SANTA CLARA — The day after coach Kyle Shanahan announced his defensive coordinator would move from the coaches box to the sideline, Steve Wilks knew the questions were coming.
“Just being candid, I think we’re making a bigger deal about this than it needs to be,” Wilks said Thursday before practice. “I just want to be able to communicate with the guys a little more. Certain things I’m seeing, I want to be able to talk to them directly.”
Wilks is correct in that the switch is being more closely scrutinized from the outside than from inside the building.
“I don’t really pay it no mind,” defensive tackle Javon Hargrave said.
Dre Greenlaw cut to the heart of the matter and a 5-3 record after a 5-0 start.
“If we were 8-0 it probably wouldn’t be a big deal,” Greenlaw said. “Me, I like having that coach on the sideline. But I think when it’s not going the way you want it to, everyone finds an excuse or a reason why.”
While the 49ers’ defense has had its issues during the three-game losing streak, the bottom line is they gave up 19 and 22 points in losses to Cleveland and Minnesota — point totals which could have been overcome by a better offensive showing.
But stopping the run has been a problem, as the 49ers have given up 4.5 yards per carry and 122.8 yards over the three losses. They have allowed 14 third-down conversions in 34 chances, which isn’t awful, but have surrendered key first downs at crucial times. They have recorded five sacks but generally failed to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
And after discussing it with Shanahan, Wilks said he wanted to get a closer look at what was going on. Previously, Wilks relayed calls from the booth to linebackers coach Johnny Holland, who then communicated with middle linebacker Fred Warner.
Wilks said there have been no problems in that information chain but felt he could get his point across better in person.
“It’s just a great opportunity for me to look at things on the surface and then I can go directly to that guy, ‘OK, this is what I’m seeing,’ and we can have that dialogue,” Wilks said. “I like to also know how they’re seeing things in the flow and course of the game and that’s going to allow me to call things differently in how they see it as well.”
Robert Saleh and DeMeco Ryans, Wilks’ predecessors running the defense for Shanahan, both worked from the sideline. Wilks’ stated preference was being in the booth to remove some emotions and allow him to be more clinical and organized. It’s an approach Shanahan said he himself favored as an offensive coordinator.
Unlike Saleh and Ryans, Wilks is less fiery and more understated, his emotions kept in check rather than worn on his sleeve. Some critics of Wilks — and they’re growing in numbers after three straight losses — don’t think he’s emotional enough.
“When you look at our guys, and I’ve been doing this for a while, I don’t think that’s part of what they’re missing or what they need,” Wilks said. “Sometimes it can be good. We all feed off each other, coaches feed off one another. I feed off the players, so it depends.
“But I think it’s more the communication part where we can have that dialogue face to face and try to make the adjustments we need to make throughout the game.”
Wilks, the first outsider Shanahan has hired to run his defense, knows the heat is on and doesn’t seem overly concerned about it.
“I can honestly say I was built for this,” Wilks said. “Not in an arrogant way, but I’ve always believed two things — there’s what you hear and what you listen to. I hear a lot of outside noise, good or bad. I understand the emotions of this game. I try not to be emotional. We’re 5-3. The standard is so high here, and we lost three in a row, and everybody is feeling the ceiling is collapsing.
“We’re in a good position. We need to turn it around . . . I’m the new guy. I can take it. I have confidence in myself. Most importantly, I have confidence in those players and those coaches that we’re together and we’re going to come through this.”
— Left tackle Trent Williams practiced for the first time since an Oct. 15 injury to his right ankle, which has given him issues in the past. Williams did not look at full strength but returning to practice was a positive sign.
— Wide receiver Deebo Samuel says his left shoulder “feels pretty good” as he continues to practice ahead of Sunday’s expected return from a two-game absence. “Not being part of the game is kind of hard, but I’ve kind of been there before, so it’s just the mental things of getting back and getting ready to play,” said Samuel, who’s missed 17 games in his 3 ½ seasons.
— For the third time in four games, the 49ers’ opponent will be coming off a bye, and the Jaguars will try parlaying that into a win like the Browns and the Bengals. Tight end George Kittle does not harbor bitterness over that bye business, saying: “Sure, you’re rested, but who knows? That team could be more sloppy because they didn’t practice for a week and then play a game, had time off, wasn’t as focused. You can go both ways with it. There’s plusses and minuses. It’s NFL football.”
— Kittle and Purdy are among those excited the 49ers traded last week for defensive end Chase Young, whose former team, the Washington Commanders, host the 49ers on New Year’s Eve. “When you get on the field, it’s, dang, we have another guy on the edge who can do some damage,” Purdy said.
Added Kittle: “It’s crazy seeing Young on the back of a Niner jersey again. It’s kind of cool.” The last time the 49ers won a Super Bowl, their 1994 team did so with Steve Young and Bryant Young.
— Left guard Aaron Banks (toe) remained out but did conditioning work on the side. Jon Feliciano is expected to start in place of Banks.
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