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New 49ers defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil did not leave a glowing impression in Cleveland

New 49ers defensive coordinator comes from a solid defensive pedigree, but the reviews in Cleveland were not glowing.

Chip Kelly has a new defensive coordinator in former Cleveland Browns coach Jim O'Neil. A Rex Ryan disciple, O'Neil is thought to have come from a solid coaching pedigree. He helped Mike Pettine turn around Buffalo's defense in 2013, and in his first year in Cleveland, he coordinated a Browns defense that finished 11th in overall defensive DVOA.

Then 2015 happened.

The Browns regressed on defense and in October, players told Sports Illustrated reporter Kevin Jones that the blame lay squarely at the feet of their second-year coordinator.

Rather than being assigned specific gaps, Cleveland's defensive linemen play different techniques based on how their offensive counterparts are blocking them. The linebackers, then, are expected to guess what technique their teammates are using, scrape through the resulting mess and make the play. Opposing offenses have identified this flaw on film and are repeatedly, week-after-week, gashing the edge of Cleveland’s defense. It’s a completely chaotic approach to stopping the run, and players have said—off the record—they're spending way too much time thinking, and not nearly enough time reacting.

Your run fits and gap integrity are basics on defense. Hearing players specifically call out a deficiency in the scheme is disconcerting. Whenever you read a report like this, you always need to consider the source. It's in the player's best interest to deflect. Their skill at executing defensive techniques is their key to getting paid. The same goes for coaches, which is likely why O'Neil told reporters, "We just need to and guys just need to do their job. We need to do a better job executing more consistently," when asked about his defense's failures.

It could be that O'Neil simply couldn't overcome a rash of injures to star players like Joe Haden and veterans like Donte Whitner. The 2014 defense relied on a spectacular secondary, as their run defense ranked near the bottom of the league, so any decline in pass coverage would cause the defense to tumble.

Or it could be that O'Neil simply rode Pettine's coat tails to success, and as Pettine took less of an active role in the defense, O'Neil's curious schematic choices reared their ugly head. Just mention the words Kruger, Dropping, and Coverage to a Cleveland fan to see the kind of vitriol O'Neil's choices inspire.

Whatever you think of the hire, the defense will definitely be an item to watch in Chip Kelly's first season as head coach.


Our wonderful friends over at Pro Football Focus helped shed some light on a frequent gripe with O'Neil's defense. Apparently, Paul Kruger didn't drop into coverage as much as was perceived.