May 25, 2024

Why did the 49ers fire Steve Wilks? Preparation, playoff struggles lead Kyle Shanahan to dismiss DC

The 49ers are making a change at defensive coordinator for the second consecutive offseason.


This time, however, it’s by choice.

Kyle Shanahan announced on Wednesday that the 49ers had fired defensive coordinator Steve Wilks after San Francisco’s 25-22 Super Bowl 58 loss to the Chiefs.

Wilks, 54, was in his first season as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator. He spent the 2022 NFL season as the Panthers’ defensive coordinator and interim head coach, and he was among the finalists for the job that eventually went to Frank Reich.

However, just like Reich, Wilks now finds himself quickly looking for employment. For Wilks, he will be moving to his sixth different organization since his one-year stint as Arizona’s head coach in 2018.

Naturally, many will wonder why the 49ers are moving on from Wilks, who was viewed as a good replacement for DeMeco Ryans after he took the Texans job, after just one season. Here’s what to know about Wilks’ departure from San Francisco.

Why did the 49ers fire Steve Wilks?

The 49ers fired Wilks because the team wasn’t pleased with the defense’s effort during San Francisco’s postseason run.

The 49ers sported a great defense during the regular season. The unit ranked eighth in yards allowed per game (303.9) and third in points allowed per game (17.5) while logging 48 sacks.

However, the wheels fell off in the postseason. Across three games, the 49ers allowed a whopping 409 yards per game and 25.7 points per game. They particularly struggled to contain the run, allowing at least 110 rushing yards in every game with five total touchdowns on the ground.

Shanahan was critical of the team’s run defense, particularly after the 49ers’ miraculous 17-point comeback against the Lions in the NFC championship game.

“They were expecting someone else to make the tackle,” Shanahan said, per ESPN. “Whenever you’re expecting someone else to make the tackle, bad things happen. ”

To his credit, Wilks called out his defense’s performance in that contest, saying that it was “embarrassing” and challenging his unit to perform better in the Super Bowl.

“Collectively as a team, I can tell you as a defense it’s unacceptable,” defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said Friday. “We talked about that. I wish I could tell these guys on Play 4, on Play 27, this is what’s going to happen. You don’t know. So we’ve got to make sure that we play every down as if it’s going to be the difference in the ballgame. And you could see on those particular plays, it wasn’t to our standard. Those guys understand and know that, and quite honestly it was embarrassing.”

Things looked good for Wilks’ unit in the first half of Super Bowl 58, as they limited the Chiefs to just three points and stymied Travis Kelce, holding him to one catch for one yard.

However, the Chiefs scored 22 points after intermission. San Francisco failed to get key stops on each of Kansas City’s final two drives of the game, the last of which turned out to be a walk-off, 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ended with a Mecole Hardman touchdown.

That included a key, 4th-and-1 run by Patrick Mahomes — a zone-read scramble that easily allowed the Chiefs to keep their game-winning drive alive.

Nick Bosa explained after the game that he believed the 49ers struggled to contain Mahomes, who scrambled for 66 yards, because of a lack of preparation for those specific looks.

“The zone read got us a couple of times,” Bosa told NBC Sports Bay Area. “We could have been more prepared there. We have to know in crucial situations who is going to have the ball, and, obviously, it’s him. He had a scramble down the middle on that last drive.”

The latter scramble to which Bosa is referring helped set up Kansas City’s game-winning touchdown. While Bosa acknowledged that Mahomes simply makes those game-changing plays at times, he believed the 49ers could have better slowed him down.

“He is who he is for a reason,” Bosa said of Mahomes. “You have to keep your confidence up and not anticipate him to make these plays. But there were some where I think, if obviously we could get them back, we would have been more prepared.”

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If Bosa’s review reflected the beliefs of the defense as a whole, that may have been enough for Shanahan to consider a change.

That said, Shanahan said Tuesday that he “expected all [the 49ers] coaches to be back,” but he declined to elaborate about specific coaches.

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