SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — When the San Francisco 49ers went from Robert Saleh to DeMeco Ryans at defensive coordinator, the unit didn't miss a beat.
The shift this past offseason from Ryans to Steve Wilks hasn't gone nearly as smoothly. And that's a reason why the Niners (5-3) head into their bye week on a three-game losing streak and in search of the dominant defensive performances that carried the team at times in recent years.
San Francisco's high-priced defensive line didn't record a sack on 45 pass attempts against the Vikings and the defense missed several tackles and was often out of position while getting picked apart by Joe Burrow and the Bengals in a performance that prompted coach Kyle Shanahan to call his defense “slow and tired.”
“When that does happen, I think it leads to bigger holes. I think it leads to more mistakes,” he said. "I think it leads to missed tackles. I could see on tape a different type of energy that was disappointing, but I also know that they need this rest and that showed the most.”
Along with the rest, the time off gives Wilks and the coaching staff to figure what hasn't been working and how to fix it. He will also have a new piece to incorporate after Niners acquired defensive end Chase Young from Washington for a third-round draft pick to give a needed boost to the pass rush.
But general manager John Lynch said the key will be getting the star-studded defensive roster back to playing at the level it was as the league's top-ranked defense last year under Ryans.
“Everyone needs to look inward not outward because there’s no magic pill,” Lynch said. “The answers are right here in this building. We didn’t feel like we necessarily needed to go do something. We weren’t going to be reactionary to our recent streak, but all along we just felt like if the right thing transpired and ultimately we thought that this was something that would really help us.”
The defense needs help right now.
San Francisco ranks 27th in the NFL this season by generating sacks on 5.5% of pass plays, after being fifth over the previous two seasons at 7.5%.
The 49ers have struggled tackling in recent weeks and had a season-worst 13 missed tackles Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, to give them 32 the past three games after having only nine the three weeks before that.
San Francisco has also allowed 15 plays of 20 or more yards the past three games after giving up only 10 in the first five contests.
“It’s just inconsistency across the board," linebacker Fred Warner said. “I think tackling has been an issue when it hasn’t been in the past. Players got to execute at a higher level, including myself. We’ve got to play more as a unit. There’s got to be more hunt to the football at all three levels. There’s got to be more penalty-free football. Like I said, the execution has to be higher. We think we’re preparing hard. We think we’re putting a lot of work in. Obviously, we’re not doing enough. There’s got to be more.”
Warner put the blame on the players not the new coach, but there has been an adjustment with Wilks being brought in from the outside to run the defense after Ryans got the head coaching job in Houston.
Instead of installing his own defense, Wilks kept the successful formula in place, while adding a few tweaks in coverages and blitzes.
He spent much of the offseason learning San Francisco's scheme, but acknowledges it is a work in progress.
“You know it’s always challenging," he said. "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 around me are phenomenal. They know this defense. They know their craft. These players are great. So we’re all in this together, man. So I’m not hitting the panic button at all.”
Wilks also brings a different demeanor than the more demonstrative Saleh and Ryans, who brought those emotions down to the field with chest bumps and other celebrations.
Wilks is more low key and spends the games in the press box where he has a better view of the entire operation. But that is another potential change under consideration.
“That’s something we’ll discuss this week, just the two of us,” Shanahan said. “If he felt it would help him, that’s something we’ll try, but we haven’t done that yet.”
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