After losing DeMeco Ryans to the Houston Texans at the end of the 2022 NFL season, the San Francisco 49ers found themselves in a unique situation heading into 2023. After fielding the top defense in the NFL, the team had the infrastructure in place to continue to succeed with a proven scheme, but they also wanted to bring in a top-tier talent who could shake things up and produce even greater results heading into the future.
Kyle Shanahan’s solution to that problem? Hire one of the top defensive coaches in the NFL, Steve Wilks, to fill Ryans’ shoes, but only if he was willing to keep the 49ers’ pre-existing coaching infrastructure in place.
“I knew how good he is from playing against him,” Shanahan said about Wilks at the Dwight Clark Legacy Series via The Athletic. “But I had to get to know him. And I had to tell him: ‘Don’t bring any of your own staff. I already have the dudes here I want you to work with.’”
While some coaches may have scoffed at the suggestion that they couldn’t bring any of “their” coaches to a new defensive coordinatorship, especially when they were expected to be in high demand as a head coach in 2023, Wilks was clearly intrigued enough by the infrastructure the 49ers have in place, and by Shanahan’s willingness to let him oversee the secondary as he sees fit.
“You come in here, you make your own secondary,” Shanahan told Wilks. “But I want you to learn everything we’ve done here over the past six years.”
Explaining to David Lombardi of The Athletic about how the 49ers have taped every meeting since he arrived in Santa Clara in 2017, Shanahan noted that San Francisco has a library of tapes for a coach like Wilks to study. Still, Shanahan doesn’t expect Wilks to simply be a Ryans clone, just like he didn’t want the former Texans linebacker to copy Robert Saleh. After watching Wilks coach defenses in Carolina and Arizona, Shanahan approved of a more man-heavy approach to defense moving forward.
Wilks Wants to Bring More Man to the San Francisco 49ers
After being one of the most zone-heavy defenses in the NFL under Saleh and Ryans, Wilks acknowledged that the 49ers have a certain defensive identity that he appreciates but did note in his conversation with Lombardi that he will be bringing more man coverage concepts to the table in 2023.
“I think you have to explore and experiment with everything,” Wilks said. “My background is diverse in zone as well as man, and I think it can change each week based off your opponent and who you are playing. But do I feel like we have the skill set to play more man? Yes.
“I believe in zone eyes, I think that’s how you make plays on the football, particularly from the underneath positions, so zone is still going to be a high element of what we do. But I feel like we have the skill set and the talent to be able to get in a guy’s face, press-man, and make the quarterback hold the ball — particularly with our front.”
Between Charvarius Ward, who played plenty of man in Kansas City, Deommodore Lenoir, coming from a man scheme in college at Oregon, and new nickleback Isaiah Oliver, the 49ers do have a defensive backfield that could theoretically run man concepts. How successfully they do so, however, could decide how often Wilks goes to the look versus defaulting back to zone coverage.
San Francisco’s Defense Still Revolves Around the D-Line
Though the back end of the 49ers’ defensive make looks markedly different in 2023, one area that Wilks and Shanahan are in agreement on is that the Niners need to win upfront first with their defensive line.
“Everything we do starts up front,” Wilks said. “When you look at how dominant we’ve been over the years, it is because of our defensive line and we’ve done a great job building that through the draft. … (Kris) Kocurek does a tremendous job. He’s one of the best in the business at what he does and he’s had a major impact on this defense, so that was really the biggest thing that stood out to me — was just how great we were up front consistently over the years.”
With former Pro Bowler Javon Hargrave joining an already dominant defensive line, it’s clear John Lynch has given Wilks a full cupboard of ways to win up front. Factor in the return of Kocurek, who has a pre-existing relationship with Nick Bosa and company, and fans should keep their expectations high for the defense’s success in 2023.