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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Saleh discusses Pita Taumoepenu, Marcell Harris, Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, defensive miscues

Dec 6, 2018 at 4:10 PM--

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San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh spoke to the media on Thursday as the team prepares to play the Denver Broncos. Here is everything he had to say.

Transcript provided by the San Francisco 49ers Communications staff.

What have you seen from LB Pita Taumoepenu during his time on the practice squad this year?

"Pita is relentlessly always working, trying to get whatever look he can. Whether he's playing linebacker, rush-end, it doesn't matter. He's improved. I know [defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina] Z and [pass rush specialist Chris Kiffin] Kiff meet with all those guys after every practice to go over their film, too, to see where they can improve. So, I'm excited that he may get the opportunity this week."

Will he step into the role that LB Dekoda Watson was playing, sort of that obvious passing down?

"Not the main role. Hopefully we're able to find a way to get him in there. Right now, it's up for discussion."

Aside from just getting better, what are the goals that you have for him?

"For Pita?


"It's the same thing. I know it's so cliché, right? I expect him to go out there and produce. That goes without saying. But, production is an uncontrollable aspect of football. Production is a product of your work ethic and doing right 100-percent of the time. For him to go out there and just go play as hard as he does and whatever happens, happens."

He said yesterday, one of the things that he was dealing with on the practice squad was trying not to get discouraged, just by the fact that he had been there for so long. How do you think he's handled that mental aspect of it?

"Like a professional. It's been tough for him because there's been a lot of injuries. But, the D-Line for the most part has been healthy. So, he was always part of the first discussion. 'Is it time? Is it time? Is it time?' But, every week, our organization has had to deal with, whether it's offense, defense, special teams, with a different group. So, now it's his turn. Hopefully, he takes advantage of it."

How do you think S Marcell Harris did last week?

"Marcell did well. Obviously first game in, there's going to be a lot of things that he needs to clean up. But, he's a kid that plays with no hesitation. When he sees it, he triggers. But, as far as footwork, angles, tackling, all the different things that pop up for getting his first amount of full time, all that stuff was a bit behind, but you make your biggest jump from week one to week two in my mind. So, he's got a really good opportunity to go in there again and see how much he can improve."

What are things you'd like to see from him over the next four weeks?

"You know, the tackling, which I think will come. When you're as strong as he is and you trigger as fast as he does, that part will come. The amount of communication, just increasing every time he's out there. Then, of course let's see how much better he can get. I do believe he will get a lot better as the year goes on. His mindset, his athleticism and the way he sees things, I'll be surprised if he doesn't get much better."

DL DeForest Buckner was on the radio yesterday morning and he said the defense was lackadaisical against Seattle and he pointed to the run defense, in particular the inability to set the edge. Did you agree with his assessment? What did you see there?

"Absolutely. Lackadaisical in terms of, I wouldn't put it from an effort standpoint, but a mindfulness of what makes our defense tick, and that's edge setting. When you watch that game, our guys were playing hard, but the mindfulness of what makes it work. Guys were trying to make plays and it was very clear what they were trying to do offensively with attacking our edges. We did not do a very good job setting edges and that's where all the breakdowns were, especially in the second half. Whether it was a D-End trying to slip underneath the tackle, one of the DBs trying to slip underneath an out block or whether it was just a corner just not setting it, getting the ball turned back inside the numbers, that was the breakdown in the run game. When you can't stop the run like I've told you all many times before, it's like a punch in the stomach because you can't stop anything else. It always starts with that. I don't disagree with his statement at all."

Do you think DL Arik Armstead has picked up his production the last few weeks? Are there specific elements of his game that you've seen improvement in lately?

"Yeah. To me, Arik's been playing at a very high level. It may not always show up on the stat sheet in terms of pass game and all that stuff. But, when you watch Arik in the run game, he's a very dominant football player. We had back in Seattle [former NFL DT] Red Bryant, if you guys remember, his role was just to eliminate the solid-side run game. Arik does that. He gets tremendous knock-back. He gets so much knock-back that corners hardly ever have to crack the plays for us. So, what he's doing in the run game has been very quiet. People who watch tape, and study our defense and watch it, 91 just pops off the tape. He's doing a great job. The difference being he's creating all that knock-back and he still has the athleticism to still do the things that we need him to do. Very, very happy with Arik and the direction he's going, especially from a physicality standpoint. Knock on wood, he's been healthy and if he can keep that trajectory, he's going to have a very, very long career."

In the pass game, it seems like he's a guy who is able to disrupt a lot, but not always finish with sacks. Is that enough to be a disruptor in that way?

"You always love for people to finish. You work so hard to get to the quarterback, now go reward yourself with a finish. If you can move a guy off the spot and somebody cleans it up, it's all disruption. It's getting the quarterback off the spot, making him uncomfortable, making him move. We would love, obviously, for Arik to finish. And he will. He'll catch his groove. Like I said, the direction he's going, I'm excited about him and what he's capable of."

We were saying the same thing about DeForest last year. He had all those pressures. I think he led the league, and 3.0 sacks. Now, he's got 10. What's been the key to making him finish?

"It's part of the whole maturation of a player, the development of a player. Some take longer. Some are immediate. Some take really, really long. So, Buck, the first year he had six sacks. The second year, three sacks. But, in that second year, he had a lot of production from a disruption standpoint. This year, he's starting to finish those. Shoot, he could have a couple more if he would've finished on a few plays earlier in the year. With Arik, it's the same thing. It's just finding your groove, what you niche is, how you can fit within a scheme. You just continue to coach your butt off and for Arik, just continue to work on your craft. Eventually, that development will pay off."

When you talk about Armstead generating knock-back in the run game, where he's lined up, are you matching up against tight ends a lot of the time? Is that a matchup he can dominate?

"Yeah, if he's on a tight end, the corner doesn't even have to show up in crack replace. He gets so much knock-back on tight ends and they struggle to block him. But, we move him around. You'll see him inside. I think we saw him last week playing nose in nickel and he knocked the guard past the quarterback in the gun, which was incredible to me, that he created that much knock-back. Tackles struggle to block him. He ragdolls offensive linemen in there. He's playing very violently inside in the run game. Like I said, excited about where he's going. But, yeah, on a tight end it's not a matchup."

What's the next step for Armstead?

"Finishing. The same story we had with Buck. Rewarding yourself with a lot of production, and that's going to be the finished product. We appreciate what he's been able to do and what he's been able to provide for our defense. Now, it's just a matter of producing. He'll get those opps because he's had three or four opps on sacks that have kind of gone through his grasps. Last week he had one and [Seattle Seahawks QB] Russell [Wilson], he's not the only person that Russell has made miss, but his production is going to come."

With the Broncos losing their receiver yesterday, how do you expect that to impact their game plan?

"I don't think it'll impact much. They're very sound. Coach [Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Bill] Musgrave has a definite plan and the way he uses his players. I'm not going to confuse with what they are trying to do on offense. They are running the football. They do a great job with their play-action pass game and all the different things they do schematically with regards to pass game. [Denver Broncos WR] Emmanuel [Sanders], I'm sure, is definitely going to be missed for them. But, they've got a whole bunch of other receivers that are going to be able to step up and pick up the slack on production. I don't see it changing much. They've got a good formula going on right now with running the football, playing good defense, taking it away and not turning it over."

You guys have done a lot of shuffling in the secondary because of injuries throughout the whole year. That's been talked about a lot by some of the guys. But, at some point, do you have to caution against that becoming an excuse for maybe some of the issues that you guys are having?

"There's never an excuse. Our guys are working their tails off. The acceleration of how much better you can get from week to week, there is an art to being able to see the same things over and over and over again. Then, when you move to a new spot, fixing your lens so you can see it as many times as possible. It's never really an excuse. No excuse."

Are you seeing opportunities on film of missing possibilities for interceptions?

"Yeah. Every game it seems like. The play [DB Antone] Exum [Jr.] had the PI, when he looks back at it, he'll tell you he should have picked it. He beat the receiver to the point by so much. Not only did he PI, but the ball hit him in the head. He just felt like he was in an awkward position. If he just locates the ball, with Exum's athleticism, he would've picked it. [CB Ahkello Witherspoon] Spoon had it in the bread basket, made a great play on the slant to cut off, turn, locate. Missed the opportunity there. So, every game it seems like the ball is on the ground or we're missing an opportunity. Against Tampa Bay, [LB] Fred [Warner] was right there. They're going to come in bunches. It's baffling to me that we haven't been able to get as many as we had and how many missed opps we've had. I'm not even talking about miraculous plays. I'm just talking about plays that I feel like are gimmies. We should be well in double digits in terms of takeaways."

When you look at the lack of takeaways, how much of that is just not being in advantageous game situations? It seems like sometimes the takeaways come when your opponent is behind and trying to come back in games and so forth?

"I guess it goes hand-in-hand. You can play more opportunistic when an offense is chasing points and vice-versa. But, even with that being said, it doesn't matter. We're still having our opportunities. We're just not taking advantage of them. We've just got to continue to harp on it like we do and eventually the tide's got to change."

Head coach Kyle Shanahan said yesterday that a quarterback can cover up a lot of weaknesses on offense, just like a dominant pass rusher can do it on defense. It's not a revolutionary concept, but I don't think you've had a dominant pass rusher or edge rusher. You've dealt with criticism this year. The defense has dealt with criticism. Do you feel like there's a limit to what this defense can accomplish without that type of player?

"It goes back to what we talked about with Marcell. I hope I answer your question here. We've got, [general manager] John [Lynch] and Kyle, [vice president of player personnel] Adam [Peters] and [senior personnel executive] Martin [Mayhew], they've brought in a lot of great players. It's a very young group and the maturation of that group and being able to work together and develop and having the patience to let these guys develop, is a part of it. The best way I can say this, and I say this with a tremendous amount of respect to all of you sitting in front of me, the first time you wrote an article as a beat writer, it wasn't perfect. You did it again and again and again, and now all of you sit here and you guys are the best at what you do because you've had many, many reps and you've had many, many opportunities to do it. It's the same thing for these football players. They're young, they're here, they're getting their reps and everything is new. They're learning something new every single week. Some take longer. So, I have confidence that with John and Kyle and Adam and Martin and all those guys, with the guys that they're bringing in, this thing is going to keep moving in the direction that I think it's going in. Guys are going to continue to get better and we're going to have a defense that's going to be a problem very soon."

Do you feel like this roster has that dominant edge rusher?

"To be seen. To be seen, for sure. With trying to develop guys is whether or not they actually make the leap. I've got faith that the guys that are in this building are capable of doing it. It's just a matter of going out and continuing to show what they're capable of so they can get it done."

How do you assess the job you've done so far this season?

"I'll be honest, I'm so focused on trying to do the best I can, and I mean it. I know that kind of sounds cliché to you guys. But, trying to do everything I can to help my assistants, help the organization, help Kyle, help John, help Adam, to be the best I can possibly be and just be the best coordinator I know how to be. If it's good enough, great. If it's not, it's not. But, I do believe that I'm doing the absolute best."

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