SANTA CLARA, Calif. — During a 17-year NFL coaching career, 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has seen and heard just about everything.
Which is why he made it clear Thursday he isn’t fazed by the criticism that has come his way amid the defensive struggles that have been at the center of San Francisco’s three-game losing streak.
“I can honestly say I’m sort of built for this,” Wilks, who is in his first year with the Niners, said. “Not in an arrogant way but I’ve always believed there’s two things: There’s what you hear and what you listen to. I hear a lot of the outside noise and I don’t listen to it, good or bad. … I’ve seen this, I’ve been around this, I can take it. I’m the new guy here. It is what it is. I have confidence in myself, most importantly I have confidence in those players and the coaches that we’re together and we are going to come through this.”
As part of the effort to right the ship and get back to the defense that helped spur the Niners’ 5-0 start, Wilks will be making a small change to his game-day routine Sunday against the Jaguars.
Coach Kyle Shanahan announced Wednesday that Wilks will be calling the defense from the sideline rather than the coaches’ booth after Wilks spent the first eight games upstairs. That decision was made after Shanahan and Wilks discussed various potential fixes over the team’s bye.
Wilks doesn’t see the move as anything dramatic as he’s worked from the sideline in the past, but he does see one advantage to it that he believes can be helpful.
“Just very candidly, I think we’re making a bigger deal out of it than it needs to be,” Wilks said. “But I just want to be able to communicate with the guys during the game a little bit more. Certain things that I’m seeing, I’d rather be able to talk to them directly than communicate with coaches.”
Under the system the Niners used the first eight games, Wilks would relay the defensive playcall to linebackers coach Johnny Holland on the sideline. Holland would then pass the call on to linebacker Fred Warner, who would then relay it to the defensive huddle.
That setup meant the only direct communication Wilks could have with his players was when they used the phone set up on the sideline. This change, according to Wilks, allows him to not only directly call the plays to Warner but also take stock of what his players are seeing in real time, get feedback and adjust accordingly.
“I want to talk to all the guys,” Wilks said. “I have certain thoughts that are going through my mind as I’m sitting here going through the game and trying to call things and I’m looking through my call sheet and I’m saying, ‘I’m thinking about this.’ Now, I can go right over to the D-line and say, ‘OK, I’m looking to change this up next series.’ It could be with the back seven as far as the pass concepts and we’re getting hurt on a certain route. … Again, it’s just a little more dialogue coming directly from me.”
When Wilks arrived in the spring, he said one of the reasons he was choosing to work from upstairs — a departure for the Niners from previous coordinators Robert Saleh and DeMeco Ryans — was because he tended to be too emotional when he was around the players.
Asked Thursday if he felt his group needed an injection of that energy, Wilks demurred.
“I don’t think that’s part of what they’re missing and what they need,” Wilks said. “Sometimes it can be good. I think we all feed off each other.”
Through the first five games, the Niners ranked first in the NFL in points allowed per game (13.6), third in yards allowed per game (266.8) and fifth in defensive expected points added (33.98). In the three games that followed, they dropped to 24th (24), 30th (395.3) and 31st (minus-5.5), respectively.
In those three losses, the 49ers struggled to stop the run, didn’t consistently pressure or sack the quarterback and failed to tackle consistently.
Which is why players like Warner are quick to point out that the blame for those struggles falls at the feet of everyone on defense and that the fixes will have to come from everyone, too.
“I think we’ve just got to get back to playing our style,” Warner said. “We’ve always been known for swarming to the football, imposing our will and dictating on the defensive side, and so that’s something that was lacking in the last three weeks. Everybody’s taking a look in the mirror, seeing what they could do better, especially myself, and so that’s what we’re going to try and get back to starting this week.”