SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Steve Wilks isn’t going to be the 49ers’ October scapegoat. You can argue that he should be. You can declare that he might still end up there. You can point out that he certainly has a long way to go to fully replace DeMeco Ryans and Robert Saleh in the statistical charts, the win-loss record and hearts and minds of 49ers fans.
You can scrunch your face just as wearily as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator did on the short golf-cart ride from the press-box elevator to the 49ers’ locker room Sunday afternoon after their 31-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers’ third consecutive loss and the defense’s third consecutive inadequate performance. You can start a countdown clock on his tenure with this team, if you wish. It’s not crazy. It’s not irrational. If Wilks can’t get this defense close to where it was at the end of last season and at the start of his own tenure here this season, this might not be a long run for him.
But Kyle Shanahan makes these decisions, and he’s not going down this road. Really, what can Shanahan and the 49ers gain from pointing the finger at Wilks, anyway? He’s a respected DC. He’s the first outsider the 49ers have brought in as a coordinator since the start of the Shanahan era in 2017. There are adjustments to make and gut-checks to take. And destabilizing the coaching staff at this point probably only would make things worse.
The solid bet is to believe that Wilks is still on a learning curve with the 49ers’ long-established system and these players. Maybe the learning is going a little slower than expected, but he’s the 49ers’ best option. He was the guy Shanahan picked after Ryans took the Texans’ top job last offseason, and Wilks is the only coach on staff who can get this right this season.
Wilks can be better. He probably will be better. He has to do better. Everybody has to do better than what the 49ers have shown the past three weeks.
“This isn’t on any one coach or any one side of the ball,” Shanahan said Sunday when asked about his confidence level in Wilks these days. “We haven’t scored 20 points in three weeks, too. So I think our defense needs to do better. I think our offense needs to do better. I think our team needs to do better. (When) I say our team, I mean every single player in there and I mean every single coach.”
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All true. The 49ers’ offense has sputtered for long stretches against the Browns, Vikings and now Bengals, which has provided the 49ers’ defense very little wiggle room. But the 49ers’ defense hasn’t usually needed wiggle room. The 49ers’ defense of 2019 (under Saleh) and 2021 and 2022 (under Ryans) was the dominating unit that provided wiggle room for everybody else.
And now the 49ers have been beaten by the Browns’ backup quarterback making all the key plays, by Kirk Cousins racing the Vikings up and down the field, and on Sunday, by Joe Burrow completing 28 of his 32 attempts for 283 yards, three touchdowns and leading the Bengals to 400 total yards.
Heading into the bye week, the 49ers’ D seems a little caught-in-between: The defensive front hasn’t been getting to the QB reliably, so Wilks started dialing up more blitzes but then got burned to bits when he called an all-out blitz at the end of the first half in Minnesota and other consequential moments. So he pulled back this week. But against Cincinnati, the 49ers’ D neither got to Burrow enough (including on the tone-setting play of the game, when Burrow escaped from two 49ers’ rushers, stepped aside and completed an 11-yard pass on third-and-10 to fuel the Bengals’ first TD drive) or tackled well when he completed passes.
“We were going to keep it simple this game and rely on our execution to play our coverage with our rush,” linebacker Fred Warner said. “It just wasn’t enough today.”
Said Shanahan: “It’s going to be a little bit different each week. It looked like we did less (blitzing) today. Whether we blitzed or whether we don’t blitz, what we do throughout the game, you’ve got to (play) sound football, you’ve got to make the plays, you can’t give up that much space, and you’ve got to get to that quarterback. If you don’t get to that quarterback, you’ve got to make tackles. And we didn’t do any of that stuff today. It’s not just because of a call here or there or a style. It’s because of everything.”
The 49ers looked neither aggressive nor sound. They played slow and out of position. And it’s gotten worse week by week since the Cleveland game. So now they’re 5-3 after that opening sprint that had everybody calling them the best team in the league.
It’s fair to note that there’s a ripple effect from Nick Bosa missing all of training camp and preseason in a contract dispute and only rejoining the team days before the opener in Pittsburgh, which surely has contributed to his slow start (a half-sack on Sunday and only 3 for the season) and a less-than-great overall pass rush. It’s not an excuse to say that the 49ers’ defensive backs might be messing up any coverage, not just ones called by Wilks. It’s correct to point out that Ryans and Saleh were both linebacker specialists, and maybe Wilks, a defensive backs specialist, is the right voice to add something new to this defense.
It’s OK to remember that Saleh was getting a lot of heat in 2017 and 2018 before the 49ers put everything together defensively (and drafted Bosa) in 2019. It’s not wrong to say that the 49ers’ defense was better in the second half on Sunday, just like it’s been better in the second half after sloppy first halves in many games this season. There is a potential arc, and it could be toward dominance again.
Of course, judging by the last three weeks, it could be toward defensive mediocrity all season, too.
“The common denominator right now is that I haven’t been able to say in the last three losses that, ‘Man, the defense had our best outing and we just happened to lose,’” Warner said. “We’re not playing good football on this side. And that’s the reason we haven’t won the last three games. And that’s got to get figured out. And it will be figured out.
“It’s just inconsistency across the board. I think tackling has been an issue when it hasn’t been in the past. Players just gotta execute at a higher level, including myself. We’ve gotta play as a unit. There’s gotta be more hunt to the football at all three levels. There’s gotta be more penalty-free football.”
But Wilks is the DC. He’s following two coaching stars. He’s admitted he needs to do better. He’s not the scapegoat, though. Not inside 49ers HQ.
“That’s the least of my worries,” Warner said of Wilks. “Honestly, I think players win games, not coaches. I think he’s done a great job.
“There’s going to be ebbs and flows in the season, especially with a new defensive coordinator. The offensive side has gone through that as well, when we lost (long-time Shanahan aide Mike) McDaniel. Even though Kyle is the play caller, when you lose a coach, there’s going to be adjustments being made throughout a season. We’ve got to continue to work on that. But at the end of the day, players are going to be the reason why we win games.”
The 49ers will probably add a player or two by Tuesday’s trade deadline, and it wouldn’t be surprising at all if they acquire a veteran cornerback or a pass rusher or both. But I don’t think they’re going to do anything massive. They got Christian McCaffrey last year and yes, that has worked quite nicely. But I don’t think there’s a McCaffrey-level player available for the 49ers’ defense.
They’ve invested a ton in this unit already. They should have the right pieces. We’ll see if they have the right DC. That was the bet Shanahan made last offseason and the wager is ongoing.
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(Photo of the Bengals’ Ja’Marr Chase catching a touchdown pass in Sunday’s game: Loren Elliott / Getty Images)