Nick WagonerESPN Staff Writer5 Minute Read
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Given a couple of days to reflect on the all-out blitz he called that turned into a 60-yard touchdown before halftime of the San Francisco 49ers‘ loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night, Niners defensive coordinator Steve Wilks would like to have a mulligan.
Wilks spoke to reporters Thursday for the first time since the Niners’ 22-17 loss to the Vikings. Before taking questions, Wilks offered an opening statement in which he made it clear that if he could do it over again, he would have called something else.
“I take full responsibility for that call,” Wilks said. “I have to do a better job in putting the guys in a better position. We have good players. I know that and can’t really press the issue and with that moving forward, it’s my responsibility to do that. So I wish I could take it back, but again, I’ve got to do better.”
The play in question happened with 16 seconds left in the second quarter. Minnesota faced a third-and-6 at its 40 with no timeouts remaining and had been settling for underneath throws in hopes of possibly sneaking into field goal range.
With the Niners showing blitz before the snap, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins recognized the potential pressure and checked into a deep shot for rookie receiver Jordan Addison, according to Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell.
As it turned out, Wilks had dialed up an all-out blitz — known as a zero blitz — in which seven defenders go after Cousins, leaving the remaining defensive backs without much of a safety net if the pressure doesn’t get to the quarterback.
Cousins’ throw was a bit short and Niners cornerback Charvarius Ward undercut it for an apparent interception, but Addison wrestled it away from him and raced into the end zone for a 60-yard touchdown to give Minnesota a 16-7 lead. That came after Ward wrestled one away from Addison on the game’s opening drive for an interception.
“He got his get back,” Ward said Wednesday. “The kid made a good play. That’s all I can say. He made a good-ass play. I thought I had it, and next thing you know, he had it and he’s running to the end zone.”
After the loss, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said the play call was “something we’ll discuss throughout the week” and that he did not like the result. Shanahan and Wilks did have those discussions, with Wilks acknowledging his mistake.
On Wednesday, Shanahan said it wasn’t anything against the blitz call itself or Wilks’ aggressive approach so much as it was about situational football. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, it was the first seven-man pass rush in the last 30 seconds of a half in opposing territory since Week 11 of 2020.
“He knows he messed up on that call,” Shanahan said. “I have no problem with zero blitzes, especially when people need a lot of yards. If you need to get 20 yards to kick a field goal, I have no problem with a zero blitz. But I do when there’s 16 seconds left. That’s where he lost track. There was no necessary need for that just because of the time. I have no problem with that play call, but when it’s that time, you can’t do that. That’s not an option.”
Addison’s long touchdown was the play that got most of the attention, but it was just the most prominent example of some of San Francisco’s recent defensive struggles, particularly in the pass rush. While the Niners lead the NFL in interceptions (11) and are third in points per game allowed (15.6), they’re 26th in sacks per drop back despite having the fifth-most salary cap space in the league devoted to their defensive line.
Wilks is in his first year as defensive coordinator following DeMeco Ryans’ offseason departure to become the head coach of the Houston Texans. Before Ryans, Robert Saleh succeeded enough in the coordinator role to become the New York Jets‘ head coach.
When Shanahan and the Niners hired Wilks in the offseason, the hope was that he wouldn’t change much of what the Niners did under Ryans and Saleh while perhaps adding a different viewpoint to the secondary because of his history coaching defensive backs.
Since Shanahan arrived in 2017, the Niners have leaned heavily on generating pressure with their front four and playing heavy zone coverage on the back end. This season, under Wilks, the Niners are blitzing on 24.3% of opponent drop backs, which is 15th highest in the league and the second highest for the Niners since Shanahan arrived. But it’s not that much higher than the 22.8% rate they had in 2022 under Ryans, and the 49ers are struggling to get the quarterback down regardless of the defensive call.
As Wilks was quick to point out, pass rush and coverage work hand in hand, and he’s still working to understand his personnel and when to deploy certain blitzes and other calls.
“This defense is a unique defense and there are certain things that go with that particular defense and I’m learning that and there’s certain things that you can’t swear away from,” Wilks said. “It’s always challenging when you’ve done your own thing for 17 years. It’s a little different but I’m encouraged. I got a great supporting cast. These coaches that are around me are phenomenal. They know this defense. They know their craft. These players are great. So, we’re all in this together. I’m not hitting the panic button at all.”