SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Amidst a surge of defensive struggles over their past three games, the San Francisco 49ers have been searching for answers to get back to the dominant unit that spearheaded a 5-0 start.
The Niners made their biggest move last week, trading a compensatory third-round pick to the Washington Commanders for defensive end Chase Young. They’re making another, much smaller move this week in the form of an elevator ride.
San Francisco defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who is in his first year with the team, will move from the coach’s booth upstairs to field level to call Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, coach Kyle Shanahan announced Wednesday.
“We’re going to put him on the field this week,” Shanahan said. “[It’s] something we’ve talked about for a little bit … There are pluses to it and minuses to it, but we’ll see what we like about this week.”
The move comes after the Niners’ three-game losing streak in which the defense has dropped from one of the best in the league to one of the worst.
Through the first five games, San Francisco was first in the NFL in points allowed per game (13.6), third in yards allowed (266.8 per game), fifth in defensive expected points added (33.98) and sixth in takeaways (9). Over the ensuing three weeks, the Niners dropped to 24th (24), 30th (395.3), 31st (-5.5) and tied for 13th (4), respectively.
Not coincidentally, the Niners lost all three of those games. They’ve struggled to stop the run, haven’t consistently pressured or sacked the quarterback and have failed to tackle consistently.
After a 31-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Oct. 29, Niners linebacker Fred Warner shrugged off the idea that the blame should fall at Wilks’ feet for those issues, noting that the coordinator was “the least of my worries” but acknowledging that there’s still a learning curve for Wilks with a new team.
Through eight weeks, the game-day process has been for Wilks to relay the call from the booth to linebackers coach Johnny Holland on the sideline, who then passes it on to Warner on the field. Warner then shares the playcall with the team.
Presumably, Wilks will now directly communicate the call to Warner since he’s on the sideline (Wilks is schedule to speak to Bay Area media on Thursday), but either way, Warner thinks the move can only help.
“I think it will be a flawless transition, whether it be him giving the calls or staying with Johnny,” Warner said. “Having him down there connecting with us on the field is going to be great. … I think more so than anything, I think him just wanting to be down there as our leader of the group just to be down there and make adjustments on the fly, when need be, just being down there with us, looking at us in our eye when we’re down there, just little things like that [will help].”
Niners defensive coordinators had called the game from the field since Shanahan arrived in 2017. Former coordinators Robert Saleh and DeMeco Ryans both had a background working with linebackers and brought energy and enthusiasm to the sidelines.
But Wilks arrived with a history of working with defensive backs and said in the spring that he tends to get too excited when working from the sideline. Now, he will try something new as the Niners are willing to make any move — big or small — to get their season back on track.
“I kind of want him to be down and be near our players a little bit,” Shanahan said. “They’ve had that more with just the linebacker communication in the past and I want him to be down there so he can talk to guys a little bit more.”