It’s time to play armchair GM today and we’re going to address the elephant in the room leading up to Super Bowl LVIII: San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. Some people aren’t too happy with him, others think with the injuries and what he has, he’s making the most of it. While rewatching the NFC Championship game may change some opinions, during the game it was a different story.
Couple things to keep in mind during the Kyle Shanahan era: The 49ers were the No. 7 run defense or better (EPA/play) since 2019. Well, until 2023 rolled around and they are all the way back to 26th. It’s not like there was turnaround on the team either; Arik Armstead is there, as is Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, and Dre Greenlaw. Yes names like Samson Ebukam and Jimmie Ward left in free agency and others like Clelin Ferrell are on IR, but a lot of the superstar veterans remain.
So either the 49ers run defense has regressed horribly from the small turnaround, that Talanoa Hufanga injury really did a number on everything, or something simply isn’t working. At least, in the first half of the two postseason games we’ve witnessed. Unless if you want to use Chase Young as a scapegoat for the defense’s issues, which might also be inaccurate if you look at the final grades of the defensive lines.
The defense started the season with what I called “a predictable brain fart.” This magical moment costing 5-10 minutes of our lives in the first half consisted of either everything breaking down for big yardage, a stupid penalty given up yielding the same result, or both. Blink, touchdown. You saw this in Week 1 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Week 3 against the NY Giants, Week 5 against the Dallas Cowboys—the list goes on.
So things get worse? Well, besides P.J. Walker and the Cleveland Browns holding their own against the 49ers defense and Steve Wilks dialing a cover 0 blitz against the Minnesota Vikings that Kyle Shanahan was none to fond of, no...not really.
Though, the run game certainly went down a bit as the season wore on, the 49ers still finished the regular season averaging 17.5 points a game. Yes, a lot of that is over their blowout wins over Dallas, Jacksonville Jaguars and the like, but perhaps some cracks began to show?
Then the postseason happened.
The Green Bay Packers and their high-ranked offense walked in and gave the 49ers the kitchen sink in a game many may say the 49ers had no business winning based on the way they played.
The sluggishness of the defense could be attributed to rust; the starters didn’t play in the season finale against the Los Angeles Rams and the team got their first round bye.
Then the Lions, another capable offense, walked in and everything offensive coordinator Ben Johnson called, worked.
KP made a good point Thursday that Wilks himself was far from the issue against the Lions: bad tackling and effort were the issue. While taking bad angles and not wrapping up isn’t something a coach is directly responsible for, the end result is the same: a big fat “Why?”
It’s clear something is off. John Lynch seems to have addressed it. When he met with the media, Lynch mentioned this about effort:
Effort is non-negotiable. That’s one of our core values and I believe that in my heart of hearts. We’ve got four hall of famers that represent the defense I played [with] in Tampa [Tampa Bay Buccaneers]. If you ask everyone one of us that played on that defense, what was our calling card? It starts with effort; that being a non-negotiable. So those things have been addressed. We’ve got one game. I’d be shocked if we saw that again. Sometimes that comes, there’s excuses for it. They’re just that, they’re excuses and that has to be non-negotiable. Play your heart out and then we have a lot of good players and a lot of good depth you can get. Those aren’t plays that we’re proud of, they’re proud of, it’s been addressed and I’d be real surprised if I saw it again.
Well, that’s a start. The thing is, did anyone see this with Wilks’ predecessors? Did Saleh or Ryans have an effort problem? Was the sideline vs. booth debate really the thing that changed it all?
If not a coaching issue is it potentially just philosophical differences? If that’s the case, should they just mutually part ways after one season? Keep in mind, nothing has been reported or hinted as such. You can only go off what you may speculate.
If you think a parting is in order, what’s the alternative? At this point, it might be best for the 49ers to run things back with Wilks one more time. Robert Saleh was the first defensive coordinator of the Kyle Shanahan era and took a few seasons to really find his footing before getting his own cheat code in Nick Bosa (anyone remember 2018?). Maybe it’s just a matter of a second season and a healthier defensive side of the ball (and using some of those draft picks).
Speaking of Saleh, should the 49ers give Wilks one more season, it might make good timing. Dianna Russini and Zack Rosenblatt from The Athletic posted an article Wednesday about the dysfunction going on with the New York Jets. A few weeks earlier, the Jets announced that head coach Robert Saleh would be retained, but it’s obvious there’s going to need to be some changes. The moment quarterback Aaron Rodgers went down four offensive plays into the season, you knew the Jets’ 2023 hopes were dashed. Just look at the 49ers in 2018 when Jimmy Garoppolo went down. The difference is, the 49ers didn’t know what they had in Nick Mullens (the answer: not much, but it was fun beating up on the Raiders). The Jets knew what they had in Zach Wilson. There was no stopping the season from hell that came after Rodgers’ injury.
A second season to Wilks might mean improvement on the defense he started with. Even DeMeco Ryans got criticism when he began as defensive coordinator, with some saying wasting the defense the 49ers had in 2021 was criminal. As the season wore on, DeMeco Ryans showed why he’s DeMeco Ryans. Should it not work, Saleh could come available if the Jets clean house in 2025 (assuming they don’t get it together and he’d want to go back to the 49ers/the 49ers want him back) or Kyle Shanahan can promote from within if the Jets get it together and Wilks still isn’t right.
Of course, they could move on now. And obviously some were calling for the defensive coordinator’s job based on how the NFC Championship game was in the first half, but things obviously cooled after the 49ers came out on top. But if you want him gone, do you have a coach in-house to replace him with? Defensive line coach Kris Kocurek comes to mind, but he’s made it clear he doesn’t want to be a coordinator.
Regardless of what happens in the Super Bowl, do you give Wilks another year? Or is there truly some personnel and schematic issues that keep him from being a fit for the 49ers?
Are you satisfied with Steve Wilks?
This poll is closed
YES! Give him another season with a healthy roster
Ehhhh, let me see what he does in the Super Bowl
No, something is off and the 49ers need to do a deep dive at the end of the season
It’s time for an immediate change