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.”

Fantasy football waiver wire: Target Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 3


Fantasy football waiver wire: Target Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 3

Week 3 is the last week of the fantasy football season, aside from the playoffs, where every team in the league is in action. Starting in Week 4, at least two NFL teams will have the week off over the ensuing two months. 

As a result, it's not too early to start thinking about the players you'll want on your bench during that time, as well as who can give you a boost beforehand. With that in mind, here are four players to target on waivers this week in your fantasy football league, each of whom is owned in fewer than 45 percent of Yahoo and ESPN leagues.

We start with, perhaps, the hottest player in football...

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB (Owned in 23 percent of Yahoo leagues, 31.4 percent of ESPN leagues)

It's time to hop aboard the Fitzmagic Carpet if you haven't already. A week after the Harvard product lit up a top-half fantasy defense against quarterbacks from a year ago, Fitzpatrick torched the defending Super Bowl champions to the tune of 402 passing yards and four touchdowns. 

Fitzpatrick wasn't perfect, as he threw a first-quarter interception and was not as involved in the running game. Those are minor quibbles, though, as Fitzpatrick leads the NFL in passing yards and is second only to Patrick Mahomes in passing touchdowns. Even if Fitzpatrick doesn't keep the job beyond the end of Jameis Winston's three-game suspension, he's worthy of a claim ahead of going against the Steelers defense that's been on the receiving end of top-six fantasy QB performances in each of the season's first two weeks.

Austen Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers RB (44 percent of Yahoo leagues, 42.9 percent of ESPN)

Lead back Melvin Gordon left Sunday's win against the Bills early, and Gordon owners should already have Ekeler has a cuff.  There's plenty of upside whether or not you need insurance for the Chargers running back, however.

Ekeler's posted back-to-back, double-digit fantasy weeks in PPR formats, and nearly hit it in standard formats, too, after accumulating 98 total yards against the Bills in Week 2. The Rams will offer up a stout rushing defense in Week 3, but the Raiders and Cardinals don't exactly boast dynamic rushing attacks. Don't be deterred by the matchup, or by Gordon's potential return to health, if you're hurting for flex options on your bench.

John Brown, Baltimore Ravens WR (25 percent of Yahoo leagues, 24 percent of ESPN) 

Brown surely benefitted from the Ravens' early struggles, as quarterback Joe Flacco tried to pass Baltimore out of a three-touchdown deficit. Still, he hauled in four catches for 92 yards and a touchdown on Thursday, including a 45-yard reception.

The receiver is tied for second on the Ravens in targets through two weeks of the season, and has four catches of 15-plus yards. Brown's emerging as a deep threat for Joe Flacco, and has a favorable matchup against a Broncos defense that's allowed the 12th-most passing yards this season. 

Antonio Callaway, Cleveland Browns WR (7 percent of Yahoo leagues, 3.7 percent of ESPN)

Callaway stepped up in Cleveland's first game without wide receiver Josh Gordon. He caught three passes (on four targets) for 81 yards and a touchdown, including a 47-yard reception. 

The rookie still finished behind fellow receivers Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins, as well as tight end David N'joku, in terms of targets. Gordon's departure is going to create opportunities in the Browns offense, though, and Callaway's big-play ability puts him in position to reap the rewards. 

49ers still need No. 1 receiver after missing out on Josh Gordon trade

49ers still need No. 1 receiver after missing out on Josh Gordon trade

Editor’s note: Former 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia, now an NBC Sports Bay Area analyst, will share his thoughts on the 49ers each week throughout the season. This week, he examines how failing to acquire Josh Gordon affects the 49ers’ offense and what he saw out of QB Jimmy Garoppolo in Sunday’s 30-27 win over the Lions.

The 49ers are in need of a true No. 1 wide receiver, but it looks like Josh Gordon won’t be filling those shoes after he was traded to the Patriots.

Not to take anything away from Pierre Garçon, but he’s not the No. 1 threat that’s going to make defenses overly prepare for the 49ers' offense and ask themselves, “How do we take that away?”

The 49ers do not have a receiver who requires a double team on one side of the field, which opens up matchup opportunities on the other side of the field. Going into last offseason, that was one of the areas they could have targeted. They needed a true No. 1 guy who definitely can be a threat on the outside.

They went after help on the offensive line, which was necessary, with right tackle Mike McGlinchey. And they got Dante Pettis as a receiver, but he’s not necessarily that No. 1 threat right now. And I don’t know if he ever will be, but that’s yet to be determined.

It’s too bad they missed out on a potential guy who can be a game-changer like Gordon.

There was definite risk in the pursuit of Gordon, but the guy knows he’s on a very, very short leash. I think being around a group including John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan, who he played for in Cleveland, and some of the veteran guys the 49ers have could have been a good fit.

The 49ers need another playmaker. I think having Marquise Goodwin out right now definitely hurts because he is that guy who can take the top off. He is that deep threat who can get down the field, who can challenge just about anybody in the National Football League, as far as speed is concerned.

You need that guy. You need to soften up the coverage. On Sunday, we didn’t see any real attempts that were down the field, outside of some deep crossing routes and a sail route that they hit early on with Pettis. You have to take those shots during the game, to make the defense feel like you’re not fearful of going down the field. That didn’t happen.

Jimmy Garoppolo right now is trying to be too perfect.

It’s part of the learning curve. He doesn’t have a lot of starts. But I think what happens oftentimes, especially with young quarterbacks, with a young team, you’re trying to be too perfect. And it’s great to strive for perfection, but you also have to understand that perfection is very elusive. It’s very rare that you’re going to have that perfect game, that perfect decision-making process on every single play, and sometimes the perfect play is the throw-away.

You have to figure it out quickly and just get rid of the football and live for the next play. There were times on Sunday where the receivers just weren’t getting open, and that’s going to happen with this group. Outside of Pierre Garçon, the receivers the 49ers have are young. And they’re not real burners from the standpoint of creating great matchup opportunities. So what are teams going to do against you? They’re going to line up in an eight-man box in and play man to man. That’s what the Lions did. The Lions said, “You guys don’t scare us.”

When that sort of stuff happens, you also have to know who your best matchup opportunity is, your best route-runner, your best man-to-man route-beater in those types of situations, and you might have to lean on that guy to just give him a chance in a tight window. I just feel like Garoppolo was trying to be too perfect in his decision-making, trying to find the wide-open guy, not wanting to force a throw or make a bad decision, which he did at the end and nearly cost them the game. And because of that, he ended up taking the sacks instead of getting the ball out of his hands.

First of all, you have to have that natural clock going off in your head. The protection looked good. It really looked like they were coverage sacks, but at some point you need to do something yourself.

You either need to find a lane to push the pocket, escape the pocket or live for another day -- just throw the ball away.

You can’t afford to just sit there and allow the defense to eventually get to you, take those unnecessary hits. It’s within his power as a quarterback to pull that trigger to make that decision and to save his team, especially when you’re talking about the red zone.

Taking sacks and getting yourself knocked out of the red zone is extremely critical, especially when it comes down to scoring touchdowns, as opposed to field goals.

Watch Garcia on 49ers Pregame Live this Sunday at 9 a.m. and 49ers Postgame Live immediately after the game on NBC Sports Bay Area and live streaming on the NBC Sports app. Greg Papa, Donte Whitner, Matt Maiocco and Laura Britt will join Garcia and share everything you need to know about the 49ers’ Week 3 game in Kansas City.