SANTA CLARA — This is the transcript of Jim O’Neil’s Week-12 press conference, courtesy of the 49ers’ P.R. department.
“I like how our guys competed on Sunday. It was a competitive football game going into the fourth quarter, 13-10, and the biggest thing with our guys that we talked about is our ability to finish and really where I thought we had a chance to make some plays and finish that game was on third down, especially in the fourth quarter and I think that’s where we fell a little bit short. I do think we took a step in some areas. It was good to see some young guys make some plays in the course of that football game. As far as [S] Eric Reid is concerned, losing him is a big loss for our defense. His leadership ability, his versatility, his playmaking ability will leave us with an obvious void but it’ll be a great opportunity for some other guys to step up and fill those roles. Questions?”
You talk about Eric Reid being out, is there any thought about moving DB Jimmie Ward to free safety? He played that in college. He played strong safety. He played free safety. He played in the slot. He plays outside now. So, cerebrally he gets the defensive scheme. Why not try to use him in that back end of the defense so you can cover up the deficiencies you have on the outside where he has the range to cover?
“I think Jimmie Ward’s a corner in our system. Yes.”
Do you just plug in S Jaquiski Tartt and have him do everything that Eric did?
“Not everything because Eric played, as you guys all know, a lot of different position on our defense. He played nickel. I told you guys he took some outside linebacker, defensive end jobs. The past few weeks, he’s helped us out as a dime linebacker. He’s played both safeties. So, Tartt’s going to obviously step into the safety role, but other guys in other positions are going to have to step up and do some of the jobs that he was able to do for us in passing downs.”
Would you like him to evolve into a guy who can do some of those things though, like Eric did, do more of those things?
“Right now, I just want him to focus on being the best safety that he can for us.”
How is he as a deep, centerfield safety? He’s played mostly strong in the box. How is he back there at the free safety spot?
“He’s good. He’s got great range and ball skills. He’s got a knack for reading the quarterback. I mean, you guys are familiar with him. He’s played a lot of football. He’s played a lot of football for us this year and he filled in and did a great job last year when [S] Antoine Bethea went out. So, he’s a good football player.”
What are his strengths? What does he do best right now at this point in his career?
“In just this past game, I think he did a heck-of-a job on [New England Patriots TE Martellus] Bennett in man coverage. So, I think that’s one thing that he does a really good job of. He’s obviously a physical guy that you can get down in the run game and make plays in the box. He’s had some really nice blitzes for us this year when we’ve moved him down into what we call our X position, which is a position where you blitz and that was some of that three safety package stuff we were able to do earlier in the year. So, he’s got a great NFL skillset.”
You’re facing obviously different quarterbacks after going from New England Patriots QB Tom Brady to Miami Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill. Not to knock Tannehill, but how can you be more aggressive going after him whereas Brady has seen so much in 17 years?
“We’ve been aggressive the past three weeks. So, I don’t think you can ever get away from who you are. Obviously, we’ve been smart against the quarterbacks we’ve gone against and we tried to mix it, especially this Sunday. I think we balanced, especially on third down, pretty good. We gave him simulated pressure, some three-man rush, we cover zeroed him and went after him. So, we try to mix it. We don’t ever want to be predictable, especially on third down, with what we’re doing. But, Ryan Tannehill’s playing at a high level right now. They’ve won five straight. They’ve got the run game going. He’s got some threats in the wide receiving corps. So, they’re doing a good job. They’ve got a good offensive line coach [Miami Dolphins offensive line coach Chris Foerster]. You guys are familiar with him. He was here last year, does a good job with the zone running scheme, and [Miami Dolphins head coach] Adam Gase is a really good offensive mind. So, we’ll have our work cut out for us this week.”
What does Adam Gase try to do with that offensive to create dilemmas for opposing defenses?
“They’ve gotten into some of the, run-game wise, they do a great job with the zone running scheme. That’s what’s really probably sparked their offense. They do some of the gun run stuff that [head coach Chip Kelly] coach does as far as the zone-read and some run-pass option stuff off of it and then they do a good job pass-game wise with matchups and displacing some personnel. So, it’s a good system.”
What stands out when you watch Miami Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi on tape? What kind of runner is he?
“How hard he runs. One cut guy, gets downhill, hits it. Physical runner. He also is a threat out of the backfield. So, he’s a really good running back.”
You told us you’d be surprised if LB Marcus Rush was on the practice squad all year. 1-9, do you go talk to general manager Trent Baalke and say, ‘Hey, can we give this guy a chance?’
“No. I don’t get involved in those conversations. If my opinion’s asked, I give it.”
I’ll ask your opinion. How’s he doing?
“Marcus? He does a great job in practice every day. He usually mimics the team’s best defensive end or pass rusher and he gives our offensive guys a great look.”
You mentioned the Dolphins running back. It seemed like LB Nick Bellore had a pretty good game this last game. Would you agree with that and have you seen progress from him?
“Yeah, I think we’ve had a bunch of guys over the last three or four weeks really show progress. I think Nick did some really good things in coverage this past week. There were times where we were in some zones and he was matched up on [New England Patriots WR Julian] Edelman and I thought he was physical, he did a good job playing to his leverage and playing to his help. I thought he did some really nice things in the run game for us. I think [CB] Rashard Robinson came back and had a nice game. Antoine Bethea continues to do a great job for us at safety. The reps that [CB] Keith Reaser is getting out there are so critical and then you go back to [DL DeForest Buckner] Buck, which we’ve talked a lot about. I think early in year you saw Buck making a lot of plays in the run game and then he was making a lot of exceptional effort plays and now he’s starting to get really close and affect the quarterback and the next step for him is just going to be to finish those plays. But, he knows and we know that’s what he needs to do to be that three-down difference maker. So, I really see him coming. So, yeah, I think a lot of guys have grown the past few weeks.”
On that 45-yard run play by New England Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount, was that a stunt which Bellore was supposed to get that gap or what happened on that?
“Yeah. We probably weren’t physical enough at the point of attack. I’ve got to give them credit. They did a good job blocking us up. So, we could have been a little bit more physical with the two guys that were blitzing and then we had a defensive lineman that got knocked out of his gap. And with all that being said, we had a chance to make a tackle for a seven-yard gain. That’s what’s frustrating. But, part of our plan was we thought we were going to have to, in some of their run formations, pressure them to get them behind the sticks to get them into some obvious passing situations, try to force some third-and-longs just because of, I think Tom Brady going into our game had a perfect quarterback rating on third down. So, we knew we had to get them out of the two to six range. We wanted to get them into the seven-plus and we did a pretty good job with that as the game went on. He made obviously some great plays and the receivers made some great plays in that game and that’s where you just wish we could have finished on one or two more of those third downs and I really think that would have given us an opportunity to win that game in the fourth quarter.”
Is CB Marcus Cromartie your third safety now or is CB Dontae Johnson in that conversation?
“Yeah, if I had to do it right now, you obviously have Bethea and you have Tartt and then it would be Dontae. Dontae’s been a swing guy for us at corner and at safety. Dontae’s a guy every week we try to get involved in a package because every time he’s in there he gets a plus. Whether it’s covering [Arizona Cardinals RB] David Johnson on the Thursday night game against Arizona, he’s been involved in some of the stuff the past two weeks covering backs for us on third down and then I would go with Cromartie after that.”
Reid, LB NaVorro Bowman, DL Arik Armstead are arguably your three best defensive players. Have you ever had a season where your three best defensive players are out for the year?
“No. It’s hard, it’s frustrating, but that’s the NFL. Guys have to step up. You’ve got to try to find ways to scheme around the players that you have as the season goes on. We’re not getting a lot of get well soon cards from the rest of the teams in the NFL, but that’s what this league’s about.”
Back to Dontae, you’ve used a lot of three safety looks. Do you feel like with what you’ve seen from him in practice and games you can go back to those looks even without Eric Reid given what you’ve seen from Dontae?
“I’m not sure yet. It depends on the team. My mind’s so focused on the Miami Dolphins right now. Eric was a guy that we felt could hold up in the box and he had some natural instincts as far as seeing a guard pull, you know, run at him, run away. There were just some things that came naturally to him where we didn’t have to get him a million reps. I haven’t put the rest of those guys in those situations yet to know all that. So, that’s just something that we’re going to have to evaluate as we go, as we start to fit our personnel packages together to get ready for the Dolphins and then moving forward.”