortunately, it did.

“Once I realized my genes were a little bit better as a coach than as a player, I pretty much locked into that – and that was about halfway through college. I haven’t looked back.”

During his short time with the 49ers, players on both sides of the ball have expressed amazement at how knowledgeable Kyle Shanahan is about the game of football. His dad told Fangirl Sports Network to succeed as a head coach he must always be dedicated to stuyding, learning and teaching the sport.

“He loves the game and knows it inside and out,” Mike Shanahan said. “My advice to him is to never lose the drive to study the game as he’s done over the last 13 years. To stay in the NFL as a head coach and have success for any length of time, you must never lose your drive to teach and stay abreast of what the top teams are doing every year: offense, defense, special teams. You must be able to coach all positions to really understand the whole game.”

Former 49ers president Carmen Policy said he remembers young Kyle serving as a ball boy during 49ers training camp in the early 1990s. Policy, who remains close to Mike Shanahan, has followed Kyle’s rise in the coaching ranks while playfully questioning the sanity of the family business.

Said Policy: “I used to tease Mike, ‘What kind of father are you to let your kid go into coaching?’ I said, ‘You should be charged with dereliction of parental duty.’ And he’d laugh and say, ‘Yeah, I tried talking to him and then my wife tried talking to him, but that’s his passion, and that’s what he wants to do, so I’m not going to dissuade him from it.’

“And, then, look at what happened. Here he is. He’s the head coach of the 49ers, and that’s just incredible.”