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49ers Notebook: Saleh on Shanahan’s leadership style, the D-line rotation, and a ‘raccoon on meth’

© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The last time Robert Saleh was in a Super Bowl, it was a victorious experience as a quality control coach with the Seattle Seahawks in 2013. Saleh returns to the Super Bowl next week as a defensive coordinator, and said Thursday he doesn’t see that old ring much.

“It’s hiding somewhere in the safe,” Saleh said. “But I don’t wear it. It’s a Seahawk ring.”

The thing that’s ‘misunderstood about Kyle’

Once viewed as being on the hot seat, Saleh was nearly named head coach of the Cleveland Browns this offseason, and head coach Kyle Shanahan said he expects that Saleh will probably land a head coaching job next year. The relationship between the two, and their malleability with their respective units, has defined the success of the season, but Saleh pointed to Shanahan’s open-eared nature as a uniquely important quality:

“The most underrated thing that I think is misunderstood about Kyle is his humility to know when he doesn’t have the answer,” Saleh said. “A lot of people might look at Kyle as somebody who is, ‘This is my way. I already know, you don’t need to tell me.’ But when you actually sit down and talk with him, if you can present a case, he just wants answers that are right for the organization.

He’s not looking to force his opinion just because it’s his opinion. And so he’s got a tremendous amount of humility, to be able to listen to everyone’s opinion, so that the right decisions are made for the organization so we can continue to move forward. So a combination of him and John’s humility. I really really believe is why this organization is where it is today.”

How much Andy Reid film is too much?

Andy Reid has now been an NFL coach for more than 20 years. Suffice to say, there is a lot of film on Andy Reid out there. So, Saleh was asked, “How far back do you go?”

Saleh said for him and his assistant coaches, there’s no real limit. But as far as sharing that information with the players, there’s a much more limited scope, at least in terms of telling the story of Reid.

“For us, you go as far as you possibly can,” Saleh said. “It’s our job as coaches, you’re always just trying to tell them a story, and you’re trying to make it as easy for them as possible, but you’re 100% right, you don’t want to show them every play that coach Reid has run in the history of the system… You’d die, I think.

“But at the same time, coach Reid has a philosophy, and we have to find a way to pull that out so the players can understand it.”

What Saleh means by that “story” is giving players an idea of what the other team is trying to do to them, and how the 49ers need to attack that plan.

“You’re trying to tell them a story of what we need to do and what they’re trying to do. So, it’s what is this offense really trying to accomplish? What do they look like when they, what are they trying to accomplish when they look like this or versus a whole other formation or whatever it might be?

“So, you’re just trying to tell a story so they don’t get lost in the volume of personnels, the volume of formations, motions, shifts, routes, and the more you can peel the onion back, the more they’ll see that it’s really not that hard. And so, the goal is by Sunday, next Sunday, it’s to make this thing as easy for them as possible.”

Kris Kocurek, ‘raccoon on meth’

Saleh was asked about defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, the always-energetic and sometimes-unhinged defensive line coach who is “the definition of black and white,” in how he coaches. Maybe brusque in his level of clarity, Kocurek provided exactly what the 49ers’ defensive line required to take a titanic leap this season.

Yes, Nick Bosa and Dee Ford were always going to turn the front from below average to very good, but Kocurek’s influence is what has made that group elite. You see it with the wide-nine system he’s implemented from former coach Jim Washburn, who created that alignment with the Titans and taught it to Kocurek. And you see it with the leap of Arik Armstead, who credited Kocurek for teaching him to play to his strengths, and constantly instilling belief that he was as dynamic as he believed.

Saleh recounted a message from Washburn, originally told to The Athletic’s Matt Barrows, when asked to describe his favorite story of Kocurek.

“It seems like every day [there’s a story], but coach Washburn, when we first hired [Kocurek], I think he, in an article said it best,” Saleh said. “‘He’s a raccoon on meth,’ if you guys can imagine what that might look like.”

That description might not be the most flattering, but it’s apropos in the chaotic nature of Kocurek’s style, in which, among many things, you’ll hear demands at drills like, “Run through that motherfucker!” followed by a bit of tempered, constructive criticism in technique… before the volume swiftly raises for the next group hitting the sled.

“Gray area always creates hesitation. You want these players playing in a world of black and white so they know what’s expected of them so they can go as fast as humanly possible,” Saleh said. “Kocurek is the definition of black and white. He’s very clear and cut with what he’s asking of the players. He’s very clear and cut with his techniques.

“Nothing changes. Just because a player’s movement doesn’t change you, your technique, your effort level, your aiming points, everything is very, very clear for those players. And because of it they can go fast because they know what’s being asked of them.”

The defensive line rotation 

The rotation for the defensive line is an endeavor largely controlled by Kocurek, who also decided most of the fronts and what sort of stunts the 49ers go with on each down. San Francisco has been able to get into a clever rhythm of rest for its starting front four of Ford, Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Bosa but choosing when to rest them.

In some situations, all four will be out of the game, though usually it’s limited to three at a time. Saleh explained that approach Thursday, saying he wants each lineman to be going at full speed on each snap.

“We have a philosophy to roll with eight on defense on the defensive line,” Saleh said. “You want to come at them at waves. You want to stay fresh. You want to keep going. All gas, keep them rolling, so they don’t pace themselves. A lot of times you get so stuck with playing your best four all the time that those guys understand they’re going to be out there for a while so they pace themselves.

We don’t want them pacing themselves. We want them rolling. So, those next four are every bit as important as the first four. And, one, we’ve still got to play great football when they’re on the football field. And, two, it allows those guys a break so when you get to those critical situations of two minute and third down, your four horses can be out there and be fresh so they can go get the quarterback.”

Saleh said the goal is to “steal” around two dozen snaps for that starting group each game.

“Kocurek does a great job in that regard, making sure that those guys are fresh, keeping their snaps as low as possible,” Saleh said. “So, you may see where [DL DeForest Buckner] Buck, [DL Arik] Armstead and Bosa are off the field to start a drive, just to, we feel good about where we’re at, get a couple of stops, third down, get them out there. So, we’re trying to steal, on average, about 20-to-25 snaps a game from those front four throughout the game. And you’re just trying to feel out the game and how it’s going and try to steal as many snaps as you can.”

Richard Sherman following wide receivers?

On Sunday, Sherman followed his wide receiver on a few occasions. It was a rare, almost never-seen wrinkle in the 49ers’ defense.

It’s also a sticking point and topic of some debate, in that Sherman stays on one side of the field and generally plays zone coverage. It has led some onlookers, like Darrelle Revis, to criticize him, and for Sherman to respond with even more ferocity, defending his play.

Saleh said the 49ers did that to throw something new at Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, who was the best man at Saleh’s wedding.

“He hasn’t [done it often],” Saleh said. “It was just to throw a wrench, whatever wrench that we could create early in the game. We were trying to find ways that they could attack us and we thought maybe they would come out and just try to throw a go-ball early. So, just put him out there to the boundary and really get Matty [LaFleur] thinking a little bit. So, that was about it.”

Other notes:

  • Kwon Alexander (pectoral) was still in a blue non-contact jersey along with Jaquiski Tartt (rib) at the 49ers’ Thursday practice. Tevin Coleman (shoulder dislocation) was on the sideline doing individual rehab work, but was in uniform, indicating he’d been involved in team walkthroughs prior to practice.
  • Saleh said Alexander’s status is improving: “He’s getting better and better,” Saleh said. “He’s getting healthier, and he’s getting his feet back underneath him, so I imagine in the next 10 days, he’ll be getting even closer [to where he was].”
  • Defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator Joe Woods has reportedly been offered the defensive coordinator position by newly named Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski. According to Ben Goessling of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the 49ers have made a late push to try to retain Woods, who had a rough go as a defensive coordinator with the Denver Broncos from 2017-18.


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