A year ago at this time, new 49ers defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil was saying all the right things.
O’Neil, hired by head coach Chip Kelly, last spring was preaching a complex, uptempo defense that would go after opposing quarterbacks.
Said O’Neil, of his goal for the 49ers in 2016: “I think our mantra right now is we are going to stop the run on early downs. And then we want to confuse and hit your quarterback.”
Unfortunately for the 49ers and O’Neil, that didn’t work out.
Under O’Neil, San Francisco had the NFL’s worst defense. The 49ers gave up 406.4 yards and 30 points per game. The defense was the worst part of a bad team. At the end of the season, both Kelly and O’Neil were ousted.
Now, a year later, another defensive coordinator is saying all the right things, too. The question is, will he have more success than O’Neil?
Robert Saleh, hired by head coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch, will be the leader of a unit that is switching from its longtime 3-4 base defense to a 4-3 scheme similar to the one run for many years by Pete Carroll with the Seattle Seahawks. The scheme essentially will feature four linemen, three linebackers and the strong safety aligning close to the line of scrimmage to stop the run. While there is shifting and blitzing and attempts to confuse opposing quarterbacks, there is also a certain sense of simplicity. Defenders are assigned just one gap – they are responsible for covering the area to their left or right – instead of the two gaps they had to watch under the old 3-4 scheme.
That, says Saleh, allows for a more attacking style.
“I think this style of defense is good for any player, in that it allows them to free their mind so they can play to their God-given ability,” Saleh said at the team’s recent “State of the Franchise” event. “To attack an offense, giving a player all of their athletic ability, all of their strength, whatever it is. Freeing them mentally is what this defense is built on. Being able to play as fast as possible and as physical as possible within the scheme.”
Saleh added that he hopes his team can be in constant attack mode, with “all gas, no brakes and playing with extreme violence.”
Of course, it’s one thing to put in a scheme and teach it. It’s another to have the players put it into effect – as O’Neil discovered in his one year in the Bay Area.
But already, some 49ers are excited about how they’ll be playing in 2017.
Said linebacker/defensive end Aaron Lynch, to ESPN.com: “It allows us to play as fast as hell and let us do things that we do naturally as football players."