Steve Wilks’ sideline relocation was going to be a bonanza for the Fox television cameras no matter what happened Sunday.
If the San Francisco 49ers’ defense struggled there would be all sorts of forlorn shots of the defensive coordinator with perhaps one — if Fox got lucky with the composition — of a stone-faced Kyle Shanahan looming in the background.
Instead, viewers got a stream of increasingly triumphant Wilks images during the 49ers’ 34-3 rout of the Jacksonville Jaguars. There was Wilks after Nick Bosa ripped the ball from Trevor Lawrence in the second quarter. There he was following a Fred Warner interception in the fourth quarter. There he was at game’s end walking up to individual 49ers defenders and shaking their hands.
Which is to say, there was no bigger winner than the embattled Wilks on Sunday.
“I felt his energy,” defensive lineman Arik Armstead said. “He came up and congratulated us on some plays and that voice kept telling us to keep going and don’t let up. So, yeah, I definitely felt him on the sideline.”
One of the players Wilks congratulated at the final whistle was another sideline newcomer, defensive end Chase Young. He didn’t start the game. But Young was sent onto the field on the second series and had a steady role from then on, almost always lining up as the right defensive end with Bosa on the left side, just as they had at Ohio State.
Their most prominent play came early in the second quarter after the Jaguars had driven into San Francisco territory for the first time. Young beat his man to the inside and crashed into Lawrence. Bosa pounced from the other side, tearing the ball from the quarterback as the trio fell to the ground. It was one of five sacks on the day — the 49ers’ most since Week 1 in Pittsburgh — and one of their four takeaways.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) November 12, 2023
Young finished with a half sack, one tackle and one quarterback hit in his initial outing. Perhaps more significant, he seemed to attract the bulk of the chip blocks from Jaguars’ tailbacks, which meant Bosa wasn’t getting the attention and interference he normally encounters on his way to the quarterback.
“Having him is such a big threat,” Bosa said. “I think we play off of each other well. Me and him are really excited to keep going.”
No 49ers unit has been criticized as much as the defensive line, which is full of former first-round picks and players with fat contracts but which entered Week 10 with just 18 sacks, tied for 25th most in the league. From the opening drive onward, that group seemed especially eager to reassert itself:
• Bosa finished with a season-high 1 1/2 sacks. He also had a batted pass and had Lawrence wrapped up in the third quarter when he let go of a pass that was intercepted by Talanoa Hufanga.
• Similarly, Javon Hargrave was bearing down on the Jaguars quarterback when he threw an interception to Warner at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Hargrave had perhaps his best game of the season in finishing with 1 1/2 sacks and three quarterback hits. On one play, he flushed Lawrence into the waiting arms of Clelin Ferrell for the sack.
Picks on picks! @fred_warner
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) November 12, 2023
• Armstead also seemed recharged coming out of the bye. He and Hargrave set the tone for the afternoon by sacking Lawrence on the game’s initial third-down snap. Armstead briefly left the field later in the first quarter after he appeared to be tripped by guard Brandon Scherff.
“I didn’t know what happened,” Armstead said. “I have a lot of respect for him but tripping me, kicking me in my knee — I could have got seriously hurt. (It was) a dirty play.”
• Javon Kinlaw also might have had his most prominent game of the season. He played the 49ers’ first two defensive snaps as part of a five-man front to start the game and finished with a tackle and a batted pass.
Afterward, Shanahan joked that he bumped into Wilks a couple of times on the sideline and heard his voice throughout. But he and some of the players continued to downplay the coordinator’s location.
“It’s nothing against you guys or anything,” Shanahan said. “But it’s just that I’ve been coaching a long time. And I think that’s one of the most overrated things in the world. But I enjoyed him down there today.”
‘Back to being us’: 49ers rediscovered complementary formula against Jaguars
“I guess that’s the answer right there, huh?” Warner said dryly when asked about Wilks’ presence and its effect on the performance.
Still, it was clear that the defense was energized and that Wilks’ had made adjustments entering the game.
The five-man front to begin the contest seemed to be a message that the Jaguars, a top-10 team in terms of rushing attempts, weren’t going to run the ball. The 49ers held tailback Travis Etienne Jr. to nine carries and 35 yards, both season lows.
Meanwhile, nickel cornerback Isaiah Oliver, who gave up two touchdowns against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 8, didn’t play much in Jacksonville. He was replaced by Deommodore Lenoir, who often matched up against slot receiver Christian Kirk.
The results were mixed. Kirk finished with a team-high 104 receiving yards while Ambry Thomas, who enters at outside cornerback when Lenoir moves inside, gave up a couple of mid-range completions and was flagged for pass interference at the end of the third quarter.
Thomas, however, also made what would have been the 49ers’ wildest defensive play of the year so far when he dislodged the ball from Kirk in the shadow of San Francisco’s end zone, then picked it up and ran 92 yards the other way for a touchdown. The score, however, was nullified when a gaggle of 49ers, who thought the play was over with the fumble recovery, stepped onto the field during the return and drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Ambry Thomas rips the ball out 💪
— NFL (@NFL) November 12, 2023
The group that went on the field included rookies Dee Winters and Ji’Ayir Brown — as well as Wilks and Shanahan.
Shanahan said it was a mistake everyone could live with because the 49ers ended up scoring — and chewing nearly four minutes of the clock — on the ensuing possession.
“We know the rule,” he said. “We know you can’t go on the field. I personally thought the play was over. It was a good learning experience for our team.”
Mostly, the 49ers’ defensive performance highlighted a far better marriage between the pass rush and coverage.
The Jaguars had won five straight entering the encounter with the 49ers in part because Lawrence had been so accurate during that stretch. His time-to-throw statistic — which measures how quickly he releases the ball — was second only to the Miami Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa, according to Next Gen Stats, and he’d completed 71 percent of his passes during the five-game streak.
On Sunday, that completion percentage dropped to 58 percent and, with the exception of one screen-heavy drive in the second quarter, he had trouble getting rid of the ball quickly. Which is what allowed the 49ers’ defensive front to hit home five times.
“We wanted to make sure we gave them great disguises on the back end to give those guys up front more time, to make (Lawrence) pat that ball,” Warner said.
Said Bosa: “Our back end did an unreal job mixing things up and kind of confusing Trevor. And I think we got more (pass-rush opportunities) than we’ve had all year by far.”
Bosa, who held out of training camp so he could become the highest-paid non-quarterback in the league, has borne the brunt of the 49ers’ pass-rush critiques. He’s been pressuring passers at the same rate he was last season when he was named Defensive Player of the Year. But his sack total, just three entering Week 10, was far lower.
On Sunday, pressures and sacks were tied together.
“We finally had a quarterback who held onto the ball for a little bit,” Armstead said. “And we were able to show up on the stat sheet today.”
(Photo of Arik Armstead, Javon Hargrave and Nick Bosa celebrating a sack: Megan Briggs / Getty Images)
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