By Akshat Jain
LAS VEGAS – The San Francisco 49ers’ defensive line’s consistently stellar play has been integral to the team’s success over the past four seasons – a dominant stretch that has featured three NFC Championship games and two Super Bowl trips. However the unit has uncharacteristically sputtered in the 2024 playoffs, especially in the NFC Championship game where it allowed the Lions to average 6.3 yards per carry. First-year defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has remained unfazed, fully confident that his defensive line coach Kris Kocurek will have the linemen ready to serve as the defense’s focal point come Sunday, just like he has done all season.
Speaking at the 49ers’ team hotel on Thursday, Wilks expressed faith in Kocurek’s track record as a position coach, specifically pointing to his effective style of communication and tough-nosed coaching.
“Kris is a guy that can communicate with his players in a way that reaches each one of them,” Wilks said, adding, “He pushes them hard, and they respond well to his coaching because he builds a relationship with each player where he creates a level of trust. He’s continuously done a great job with those guys up front.”
Acknowledging the recent dip in performance, Kocurek has offered a simple message to his unit over the past two weeks, preaching the importance of hard work and incremental improvement while reminding them to live up the high standards he set for them at the start of the season.
“This is one of the hardest-playing lines in football, one of the hardest hitting defense lines in football,” Kocurek said on Wednesday. “Everybody understands what standard we set forth when we started this whole thing. And we’ve got to understand that this isn’t the standard that we’re looking for. We have to take it one day at a time and try to get a little bit better each day.”
“We just need to get back to playing how we know we can,” defensive lineman Arik Armstead said, “and that’s with extreme violence and effort and execution.”
As the 49ers defensive line room has evolved over the course of this year, welcoming players both via free agency and through trades, Kocurek’s bespoke man-management style coupled with his core values of hard coaching and intensity has resonated with the newcomers, helping them assimilate to the unit and play up to the 49ers’ standards.
Having arrived in San Francisco in a trade from the Commanders in the middle of the season, former No. 2 overall pick Chase Young singled out Kocurek’s energetic demeanor and his teaching ability.
“He brings that intensity every day,” Young said. “It’s almost like he’s a player out there. I love to be coached and Coach Kocurek can coach me on technique, scheme, everything. He has helped my career along and I appreciate that.”
While Young has thrived on being coached hard and being held accountable for his mistakes, Javon Hargrave, who signed a four-year, $81 million contract with the 49ers this past offseason, credited Kocurek’s meticulously detailed approach in helping further elevate his game.
“He does not let anything slide, for any of us no matter how small that is,” Hargrave said. “He just wants perfection.”
Away from the newcomers, Kevin Givens, who joined the 49ers as an undrafted free agent in the same year that Kocurek was hired as the defensive line coach, said that if taken to heart, his coach’s hard-nosed approach yields positive results, pointing to his own growth of turning into a key rotational piece on the 49ers defensive line.
“He is going to bring the best out of you,” Givens said. “He is going to coach you hard, but it will work out in the end.”
For his part, Kocurek has hammered home to his players that winning the Super Bowl is the ultimate goal and nobody would be able to take that away from them. As he has set about the past two weeks getting them focused for the game, his message has remained simple: “Show up to work and try to get a little bit better each and every day, and if you keep stacking those days, eventually you’ll end up where you want to get to.”
Javon Kinlaw, a Kocurek-loyalist who credits his coach for saving his career and considers him a father figure, offered a telling insight in the group’s mindset heading into the Super Bowl, “We just don’t want to let the guy down, in anything that we do.”