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Jim O’Neil’s defense faces a stiff challenge against Carolina

Early returns are positive for the 49ers defense, but can they handle an infinitely more competent Carolina offense?

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from Jim O’Neil’s defense. Sure, O’Neil was from the Rex Ryan coaching tree. But it was difficult separating O’Neil’s schemes from his frequent cohort, and fellow Ryan disciple, Mike Pettine. After one game Jim O’Neil looks to be putting together a multiple and aggressive defense that leans heavy towards the Rex Ryan “pressure wins games” philosophy.

Pressure Packages

Throughout the game the 49ers leveraged creative rush patterns and blitzes to confuse both Case Keenum and their protection schemes. On the first sack we saw a return of the Tackle-End stunt made famous in San Francisco by the Smith Brothers, Justin and Aldon. But from the opening drive the 49ers had more varied blitzes than we’ve seen in San Francisco in some time.

Pressure packages doesn’t necessarily mean sending more than four rushers. O’Neil would sometimes send an array of non-standard rush personnel, attacking protections without sacrificing too much in coverage.

What looks to be an all out blitz, with Gerald Hodges (a linebacker), Eric Reid (a safety), and Jimmie Ward (a defensive back), is really just a four man rush. O’Neil leverages Ronald Blair’s athleticism to cover the flat, indicating he is thinking about how to use his player’s skill sets.

A New Look 3-3-5

The 49ers defense often employed a three safety look against the Rams, replacing a linebacker with Jaquiski Tartt. Each of the safeties played varied roles, but Eric Reid seemed to be the primary chess piece, lining up deep as the single high safety, in the box as the dollar backer, and even in the slot against wide receivers.

The 3-3-5 formation allowed the 49ers to keep an extra defensive lineman on the field, a key when you’re game planning against Todd Gurley. It also makes sense when you think of the depth of the position groups. The 49ers third-best defensive lineman is better than the third best outside linebacker.

Deforest Buckner and Arik Armstead

O’Neil seems to know what he has in these two players, deploying them across the defensive line at multiple positions. Both players aligned anywhere from an interior 2i to a 9-technique, successfully pressuring Keenum throughout the game. These two players are definitely fun to watch and help drive a lot of what O’Neil does in obvious passing situations.

Matchup against Carolina

We certainly need to consider that this defensive effort was against the Case Keenum-led Los Angeles eight-and-eights Rams. The Carolina Panthers present a completely different challenge. Per Football Outsiders, the Panthers used personnel grouping with two or fewer wide receivers on about 58% of their snaps in 2015. I expect the 49ers to be in their traditional 3-4 base formation more often than against the Rams.

Big-bodied targets Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess, and Greg Olson will test the 49ers secondary. All three players measure 6’5”, a clear advantage when looking at their respective matchups. If we include Chris Davis, no starting corner measures above 5’11. Against Denver, Newton proved he was willing to throw it up and allow Benjamin to climb the ladder, meaning the outside one-on-one matchups are key to the 49ers defensive success.

In the 49ers 3-3-5 Eric Reid played in the slot often, but his coverage skills are not refined. Carolina loves to play Greg Olson in the slot. In Week 1 he racked up 60 receiving yards from the slot, more than any other tight end. How O’Neil deals with Olsen will tell us a lot about what he thinks of Reid’s coverage skills.

O’Neil’s pressure looks against an infinitely more competent Carolina team will be a fantastic barometer for the 49ers defense. While early returns are great, Week 2 is certainly going to be a challenging test for an emerging defense.