Sakamoto: 49ers DC Jim O’Neil Defense Requires Fundamentally Sound Technicians

Relentless. Accountable. Productive. These are three words to describe San Francisco 49ers DC Jim O’Neil and his 3-4 defense. O’Neil caught up with 49ers beat writers for the first time on Wednesday. A press conference aimed at getting to know the type of scheme in place, O’Neil was hit with a number of questions on how he would go about improving the NFL’s 29th ranked defense.

“We talk to them about three attributes that we are looking for as a staff that will allow them to be successful in this system,” O’Neil said.


“The first one was being relentless. We want to coach guys how to play football, not how hard to play. The next one was accountable. Everybody has a job, get your job done. The guys that consistently do that will be the guys that will play for us. And, the last one was productive. There’s a lot of guys that are scared to make plays. We want to find guys that trust their technique and are confident enough to go make plays in this league, because that’s what it’s all about.”

If you read my previous article, 49ers win coaching staff trust via fundamentals, then you would know that fundamentals play a key role in O’Neil’s press cover scheme.

Whether playing a cover 2 or single-high safety, it’s imperative the cornerbacks are fundamentally sound at the line of scrimmage. While it’s true fundamentals are important under any scheme, I would argue that good press cover corners are harder to find than simply a zone based defensive back.

So what exactly is O’Neil looking for in his cornerbacks? He wants players who trust their technique.

There are three basic types of techniques that press cornerbacks need and are outlined below:


1. Do the cornerbacks keep their shoulder’s squared at the LOS? (Line of Scrimmage)

This is extremely important. Just like in basketball when coming off a screen, a cornerback shoulders must be squared in order to maintain proper leverage throughout the jam. If they don’t, they are susceptible to opening up their hips too early defeating the purpose of the initial play-call.

2. Do their feet remain patient?

Many times over I have seen cornerbacks get happy feet when they are up in press coverage. Whether taking false steps or giving up too much ground off the release, it’s imperative that the cornerback maintain patient feet throughout, as they try to flat-line the receiver laterally.

3. Do they use proper hand-placement?

Using the proper hand to jam or disrupt the timing of the receiver coming out of his stem (route-tree) is key. Whether playing with outside integrity (forcing player back inside) in a press cover-2 or simply playing straight up in press cover-0, the cornerback must be fundamentally sound when jamming the receiver off the line.

These three techniques are the building blocks for a strong press cover corner. There are more nuances that go into the process after that and it starts with pad-level.

Secondary Fundamentals

Once the receiver comes off the line, the cornerback must keep his pads low maintaining a smooth cadence in his backpedal. From there he must have the COD (Change of Direction) skills to shadow the receiver downfield. Once the ball is up in the air, the fundamentals of locating man then ball come into play. From there it comes down to receptions, interceptions or PBUs depending on your closing speed.

However, it’s important to note that if you get too far up vertically on the receiver, you put yourself at a disadvantage. How? Because then the wide-receiver has the luxury of running back play-side toward the line of scrimmage, allowing himself a safe cushion for an easy catch. Instead the fundamentally thing to do is stay on his hip slightly in a trail position throughout the play. (watch DBC Jeff Hafley working with DB Jimmie Ward on that very technique in the video above)

Speaking of Ward, I think it’s safe to say that Ward will in fact be the starting cornerback on the right side. Why? Because O’Neil gushed over his football savvy and skill set.

“I know he’s one of our best 11. That I do know. So, we’re trying to find ways to get our best 11 on the field. So far, what he has shown out on the practice field, I’m confident that he could do it out there [cornerback].

Ward had the tough task of learning three positions his rookie season; nickel, strong and free safety. Not only that, but he did it with little continuity.

Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

In each of his first three seasons in the NFL, Ward has had a different defensive coordinator. Wrap your head around the different terminology and coverage responsibilities, and things can get quite confusing. But not Ward. O’Neil loves football savvy players and gave high praise to Ward for his high football IQ.

“Just athletic ability, football knowledge, what his skill set brings to our defensive system,” O’Neil said. “He’s a guy that, just watching him and the way he’s practiced and the way he’s attacked the meeting rooms, he’s a guy I know we have to get on the field.”

Who will start opposite of Ward? That player seems to be seventh-year CB Tramaine Brock. Who held the strong-side starting role since 2015.

The 49ers have a cultural identity in place. Play smart. Play tough. Play physical. How will that translate into wins in 2016? Time will tell.


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Ryan is the Founder/CEO of, 49ers Beat Writer, Live Game Day Correspondent for Bleacher Report and member of Pro Football Writers of America. Born and raised in San Jose, he also graduated from San Diego State University. His work has been featured on NFL Network, 95.7 The Game, National Football Post, Sports Illustrated, FanSided Network, ESPN Radio, CBS Sports 810, and NBC Bay Area News. For more information, please contact him via email at or call him at (408) 622-0996.