Chip Kelly’s first win with the 49ers will be remembered for the way the revamped offensive line poked the Rams’ defensive front in the chest.
But defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil played just as large of a role in the domination. He used creativity to scheme up the Rams, blitzing in a variety of different ways. Players told me in the locker room that the game plan was to make the Rams one-dimensional by stopping Todd Gurley and forcing Case Keenum to beat them up top. It was a fantastic performance, both by the play caller and his chess pieces on the field. The Rams went three-and-out on eight separate occasions.
“A lot of looks, we hadn’t seen before,” Keenum said.
Neither had we, Case. It started early on in the first quarter with rookie defensive lineman Ronald Blair.
O’Neil brought Ahmad Brooks to the center of the field and lined both he and NaVorro Bowman up as a blitzers. Bowman and Brooks shot the gap quickly, while Blair delayed his step long enough to find himself a free lane to Keenum. The play resulted in a poor pass, and a punt. Using Bowman on-and-off as a blitzing decoy in the middle would setup later success for the 49ers defense, too.
O’Neil teaches several techniques to his defense that have his linemen strategically taking on two blockers — even for a millisecond — to free up an outside linebacker. This twist technique is executed perfectly by both Arik Armstead and Ahmad Brooks, the latter takes down Keenum to force another punt.
Perhaps this was O’Neil’s most creative wrinkle of the night: using three safeties, even on third and 3, an obvious rushing down. The Rams brought in three receivers on the play, trying to trick the 49ers into thinking they would pass. Antoine Bethea is lined back deep, but both Jaquiski Tartt and Eric Reid are stacked on the line of scrimmage, anticipating a Todd Gurley run. Tartt snuffed out the play, slowing down Gurley enough for the rest of the defense to pile on. It’s quite the luxury to have roaming safeties who can make big plays in the run game. Not every NFL team possess that flexibility. O’Neil’s tapped into everyone’s strengths on Monday. Tartt and the three safety package saw 16 snaps vs. Los Angeles.
In the third quarter, the relentless pass rush continued, even with O’Neil calling a relatively simple play. The wonderful thing about Armstead’s size (6-foot-7, 290 pounds) is the ability to stack him in the middle here. Looks like there was a miscommunication between the offensive line, when two of them pickup Ronald Blair. While Brooks rushes wide to flush the pocket, Armstead uses a spin move and his hands on shove technique to free himself. The pair worked very well together as a tandem against the Rams, taking what they learned in training camp onto the field in Week 1.
“We still have more,” O’Neil told reporters in the locker room afterwards. “We didn’t unload every bullet that was in the chamber tonight.”
The 49ers played a bunch of man-coverage, single safety looks. O’Neil’s coverage schemes were not disguised at all. Keenum knew what he was seeing in the backend, but it’s the blitzing that had Los Angeles befuddled. Sending Tartt and Bethea off the edge here and sliding Bowman back in coverage was another creative wrinkle used by O’Neil. Tartt might get ribbed for jumping so early on his blitz in the film room, but his pressure forced a Jimmie Ward pass-breakup and another punt.
Bethea told me in the locker room the defense was dead set on making this a shutout win in the fourth quarter, which explains why they weren’t playing vanilla up 28-0 with a few minutes left in the game. Ray-Ray Armstrong and Bowman both show blitz at the bottom of the screen, but back away into coverage, a constant game of cat and mouse that clearly distracted Keenum. Lined up as the left defensive end, Ronald Blair disengages from the man blocking him, leaving Rams linemen standing around. The confusion frees up a lane for Reid to pummel Keenum as he delivers the football. This play call is almost like a mind game and it toyed with the Rams’ offensive line.
The 49ers will exceed expectations in 2016 if their defense continues to play like this. Shutting down Todd Gurley, arguably the league’s best running back, was completely unexpected. But the most encouraging sign from O’Neil and his unit was all the ways they were able to disguise their pressure and fool the Rams. There’s no better way to start a new era than with a shutout win over a divisional opponent.