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New 49ers DC Steve Wilks looks to build on defense's past successes

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — When San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan was looking for a coordinator to take over the NFL's stingiest defense after DeMeco Ryans left for a promotion in Houston, he wanted a coach who would keep the Niners' successful system in place.

When Steve Wilks was looking for another defensive coordinator job after being passed over for head coach in Carolina, he wanted to find a winning organization that had collaboration between the coaching staff and front office.

Wilks and the 49ers believe they are the perfect fit for each other.

“I think you have to embrace the success that they’ve had here,” Wilks said Friday. "I think it is a foundation that we all agree we wanted to keep and I think it is an opportunity as we go through the process, which we already have, to try to tweak things a little bit. I still think there’s room for improvement. If you talk to the players, they would tell you the same, so when it’s not broke, you don’t really want to try to fix it and once again, we’ve had a lot of success around here and we just want to continue to build on that.”

The Niners led the NFL in points allowed (16.3 per game), yards allowed (300.6 per game) and were tied for second in takeaways (30) last season under Ryans, going all the way to the NFC title game for the second straight season.

Wilks inherits a talented roster with All-Pros at all three levels led by Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa at defensive end, linebacker Fred Warner and safety Talanoa Hufanga.

That trio is supported by defensive tackle Arik Armstead, linebacker Dre Greenlaw and cornerback Charvarius Ward and has been supplemented by the free agent signing of pass-rushing defensive tackle Javon Hargrave.

While Wilks believes in San Francisco's strategy of building a defense from the defensive line, he sees room for some changes that he thinks can make the Niners even more formidable.

Wilks sees opportunities to play more man coverage and mix in more blitzes.

"Do I feel like we have the skillset to play more man? Yes. At times, do I want to be a little bit more aggressive with the talent and athleticism that we have at linebacker? Yes,” he said. “I believe in zone eyes, I think that’s how you make plays on the football, particularly from the underneath positions, so zone is still going to be a high element of what we do, but I feel like we have the skillset and the talent to be able to get in a guy’s face, press man, make the quarterback hold the ball, particularly with our front.”

Wilks is a longtime defensive backs coach in the NFL and will focus heavily on the cornerbacks in San Francisco.

He served as defensive coordinator in Cleveland and Carolina before becoming interim coach for the Panthers last season. He also was head coach for one season in Arizona but was fired after going 3-13 in 2018.

Wilks joined the Panthers staff in 2022 and took over as coach after Matt Rhule was fired following a 1-4 start to the season.

Wilks got Carolina back in contention in the NFC South by going 6-6 but the Panthers were eliminated from playoff contention after blowing an 11-point fourth-quarter lead to Tampa Bay in Week 17.

Wilks is following Ryans and Robert Saleh in the role as defensive coordinator and if he has the type of success they did, he could translate that into another head coaching job.

But Wilks said he's not focused on a possible head coaching jobs down the road.

“I believe in being where your feet are,” he said. “Be where your feet are and take care of what’s in front of you. I started out at Johnson C. Smith University, a Division II school, small school right there in Charlotte, North Carolina. I didn’t think about where I would be. I had dreams of it, but I’ve always just tried to win the day. And that’s where I am right now.”

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