As we make our mock drafts and try to figure which players the 49ers will take next month, I want to turn your attention to an interview Kyle Shanahan did with Murph and Mac on KNBR in February.
During the interview, Murph asked Shanahan about the defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh, and the type of defense he intends to use.
Here’s what Shanahan said: “(Saleh)e spent about five years in Seattle (editor’s note: it was three years). He got to learn Pete Carroll’s system. He got to work for Gus Bradley and go through that whole process, get to a Super Bowl. And then he left with Gus and went to Jacksonville. That’s where he was a linebacker coach for Gus for four years (editor’s note: it was three years). Got to know that defense inside and out.
“Just me spending my last two years in Atlanta, having to go against that type of scheme every day in practice, and getting to know Dan Quinn very well who Robert Saleh also worked for. And playing against Seattle over the years, knowing how hard that system has been to go against. It’s not necessarily how hard it is, it’s how sound it is. They make you work for everything.
“It’s always an eight-man front. It’s very tough to run the ball against. And they’re very sound in their coverages. You can get some completions and things like that, but they make you work all the way down the field. And when someone makes you work all the way down the field, no matter how talented they are, you have to be on as an offense to score points. Because you can get to the red zone, you can get yards, but in order to get touchdowns you have to execute. It’s a defense that makes you execute.
“And always when they make you one-dimensional — which, when you’re playing and eight-man front, it’s tougher to run the ball — and if you can make an offense one-dimensional, it makes it a lot tougher.
“So, knowing Saleh, knowing the type of person he is, getting to know him in Houston when a QC — Robert is as smart as anyone I’ve been around. He studies everything. He knows a lot of different systems, but he knows the true Seattle-Atlanta-Jacksonville inside and out as much as anybody I’ve been with.
“Went through a hard interview process with him. I wanted to see where he’s come in the last eight years that we haven’t been together. And it was extremely impressive. I’m very confident Saleh helping me put together this defensive staff, and he’s going to build a scheme. We’re going to try to get players to fit that scheme, and we also know we’re going to adjust to the players that we have, too. Regardless of what we have, we’re going to make it work. I think you guys are going to be real happy with what we put out there.”
MURPH: “So, that Seattle, Dan-Quinn stuff. Physical DBs, huh? A lot of man-to-man, physical DBs — is that kind of the deal?”
SHANAHAN: “Yes, and to me it’s physical everybody. You want violent people. You want to run and hit people, make that field smaller for everybody, especially the receivers, and that starts with the safeties and the corners, being able to hit. And it’s not just about hitting. You’ve got to be able to cover. You’ve got to be smart. You’re trying to get everything. We look for certain traits in people. Usually if you have one of those traits, we can make it work. If you have all three of those traits, then you have a special guy. And those are the guys you want to keep a hold of.”
MURPH: “Is Robert Saleh going to play a 4-3? Is that right?”
SHANAHAN: “Yeah, it’s a 4-3. I think all that is such semantics, to tell you the truth. Seattle has a linebacker on the ball every single play. So does Atlanta. That’s five guys on the line of scrimmage. So whether you call it a 4-3 or a 3-4 — for the most part, we call it a 4-3.
“Just to tell you the way I look at it as a coach — can your halfback block that Sam linebacker on the ball. And that just depends how big he is. And if he’s a big guy and he’s Ahmad Brooks, then call it a 3-4. If he’s a smaller guy like K.J. Wright, who’s not that small, but you’re going to put your back on him, then call it a 4-3. There’s really no difference. It’s the same type of fronts. 3-4’s, sometimes they one-gap, sometimes they two-gap. But we plan on having a linebacker on the ball, and that’s five guys on the line of scrimmage. Depending on how our personnel plays out, I’ll have a better answer for you on what you want to call it.”
What stands out to you from this interview? A few things stand out to me:
- Shanahan says the defense the 49ers intend to run “starts with the safeties and the corners.” Recently, the Niners signed a safety — Don Jones — but they have not signed a single corner. This makes me think the Niners plan on drafting a corner with an early pick.
- Shanahan said the Seahawks’ linebacker who’s “on the ball” (coach-speak for “on the line of scrimmage) is K.J. Wright. But, Wright actually plays off the ball — he lines up directly behind Seattle’s 3-technique defensive tackle. Coaches call Wright the “Jack” or the “Stack backer” because he is “stacked” behind that 3-technique.
- Shanahan calls the “on-ball linebacker” the “Sam,” which means that linebacker on the strong side of the defense. But, the “on ball” linebacker actually is on the weak side of the Seattle-Atlanta-Jacksonville defense (on the opposite side of the formation as the opposing tight end). Look at the picture below to see what I mean This picture comes from 2013 when Saleh was on the Seahawks staff. Some Pete-Carroll disciples call the “on-ball linebacker” the “Otto,” presumably to avoid the strong-side-weak-side confusion.
- The Seahawks on-ball linebacker in the picture below is Malcolm Smith (No. 53), whom the 49ers recently signed. I think he will play the same position for the 49ers — on the ball. The past two seasons he played “Stack backer” for the Raiders, and was the main reason the they were the worst in the NFL at defending tight ends. Smith couldn’t cover them. As the on-ball linebacker, he wouldn’t have to cover them.