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49ers want “extreme physicality” on defense

The San Francisco 49ers want a physical and aggressive defense but they need to add a real threat at edge linebacker if they want to accomplish that.

The arrival of Kyle Shanahan as head coach of the 49ers understandably will prompt significant focus on the offensive side of the ball. But the defense will be changing, too, and new coordinator Robert Saleh offered a two-word assessment on Monday of the primary trait he wants.

“Extreme physicality,” Saleh told reporters.

The physicality will be funneled through a defense that has become well known to 49ers fans in recent years, for all the wrong reasons.

“We are a single high defense,” Saleh said of the team’s scheme. “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 also explained that the base defense typically will be yielding to a nickel scheme, which will change significantly the needs for one of the linebackers.

“It’s real simple, the league back in the day was heavy base,” Saleh said. “SAM [strongside] linebacker, 65-70 percent of the game you’d have a SAM linebacker on the field where he’d need to perform his duties in base defense. Present day, 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. 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.”

Saleh mentioned that players like Ahmad Brooks, Eli Harold, and Dekoda Watson could fill the role of the strongside linebacker in a defense that spends most of its time with extra defensive backs on the field, which means the SAM linebacker will be in a pass-rushing posture.

Then there’s the LEO position in the defense, the one that Saleh calls the “hair . . . on fire, just get after the quarterback” edge rusher. The 49ers are looking for an “elite piece” like that on defense.
“I’ll name some names that have been LEOs in the past, even if they haven’t been attached to this system,” Saleh said. “People who have been attached to this system, you’re looking at 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.”

The perfect LEO for the 49ers, who hold the No. 2 pick in the draft, could be the guy who currently is presumed to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Which both makes the 49ers a potential candidate to slide up one spot -- and underscores the yet again value of tanking during a season that already was lost.