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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Doug Farrar

NFC Championship All-22: How the Eagles can beat the 49ers

The last time the Philadelphia Eagles played the San Francisco 49ers, it was Week 2 of the 2021 season, and many things were different. The 49ers won, 17-11. Jimmy Garoppolo was San Francisco’s quarterback. Jalen Hurts was Philadelphia’s quarterback, but nobody was really sure about that yet. Hurts completed 12 of 23 passes for 190 yards and no touchdowns, and he ran the ball 10 times for 82 yards and a touchdown, which perfectly reflected Hurts’ overall skill set at the time. Quez Watkins was Philly’s top receiver (two catches for 117 yards), and Hurts was by far Philly’s leading rusher.

As for the 49ers, Garoppolo completed 22 of 30 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown, which is the most Jimmy Garoppolo game you can imagine. Jamycal Hasty was San Francisco’s most explosive runner, and Deebo Samuel was San Francisco’s most productive receiver… so, there’s one thing you might have actually expected.

Now, the Eagles have an MVP candidate in Hurts, who has grown exponentially as both a runner and a passer. They have A.J. Brown and a fully developed DeVonta Smith at receiver. Philly’s run game is an entirely different animal, and their defense has taken great steps forward in the 2022 season.

San Francisco’s defense is now the NFL’s best, and their offense, with the additions of rookie quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Christian McCaffrey, ranks second in DVOA since Week 10, behind only the Chiefs.

Unlike the AFC Championship game, where the Chiefs and Bengals have all kinds of recent intel to go on (it’ll be their third matchup since last season’s AFC Championship game), this Eagles-49ers tilt should look very different than what we last saw nearly two years ago.

If the Eagles are to avenge that 2021 loss and move to Super Bowl LVII, here are four things they’ll have to do.

(All advanced metrics courtesy of Football Outsiders, Sports Info Solutions, and Pro Football Focus unless otherwise indicated). 

Force Brock Purdy to drift to his left.

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Against the Cowboys in San Francisco’s 19-12 divisional round win, Purdy threw from the left side of the field (outside the pocket) five times. He had four incompletions, and the one completion was George Kittle’s miraculous 30-yard catch over the middle with 5:19 left in the third quarter. That play was more scramble-drill than structure.

Purdy has not been especially comfortable as a thrower when booting or drifting left. This season, he has completed seven of 22 passes with a launch point from the left side of the field for 122 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, and a passer rating of 63.1.

Both of his touchdown passes from the left side of the field were short throws, including this 33-yard score against the Commanders in Week 16, when it was more up to Kittle to accomplish ridiculous things… which he can generally do.

But that’s about where Purdy’s perambulations to the left should stop. Hero throws against his own physical momentum are not ideal. They are especially not ideal against Philly’s defense. This season, opposing quarterbacks throwing to their left have given six interceptions to the Eagles, which is tied with the Seahawks for the most picks from that side.

The 49ers should be especially mindful of the matchup between Eagles edge-rusher Haason Reddick, and right tackle Mike McGlinchey. Reddick is playing out of his mind this season, McGlinchey has been up-and-down through his career, and that’s a much better option for the Eagles than putting anybody up against left tackle Trent Williams.

As the Giants discovered in the regular-season finale, putting Reddick up against a vulnerable right tackle (rookie Evan Neal in this instance) can lead to some less than optimal results, as your quarterback tries the escape hatch to the wrong side.

Exploit San Francisco's zone coverage voids.

(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

Under the tutelage of defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, the 49ers are fundamentally sound enough to avoid obvious vulnerabilities in any specific coverage. But they will leave throwing voids open in zone structures that quarterbacks can exploit.

Even unspectacular quarterbacks. In Week 17, Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Jarrett Stidham completed 23 of 34 passes for 365 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 108.1. As this was the first start of Stidham’s career, and the 49ers were trucking with the NFL’s best defense, this was a bit of a shock. Even more shocking was the fact that Stidham had eight explosive completions in the game.

Problem is, no matter how great your defense, quarterbacks can make gains in the transitions. With 5:56 left in the first quarter, Stidham zapped the 49ers on this 27-yard deep crosser to Davante Adams against San Francisco’s split-field coverage. Linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw stayed at intermediate depth, both safeties were rolling deep, and it was all to easy for Adams to work that to his advantage.

Not that you want to make a habit of it, per se — in Cover-2, Cover-3, and Cover-6 — zone coverages that may not lend themselves more obviously to man or match concepts — the 49ers are tied with the Steelers at a league-best 10 interceptions. But they have also allowed 15 completions of 20 or more air yards in those three coverages, which ties them with the Bengals and Seahawks for the third-most in the NFL, behind the Vikings, Buccaneers, and Lions.

Can Jalen Hurts feed off this? You bet your sweet bippy he can.

Use play-action... a lot.

(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

You do have to look hard to find dings in Ryans’ defense, but here’s one: Against play-action passes this season, the 49ers have allowed 96 completions on 135 attempts for 1,077 yards, nine touchdowns, five interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 101.4. They’ve also allowed eight completions and two touchdowns of 20 or more air yards, so this is where the Eagles’ big passing plays might happen.

Back to the Raiders game. Four of Stidham’s eight explosive throws came with play-action, and you could see how San Francisco’s defense was affected by it — especially Warner and Greenlaw, who are the NFL’s best linebacker duo.

This 24-yard touchdown pass to tight end Darren Waller with 11:45 left in the first quarter was the most obvious example. When Stidham faked to Jacobs, Warner, Greenlaw, cornerback Deommodore Lenoir, and safety Talanoa Hufanga all cheated up. Hufanga’s delay in breaking to Waller’s sail route was the difference that made the play happen easily for Stidham. As soon as Waller worked his route outside, Hufanga was out of luck.

Stidham got another big play to a tight end — this time it was Foster Moreau — with 6:44 left in the fourth quarter and a similar look. As before, the fake to Jacobs caused the two linebackers (Warner and Oren Burks) as well as Lenoir, to cheat up. Moreau did a great job of selling his delayed release by staying in to block Nick Bosa (always a good idea), so when he leaked out, Lenoir was caught very much by surprise.

The Raiders did a great job of scouting and scheming for this, and the Eagles have everything it takes to turn this into a nightmare for the 49ers. Jalen Hurts has completed 98 of 155 play-action passes this season for 1,286 yards, 11 touchdowns, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 107.6, seventh-best in the league.

Hurts had this 40-yard completion to DeVonta Smith on a deep over route against the Giants in the divisional round, and you can see how linebacker hesitation off the fake to running back Miles Sanders made it all possible. Safety Xavier McKinney came down to rob A.J. Brown’s intermediate crosser, and safety Julian Love couldn’t stay with Smith up top.

Add in Hurts making throwing gains out of the RPO game, and this looks to be San Francisco’s biggest defensive problem if the Eagles avail themselves of as much play- and run-action as possible.

Don't fall for the banana in the tailpipe.

(Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports)

Kyle Shanahan has long been the NFL’s most stalwart pre-snap motion advocate. The 49ers use motion as much as any team, they throw all kinds of different movement at defenses pre-snap, and they’re ridiculously good at it in all facets. No team has more running plays with pre-snap motions as San Francisco’s 376. No team has more rushing yards with motion than San Francisco’s 1,956, and only the Chiefs and Cowboys (15) have more rushing touchdowns with motion than San Francisco’s 13.

It’s equally disconcerting for defenses in the passing game. The 49ers have the third-most dropbacks with motion at 425, behind only the Dolphins and Chiefs. San Francisco’s quarterbacks have completed 274 of 442 attempts with motion for 3,262 yards, 1,358 air yards, 28 touchdowns, four interceptions, and a passer rating of 111.5.

To funnel down to Brock Purdy with motion is to make Eagles fans nervous. Purdy has completed 112 of 164 passes with motion for 1,462 yards, 658 air yards, 14 touchdowns, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 120.0, which is the NFL’s best among quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts.

Does this favor the Eagles? Not in the run game, where they have allowed an EPA per attempt on runs with motion of 0.08, tied with the Texans for second-worst in the league behind the Giants. But, there is some good news — the Eagles have allowed an EPA per play of -0.21 on passing attempts with motion, second-best in the league behind only… the 49ers.

So, it would be good for Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon to balance his preferred attack fronts with enough intelligent hesitation to avoid major run busts like this 36-yarder by Texans running back Dameon Pierce in Week 9…

…or this 22-yarder by Cowboys running back Zeke Elliott in Week 16.

As you might expect, Christian McCaffrey is especially evil in Shanahan’s motion run game. Since Week 7 against the Chiefs, his first game for the 49ers after he was acquired from the Panthers via trade, McCaffrey has 125 rushing attempts with motion for 671 yards, four touchdowns, and an EPA of 11.21, the NFL’s second-best behind Atlanta’s Tyler Allgeier.

The 49ers are especially devastating when their motion man seals the edge for McCaffrey on one of his explosive runs, of which there are several.

Again, for the Eagles, it will be about balancing the need to pin one’s ears back with the understanding that a hell-bent-for-leather approach at the expense of pre-snap caution could lead to big trouble.

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