Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports



Four months ago, Robert Saleh, the new defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, took to the lectern for his first press conference. Saleh spoke with a measured, confident tone as he responded to questions about scheme and specific players. About midway through the interview, a reporter asked what kind of demeanor Saleh looked for in a run defense.

Saleh, with a smile breaking across his face, responded without a millisecond of hesitation: "Extreme physicality."

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At that moment, a new but deeply craved mentality entered the 49ers' training facility. Gone are the days of rushing two or three men and then showing up at the post-game press conference with a baffled look, not understanding how the opposing team racked up 29 first downs and almost 500 yards of total offense.

The defense Saleh builds this season will be a menace to opposing teams. He has raw talent in the box, men carved from wood and stone ready to command respect on the gridiron. Between now and Saturday, it's about bringing the pieces together to see success.

Defensive Line


For two of three preseason games, the projected starters on the defensive line played like a unit we have not seen since 2014. Against the Vikings, they sacked quarterback Sam Bradford three times, held running back Dalvin Cook to 17 yards on five rushing attempts, and helped shut out the Vikings in the first half.

The defensive line is the guiding light for any team at any level of football; for the 2017 49ers, the defensive line will make or break the team. Their extreme physicality must cover up weaknesses in other areas of Saleh's scheme, notably in the secondary.

As I've watched the team's press conferences this year, it seems some beat reporters are fixated on the exact position a particular lineman can play, rather than looking at his overall versatility. Indeed, some linemen excel only at nose tackle and struggle elsewhere. But the 49ers do not have this problem; Solomon Thomas, for example, can play the edge or the interior, creating a disruptive pass rush or stopping a running back dead in his tracks.

In fact, Saleh commented yesterday on the versatility of his defensive linemen, and specifically called out defensive lineman Arik Armstead's role: "… he's an outside guy on base-downs, on run situations, 50-50 calls. His greatest strength as a pass rusher will be inside on third down in our vision. Will you see him outside? I think so. You can see him outside too because he does have that flexibility where he can do both. His greatest pass rushing strength in our opinion would be inside."

Saleh gets the most versatility from nose tackle Earl Mitchell, and defensive linemen DeForest Buckner, Armstead, and Thomas. The current depth chart lists Elvis Dumervil as a second string defensive end, where I expect Saleh will keep him. I hope to see defensive linemen Tank Carradine, D.J. Jones, Chris Jones, and Sen'Derrick Marks play a role in the line rotation as well.

Even though both players have improved, I do not think the 49ers keep veterans Aaron Lynch or Ronald Blair. The 49ers will also part ways with veterans Quinton Dial and Leger Douzable. Rookie defensive lineman Noble Nwachukwu will not make it through Saturday's cuts, though could end up on the practice squad.

What's important for the defensive unit is how Saleh rotates the defensive line, keeping it fresh and mixing up alignments to keep an offense on its heels. During yesterday's press conference, Saleh said: "We have three to four pretty good edge rushers; we've got three to four pretty good inside rushers with Solomon (Thomas), Arik (Armstead) again, and Buck (DeForest Buckner) being on the inside. To try and mix and match, and just make sure they are in the greatest position they can be in to showcase their skill. You never want to put someone somewhere just for the sake of putting them somewhere. It's our job as coaches to always find the best spot for them that can showcase their ability. The hard part is trying to find a way to get them all on the field at the same time."

Linebacker


In July, I made a sacrifice to the football gods pleading for the 49ers' linebackers to stay healthy this season. As usual, the fickle deities did not heed my request, and the 49ers are starting this season with three linebackers on injured reserve.

Originally, I wanted to see veterans NaVorro Bowman and Malcolm Smith working side-by-side, with Reuben Foster on the field specifically for multiple kamikaze missions through the C-gap. Sadly, Smith sustained a season-ending injury, forcing the 49ers to throw Foster into the lion's den early. Already, we've seen inklings of what could be an incredible career for Foster, and 49ers' fans are drooling over their grilled artichoke and crab fondue to watch him lead the defense.

Fans should anticipate Saleh to keep Eli Harold as the starting Sam linebacker and Bowman as the Mike. He'll retain Dekoda Watson, Brock Coyle, and Ray-Ray Armstrong as reserves.

The linebackers will not go unscarred this season, and that's why the 49ers finally keep Shane Skov on the active roster this year. We should see Skov on special teams and during certain situations that allow the starters and reserves to catch a breath on the sidelines. Also, I expect rookie Pita Taumoepenu to end up on the practice squad, but don't be shocked if the 49ers elevate him to the active roster sometime this season.

Secondary


If a typical preseason is for players to work out flaws and improve technique, then the 49ers' secondary has failed miserably. Except for veteran safeties Eric Reid and Jaquiski Tartt, the secondary has been woeful.

The struggles began on the first day of training camp with safety Jimmie Ward sustaining a hamstring injury during conditioning drills. The black cloud traveled to cornerback Rashard Robinson, who got beat twice during the game against Kansas City. He followed that lackluster performance up with missed tackles and a bizarre pass interference penalty in the end zone against Denver.

Despite great play from the first-team defensive line and linebackers on Sunday night, Vikings' wide receiver Stefon Diggs saved the 49ers' secondary from further embarrassment with a few key drops. Bradford's stat line of 17 completions for 134 yards could have easily eclipsed 20 completions for 200 yards had Diggs held onto the football.

The second-, third-, and fourth-team defensive backs have also been dreadful. On Sunday, they allowed the Vikings' third string quarterback Taylor Heinicke to throw eight passes for 73 yards during the final 2:44.

If up to me, I'd play Reid in the box, Tartt as the deep safety, and force the cornerbacks to play in the most elementary of coverage schemes; it would be up to the defensive line and linebackers to win football games.

Robinson struggled to cover first-string talent in the preseason, and I cannot imagine there's any amount of magic in the universe that transforms his play next week. He's a liability, and every offensive coordinator should throw his way until he proves otherwise. Additionally, the 49ers cannot expect Ward to fully rebound from his hamstring injury. He's yet to play a single down at safety in the new system, and the team cannot expect his conditioning to be at the right level to make a significant impact until at least half way through the season.

Unless the 49ers pick up cornerback Joe Haden between now and the start of the regular season, I expect to see Robinson and Dontae Johnson remain as the starting cornerbacks, along with K'Waun Williams, Keith Reaser, Will Redmond, and rookie Ahkello Witherspoon listed as reserve cornerbacks. At some point, the 49ers will have to move Ward to injured reserve and make room for safeties Vinnie Sunseri and Lorenzo Jerome.

Tomorrow's game against the Los Angeles Chargers is critical for the third- and fourth-string players to make one last case for themselves to make the 49ers' roster or land on another team.

Are there other players who may be a surprise cut this weekend? Who else may the 49ers keep on the roster?