WHO: San Francisco 49ers
WHERE: Santa Clara, Calif.
WHEN: Monday, Aug. 20
HOW: Flew from Los Angeles to San Francisco
This was technically an off-day for the 49ers (I use that term loosely, because a large number of players were present for treatments and in some cases, rehab), but I was fortunate that Robert Saleh could spare some time to discuss this defense in his second season as coordinator. With so much attention trained on QB Jimmy Garoppolo, who excelled in Kyle Shanahan’s offense in the last third of the 2017 season, rarely is the other side of the ball in San Francisco discussed from a national perspective.
My two big questions for Saleh: First, how has his plan for defensive lineman Solomon Thomas shifted after what was widely considered a disappointing rookie season at defensive end (Saleh disagrees), and second, what can we expect from Reuben Foster, whose diving breakup of a pass intended for Tavon Austin 20 yards downfield at the sideline is arguably the top defensive highlight of the 2018 NFL preseason so far.
Thomas, the third overall choice of the 2017 draft, plays a vital role in Saleh’s defense—a derivative of Gus Bradley’s defense, which enjoyed sustained success in Seattle even after Bradley left for a head coaching job in Jacksonville. The defense is heavy in Cover 3, and it asks a great deal from its pass rushers, who are expected to compensate for the simplicity of the scheme with constant pressure early in passing downs. Thomas was drafted with the expectation that he would provide pressure from the edge, a position he’d scarcely played at Stanford, and pressure between the tackles, which is his forte. He played just 10% of his snaps on the inside, according to Pro Football Focus, when opposing teams were in obvious passing situations, and came up with three sacks and scant pressures from the edge.
Saleh says we should see more opportunities for Thomas from the inside, where he thrived in the latter portion of the Niners’ 6-10 season. “When you’re looking at pass rush situations, I think we can do a lot better in terms of him not being limited to third down,” Saleh said. “We can get him inside on second and long. I'm excited for him. I think he’s going to make a good improvement.
“The problem is we didn't have a lot of passing situations. The thing with Solomon is, I don’t think he had a bad year. The second hardest job for a rookie is pass rusher, quarterback being first. J.J. Watt had five or six sacks as a rookie [Watt had 5.5 sacks in 2011]. There are things he can better at but I thought he was productive overall.”
Saleh says Thomas, who worked with a pass-rushing specialist this offseason on his own accord, improved in two important facets this offseason—initial burst off the line of scrimmage and secondary pass rush moves. “For him, everything’s been focused on his get-off, and really, his second move when the first one doesn’t work,” Saleh says. “So he’s gotten a lot better in both of those areas. He’s understanding how to work, when that first move doesn’t work, to recreate an edge.”
Reuben Foster is one of the more exciting young talents in the NFL, and his turbulent upbringing is well-documented, as are his various off-field scrapes. The 24-year-old from Roanoke, Ala., will serve a two-game suspension without pay at the start of the 2018 season for violating the league’s conduct and substance abuse policies stemming from a weapons charges and a misdemeanor drug charge. The 49ers knew what they were getting when they drafted Foster No. 31 overall in 2017, 28 picks after Thomas—Alabama head coach Nick Saban even made the rare public admission that Foster required a strong support network to stay out of trouble at the next level.
But in Week 1 of the preseason, Foster showed off exactly why San Francisco drafted him by delivering a diving pass breakup of a play-action pass intended for Tavon Austin that wowed the likes of Brian Baldinger.
Keep in mind—that’s a play Foster can and has made routinely as a 49er, when healthy. Often, it hasn’t made the highlight reel because the man wasn’t open and the receiver wasn’t targeted. While the play made ripples online, Foster got a neutral grade from his coordinator. “I argue Reuben was about two steps short on that one,” Saleh says. “He misread it and he almost got beat. It shouldn’t have been that hard. The cool thing about it is he has the speed to recover. Great job, but you were way late buddy.”
Another key position in this particular defensive formula is the inside linebacker, who is expected to take intermediate crossers all the way to the sideline in a zone scheme that can feel like man to opposing quarterbacks. Bobby Wagner handles the role with aplomb in Seattle. In Jacksonville, it’s Telvin Smith and Myles Jack. In Atlanta, it’s Deion Jones.
“We put so much stress on our linebackers in the pass game,” Saleh says. “Most teams don’t put this much stress on the linebackers.We’re asking them to stop the run, but also be able to cover a wide receiver 30 yards downfield. Usually you have to find a player who's really small and fast to play that role. A guy like Telvin Smith. But Reuben is at 235, violently strong, and fast. He eases the mind, knowing we can still defend the run and the pass with him in there.
“Having a player like Reuben, who instinctually can feel the run/pass, and has the speed to run with receivers... that’s what makes him special. He can become the focal point of the defense.”
(If he can stay out of trouble.)