The 49ers defense looked like its prior self in Week 10 against the Jaguars, and many will say it's because Steve Wilks vacated the booth. That's a wrong take, though.
San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks needed some sort of statement game from his side of the ball.
Against a strong Jacksonville Jaguars outfit on the road, Wilks got precisely that as his defense surrendered just three points and 221 total yards in a 34-3 domination that got the Niners back into the win column for the first time since beating the Dallas Cowboys way back in Week 5.
San Francisco forced more defensive takeaways (four) than points surrendered, which is incredible. And it sacked Jags quarterback Trevor Lawrence five times, too.
Wilks, fair or not, received a lot of heat during the 49ers' prior three-game losing streak, and it was more than evident his defense was struggling despite the parallel fact that head coach Kyle Shanahan's offense was averaging a mere 17 points per contest during the skid.
The apparent solution? Wilks, a former head coach, would vacate the booth and call plays from the field to communicate better and to shake things up.
On the surface, this move worked. It even drew praise from former Niners cornerback, turned Amazon Prime analyst, Richard Sherman:
After the game, linebacker Fred Warner praised Wilks' decision as well and pointed out how "flawless" the communication was with the coordinator down on the field.
Was that the reason why San Francisco's defense nearly pitched a shutout, though?
No. Not even close.
Steve Wilks' adjustments, not sideline presence led to 49ers defense dominating Jaguars
Wilks' biggest decision during the Week 9 bye wasn't to choose between the booth and the sideline.
No, it was how to better mesh coverage with the vaunted 49ers pass rush, one that now includes star edge rusher Chase Young, who was highly effective alongside All-Pro edge Nick Bosa, his former Ohio State collegiate teammate.
Bosa and the Niners hadn't been picking up sacks with regularity lately, and one major reason was because opposing quarterbacks were quickly delivering passes against softer zone coverages that Wilks had been calling.
Instead, Wilks dialed up much more press-man coverage, as Sports Illustrated's Grant Cohn pointed out after the game:
"Instead of calling soft zone coverage all game, he called lots of press man coverage, which forced Lawrence to hold the ball longer than he'd like to, which allowed the 49ers pass rush to win the game.
Wilks had to live with a few pass interference and illegal contact penalties as a result of the aggressive coverage, but the trade off worked in the 49ers' favor."
Going with press man might have also been another reason why cornerback Ambry Thomas and not Isaiah Oliver was in at nickel back, as Thomas is generally more effective in this scheme than in zone.
Thomas generated one of those four turnovers, too.
Yet Wilks had to mesh his coverage with the pass rush, and that's the biggest win for him altogether. Instead of blitzing more than usual, Wilks allowed his pass-rushers like Bosa, Young and even defensive tackle Javon Hargrave to pin their ears back and rush Lawrence in a four-man front, dropping seven other defenders back in coverage and limiting Jacksonville's quarterback's options.
It worked, big time.
Wilks realized what former Niners defensive coordinators, Robert Saleh and DeMeco Ryans, came to understand before him: San Francisco can win with a four-man pass rush when players like Bosa are present and contributing.
It's likely the same kind of success would have transpired if Wilks called these plays from the booth and not from the field, but it'll be the coordinator's switch down to the sideline that likely garners the most attention.
Whatever works, though, right?