49ers hope Nick Sorensen can make defense elite again

ByNick Wagoner ESPN logo
Tuesday, May 21, 2024

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- New San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Nick Sorensen will have plenty of questions to answer in 2024, but there's one issue that won't be hanging over him: where he will be calling plays from on game day.

After a 2023 season in which former coordinator Steve Wilks had the most booth-related drama since Sonny Corleone before moving down to the sideline, Sorensen made it clear in his first media availability that he will begin his tenure in charge of the Niners defense from field level.

"I was a player, and it feels good to be on the field and I want to look to players in the eyes and talk to them," Sorensen said. "I feel like that'll be the right thing."

For Sorensen to prove that coach Kyle Shanahan's decision to fire Wilks after one season and promote Sorensen from defensive pass game specialist was the right thing, the assistant must oversee a return to dominance for a defense that took a step back last season.

Under DeMeco Ryans in 2022, the Niners led the NFL in fewest points allowed per game (16.3) and defensive expected points added (89.58), among key categories. While the 2023 team still finished third in points allowed (17.5), it ranked ninth in defensive EPA (41.48) and consistently struggled against the run, especially in the playoffs. The San Francisco run defense EPA dropped from 40.96 in 2022 to 9.09.

In three postseason games, the 49ers yielded 5.1 yards per carry and 149.3 rushing yards per game to the Packers, Lions and Chiefs.

That contributed to Shanahan's belief that the Niners needed to get back to their roots with a coordinator who is already familiar with the scheme. Having been on San Francisco's staff since 2022 and having eight years of experience working for Pete Carroll with the Seattle Seahawks before that, Sorensen has an extensive background in the principles that made the Niners one of the league's best defenses under previous coordinators Robert Saleh and Ryans.

"I thought he was close last year to being ready, and he's even more ready now," Shanahan said of Sorensen. "Having him in our building these last couple of years, really getting to work with DeMeco a lot of his first year and working a ton with Steve last year, really prepared him for this. He's been around the scheme; he's gone through it in these two seasons and just love where he is at from a football mind."

Having a coordinator who was already in the building was a priority for Shanahan after Wilks went through a difficult adjustment period last season. As Shanahan's first outside hire for the job, Wilks acknowledged during the season that he was still learning what the coach wanted the defense to be.

Specifically, Shanahan wanted a coordinator who could better tie the defensive front and secondary together. Unlike Saleh and Ryans, who had experience coaching linebackers, Wilks' expertise was more secondary focused.

Sorensen played safety for 10 seasons in the NFL, worked as a secondary coach for the Seahawks and coached nickel corners for the Niners. But he also has been a special teams coordinator and ran San Francisco's weekly "ball" meeting, in which his job was to preach the importance of taking care of the ball on offense and taking it away on defense.

Running those meetings gave Sorensen an opportunity to get in front of the entire team, which has been his biggest adjustment to the defensive coordinator role.

"For me, it's just now you're in charge of things," Sorensen said. "You have to plan your days differently. You have to plan it out for the rest of the staff ... Overall, you're not just a certain position."

While Sorensen's promotion has changed his day-to-day routine, his overall mission isn't complicated. He is charged with helping the Niners get back to basics. He says the goal is to help them return to being an "attacking defense that plays fast."

When asked about the struggles against the run in 2023, Sorensen declined to go into specifics, noting that the issues have been identified and saying they will be corrected. Sorensen's other big task will be to help the 49ers return to how they detail and play coverage.

In 2023, they played man coverage on 33.6% of defensive snaps, the lowest rate since Shanahan took over in 2017. Conversely, they played zone on 66.4% of defensive snaps, the highest of the Shanahan era.

At its core, the Niners' defensive scheme has leaned heavily into Cover 3 zone with a single high safety, but those dynamics changed a bit last year. The 49ers played quarters coverage on 18.9% of snaps, also the highest rate under Shanahan, and played with two high safety looks on 47.1% of snaps, the second highest under Shanahan.

But it wasn't the types of coverage so much as how frequently they were being played. Their predictability was sometimes exacerbated by how soft the zones were, which offered little time for the pass rush to get home. That showed up in key situations, as the Niners allowed a third-down conversion rate of 40.9%, which was their worst since 2017 and ranked 24th in the league.

"Teams know what we're running, we're not afraid of that," linebacker Fred Warner said. "But we're going to run it better ... I think that's the whole key to what we do, but there does have to be some tweaks in there to make sure that we are switching things up a little bit, and I think Nick's going to do an amazing job."

Sorensen will have help, as Shanahan also hired former Chargers head coach Brandon Staley to the defensive staff. Staley has yet to be given an official job title but will play a big role in shaping how the defense looks from week to week.

Sorensen said Staley's role will be to take a "more holistic" look at the defense, offering insight into how the Niners play certain things and noting trends around the league and what other teams do. In the early days of the offseason program, Sorensen said Staley has been more involved with the secondary, but Staley also has experience coaching linebackers and as a coordinator.

Like Saleh ("All gas, no brakes") and Ryans (SWARM) before him, Sorensen has buzzwords he's emphasizing to Niners defenders. In his first media session, he repeatedly alluded to "speed, violence and finish" as the foundation of what he wants the defense to be.

As a first-time coordinator on a team desperately trying to get over the hump and win a Super Bowl for the first time in 30 years, Sorensen knows all eyes will be on him. For now, he's not worried about any of that. He has too much work to do.

"We all know the standard here and we all want to win," Sorensen said. "We all want to play great defense and that's the expectation."