Robert Saleh

49ers building defensive identity: 'We can help ourselves a lot by...'

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AP

49ers building defensive identity: 'We can help ourselves a lot by...'

SANTA CLARA – After spending the past three seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, inside linebacker Brock Coyle knows how it is supposed to look.

And he believes the 49ers have gotten off to a good start under the direction of first-year defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who has installed a scheme based on the Seahawks’ blueprint.

“What’s really cool about this defense is if you look at Seattle, Jacksonville and Atlanta, they all have their different traits, their different personalties and their characteristics,” Coyle said. “And we’re building our own identity on defense.

“You see guys flying around and growing. And this was just our second regular-season game together in this defense.”

Saleh uses such terms as “all gas no brakes” and “extreme violence” to describe the kind of style he wants to see from his defense. In the 49ers’ 12-9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers seemed to compete physically with the Seahawks for the first time in a long time.

On the first possession of the game, 49ers safety Jaquiski Tartt set the tone when he separated Seattle tight end Jimmy Graham from the ball with a big hit. Graham was never a factor in the game, catching just one pass for 1 yard.

“If you’re looking from a progress standpoint, I don’t look at so much production as much as what it looks like on tape and the violence, the speed, attacking the ball, that’s what I’m excited about,” Saleh said.

The 49ers will have another chance on a quick turnaround to establish that identity on Thursday night against the Los Angeles Rams at Levi’s Stadium.

Rookie linebacker Reuben Foster will miss his second game in a row with a high-ankle sprain. Ray-Ray Armstrong started against Seattle, alongside NaVorro Bowman, but Saleh said Coyle also fits into his plan.

Coyle entered the game at Seattle in the first half in place of Armstrong, and Saleh hinted he could use both players more interchangeably until Foster returns.

“He deserves it,” Saleh said of Coyle. “He works his tail off and he works hard and we wanted to make sure that we got him some more reps. And to be honest with you, I feel he should probably get a little bit more.

“He’s a great communicator and knows everybody’s job on the football field. He’s very, very strong at the point of attack and he is pretty athletic and fast.”

The 49ers' physicality is showing up on the early downs, as the defense leads the league in allowing just 2.7 yards per play on first downs. But the 49ers have to get a lot better on the down that matters most. The 49ers rank 23rd on third downs, allowing the opposition through two games to convert 46.9 percent of their opportunities.

“Third down is a major emphasis -- every week it is," Saleh said. "We faced 12 more plays than we needed to that first drive just because a lack of execution on that first third-down and 9. We were in great position to get off the field.

"We’ve got to tackle and that takes all 11 running to the ball because a lot of times that first guy does miss, but we can help ourselves a lot by being better on third down for sure.”

Saleh expects Foster to continue to learn while sidelined

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Saleh expects Foster to continue to learn while sidelined

Reuben Foster is expected to miss a month of action – give or take.

The 49ers’ rookie linebacker has temporarily replaced his cleats for an orthopedic boot after sustaining a high right ankle sprain on his 11th snap of an NFL player on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.

But while he is sidelined, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh expects Foster to continue to grow as a player and learn from the success and mistakes of his teammates.

“Learn. Just watch tape. Try to take in as much information as he can and to really focus on his body, getting it right,” Saleh answered when asked for his objectives for Foster while he is out of action.

“If he can come out of this really understanding the way we’re being attacked and to be able to really see what teams do to our scheme would be very beneficial.”

In his brief appearance in the regular-season opener, Foster recorded three tackles, including one for a loss, and broke up a pass. He will not be able to grow his physical game, so Saleh expects Foster to continue to improve with his understanding and recognition of opposing offenses.

“I always mess with the ‘backers or even defensive players in general that there’s nothing like getting scarred,” Saleh said. “You never forget a scar and when you’re performing a technique and you get exposed at that technique, getting scarred is what helps you grow.

“So, for him, being able to see that through his teammates, like I always saw my brother get beat by my mom once and a while, my dad and I would be like, ‘Darn, I’m not going to do that.’ So, I felt like I had great growth. I didn’t have to actually go through it to learn from it, so it’s kind of the same thing.”

Attack, attack, attack: Robert Saleh wants 49ers 'reppin' our style' on defense

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AP

Attack, attack, attack: Robert Saleh wants 49ers 'reppin' our style' on defense

There are three main aspects to Robert Saleh’s defense:

1. All gas, no brake.
2. Attack the ball.
3. Extreme violence.

That’s all the first-year 49ers coordinator wants his 11 players on the field to think about.

“We always talk about reppin’ our style, and if we can rep our style on every play,” Saleh explained to NBC Sports Bay Area, “as a fan or someone watching from the outside, you’d be able to recognize our defense.”

It’s a defense that will appear similar at times to the Seahawks during Saleh’s three years there as a quality control coach. Pete Carroll’s “leo” position is featured, as are some of the fronts designed by former defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley. Saleh’s defense will also flash influences of Lovie Smith’s Cover 2 from Smith's time in Chicago. Saleh left Seattle to join Bradley’s staff in Jacksonville at the time Bradley started incorporating some of Smith’s principles into the Jaguars defense.

“There’s some similarities, but there are a lot of nuances that we feel are going to be unique to us,” Saleh said.

Saleh is known for his attention to detail, but like Carroll, Smith and Bradley, he doesn’t want too many of them to weigh down the players. His current players laud the fact that they are working with fewer than 12 play calls in his system. The simplicity allows them to think less, play faster.

“Sometimes, I feel like as coaches we get caught up in trying to trick the opponent when in reality we’re tricking ourselves,” Saleh said. “It also gives a player the ability to hold themselves accountable, because they fully understand what they’re responsible for. When a player completely understands what he’s responsible for, they can play a lot more free. They can play a lot faster, because once they clear their greatest issue, now they can just go play football.”

Defensive schemes come easily for Saleh. Attention to detail doesn’t come without a lot of preparation. But developing his coaching style, the style he wanted to rep, began to take form in his first year in the NFL as an assistant under former 49ers defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio. The two spent one season together in Houston.

“Vic has an influence in terms of demeanor, personality, to understand that it’s OK to be yourself. That a player, truly, all they really want is information to help them play better on Sunday. They want to know that you have their back, so you can represent any style you want as long as you are up front and honest with the player,” Saleh said. “Vic, he did keep it very simple, but he had his own style that some would argue doesn’t fit the mold of the old, outgoing, yelling coaches. But he had tremendous power in the room because players knew that the stuff that he was going to deliver to them would be helpful on Sunday.”

Saleh is clear what he’s looking for his players to deliver in return.

“It’s an attacking style defense,” he said, “fast, physical, everything being about the ball.”