Keeping players engaged can be difficult when meaningful snaps on Sundays are still more than three months away. The California sunshine is intensifying, and the San Francisco 49ers are just two weeks away from the freedom of summer vacation.
That's the challenge facing first-year defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and the rest of the team's coaching staff. One strategy Saleh implements is to call out highlight plays during team meetings. The other, and possibly more effective route, is to put players on notice when their effort level doesn't meet expectations.
Saleh will call out "loafs" in front of the entire team while going through practice film. Did you not run to the ball on a play? That's a loaf. Did you get knocked off your feet? That's a loaf. Were you unable to shed a block? That's a loaf. No player is immune to mistakes, but there's a universal understanding that you don't want to be atop the "loaf chart".
"It makes guys work harder because everyone is watching," said third-year linebacker Eli Harold. "Everyone has a target on their back."
The scrutiny in the meeting room translates into juice on the practice field. Anytime a 49ers running back carries the football, all 11 on defense are seen trying to pry the ball free. When a ball gets tipped or overthrown, the entire defensive sideline starts hollering for an interception.
Such energy fits Saleh's mantra of "all gas, no brakes." He took things a step further at last week's "State of the Franchise" event when he told 49ers season ticket holders that he expects his defense to play with "extreme violence" (within the confines of the rules, obviously).
"If (an opponent) is thinking about our violence on Wednesday, I feel like we're ahead of the game," Saleh said.
From a player's perspective, how could that not make you want to dial it up? The common football cliché is "be the hammer, not the nail". Saleh is asking his group to be a collective wrecking ball.
"Coach Saleh does little things to get guys going," Harold said. "He makes it fun. It's all about having fun. At the end of the day, it's a job, but you've got to have fun. You don't want to go to work every day miserable."
Effort level and focus are vital components when acclimating to a new system. Harold has the added learning curve of a new position. The former 3-4 right outside linebacker is now learning to be a SAM linebacker in Saleh's 4-3 scheme.
Harold will regularly line up across from the tight end on the strong side of the offense. It's an opportunity that will allow him to showcase his athletic ability.
"I feel like this is the perfect fit for me," Harold said. "It's a little different because I've never played on the left side of the defense, but now I'm on both. It's taking some time to get used to, but I'm getting it."
Harold expressed that players are collectively buying in to what Saleh is selling. The scheme is simpler than those of past years, and it gives players a clear directive of what their responsibility is on a snap-to-snap basis.
"It's one man. Everybody has a gap," Harold said. "It allows everyone to play fast. I know we tend to say that every year, but this really does allow us to play fast. You've got guys like Arik (Armstead), DeForest (Buckner) and Tank (Carradine) who are playing the positions that they were built to play. It's exciting. I think we're going to have one of the best front sevens. I really do believe that."
Saleh's task of turning around the league's worst defense in 2016 is only just beginning, but it's a good sign that he's pulling the right strings thus far.