Jim O’Neil’s 49ers defense is on pace to be one of the flimsiest units in NFL history, but the coordinator likes the direction in which his young players are pointing.
“I do see this thing turning (around),” he said Tuesday. “And the reason I can say that is we’ve got a group of men – coaches and players included – who are thumb pointers. They’re not finger pointers.”
Positive attitudes, however, haven’t been nearly enough this season.
Of all the ugly statistics the team has accumulated, one stands out. The 49ers are on track to allow 2,789 rushing yards this season, which would be the most since the Houston Oilers gave up 2,814 in 1985. The Oilers’ defensive coordinator that year, Jerry Glanville, was hired as interim head coach with two games remaining in 1985 and as head coach after the season.
A feeble run defense also underscores how quickly the most dominant attribute from the 49ers’ recent winning past has disappeared.
In 2011, they led the NFL in that category, allowing 1,236 yards on the ground. Only one opposing running back, the Seattle Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch in Week 16, rushed for 100 or more yards against the 49ers that year.
This year, it’s the opposite: Only one primary running back has failed to pick up at least 100 yards, the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley, who had 47 yards in Week 1.
Of course, the personnel has changed dramatically in the past five years with prominent run stoppers like Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and Ray McDonald no longer in the league and coordinator Vic Fangio now running the Chicago Bears’ defense. The defense this year also lost inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Ray-Ray Armstrong to injury for the season.
Offenses were having success against the 49ers before Bowman tore his Achilles’ tendon Oct. 2. In the two games he’s missed, opposing running backs have scored six touchdowns.
“When you lose two guys in any position, that’s tough,” O’Neil said, “But that’s the NFL. Nobody’s going to be sending us ‘sorry’ cards or ‘get well soon.’ You’ve just got to go.”
O’Neil said the team will contemplate a few personnel moves, including:
▪ Working backup inside linebackers Gerald Hodges and Shayne Skov into the rotation. Nick Bellore and Michael Wilhoite played nearly every defensive snap Sunday against the Buffalo Bills and were overmatched by running back LeSean McCoy, who ran for 140 yards and three touchdowns. Hodges started the first three games his season.
“I think moving forward you’ll see a lot more Gerald Hodges,” O’Neil said.
▪ Increasing Eric Reid’s snaps at inside linebacker. The big safety has been used all over the field this season and has been a de facto inside linebacker when the 49ers are in their dime packages. The 49ers could lean more on those alignments to take advantage of a safety group that is deeper and more talented than its inside linebacker corps.
▪ Giving rookie Ronald Blair more snaps at outside linebacker. To this point, most of Blair’s scant snaps have been along the line. The outside linebackers, however, have had trouble holding the edge against opposing running attacks.
Like their coordinator, the 49ers’ defensive players insist they will improve. After all, they shut out the Rams in Week 1 and have played well at times since.
“We see it in spurts,” rookie defensive lineman DeForest Buckner said. “In the past couple of games, (you see) how well we do with turnovers and stuff like that. We just need to stay the course.”
On Tuesday, O’Neil noted how young the team’s defense is. Only two starters are in their 30s and four players have made their first NFL starts this season.
Youth also was cited often last year when the 49ers finished 29th against the run.
“We’ve got a lot of guys playing for us that don’t have a ton of NFL experience,” O’Neil said. “Every time that they’re out there, they learn so much and those reps are so valuable for them. So just as we go, it’s going to turn. I’m very positive. I told the guys, never in my life have I flinched and never in my life will I flinch, and I expect the same from them. Just keep going, keep grinding, keep putting the work in and we’re going to be fine.”