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Steve Wilks' roller coaster season as the 49ers defensive coordinator ends at Super Bowl

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Steve Wilks has had a roller coaster ride in his first season as defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers.

Faced with a tricky task of taking over a successful defense that still had the same position coaches and system of his predecessor DeMeco Ryans, Wilks tried to add his own twists without ruining what had worked so well in the past.

There were good moments such as a dominating five-game start to the season and bad ones such as a three-game losing streak in October that led to Wilks moving from the coaching booth to the sideline.

But the season will end with Wilks calling plays in the Super Bowl with the task of slowing down Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Despite reaching the Super Bowl stage, Wilks' unit is still under fire after two lackluster performances in the playoffs, including allowing 182 yards rushing in the NFC title game win against Detroit that featured a handful of plays, including a 15-yard run by Jahmyr Gibbs, where some players were seen giving less than maximum effort.

“I can tell you as a defense it’s unacceptable,” Wilks said. "We’ve got to make sure that we play every down as if it’s going to be the difference in the ballgame. You could see on those particular plays, it wasn’t to our standard. Those guys understand and know that and quite honestly it was embarrassing.”

Those thoughts were echoed all week by coach Kyle Shanahan, general manager John Lynch and defensive players such as 2022 AP Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa and All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner.

“Not good enough. Not good enough at all,” Warner said. “The standard has been what it has been for as long as I’ve been here. We rely heavily on winning games heavily on defense, holding teams to minimal points, suffocating teams, dictating how the game’s going to go based off how we go. That hasn’t been the case last few games."

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.

The numbers this season dropped off only marginally with the 49ers allowing 1.2 more points per game, 3.3 more yards per game and generating two fewer takeaways.

“It was stressful in the beginning of the year,” Bosa said. “It seemed like everybody was coming after him. I kind of felt for him because it’s not one guy’s fault ever in football.”

A win in the Super Bowl would be a measure of validation for Wilks, who was passed over a little more than a year ago for the head coaching job in Carolina despite a 6-6 run as interim coach.

Wilks then joined the Niners staff, while the Panthers had a 2-15 season and fired coach Frank Reich after 11 games.

Wilks is now headed to his third Super Bowl as an assistant coach, having lost previous trips in the 2006 season with Chicago and the 2015 season with Carolina when he was a defensive backs coach.

While Wilks is focused on the task at hand, he did take time to send out a message on social media after the Niners won the NFC title game.

“As I look back on my life, I realize that every time I thought I was being REJECTED from something good, I was actually being re-directed to something better,” Wilks wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Wilks, who said before the season that he preferred calling games from the box above the field, was moved down to the sideline in November to improve the communication following a mid-season slide that featured poor tackling and energy from his unit.

Improvement on the field followed with Warner saying it was beneficial to be able to look his play-caller in the eyes when they figured out needed adjustments to make during a game.

Lynch said that paid off with the improved performance in the second halves of the two playoff wins.

“He’s got this commanding presence,” Lynch said. "I think the move down to the field because of that was a good one. I think the ability to adjust within a game, I feel strongly it’s easier when you have a guy down. ... We saw fit to make that change. I think it’s been a good one. We’re very grateful to what Steve’s given to us, excited to have him going into this last game. We are where we’re at and there’s a lot of reasons for it. He’s one of them."

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