SANTA CLARA — Steve Wilks, come on down, your new spot is on the sideline, signifying the latest change to the 49ers’ underachieving defense.
Wilks, the 49ers’ first-year defensive coordinator, will move down from the coaching booth for Sunday’s game at the Jacksonville Jaguars, coach Kyle Shanahan said Wednesday.
Players did not react as if Wilks’ move is the solution to their three-game losing streak. After all, trading for defensive end Chase Young last week should have a bigger impact — on whatever and wherever Wilks makes calls.
So, why move Wilks, a long-time NFL coach whose stated preference was to call plays from above as he keeps his emotions in check?
“I kind of wanted him to be down and be near our players,” Shanahan said. “They’ve had that more, just with the linebackers’ communication in the past. And I want him to be down there so he can talk to guys more.”
Both of Wilks’ predecessors, Robert Saleh (2017-20) and Demeco Ryans (2021-22), worked on the sideline and radio’d in plays from there. Linebacker Fred Warner said calls have “not at all” been an issue relaying from Wilks upstairs to linebacker coach Johnny Holland on the field through the first eight games.
“It just makes it easier for him being down there, being able to talk face to face,” linebacker Fred Warner said.
Last week, the Pittsburgh Steelers moved their offensive coordinator Matt Canada from the booth to the sideline, in a 20-16 home win over the Tennessee Titans. The Steelers had lost 20-10 their previous game, in what was the Jaguars’ fifth straight win.
The 49ers’ defense allowed the NFL’s fewest points through five games (13.6), but that average has climbed to 17.5 per game, ranking them fourth. In terms of yards, they’ve gone from allowing 266.8 per game (third-fewest) to 315 per game (10th-fewest). What’s most problematic, considering their investments, is a pass defense that’s fallen to 19th (228.9 yards per game) with just 18 sacks (tied for 24th).
Warner expects a “flawless transition” from Wilks “wanting to be down there as the leader of the group, making adjustments on the fly, and, when need be, looking us in the eye down there.” Wilks is slated to meet with the media Thursday, per his weekly routine.
Wilks specializes in working with the secondary, so improved communication with that suspect unit is more critical than him needing to fire up a defensive line, which gets its adjustments from top-notch position coach Kris Kocurek.
Asked how Wilks’ move will change things, Nick Bosa said, “Not too much,” and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave added, “I don’t really pay it no mind. I don’t really care.”
After beating the Cowboys 42-10 to improve to 5-0, the 49ers allowed 19 points at Cleveland, 22 at Minnesota, and 31 to Cincinnati while their offense managed just 17 points in each of those three defeats. Warner, their two-time All-Pro linebacker and on-field ring leader, stated that “in-house adjustments” are being made and “we’re getting it fixed.”
“We just have to get back to playing our style, honestly,” Warner said. “We’ve always been known for swarming to the football, imposing our will and dictating on the defensive side. That’s something I felt was lacking the last three weeks. Everyone is taking a look in the mirror to see what they can do better.”
WILLIAMS STILL OUT
Left tackle Trent Williams still has not practiced since the Oct. 29 loss at Cleveland, when he sustained what initially was called a low-ankle sprain. Has it evolved into a more concerning nature, to an area that’s nagged him in his career?
“Obviously there is,” Shanahan said. “He has a history in there with stuff. It didn’t show up as a high (ankle sprain) or anything like that. but when you’ve had it over your career, there’s a number of things, with how it’s taken longer than expected to heal, it’s more than a low (ankle sprain).”
Williams typically rests on Wednesday practices, and he was seen doing conditioning work on the side. Jaylon Moore has acquitted himself well while starting the past two games in place of Williams, an All-Pro the past two seasons.
Left guard Aaron Banks’ toe injury from last game is keeping him out of practice and likely means Jon Feliciano will make his first start Sunday.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF YOUNG
Shanahan is hoping Young adapts the 49ers’ scheme well this week so he can “be out there a good bit” on Sunday.
Young’s addition reunites him with Bosa, Ohio State teammates in 2017 and ’18. They only played two games together that final year before Bosa required core-muscle surgery, but Bosa has fond memories from then, saying: “We were just dominating together, which was a lot of fun.”
Bosa learned of last Tuesday’s trade via a phone call from teammate George Kittle, then Bosa made a video call to Young. “It was shocking, honestly. We didn’t ever expect to play together,” Bosa said. “It’s a little weird seeing him walk around this building.”
Bosa and Young are both listed as starting defensive ends in the 49ers’ unofficial depth chart for Sunday. If Young starts, that would relegate Clelin Ferrell to a reserve role in the rotation, and Ferrell was not territorial about it. “I’ve been playing well. I feel like regardless, I have a fit here,” Ferrell said. “My role, I don’t think it’s affected much. I think as a group we’ll get a lot closer together. If anything, that makes all of us want to get to the quarterback even more because you’ve got so many guys trying to get to him. It’s going to be fun.”
Wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud (illness) did not practice, and defensive end Drake Jackson (knee) was to be limited.
Off the pre-practice injury report were wide receiver Deebo Samuel (shoulder) and linebacker Dre Greenlaw (shoulder), not to mention running back Christian McCaffrey, who sustained an oblique injury last month.
Staff writer Jerry McDonald contributed to this report.