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49ers' defense seeks to contain Vikings' Dalvin Cook

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SANTA CLARA — Fortunately for the 49ers, they have an excellent defensive coordinator, who happens to be an excellent chess player — Robert Saleh.

His ability at chess may make the 49ers winners Saturday in their playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings.

“I’m an attack-style chess player,” Saleh explained to The Press Democrat. “I want to force the issue in chess. In football terms, I would be a blitzer, but at the right moments. I’m not careless. When I see an opportunity, I’m bringing everything I have.”

Saleh is one of the best coordinators in the league. He recently interviewed for the Cleveland Browns’ head-coaching vacancy. He’s a rising star who will have the biggest test of his career on Saturday.

Saleh also is a chess junkie who constantly plays on his phone and typically keeps at least six games going against total strangers or members of the 49ers’ janitorial staff.

“I play all of them,” Saleh said. “They always have a chess board in the cafeteria. I haven’t gotten on the chess board yet, but I’ve invited them and given them my handle on the apps, and I’ve played them. There’s a little chess thing going on in the building.”

All this chess makes Saleh a better strategist and football coach.

“From a thinking standpoint, there is carryover, because it’s you and an opponent,” Saleh said. “You’re anticipating where they’re trying to go on the board to attack what you’re trying to do. In chess, there are people who can think many, many, many, many, many moves ahead. I’d like to think I can get to around five or six, maybe seven moves ahead.

“In football, I’m always trying to be in that same mode, especially in the heat of battle when the drive is going on. I try to anticipate what the other team is trying to do, so I can counter it with a coverage that might put a wrench in their plans.”

In other words, Saleh out-thinks the opposing offensive coordinator and, in the best of times, gets him in checkmate.

Think about football as chess, two related activities. If football were chess, the quarterback would be the king. He stands protected in a pocket behind five human shields — the linemen, aka the pawns of the offense. If the other team continually breaks through these protections and nullifies the quarterback, the game could be over.

Not necessarily the case this Saturday. The 49ers will play the Minnesota Vikings, who have a fine quarterback — Kirk Cousins, who, strangely, is not the king. He is a false king. The Vikings ranked 30th out of 32 teams in pass attempts this season, hardly king behavior. The way they use Cousins, he’s more like a bishop or a knight — important, but not the king.

The king on the Vikings’ chess board is actually their running back, Dalvin Cook. Almost everything Minnesota does on offense goes through him. If the 49ers don’t stop Cook, they’ll lose. If they stop Cook, they’ll win.

Checkmate.

“We’re not going to be able to rush the quarterback unless we stop the run,” Nick Bosa said. “That’s what we’re focused on.”

Unfortunately for the 49ers, stopping Cook will be a major challenge.

“They’re a really good run team, especially with Cook back there, and defending the run hasn’t been our strong suit,” DeForest Buckner admitted. “I know they’re definitely going to challenge us with the run game early, especially with Cook. He’s one of the best in the league. We just have to do a good job shutting that down early.”

The 49ers defense allowed 4.5 yards per carry this season, which ranked 23rd out of 32 teams. And Cook ran for 4.5 yards per carry. Tough matchup for the 49ers.

Saleh can guess the Vikings’ plan: give the ball to Cook, who, if you’ll allow the mixed metaphor, also could be the queen of the Vikings’ chess board, because he’s everywhere. He had 1,654 yards from scrimmage this season.

“If you could somehow take out the queen, the game is over, too,” Saleh said.

Easier said than done with Cook.

“I’ve been watching him since Florida State,” Bosa said. “He’s really good. Not many people can maintain the speed he maintains through contact. He makes cuts and never slows down, and he’s physical.”

The 49ers must come up with a plan to stop Cook, to take the Vikings’ most dangerous chess piece off the board, whether you see him as the king or queen.

Which piece will Saleh attack with?

“I like using pawns,” Saleh explained. “I get aggressive with those pawns, because if they’re positioned the right way, they can wreak havoc. If you compare them to football players, the pawns are the foundation of the team. They’re the role players, the heart and soul of the football team that people don’t talk about. But without them, teams don’t happen. You can have superstars, and they get everything, but it’s the Sheldon Days, the Dre Greenlaws, the guys that don’t get all the glory. They’re just as important.”

Saleh has an egalitarian philosophy of chess and football. He doesn’t just feature his superstars — he finds ways to feature everyone. That’s why he’s so good, and that’s what he’ll have to do against Cook: attack with all 11 defenders. Swarm him.

“The best part of checkmate,” Saleh said, “is when the other person looks at the board like, ‘How did that happen?’ The look on their face is rewarding.”

That’s the look he hopes to see this Saturday. Checkmate. Game over.

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