Defensive Coordinator Jim O’Neil
“It was great to get the first win at Levi’s. I thought that the 49er Faithful was awesome. The energy that they brought was great. It was loud. Our guys fed off of it. It was a fun atmosphere, especially on third down, for us to play in defensively. We did some good things as far as how we executed in the run game, did some good things on third down and I thought our guys in the backend did a good job covering. There’s still a lot of stuff we need to work on. We were able to take a lot of things from that game and be able to grow from them as a defense and we’re going to have to grow in a hurry. We’ve got a big challenge this week with the Carolina Panthers, a very good offense, but our guys are excited about it. Questions?”
Were you pretty pleased with the blitzes that you called? It seemed like a lot of them, you had a lot of free rushes to the ball even when you rushed only five.
“Yeah. I mean, that’s something we try to do as a staff is we want to attack protections and the players did a great job with the pre-snap disguise and hitting it. So, yeah, I was pleased with how some of them hit.”
First of all, congratulations on the shutout. My question to you is in regards to Carolina Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin, a big, physical wide receiver, a guy who can basically box out smaller defensive backs. How do you guys plan on attacking his skillset knowing full well he’s a bigger, physical type of receiver on the outside?
“We had a chance to go against some bigger guys in the preseason. You know, you’ve just got to trust your technique, got to change it up some and you’ve got to do some different things coverage-wise. But, he’s a challenge. Him and [Carolina Panthers WR Devin] Funchess on the other side, both of them are bigger guys, huge catch radius and [Carolina Panthers QB] Cam [Newton] trusts them and he throws the ball out there to them and they make plays for him.”
You mentioned energy on Monday, but I asked the players last year and they admitted to not having the same energy on the road and the numbers reflected that. As a coach, how do you coach up your defense to bring the energy in road games, particularly on a long trip like this?
“You can’t play this game if you don’t have passion. So, if you don’t love football and you’re not going to bring the passion to the field on Sunday or Monday or out to practice, you’re probably going to struggle in this league. You’re probably going to struggle to play on our defense.”
DL Arik Armstead hadn’t been in a game for you guys. What did you see from him in that game and is his role going to increase now in Week 2?
“We’ll see. We’ll kind of see how he gets through the week in practice, but that’s kind of the plan. That’s been the plan all along is we went into the game erring on the side of playing him more on later downs. Eventually, when he feels good and ready to roll, he’s a guy that you’d like to only bring off the field when he needs to grab a quick water break and get him back out there just because he can be such a difference maker in the run and pass game. Had some splash plays for us on Monday night. So, he’s a guy we need to continue to bring along.”
You had the three safety look, very innovative, worked really well. Are you going to continue to use it heavily? What went into the creativity of it? I’m fascinated by it.
“It’ll be based off of the opponent we’re playing against and our packages will change every week. Our packages this week will be different than they were on Monday night. But, like I’ve been telling you guys, that’s why the depth chart, we don’t put too much stock into it. If you’ve earned the right to play, we’re going to play you. If we feel like we can with you, we’re going to put you out on the field. We’re in a situation where we have three very good safeties. So, we felt like we needed to create a package. It’s something we worked on all preseason and we were able to deploy that package on Monday night and it was good for us.”
With a guy like Cam Newton, what are some of the things you have to emphasize as you go through game planning with your guys this week?
“Takes all 11, just like we talked about last week with [Los Angeles Rams RB Todd] Gurley. You’ve got to play great team defense. Obviously, he has an unbelievable ability to extend plays. He can make plays with the ball above his shoulder throwing it and below his shoulder running it. He’s a true dual-threat quarterback and he’s dynamic at doing both. So, he’s the league MVP. It’s going to take an exceptional effort.”
It felt like the Broncos were a little rough with him when you watch that tape and I know the league ruled whatever it did, they were fined, but when you watch the tape of the Broncos hitting him in the head, do the coaches talk about that?
“For us, defensively, I thought, if you just look at Monday night, I thought we were extremely aggressive and we didn’t have any penalties. That’s the way we want to play. I’m not going to talk about how Denver played. But, for us, we’re going to play the way we did Monday night.”
A two-parter on S Eric Reid; do you feel like his versatility in terms of size, speed, cover ability is rare for a safety in this league?
“It is. He’s probably got, I’m trying to think of all the safeties I’ve coached, he’s probably one of the bigger ones. He does. He’s got rare athletic ability. He’s got rare coverage ability. But, the thing about Eric is he’s so smart and he’s such a gym rat, football junkie. He was texting [49ers defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley] Haff last night, we’re grinding and it must have been, it had to be 11-o’clock at night and he’s texting asking where’s the base game plan? He wants to look at it and you love that from guys. He’s into it. He puts out a lot of pre-snap fires. So, it’s not just the stuff that he can do when the ball is snapped. It’s the stuff he does for us pre-snap which is pretty special also.”
Mentally, physically with what he can do, does that help you when you’re putting together personnel groupings and your rotations getting different guys on the field, having a guy, a chess piece like that that you can move around help you get other guys in spots where, OK, right now, he’s going to be good in this spot?
“We’ll go through this season and Eric Reid, when it’s all said and done, will play probably both safety spots, nickel, he’ll play some dime backer, he’ll play some defensive end. We’re just starting with him
“That’s what I said.”
What week are we going to see that?
“You’ll see. You can ask me about it the following Wednesday.”
When you run a defense like you do, that has so many different looks, how important is it to have an Eric Reid and an S Antoine Bethea back there who are smart, who have been around and can maybe offer some stability while everything is kind of changing in front of them?
“It’s huge. The safeties really run it. In our defense, [LB] NaVorro [Bowman] runs the front seven and then the safeties run, really, the coverage aspect of things. And if you have kind of that triangle right there, if those guys are pretty smart and they really get into the game plan, it just allows you as a coach to do more. And it’s not just them. We’ve got smart guys up front. [CB Tramaine] Brock, even at corner sees some things that, we’ve got some good football players that understand what they’re going to get before it happens and that’s always fun as a football coach.”
How did CB Rashard Robinson’s tape grade out and what do you think went into the fact that he was not targeted in the passing game?
“I don’t know. I don’t know why he wasn’t targeted. You’d have to ask the Rams that. But, I think he played 26 plays, graded out really well. He was assignment sound. I thought he was in pretty tight coverage all day. So, I was happy with his first real game as an NFL corner.”
The cynical sportswriter might say that was very impressive in Week 1 and the defense looked really good, but you’re really going to find out who they are in Week 2 with a bigger test. Are you curious to kind of see where they stand on the road against a team that led the NFL in points last year?
“Yeah. You know, I’m excited for this week. I was excited last week. I’m going to be excited every week. I get a chance to coach football. But, there’s no doubt. We’re playing this week against league MVP, defending NFC Champions. You know, they were in the Super Bowl last year for a reason. They’re a very good offense. So, it’ll be a big test for us defensively.”
Did you go back and watch some of that Super Bowl tape to see how the Broncos were able to attack Cam and everybody?
“Yeah. But, I mean, the Broncos are a different defense than we are. So, you’ve got to be true to yourself. So, you study a lot of things. You go back, you look at preseason tape. You look at tape last year. You look at tape, you know, when I was in Cleveland and you played against them two years ago. So, yeah, you look at a lot of stuff. But, you’ve got to be true to yourself. You’ve got to be true to who your players are, what you believe in scheme-wise and then you’ve got to go play.”
Where did you watch the Super Bowl actually? Did you watch it at home or with some friends? You had just got hired here about two weeks before.
“Yeah, that week was a whirlwind now. I watched it at home in my basement back in Cleveland. I actually had a really nice sports bar that my wife designed down there. I think I had some of the staff members over there and we watched the Super Bowl there.”
You weren’t watching it as a coach though, you were watching it as a fan?
“No, as a fan. I was watching it as a fan.”
Going back to Rashard, you talked about how he played. He’s a big, physical cornerback. Do you have full confidence in him that he can get the job done if you have to line him up against Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess? Does it kind of create a bit of a mismatch from your perspective?
“I mean, Kelvin Benjamin is a really good receiver, but I have confidence in all of our corners.”
What are some of the challenges in the short week here, having a quick turn to get ready? What’s the last 48 hours been like for you guys trying to prepare?
“We went home right after the game, tried to get some sleep. That was tough because obviously we were on an emotional high after that one. Woke up early the next day. We put in a full day’s work yesterday. Stayed pretty late. Got home, got a few hours of sleep and then you wake up and you do it again. But, it’s not hard to do because you love what you do. I think coach has a great plan as far as traveling to the east coast and how we’re going to go about this week of practice with it being a short week. I think [49ers vice president of football operations Jeff Ferguson] Ferg and [49ers director of human performance Mark Uyeyama] Uye have a great plan as far as our players’ recovery and getting their bodies back. So, for me it’s easy. I’ve just got to worry about football. As a coach, do you wish you had the extra day? Sure. But, you’re going to play a Monday night game almost every year. You’re going to play a Thursday night. You want to be in those games. When you’re a good football team, you have abnormal schedules, so that’s what you want.”
As a defensive play caller, it looked like you were really aggressive early and backed off a little bit later. Do you try to build upon what you’re doing and adjust accordingly just like an offensive play caller would do?
“Yeah, there’s the call sheet and then there’s the call sheet in your mind or there’s the call sheet that you build from your call sheet as the game goes on. ‘Hey, I’ve shown them this, now we’ve got this setup.’ Or, ‘Let’s setup this. This is working. This isn’t working. This is how they’re attacking us.’ There’s a lot of that, and our, the defensive staff is great. I can lean on all those guys. I get great information from the booth. Those guys are all over it. They see it all and they’re all, everybody is a great resource for me. Whether it’s run game, protections, pass game, what are they doing, what calls do you like, if I need anybody to recommend anything it’s, it was just everything clicked. It was a good process for us all.”
You talked about in training camp the difficulties for DB Jimmie Ward playing outside and then kicking inside and different responsibilities. How did he adjust to that?
“I thought he did a really good job. There’s some things technique-wise that he needs to continue to clean up. But, he competed, he made some plays, blitzed. And again, that’s something in the past, with me coach-wise, that’s been very hard for guys to do. Jimmie is a rare guy and he wants to do that. I prefer to just keep him on the outside and let him, put him on an island out there and let him go. But, he did a really good job and when [CB] Chris [Davis] went down last week and we needed him to do it, he didn’t bat an eye at it.”
Is there a scenario where if Jimmie plays well doing both again that you just say, ‘Hey, it’s working,’ and you just let him do both going forward even when Chris comes back?
“That’s something that we’ll talk about each week.”
What are your thoughts on LB Ray-Ray Armstrong’s performance and did you go in thinking they might split snaps and did that change based on the way he was playing?
“No, it’s just the way the game unfolded. We had [LB Gerald Hodges] G starting in a couple of packages and we had Ray starting in a couple packages and then just with the way the game went, we just ended up emphasizing a little bit more of Ray’s packages than G’s packages. That could flip this week and G could end up with 30 or 40 reps and Ray-Ray could end up with 15 or 20. So, there’s no way for me to predict that, like I said. And, [LB] Mike [Wilhoite] is a guy we’re going to work hard to get involved too. I like the depth in that group. I feel like we’ve got a bunch of guys that can help us win football games.”
What about DL DeForest Buckner, his reps were, I guess a lot higher than some of us were expecting. Was that planned or he was just playing so well you couldn’t take him out?
“I thought he had a really good first game. I thought he was really solid. I thought he was disruptive in the run game. He made some plays in the pass game. I thought it was a great start for him. A very, very good start for him.”
Did he earn the right to play?
“Yeah, he earned the righto play throughout all the spring and training camp.”