The 49Ers Are Counting On New Defensive Coordinator Nick Sorensen To Get The Unit Back To Dominance

San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Nick Sorensen watches players run drills during the NFL football team's rookie minicamp in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, May 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Nick Sorensen watches players run drills during the NFL football team's rookie minicamp in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, May 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — The San Francisco 49ers' experiment of bringing in a defensive coordinator from the outside didn't work out, with the team firing Steve Wilks after just one season.

Now they're counting on the internal promotion of Nick Sorensen into that role — with a dose of outside perspective from former Chargers head coach Brandon Staley — to get the Niners back to performing at a dominant level defensively after taking a little step back last season.

“We all know the standard here and we all want to win, we all want to play great defense and that’s the expectation,” Sorensen said Friday in his first public remarks since being hired earlier this offseason. “But I have that on myself. Our coaches do, our players do. What is said, I’m not really worried about it. I just know what we want to get done and what I want to get done.”

The 49ers didn't reach that standard last season under Wilks that had been set under previous coordinators Robert Saleh and DeMeco Ryans, especially in the playoffs when they got gashed on the ground against Green Bay and Detroit and then wilted late in a Super Bowl loss to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Niners ranked first overall in most key metrics in 2022 under Ryans. Last season under Wilks, they were were third in points allowed and 10th in more advanced efficiency metrics like Expected Points Added.

Wilks struggled to adapt to the system coach Kyle Shanahan wanted to use, and the defense had issues all season against the run and came up short in the playoffs, leading to the decision to make a change.

That led to the promotion of Sorensen, who moved from his role as a passing game specialist to being in charge of the whole defense for the first time in his coaching career.

Sorensen initially joined San Francisco’s staff as a defensive assistant in 2022, working with linebackers when Johnny Holland was out dealing with cancer. Sorensen also has run weekly meetings focused on creating takeaways and limiting turnovers during his time in San Francisco.

Sorensen previously served as special teams coach in Jacksonville in 2021 and spent eight seasons in Seattle as an assistant for the secondary and special teams, where the Seahawks used a similar defensive scheme to the 49ers.

“It helps that he knows the system and has been around it,” All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner said. “We just have to get better at the fundamentals and technique of what we do as well as implementing some tweaks in there as well, because we have been running the same thing for a long time. Teams know what we’re running. We’re not afraid of that. But there do have to be some tweaks in there to make sure that we are switching things up a little bit, and I think Nick is going to do an amazing job.”

Shanahan also made another big move on the defensive staff, hiring Staley as a defensive assistant. Staley had been coordinator for the Rams for one season in 2020 when they were the stingiest defense in the league and had three less successful seasons as coach of the Chargers before getting fired last December.

Staley has a more amorphous role with the Niners, where he isn't responsible for one position group or the entire defense but is more of a resource for an untested coordinator.

“It's more holistic,” Sorensen said of Staley's role. “He’s been helping me overall. He’s been involved with pretty much everything, as far as, ‘Here is where we did this’ and I’ve been kind of talking him through how we play certain things, watching things throughout the league and what other teams do. Some of the things that he did, asking ‘Would this fit or would it not fit in our defense?’ ... He’s been more connected with the DBs and the nickels, but he also has experience elsewhere with defensive ends and outside linebackers. But with the staff that we have, I think for me it’s going to be really helpful that he’s done it before and he’s had success and he’s been a head coach as well.”

Sorensen said Staley's influence could help the 49ers' defense evolve but the standards of being an attacking defense that plays fast will not change.

“We always are looking to evolve in certain ways. I think there’s things throughout the league that you see and it’s like, ‘Will this work? Will it not?’” he said. “But as far as what we do, our bread and butter, we’re going to do that.”