San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh spoke with the media ahead of the Week 17 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams. Notably, Saleh provided six player updates as the team prepares for its final contest of the season.
Take a look at some notes from the defensive coordinator ahead of the 49ers season finale.
1. Solomon Thomas
Saleh has been pleased with his rookie's growth throughout the season. Thomas is coming off of one of his most complete performances of the year against the Jacksonville Jaguars totaling six tackles and registering his third sack of the season. Coming into his own in the second half of the year, Saleh has taken note of Thomas' improvements against the run and as a pass rusher.
"He had a really good game. He played with an edge to him. He's played with an edge to him all year, but he was making plays," Saleh said. "He was productive, he was getting off blocks, and I hate to give him a loser's lump or anything, but I think he's really starting to recover from that injury that he suffered earlier in the year and we're really starting to see what we saw in the first half of the season.
"As far as his growth, I'm very pleased with where he's at."
2. DeForest Buckner
Saleh doesn't just believe Buckner is one of the 49ers best defenders. Instead, he considers the former first-round pick to be among the best at his position league-wide. Buckner has taken the fourth-most snaps of any defensive lineman (933) and continues to be a dominant and durable playmaker on the 49ers defense.
"I think he's one of the best in all of football," Saleh said. "He'd be one of the best for every single team in football. Not trying to sugarcoat it for him. He is dominant in every facet of football. The scary part is he can still get better with pad level, he can still get better with hands, he can still get better at creating edges in pass rush. But, as far as where he's at now for a second-year player, as young as he is, knock on wood, the durability, he's unique, he's special."
3. Reuben Foster
Foster enters Week 17 ranking fourth among linebackers in terms of overall grade according to Pro Football Focus, behind only Bobby Wagner, Sean Lee and Luke Keuchly. He is also one of five linebackers to rank within the top 10 in both run defense and coverage grade, per PFF. The next step for Foster is to perfect his technique to increase the violence of his hits while minimizing the risk of injuring himself.
"I think he can be even more explosive and more violent when he hits with proper technique. When he learns to run his feet through contact he's going to destroy people, without hurting himself," Saleh said. "That's something that he's got to work on through the offseason is how to tackle the right way, because when you see him he just throws his entire body in there. But, if he learns to actually accelerate through contact with his shoulder through the sternum or shoulder through the thigh, those hits will just be what's already explosive will be even twice that. There's an element that he needs to work on with regards to his technique and tackling to not put his body at so much risk and I truly believe when he does figure it out it'll be even more explosive."4. Pita Taumoepenu
Taumoepenu has been limited to just two games this season behind veteran SAM linebackers Eli Harold and Dekoda Watson. The 49ers hope to see their sixth-round pick continue to develop this offseason.
"I'm excited for Pita in the offseason, we all are. We think an offseason with [head strength and conditioning coach] Ray Wright developing in the weight room and getting stronger, reaching another level of maturity, he's going to be a guy that's going to be very hard to keep off the field, I hope," Saleh said. "The big thing for him is strength. He's smart enough, he's fast enough, he's got enough instincts. Now that physical strength, I think he can play SAM linebacker and be an effective edge setter the way he is now. But, in terms of winning one-on-ones in pass rush and being a guy that demands linemen to block him rather than just backs, that's going to be where he needs to get to next."
5. Arik Armstead
The 49ers have been without their 2015 first-round pick since Week 6 with a broken hand. Armstead has played just 14 of the last 32 games due to injury. Despite being placed on injured reserve, he has remained a common face around the 49ers lockerroom, and Saleh has high hopes for Armstead's return in 2018.
"He's still involved," Saleh said. "Really, really excited about getting back. He's itching to get back. He sees the growth with his teammates. He sees the way they've been getting better and you can tell that there's a fire in his eye that he wants to be a part of it. We're excited to get him back in OTAs."
6. New Years Resolutions
There is no doubt the 49ers defense has progressed through the season. San Francisco has managed to improve through a number of statistical categories over the last seven weeks. As the season comes to a close, Saleh has set goals for the 49ers defense heading into 2018.
"I don't want to sound cliché, but you want to get better. Continue to represent the style that we've come in with the violence and the speed and ball hawking," Saleh said. "Last week was really cool, the last half of the season was cool just in terms of our guys really understanding what it is to be a ball-hawking defense, what it is to play with the speed that all gas no brake isn't just running, it's about communicating so you're on the same page so you can go faster. Then the violence, our guys are playing with great violence. When you dissect it play-by-play and just watch tape, they're playing with a level of violence, especially in the run game, that would make anyone in the league very happy. To continue to grow off of that and get better and provide a spark so the offense can, our offense is pretty good and if you just give them the ball a few times, if you spark the stadium just a little bit, you could blow the doors open pretty quick. Overall, just continue to get better and continue to represent the style that we're trying to create and the image that we're trying to be on defense."