Steve Wilks blunt in return to Arizona, no emotions facing former squad

Dec 15, 2023, 6:00 AM | Updated: 12:10 pm

Head Coach Steven Wilks of the Arizona Cardinals and Head Coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco ...

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 28: Head Coach Steven Wilks of the Arizona Cardinals and Head Coach Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers shake hands on the field following the game at State Farm Stadium on October 28, 2018 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the 49ers 18-15. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

It’s been almost five years since Steve Wilks was in charge of the Birds of the Southwest, but if you ask him: It was even more long ago than that.

The San Francisco 49ers’ defensive coordinator didn’t mince words when asked about returning to Glendale, Arizona to face the Cardinals. In fact, he didn’t say much at all about his time there.

“None,” Steve Wilks said Thursday about any emotions for the game, interrupting a media member in the process. “None.”

Wilks, 54, spent the 2018 season with Arizona. Well, for most of the season, since he was relieved of his duties in the first year of his tenure after a 3-13 start. His first Cardinals’ win came in Week 5, against 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and the Red & Gold.

Since then, the North Carolina native has spent time coaching other NFL, and collegiate, organizations. That includes the Carolina Panthers, named the interim head coach for the team’s final 12 contests last season. Now, he’s in charge of the 49ers’ defense, a league-wrecking unit on the verge of the postseason.

So maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that he doesn’t have emotions tied into the return, focused solely on what’s in front of him.

“Yes, several times,” Wilks rebutted about facing his former squad. “So, we’re beyond that.”

What does lie ahead is an Arizona Cardinals team that has struggled throughout the year, only 3-10. But numbers don’t always paint the full picture, with Wilks and the 49ers coaching staff not taking their divisional foes lightly.

“I would tell you first off, do not look at their record. These guys are pretty good,” the coordinator stated. “I’ve told the guys all week, we’re going to have to go earn this one. It’s going to definitely be a tough game, and I know we’re going to be up for the challenge.”

The players feel a similar way about Arizona, especially with All-Pro safety Budda Baker back in the fold for AZ.

“The record is one thing; I don’t look at them as a 3-10 team at all,” running back Christian McCaffrey said Thursday. “They play hard, they’re fast, they run the ball extremely well. Obviously with Budda Baker in there, I have the upmost respect for him, have for a long time. They’re a really good team, you know, and can hurt you in a lot of different ways.”

One of those ways is former No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray.

The versatile quarterback is entering his fifth start of the season, fully recovered from a devastating ACL tear in Week 12 of the 2022 season. Since then, Murray has grown up, taking more of a team approach to leading the Cardinals. And while that has only translated to a 2-2 record since returning, Steve Wilks knows what the former Heisman trophy winner can bring to the table.

“No. 1: We’ve got to be sound in our defensive responsibilities as far as the zone read, not allowing him to be able to get outside the pocket because he’s definitely going to pull it. And then also his ability to be able to scramble and go make a big play,” Wilks explained.

“He looks like the same guy to me. I think now with technology and how these guys bounce back from ACLs and those things he’s still running well. Once again, I don’t see any limp or glitch in his performance. So, it’s always a concern when you have these running quarterbacks. We’ve got to do a great job by committee, you know, 11 guys getting to the football and making sure that there’s no assumptions that he’s down.”

The 49ers are also facing Murray and the Cardinals without their full lineup this weekend.

San Francisco is dealing with the injury bug this holiday season, with several starters unable to practice the last two days. That includes defensive tackles Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave, both away from the practice field this week.

But with that comes opportunities for others, as the 49ers’ biggest defensive strength is in the trenches.

“Oh, a lot of confidence. You look at what [DL Javon] Kinlaw and [DL] Kevin [Givens] have been doing the last couple of weeks, I’m very confident in their performance and how they’re going to play,” Wilks said. “We’re not going to put the onus on them. It’s going to be critical that they do a great job inside penetrating and trying to play on their side of the line of scrimmage, but across the board, we’ve all got to step up.”

Thankfully, they won’t be fully understaffed, with linebacker Dre Greenlaw (hip) expected to play in Week 15.

Upcoming San Francisco 49ers Schedule:

  • Sunday, Dec. 17th @ Arizona Cardinals – 1:05 p.m. PST
  • Monday, Dec. 25th vs. Baltimore Ravens – 5:15 p.m. PST
  • Sunday, Dec. 31st @ Washington Commanders – 10:00 a.m. PST
  • Sunday, Jan. 7th vs. Los Angeles Rams – TBD

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