When new 49ers head coach Chip Kelly announced he had hired Jim O’Neil as his defensive coordinator, everyone knew O’Neil was stepping into a tough situation.
The former Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator (2014-15) is taking over a San Francisco unit that has been devastated by the loss of key veterans over the past two seasons. Plus, with Kelly’s fast-paced offensive attack in place this coming season, the 49ers defense will be on the field more than ever.
In two of Kelly’s three seasons as head coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, the Eagles’ defense was on the field for more plays than any other unit in two of those years. The other season, it was No. 2.
At first, O’Neil seemed an odd choice. His Browns defense in 2015 was 29th in the NFL in points allowed.
But recently Kelly explained for the first time publicly why he hired O’Neil. One reason, he said, was because O’Neil – who spent four years as the New York Jets’ defensive backs coach under defensive-minded head coach Rex Ryan – had a solid base. He’d also been linebackers coach for the Buffalo Bills in 2013.
“He’s obviously from the Rex Ryan tree, and I really think if you look at the statistics from his first year in Cleveland that they did an outstanding job,” Kelly told reporters at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. “They had the lowest opposing passer rating and were ninth in scoring defense. They were one of the top teams in takeaways.
“Then you go to last year – this is why you have to look at the whole story – they had a ton of injuries. (Cornerback) Joe Haden missed nine games. They lost four or five key guys. But the job they did in Cleveland without a great offense was outstanding.”
In O’Neil’s first season in Cleveland, Haden and safeties Tashaun Gipson and Donte Whitner all made the Pro Bowl.
In his four seasons coaching the Jets’ secondary, New York ranked at the top of statistical charts in lowest opposing QB rating, completion percentage and passing yards allowed per game.
O’Neil is one of 10 new assistant coaches on Kelly’s staff for 2016. Only two assistants, running backs coach Tom Rathman and outside linebackers coach Jason Tarver remain from the staff of Jim Tomsula in 2015.