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Report: 49ers promote Nick Sorensen as defensive coordinator, also hire Brandon Staley

Jerry McDonald and Cam Inman, Bay Area News Group on

Published in Football

Kyle Shanahan went back to his comfort zone to find a defensive coordinator to replace Steve Wilks, but it apparently isn’t fully a one-man job.

Nick Sorensen, who joined the 49ers’ staff as a defensive assistant in 2022 and was the passing game/nickel defense coach in 2023, will become the team’s third defensive coordinator in four years, according to ESPN.

In a surprising twist, Shanahan is also hiring former Los Angeles Chargers coach Brandon Staley to help the defensive staff and presumably take on the title of Assistant Head Coach, which Anthony Lynn held (also after his stint as Chargers’ coach; Lynn left last month to become the Commanders’ running backs coach).

Sorensen, 45, like predecessors Robert Saleh (2017-20) and DeMeco Ryans (2021-22) had a working relationship with Shanahan lessening the likelihood he wouldn’t carry out the wishes of the head coach. Saleh worked with Shanahan on the staff of the Houston Texans from 2006-07 and Ryans joined the 49ers’ staff as a defensive assistant in 2017 before moving on to linebackers and then defensive coordinator.

Both coaches left for head coaching jobs, Saleh to the New York Jets in 2021 and Ryans to the Houston Texans in 2023.

Wilks, who had never worked with Shanahan before being hired on Feb. 7, 2023, was fired three days after the 49ers lost 25-22 to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas.

Wilks has been characterized as a scapegoat for the 49ers not winning a championship. It’s also clear Shanahan was never comfortable with his choice of schemes during the 49ers’ 12-5 season in which they were susceptible to the run late in the season and had poor first-half performances in playoff wins over Green Bay and Detroit en route to the NFC championship.

Included in the regular season was a zero blitz call that resulted in a Minnesota touchdown that Shanahan publicly criticized in the aftermath. Wilks, who coached from the coaches’ booth, was summoned to the sideline during the 49ers sideline after the bye week and coached there for the rest of the season. In the Super Bowl, Shanahan abruptly called a timeout in overtime because he wasn’t comfortable with one of Wilks’ defensive calls.

Despite finishing third in points allowed, the 49ers never seemed to find a defensive personality, vacillating from an aggressive blitzing team with elements of man-to-man to one that relies on front-four pressure and top-down zone defense in the secondary.

 

Before joining the 49ers, Sorensen was special teams coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars. He also worked on Pete Carroll’s staff with the Seattle Seahawks from 2013 through 2020 as an assistant special teams coach, an assistant defensive backs coach and secondary coach.

The Chargers fired Staley on Dec. 15, the day after they lost 63-21 to the Las Vegas Raiders in a game they trailed 42-0 at halftime.

Presumably, Staley’s firing after going 24-24 as a head coach with the Chargers had nothing to do with his defensive acumen. He was a defensive coordinator for just one season in 2020 with the Los Angeles Rams under Sean McVay before getting the Chargers’ job.

Although Staley has run a 3-4 defense, he’ll run the defense to Shanahan’s specification with the requirement of getting the most out of edge rusher Nick Bosa, who prefers to operate primarily in a 4-3. Any formulation of defensive scheme will include the council of Kris Kocurek, the 49ers’ defensive line coach who has said on previous occasions he would prefer to work with players “with their hand in the ground” along the point of attack.

Staley learned as an NFL defensive coach under Vic Fangio, the former 49ers’ defensive coordinator under Jim Harbaugh and some Shanahan respects for advice and counsel.

McVay and Shanahan, having come up together under Kyle’s father Mike Shanahan in Washington, are like-minded in terms of scheme on both sides of the ball. Under Staley, the 2020 Rams were 10-6, finished second in the NFC West and led the NFL in scoring defense, giving up 18.5 points per game.

Also interviewed the past week were a trio of defensive backs coaches: Daniel Bullocks (49ers), Dave Merritt (Chiefs), and Gerald Alexander (Raiders).


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