Through three preseason games, Jim O'Neil believes his defense is getting closer to playing like a disciplined, relentless and accountable group.
The three pillars have been repeatedly identified throughout the offseason by the San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator as the characteristics he emphasizes to his players the most.
"We talk about being a relentless group, and I really think that we're starting to trend in that direction," O'Neil said on Sunday in reference to a 21-10 home loss to the Green Bay Packers. "I thought we were stout in the run game. We did a very good job up front, and that's a team that can run the football."
On the back end of the defense, O'Neil was most pleased with how the secondary defended the deep ball. Green Bay took several down-field shots and was only able to complete one passing play for more than 19 yards. The exception was a 51-yard bomb from Joe Callahan to Packers wideout Geronimo Allison.
O'Neil would like to see more consistency from his group in Thursday night's preseason finale against the San Diego Chargers. He also wants to see his defense create more takeaways.
"We just need to make more impact plays," the DC said. "Last week we had four turnovers. The week before we didn't have any. We went back to not having any, and we need some guys to step up and make some plays on fourth down."
San Francisco's defense rested several key veterans against Green Bay. All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman, plus starting outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks and strong safety Antoine Bethea were all given the night off. The third preseason game, however, allowed the team to evaluate several young players on the roster.
The list included third-round draft pick Will Redmond, who made his 2016 debut as a nickel cornerback with the second-team defense.
"It was good to have Will out there," O'Neil said. "He definitely did some good things in the run game. He was able to make some plays on some of our nickel pressures."
The Mississippi State product suffered a late-season ACL tear to end his collegiate career, which meant the 49ers took a careful approach while bringing him back on the field this offseason. Without much fanfare, Redmond finished his first preseason game with five tackles and one sack in 18 defensive snaps.
"I'm not sure if he's all the way there yet, as far as back," O'Neil cautioned, "but mentally, he's done a great job. He's gotten a lot of reps out here on the practice field, and he asks great questions in the meeting room. He's a really smart football player. I was encouraged with what I saw from Will."Niners Notes
-- San Francisco's defense will play the Chargers with one-less defensive back on Thursday. The team traded Kenneth Acker to the Kansas City Chiefs over the weekend for an undisclosed draft choice.
O'Neil explained the thinking behind the move. "For us, it's a deep group," the DC said. "It's a very competitive group and obviously, he was a guy that the Chiefs had interest in and (we) were able to get a draft pick for him. So it was a plus on both ends. He's going to go somewhere where he has a chance to play a lot, and we were able to get a draft pick."
-- O'Neil explained that Bowman, Brooks and Bethea did not play against the Packers because of successful joint practices with the Houston Texans and Denver Broncos earlier in training camp. "To me, those practices were more valuable than the preseason games," the coordinator said. "And like coach (Chip Kelly) said, we wanted to put some of the guys who were in backup roles that we saw having a big role for us this year and see how they would respond going with the ones and see what they could do. That's all it was."
-- Garrett Celek's growth at outside linebacker continues to be one of the most discussed defensive storylines with the 49ers. O'Neil shared a positive progress report on the converted defensive lineman, who recorded two tackles and a sack against Green Bay. "I would not want to block him if I was a tight end," the DC said. "He continues to show up as far as pass rush, and he's gotten better every rep that he's gotten as far as pass coverage. So he's done a nice job progressing at the position."
-- San Francisco's Week 1 home matchup against the Los Angeles Rams is not far off the coaching staff's minds at this point of the preseason. O'Neil explained why. "We did a lot of work on them before we broke for the (offseason) break and it's your first opponent," the coordinator said. "So each preseason game that comes in, you find time to watch (them). I'm sure after the Chargers game, we will spend a lot of time on them, finalize our game plan and transition probably this upcoming Friday."