Defensive Coordinator Steve Wilks Press Conference
Defensive Coordinator Steve Wilks
Press Conference – August 31, 2023
San Francisco 49ers
“We had two great days of practice this week. Exciting to get down to the 53. Feel like we know we’re moving in the right direction. Excited about the guys that we have on the defensive side of the ball and definitely prepping and getting ready for the Steelers. So, I know you guys have some questions. With that, I’ll open it up.”
At what point did you start really honing in on the Steelers and start formulating some ideas of how you want to approach them?
“I think this week is just a bonus for us. We’ve already looked at a few things. Just giving our guys the opportunity to try to settle in a little bit, particularly with first and second down things. Just watching them on tape, we’ve been doing that for a while as a coaching staff. Those guys are playing well. I think the quarterback, second year guy, he’s looking phenomenal. He’s taking that second-year leap, doing some great things. They have the vertical threats down the field that can make things happen in any moment. And they have a very impressive, solid run game. So, we’ve definitely got our hands filled right with these guys coming up next week.”
Earlier in camp, you talked about learning the 49ers and the 49ers way, not your way. What have you learned, now that you’re through sort of a full camp? What have you learned about the way the 49ers’ defense works and why it’s been successful the last few years?
“I think it’s just really sort of geared with our front seven and how we play. And it’s certain schematic things that we do here that I probably wasn’t used to in the past, and I’m not going to indulge in that part, but we do it well. And [LB] Fred [Warner] being one of the lead guys with that. When you have those caliber of guys that are in there playing, you see exactly why we play it certain ways. So, I’ve definitely come accustomed to that. I think complementing what we’ve done on the back end this particular spring leading into training camp and preseason, I think we’ve improved and gotten better there as well. So, I’m excited where we are once again.”
Are you in a spot where with like DL Nick Bosa that whenever he arrives, you just plug him in to do what other guys have been doing? Or is he unique in the sense that when he gets here you can ask him to do different things than what you already have from a defensive end?
“I think we all know that he’s unique. I think you can definitely do different things with him as we’ve done in the past, particularly on third down, and certain things that you want to try to free him up. But, he’s solid all the way around, so I don’t think, once again, it’s going to be issue when that time comes. So hopefully it’s soon.”
Yesterday, head coach Kyle Shanahan expressed some concern about the run defense in the preseason, but he did qualify that by saying it’s the preseason, not a lot of the starters are playing. Where do you stand on that spectrum about looking at the preseason?
“Yeah, well, number one, you never want to give up as many yards as we have during preseason. Talking to the coaches that were here I had one of my moments coming out of one of the games and they referenced last year against the Texans. I think it was 150-something as well. But you’re right, a lot of the starters don’t play, which is no excuse. My concern is it’s not some of the basic fits. We can correct that. You look at some of the young linebackers that just got out of their gaps off of basic fit right there, that turned into an explosive play. Those things are correctable. As I told the players coming out of this previous game, I take full responsibility for the zone-read stuff, I think it was an equivalent of maybe 56 yards that the quarterbacks got. I always tell the coaches as well as the players, I’m never going to hold you accountable for something that we didn’t emphasize. And I didn’t emphasize that that week. It was planned on a schedule for this week. I knew we were going to see it because [Denver Broncos QB] Russell [Wilson] heard us on it. But as you alluded to, I had a schedule, certain things I wanted to implement and get in. So, we definitely going to be better with the zone-read. I know that’s something that we put on tape and people are going to try to expose us on, but we’ll be better with that.”
General manager John Lynch referenced when he was playing at Tampa Bay, he was an established Pro Bowl player, and Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Tomlin came in there as a first-year defensive back coach and challenged him and said, ‘You can get better, you will get better.’ I’m curious whether you found that with Warner? As an established player, is he okay with you coming in and saying, ‘All right, let’s try it this way?’
“I think all those guys I take that approach with them. I have a phrase or saying about staying green and you’ve got to continue to learn this if you don’t know. And I believe in challenging those guys and always telling the truth. So, great players like John was as well as Fred, they want to be challenged. They want to be told the truth. So, I think we constantly do that as coaches, to try to put our guys in certain situations and constantly challenge those guys on the details and the basics of the techniques and the things we’re asking them to do.”
How do you make this defense better? Obviously in top-five, the last four years, I believe in total defense. You mentioned the back end. Is that sort of an emphasis or a place this defense can improve or take a step forward?
“Yes. I think we’ve improved there and I think the difference has been, and you guys have wrote about it for the last couple of years, how great we are front. You talked about Bosa, [DL] Arik [Armstead], we’ve got [DL] Javon [Hargrave] you talked about Fred, [LB Dre] Greenlaw. But I think the difference is how we play on the back end and how we hold up because you can have a great defensive line, but if we are not doing our job back there, it can still be a difficult time for us. I’ve always emphasized, and I tell these guys constantly that we’re a very talented defense and there’s times that we’re going to line up against teams and just be quite honest, I tell them on paper we’re going to be better than those guys. But it doesn’t really matter if we’re not really fundamentally sound. So to me, people talk about it in the spring, they talk about it at the beginning of the season, but Week 6, Week 13, are we still talking about the fundamentals and technique? Because to me, that’s what separates teams, the details. And that’s what I think is going to be with us that we can’t get complacent.”
The run defense, DT Javon Kinlaw spoke to us a couple weeks ago and talked about him concentrating on flexibility, on leverage and trying to add improvement to that aspect of his game. Has he been able to put that to practice? What have you seen from him in that regard in the preseason?
“Well, I’ve seen him trying to emphasize and work on what you just talked about. He is a massive man, very tall. So, we constantly talk about his pad level, staying low. This is a leverage game, low man win. So being able to come off the ball and create a new line of scrimmage, we always talk about attacking, which we do a great job of. But also playing with violent hands and being able to, what we say ‘X off’ into your gap and make that tackle. So, I’ve seen that improvement with him, not only with him, with guys across the across the front. So, we’re going to need that next week for sure.”
Do you expect teams when he’s on the field to run right at him?
“Well, not so much right at him. I mean, I think there’s a lot of guys that you can sit here and scheme against that we’re going to up front. So, what teams get with us is they try to double team us and try to get to the second level. So, we’ve got to do a great job of maintaining and splitting that double team and not allowing them to push on the linebacker. So, that’s where it’s all about get off and guys really staying in their gaps.”
How is your safety situation looking with S Talanoa Hufanga and S Tashaun Gipson Sr. working on the side and S Ji’Ayir Brown coming in?
“They’re fine. I think, again, with Gip and the number of years he’s played, mentally, he’s where he needs to be. From a physical standpoint, I think it’s plug and play with him. He does a great job. And then, Huf coming off his Pro Bowl year, I think he’s going to be ready as well. So, I think once we get our starting 11 guys out there, they’re going to be in sync in doing the things that we’re asking them to do.”
We’ve heard a couple of defensive linemen come in here and refer to DL Arik Armstead as blueprint. That’s his nickname, which I assume has to do with technique and fundamentals. He fought all last year against various injuries and I don’t know if he was ever really right. He has been so far this offseason. Is he a guy that now that you’re here, you appreciate more now that you’re in the building and really get to see him work?
“Oh yeah, definitely appreciate Arik. I think he’s had a great offseason. He is the blueprint as we call him. He sets the standard with those guys up front. You know, I talked to him the other day, he wasn’t practicing and just was talking about a few things, are you ready? And I think in a subliminal way, I was joking with the coaching staff, he sent me a a long detailed text about everything in the run game with Pittsburgh and I was like, I said, ‘yeah, I think he’s ready’. So it was definitely detailing everything that they’re doing and what we need to do to make sure that we attack it. So, very impressed.”
From a coordinator’s perspective, when you’re facing an offense like the Niners and they have WR Brandon Aiyuk, WR Deebo Samuel and RB Christian McCaffrey and TE George Kittle and on and on, does it force you in some ways to be more basic? Maybe you won’t go double this guy all the time. Does it force you to kind of just simplify a game plan just because you can’t focus on one specific guy?
“Yeah, I think we have definitely weapons and Kyle does a tremendous job in really trying to spread the ball around and create different looks. It’s been great going against those guys because it’s prepared us for different things that we’re going to see throughout the year. So, you can easily get out of position based off what you think may be 21 personnel and they break the huddle and all of a sudden it looks like 11. So, you’ve got to be very sound in what you’re doing going against that offense.”
Beyond the schemes and the x’s and o’s we’re talking about, what is it about this defense and some of the players that’s propelled them these last few years? Is there some personality trait or some thread between Fred and Nick or whoever that sort of elevates this defense above other defenses around the league?
“I think it’s the culture that they’ve created. I talk about it all the time. Coming in here and seeing exactly what we have established over the years is very hard for anybody to come in here and hide. Meaning that you’re going to get very exposed in this defense if you don’t practice at a certain level, if you don’t study at a certain level because everybody in that room is doing that at a high level every day. So, the standard is the standard here in how we do things and it starts with Arik, Fred, all those guys across the board. So again, excited where we are. And it’s about taking one step at a time, so we’re looking forward to next week.”