After taking a couple of days to reflect on his pivotal decision, San Francisco 49ers’ defensive coordinator, Steve Wilks, expressed his desire for a do-over following the all-out blitz that backfired with a 60-yard touchdown just before halftime in the team’s Monday night loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
Speaking to reporters for the first time since the 49ers’ 22-17 defeat, Wilks opened with an apology, stating unequivocally that he would have chosen a different strategy if given a second chance. He took full responsibility for the ill-fated call, emphasizing his need to put his players in a better position and acknowledging his duty to improve. In his own words, “I wish I could take it back, but again, I’ve got to do better.”
The critical play occurred with 16 seconds remaining in the second quarter. The Vikings were faced with a third-and-6 situation at their own 40-yard line with no timeouts left. They had been content with short passes, hoping to set up a field goal attempt. Sensing an opportunity, the 49ers showed a blitz before the snap, prompting Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins to audibly check into a deep pass to rookie receiver Jordan Addison.
Regrettably, Wilks had dialed up an all-out blitz, commonly known as a “zero blitz,” which involved sending seven defenders after Cousins, leaving the defensive backs with minimal support if the pressure failed to reach the quarterback. Cousins’ throw came up short, and it appeared that Niners cornerback Charvarius Ward had secured an interception. However, Addison managed to wrestle the ball away from Ward and sprinted into the end zone for a 60-yard touchdown, extending Minnesota’s lead to 16-7.
Following the game, Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan expressed his disappointment in the play call, promising discussions and a review of the strategy. These discussions occurred, with Wilks admitting his error. Shanahan clarified that his issue wasn’t with the concept of a zero blitz or Wilks’ aggressive approach but rather with the timing and situational awareness. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, it marked the first time in the last 30 seconds of a half in opposing territory since Week 11 of 2020 that a seven-man pass rush was attempted.
Shanahan pointed out that he had no qualms with a zero blitz in general, especially when an opponent needed substantial yardage, but in this case, with only 16 seconds left, it was an inappropriate choice. Addison’s long touchdown received the most attention, but it highlighted ongoing defensive struggles, particularly in the pass rush. Despite leading the league in interceptions (11) and ranking third in points allowed per game (15.6), the 49ers lagged behind in sacks per dropback despite allocating significant salary cap space to their defensive line.
Wilks is in his first year as defensive coordinator, taking over from DeMeco Ryans, who became the head coach of the Houston Texans in the offseason. The hope when hiring Wilks was to maintain the defensive philosophy established under Ryans and his predecessor, Robert Saleh, while potentially adding new perspectives due to his history of coaching defensive backs. Since Shanahan’s arrival in 2017, the 49ers have relied heavily on generating pressure with their front four and deploying zone coverage.
Under Wilks this season, the Niners have been blitzing on 24.3% of opponent drop-backs, which is the 15th-highest in the league and the second-highest rate since Shanahan’s arrival. However, this increase is not significantly higher than the 22.8% rate under Ryans in 2022, and the 49ers are struggling to sack the quarterback regardless of the defensive strategy.
Wilks emphasized that pass rush and coverage are interconnected, and he is still working on understanding when to use specific blitzes and other calls, considering the unique nature of the 49ers’ defense. He expressed confidence in his coaching staff and players, assuring that he is not hitting the panic button.