VIDEO: 49ers DC Jim O’Neil Describes Defense In 3 Words: “Relentless, Accountable, Productive.”


Opening comments:

“Excited about being a part of this organization. I’m fired up to lead this defense. It’s been a lot of fun. I love coming to work every day and working with this staff and these players. It’s the best staff I’ve been around. Surrounded by great football minds, the success that they’ve had in their previous experiences as coaches and I really feel like it’s allowed us system-wise to take the next step. The players have been great. The buy-in has been awesome and the thing I like the best about them is how much they love football. It makes it really easy to coach them. Questions?”


What have you been trying to get out of, like, what’s the first step for you when you get these guys together, especially now that OTAs have started, what are you trying to find out about this group?

“We’re trying to get them to build a strong mental and physical foundation, just with the scheme and then the techniques we’re asking them to do. And then, 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. 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.”


What would you say or what do you want to be the hall marks of your defense? Is it going to be a blitzing defense? Do you want a lot of takeaways? What are you aspiring to this season?

“The thing that is great about this system, and I think the reason it’s had so much success in the league, is it’s built to fit the skillsets of the players. We don’t force the players to fit the scheme. That’s what we want to be and I like what I see so far. I think that 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.”


Last season, there weren’t many hits on the quarterback. The sack numbers were one of the lowest in franchise history. Are the pieces in place for you guys to be a good pass rush or is that an area that you really have to scheme up?

“Yeah, again, in this system we have done it a lot of different ways. We’ve been able to at times rush three over the years and get pressure on the quarterback. We’ve been able to rush four at times and get great pressure on the quarterback. And then, when we haven’t had a great pass rush, that’s when you pressure and you blitz more. So, we’re going to find ways to get after the quarterback, whether it’s three, four, five, six, seven guys if we have to, because if you let quarterbacks be comfortable in the pocket, it’s hard to win.”


You talked about over the years, what–?

“Just in my experience with the New York Jets, my experience with the Buffalo Bills, in Cleveland and then now here.”


I feel like in Cleveland, former NFL S Jim Leonhard was the key piece to your defense when it was firing. Have you identified a player that can maybe fit that role or is going to be the signal caller in the back?

“Yeah, Jimmy was unique just because he played in the system so many years and he traveled so many teams with us. He was with the Ravens, he was with New York, he was with us in Buffalo, and then he was with us in Cleveland. So far, I’ve been really impressed with the safety group. [S Antoine] Bethea and [S] Eric Reid are very, very smart football players and with this being the fourth time I’ve been a part of an organization installing this system, those guys are further ahead than any other safety group that I’ve been a part of so far. So, that’s been very encouraging.”


Was there any thought to bring Jim Leonhard on the staff?

“No, Jimmy is working with Wisconsin right now. So, we’ll let him get his feet wet out there and we’ll see where he’s at in a few years.”


Last week one of the things that stood out when we watched was that DB Jimmie Ward was at cornerback and not back with the safeties. How would you interpret that? Is that an experimental thing and how does he look at cornerback as opposed to safety?

“We don’t know what Jimmie is going to be right now. 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. So, he’ll continue to be out there this week.”


This defense, the run defense, was always a top-10 defense with former 49ers ILB Patrick Willis on the field. He’s gone obviously, so how do you kind of get this run defense built back up?

“Well I think, again, one of the things I’m excited about is [defensive line coach] Jerry Azzinaro on our staff and he’s had a lot of success with the techniques he teaches up front. And again, that’s what I’m talking about when I say with some of the guys on the staff, we’ve been able to take this defense to the next level. But, it starts with an attitude. You’ve got to be willing to stop the run. It’s, a lot of times you’ve got to put your body in uncomfortable positions and you can’t be a selfish player. And then, it takes all 11. It’s just not on the D-Line, it’s just not on the linebackers, it’s on all 11. To play good run defense, it takes all 11 guys that are out there.”


When you’re installing the defense, what cut-ups are you showing? Are you showing the ones from Cleveland, are you showing the ones from Buffalo?

“We have an eight-year group of cut-ups that I’ve traveled with back from the four years I was with the Jets, the one year with the Bills and then the two years with the Browns. So, we’ve been able to mix and match and show the guys different cut-ups of things we’ve done successful and the defense we’re installing with them from all those teams.”


We talked about Jimmie and guys who are moving around the defense. At what point do you want to have some of those roles solidified? I would assume training camp, obviously, but do you want to have it done early in training camp, where you can get those guys work in preseason games, or are you more willing to wait and see how it unfolds closer to the regular season?

“I think you’ve got to wait until the preseason games, because right now you get a good feel for who mentally can execute the defenses you’re asking them to execute. But, you really with us not tackling, you can’t see guys finish on the quarterback, you really don’t answer those questions until you get into the preseason games.”


Is the run scheme different than what it was in Cleveland? Have you guys tinkered with it?

“We tried to build the run scheme the best we could to fit our personnel in Cleveland. Our personnel is different here. So yeah, it’ll be different. Every year we are different.”


What have been your early impressions of DL DeForest Buckner and the other rookies you’ve brought on this year?

“Very impressed. Those two guys on the D-Line. DeForest has done a great job so far. He’s very versatile. He’s a guy that we see being a difference maker in the run and pass game. [DL Ronald] Blair gives us a changeup, a guy that can shoot gaps, make plays in the run game and has a knack to get to the quarterback in the pass game. And I’m happy with the corners we took. So, all those guys are coming along and I think the best football’s ahead of them.”


Do you have Blair as a defensive lineman?

“Right now, yes. But, he’s a guy again, he shows the versatility to be able to do some stuff on the edge.”


How about DL Arik Armstead? What are your impressions of him so far and does he look like a guy who’s more comfortable now in his second year?

“Yeah. I think he’s really, really comfortable too with Azz being his coach. I thought he came on strong just with the film I watched from him from last year. And so far in the OTAs and the voluntary mini-camp we’ve had, he’s shown that he can be a difference maker in the run game and the pass game. So, I’m excited about him.”


You’ve worked a lot with Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan. How has he influenced your coaching style?

“He’s huge. You know, him and [former Cleveland Browns head coach] Mike Pettine both kind of put me under their wing and they taught me the game at this level and a lot of the schemes that we employ are schemes that were developed by Rex that he probably got from his dad [former NFL head coach Buddy Ryan] and from Mike. So, it’s been a big influence on my coaching career.”


Where do you see DL Tank Carradine fitting in? Is he working as an outside linebacker?

“He’s living in the outside backer room, but he’s a very versatile player. He’s going to live in both rooms for us. So, I see him on early downs, him helping us out some at outside backer and then when we get into later downs or sub situations, he’s a guy that can play on the edge or he can slide inside and provide some interior rush for us.”


At that spot, you’re probably not going to ask him to be dropping into coverage too much–?

“Well, he’s learning it all right now. He’s doing a really good job of learning it right now. So, he’s been great in meetings, he’s been great with [outside linebackers coach Jason Tarver] Tarv in the outside backer room. So, again, he’s another guy that’s in the competition. Everybody on our defense knows nobody is going to be given anything. Those guys are going to have to earn it. We don’t care what you’ve done in the past. We don’t care where you were drafted. To play for us, you’ve got to earn it.”


And is LB Ahmad Brooks back? Has he been cleared to practice? Has he been practicing with you guys?

“He’s just doing walk-thrus right now. We’re hoping that we can get something out of him by the end of the spring here.”


What’s his condition?

“You’d have to talk to [head] coach [Chip Kelly] or [vice president of football operations Jeff Ferguson] Ferg about that.”


You talk about you don’t want to talk about what guys did in the past, but LB NaVorro Bowman obviously has done a lot, led the league in tackles last year. Do you try to find who suits him best to play next to him? Do you seek his input or is that mostly off of film, what you see in practice?

“Yeah. Well, I’ll start with Bo. He’s been awesome. The fact that he’s had the success in the league and as many years as he’s been in, I don’t think he’s missed a day and I don’t think he’s missed a rep at practice. That’s rare and that’s been awesome. I think that that’s a great sign of a leader right there. As far as the guys that are going to play next to him, it’s a three-man race right now and the way we’re doing it, we have nine OTAs, everybody’s going to get three starts. So, [LB] Ray-Ray Armstrong’s going to get three, [LB] Mike Wilhoite’s going to get three and [LB] Gerald Hodges is going to get three. We probably really won’t know, given the nature of that position, who’s going to win it until we put the pads on. But, I’m very comfortable with any one of those guys and if all three of them deserve to play, then they all will play.”


S Jaquiski Tartt’s kind of another one of those versatile players. Where do you see him fitting into your scheme?

“He’s competing to play at safety right now. It’s one of our deeper positions. So, whoever doesn’t win the starting job between that group, we’re going to have to find roles for them to do to get them on the field.”


Ray-Ray Armstrong’s a bit of a new name for 49ers fans, for us. What has he done well? What do you like about him at this point?

“He’s smart, athletic ability, he’s tough, competitive. He’s done a great job learning the scheme. He can blitz. So, there’s not a lot to not like about him. I’m very excited about him.”


Has he played that specific position before?

“I’m pretty sure he was a safety in college, which you’re seeing more and more of that now in the NFL. A lot of guys are taking the bigger safeties that played in the box and moving them to that weak side linebacker position. I think the first couple years in the league, he’s kind of been more of a special teams player and sometimes you find guys just because it’s the right system fit. And he’s a guy that has flourished so far. I’ll be excited when we get back to training camp to see him in the pads.”


How involved has Chip Kelly been in the defense? Is he in the meeting rooms a lot with you?

“He’s sat in on every one of our installation meetings. He’s very involved. I want to build this thing to complement coach’s offense. So, the best teams play complementary football.”


So, how does that change your scheme with his offense?

“Well, obviously we’re going to go fast. So team’s, for us, are probably going to try and run the ball a little bit more to wind the clock and keep their defense off the field. So, it probably makes offensives a little more predictable if our offense has it rolling.”


You earlier said that it seems like you’ve already determined that Jimmie Ward is one of your top 11 players, correct?

“That’s the way it’s looking right now.”


How did you reach that conclusion?

“Just athletic ability, football knowledge, what his skillset brings to our defensive system. 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.”


Do you have the same line of thinking with Tartt and kind of that, you mentioned the evolution of the safety role and playing down in the box, he played a lot of that hybrid position in dime and things like that. Do you need to carve out a role for a guy like that?

“Again, right now I’m focused on finding who are the 11, you know what I mean? 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.”

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.