How Big of a Loss are the Departures of Woods and Kiffin to the Coaching Staff?


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The 49ers’ 13-win season, culminating in an NFC title and a trip to the Super Bowl, has reset expectations for the entire franchise among ownership, the fan base and the rest of the league.

Once a team has the kind of success the 49ers had this season its coaching staff becomes a prime target for teams with openings. The 49ers were very fortunate to hang on to top offensive assistants Mike McDaniel and Mike LaFleur. The 49ers also managed to retain defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, but Saleh will have to replace two of his assistants, Joe Woods and Chris Kiffin.

Leaving for Brown(s) pastures:

The 49ers were not able to keep their entire coaching staff intact this offseason, however. Defensive backs coach and defensive passing game coordinator Joe Woods, who was credited with helping to turn around the Niners’ secondary, left to become the new defensive coordinator in Cleveland. Woods came to San Francisco after being let go by Denver, where he served as defensive coordinator for two seasons (2017-2018).

In 2018, the 49ers’ secondary was one of the most accommodating in the league, giving up 35 touchdown passes (thirty-first in the NFL) while intercepting just two (an NFL record low). The knock on the way the Niners deployed their “Cover 3” was that it was predictable. There was no mystery as to where the safeties were going to be therefore the opposing quarterback had an easy time reading the coverages. The secondary was also marred by injury that season. The Niners started eight different combinations at safety in 2018, and the resulting communication breakdowns resulted in a lot of conversations like this.

This season with Woods coordinating the passing game for the defense and a much more consistent lineup from game to game, the 49ers’ pass defense gave up the fewest yards per game through the air, intercepted 12 passes, and allowed just 23 touchdowns. Woods was credited with introducing some new wrinkles into Robert Saleh’s defense such as more split-safety looks and varying where the safeties lined up pre-snap.

Joe Woods is taking assistant defensive line coach Chris Kiffin with him to Cleveland. Kiffin comes from a well-known family of coaches (son of Monte, brother of Lane), and served as the 49ers’ pass rush coach from 2018 through the 2019 season. The 49ers improved their sack totals each year under Kiffin recording 37 sacks in 2018 (up from 30 sacks in 2017) and 48 sacks in 2019 good enough for fifth in the NFL (tied with Minnesota).

The Replacements:

No official announcements have been made regarding the replacements for Woods and Kiffin, but the 49ers have made their choices. Tony Oden has reportedly been hired as the new defensive backs coach. Oden served as the defensive backs coach for the Miami Dolphins the past two season after being retained by Dolphins head coach and former New England defensive coordinator Brian Flores. In addition to his time with the Dolphins, Oden has coached defensive backs for five other organizations.

Aaron Whitecotton is reportedly the replacement for Kiffin. He comes from the Buffalo Bills, where he served as their assistant defensive line coach the last two seasons. In 2019, Buffalo finished with 44 sacks on the season. During his time in Buffalo, Whitecotton coached under Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier, both of whom have significant pelts on the wall as defensive coordinators.

On the surface, the loss of two key defensive assistants could be a big deal for the 49ers just as the unit has established itself as one of the NFL’s best. Last year, the 49ers added some diversity of thought and scheme to their defensive staff in Woods and line coach Kris Kocurek and it paid dividends. Oden and Whitecotton have been exposed to even more schematic diversity and what they bring to San Francisco should only serve to further elevate the talent on defense.

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