Eric Reid is adjusting to his third defensive scheme in three seasons. His favorite? The one he’s currently learning.
“It just makes sense,” Reid, the 49ers’ starting safety, said after Wednesday’s practice. “You line up and you get a call – I know exactly what I’m doing and I know exactly what the guy next to me is doing. And when you feel that way, you can feel confident when you break on a ball.”
That was a nice vote of confidence for new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, who didn’t exactly get rave reviews last year while in the same role with the Cleveland Browns. Cleveland finished 27th in yards allowed and 29th in points allowed, and O’Neil was bombarded with criticism that his scheme was too complex and ill-defined.
“It’s an entire guessing game,” an anonymous source told Sports Illustrated last year in a story about the Browns’ struggling defense. “Imagine trying to define mud.”
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If a guy has earned the right to play for us, we’re going to find roles for him to do it and get him on the field.
49ers defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil
At 37, O’Neil is four years younger than 49ers kicker Phil Dawson. He’s a disciple of Rex Ryan, the Buffalo Bills’ coach who also coached the New York Jets, and the 49ers’ players have been busy this offseason watching cut-ups of recent Jets, Bills and Browns defenses.
On Wednesday, O’Neil cautioned that his system will be fine-tuned over the coming months to fit the 49ers’ personnel. But the unit – like Ryan’s – will play a lot of man-to-man, press coverage, blitz its linebackers and try to match the aggressive approach of the 49ers’ offense. In fact, 49ers head coach Chip Kelly, who specializes in offense, has been an observer during all of the team’s defensive installation meetings this offseason.
“He’s very involved,” O’Neil said. “I want to build this thing to complement coach’s offense. So the best teams play complementary football.”
O’Neil’s first step this offseason has been finding the top 11 defensive players. Some of the questions he’s been working on:
▪ What’s Jimmie Ward’s position? O’Neil said Ward clearly is one of his best players. He has been a nickel cornerback, a spot that allows him to play perhaps 65 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. The goal is to get Ward on the field for all of the defensive snaps. To that end, the 49ers have been giving him long looks at right cornerback, where he made a couple of nice plays in coverage Wednesday.
▪ Who will play next to NaVorro Bowman at inside linebacker? O’Neil said it’s currently a three-man race among last year’s starter, Michael Wilhoite, and two players the 49ers picked up in 2015, Gerald Hodges and Ray-Ray Armstrong. Hodges practiced with the first-team defense Wednesday.
▪ What’s the composition of the defensive line? Injuries to Glenn Dorsey (ACL) and Ian Williams (ankle) have created openings for younger players. Arik Armstead, Mike Purcell and Quinton Dial composed the first-string defensive line this week.
It just makes sense. You line up and you get a call – I know exactly what I’m doing and I know exactly what the guy next to me is doing. And when you feel that way, you can feel confident when you break on a ball.
49ers safety Eric Reid, on Jim O’Neil’s defensive scheme
Other young players such as rookie defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Ronald Blair and second-year safety Jaquiski Tartt also are competing for prominent – if not starting – roles.
“Right now I’m focused on finding who are the 11,” O’Neil said. “And then if we have 15 or 16 guys, we’re going to find ways to get them on the field. If a guy has earned the right to play for us, we’re going to find roles for him to do it and get him on the field.”
Veteran safety Antoine Bethea, who has been lining up next to Reid with the first-string defense, is the only member of the defense to have played in a similar system, having done so his final two seasons with the Indianapolis Colts under Chuck Pagano, another disciple of Ryan’s.
Bethea said O’Neil adopted more than X’s and O’s from the animated Ryan.
“He’s stern, but he does have that energy that we need,” he said. “He’s smiling. He’s running around talking trash. I’m pretty sure our defense can feed off that as well.”
O’Neil was just as complimentary of Reid and Bethea as they were of him. This is the fourth time O’Neil has been part of a defense that’s installed a new scheme. The 49ers’ starting safeties, both known for their smarts, are making the process as smooth as possible.
“Those guys are further ahead than any other safety group that I’ve been a part of so far,” O’Neil said. “So that’s been very encouraging.”