San Francisco 49ers: Takeaways From Robert Saleh’s First Press Conference

San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh spoke with the media for the first time, so what can fans take away from what he had to say?

In his first public appearance, new San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh spoke with the media for the first time. During this question and answer session, Saleh discussed the 49ers’ new defensive scheme as well as how the current personnel fit within that scheme.

The press conference also included new 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, who also provided insight on personnel and team vision. However, Shanahan didn’t reveal too much information that fans didn’t already know. The lone exception, however, was that stud linebacker NaVorro Bowman should be fully healthy in time for training camp.

Aside from Shanahan, Saleh provided great insight into the defensive system the team will employ in 2017. The presser also revealed the type of individual that Robert Saleh is in regards to his demeanor, presence, football IQ, leadership ability and communication skills.

Note: Robert Saleh’s full press conference can be viewed at 49ers.com, which is where all pulled quotes are from unless otherwise noted. Jennifer Lee Chan of Niners Nation provided a transcription of the presser

The Seattle 4-3 Defense

Saleh confirmed what most fans already knew, that the 49ers are indeed installing the Seattle Seahawk’s version of 4-3. However, Saleh was quick to point out that there are two other teams in the NFL who run the same defensive concept, each with its own variation.

He went on to elaborate that the 49ers would be no different in that regard:

We are a single high defense. 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. This will be a very, 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 further dissected the 4-3 defense. He broke down the 4-3 by elaborating that the modern Seattle 4-3 is a far departure from the original 4-3. He then stated that Seattle version employs 3-4 personnel and places them into the 4-3 and allowing them to use their athletic attributes to the best of their abilities.

Personnel Fit

During the presser, Saleh was asked if he felt that the current roster fit the scheme. His response may have been the most telling quote of the day. He had this to say about the players already in San Francisco:

Oh, yeah. There’s plenty here. [LB] Ahmad Brooks, [LB] Eli [Harold]. We just signed [LB] Dekoda Watson. If you were going to paint a picture, that’s what they would look like.

Saleh explained that he was excited about DeForest Buckner’s and Arik Armstead’s versatility to play at different spots on the defensive line.

The cool thing with the way the front has been built in the past, they are very versatile. So you can do anything, we can do anything we want with them. They’re not traditional. When you look at [DL] Arik Armstead and [DT] DeForest Buckner, they are very, very unique in the sense that they can play up and down the line however you need them to to work. We’ll find what’s best for them. There is no limitation to what they are capable of. It’s just us trying to piece together the right combination and right position for each of them so they can best be utilized.

Saleh also confirmed where other players would play. For example, he pointed out that Eric Reid would play as an in-the-box safety and Ahmad Brooks would play at the strong-side linebacker spot.

His comments on Malcolm Smith indicate that Smith is pencilled in at the weak-side linebacker spot next to Bowman. He made it clear that, in the 4-3, the weak-side and middle linebacker have the same responsibilities, except the “Mike” is the leader of the linebacking crew.

NFL Draft and Potential Defensive Strategy

Overall, Saleh was very precise and detailed when asked questions regarding the scheme, the installment of the scheme, and how well the current personnel fit within the scheme. He was also effusive with praise when commenting on Malcolm Smith.

Yet, it was his nebulous comments that may have tipped his hand more than his specific remarks. When asked about the release of Tramaine Brock, he passed the buck towards management:

That process is still going. I’m sure management has an unbelievable plan and they’ll clue me in when they need my opinion, but right now I’m just focused on the guys that are here in the building.

He was also elusive when asked what position Jimmy Ward would play. Per Niners Wire, 49ers general manager John Lynch stated that Ward would get a start at the free safety spot. In Saleh’s 4-3 defense, the free safety plays the pivotal single-high safety who needs to cover the back end of the defense, meaning this player is on an island. This requires a special kind of player who is not only a rare athlete but also one who possesses elite instincts.

Here are Saleh’s comments on Ward:

We’re going to see how everyone moves. Like I said, we haven’t been able to go on the field with them and once we start getting a chance to get out there, we’re going to see what everyone is capable of doing. And, Jimmie is a very, very versatile athlete. 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.

Are the 49ers more inclined to focus on defensive backs come draft day? Who knows, but the comments above certainly seem to show that the position is not set in stone where as the other positions seem more secure at this stage of evaluation.

First Impressions

This last piece means close to nothing when it comes to fans. At the end of the day, it is the on-field product that will determine what the fans will think of one Robert Saleh. But since the 49ers cannot yet take the field, all anyone can do is judge the man based off how well he presents himself.

And, so far so good. Saleh has a presence to him that commands respect. He has a knack for explaining his scheme in a way that the regular joe can understand it. Combine that with his natural public speaking ability and you have the making of a formidable defensive coordinator. Well, at least at the podium.

Of course, no pro football press conference would be complete without the usual cliché and Saleh did not disappoint. When asked what demeanor the 49ers defense would use, he responded with:

Extreme physicality.

As far as clichés go, that’s not bad at all. If the team does indeed live up to this description, it would be a complete turnaround from last year’s on-field performance. Something all fans would certainly welcome.

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