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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Laurie Fitzpatrick

NFC Championship: How the Eagles can challenge the 49ers’ defense with the run game

The Philadelphia Eagles’ offense and the San Francisco 49ers’ defense will be an incredible matchup of physics.

P = F*v (Power equals Force times velocity)

The Eagles’ offense is pass-first, but there are a ton of run-pass options in there. The threat of the run-option is what can freeze a defense, and that half-second hesitation can make or break a play. That frozen moment in time is when the play is decided.

The Eagles’ offense thrives off a defense’s split-second decisions, and the 49ers defense rarely hesitate to give up big plays.

Let’s go to the film and diagnose how the Eagles will use their backfield against the 49ers’ dominant run defense.

Using Miles Sanders as the hammer.

(Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

The Eagles utilize all three of their running backs: Miles Sanders, Kenneth Gainwell and Boston Scott.

Sanders is their most utilized back and there isn’t any specific blocking scheme he cannot run behind. He has 155 zone blocking reps and 116 reps within a gap blocking play. He’s ranked in the top-ten in the league in several categories. He has 1,269 rushing yards (5th), 66 first downs (5th), averages 74.6 yards per game (7th), 11 touchdowns (8th), 259 rushing attempts (8th), 4.9 yards per attempt (9th), per SIS and PFF.

His best stat and arguably most important stat is rushing EPA, which stands for ‘expected points added.’ This is the total change in the offenses expected points that came on run plays. Sanders leads the NFL with his rushing EPA, with 11.41.

That is huge! And perhaps it’s the biggest reason why the Eagles have the number one rushing offensive DVOA, 16.8%, per football outsiders. The rush DVOA means that they produce sixteen percentage more than the average running back who are put in similar situations.

Sanders uses patience and his lateral movements when behind the line of scrimmage so he can find the most efficient way to get north and south.

A great example of this was earlier this year against the Jacksonville Jaguars. It was second-and-7, Sanders pressed the line of scrimmage, forcing the linebacker Foye Oluokun to step up. Sanders bounced it around his center Jason Kelce gaining 35 yards.

Sanders has the NFL’s third most runs of 10+ yards with 38, per PFF. That is why he is on the field the most for the Eagles.

The biggest question is how this Eagles backfield is so productive, its easy, because they use their blockers! Fran Duffy from Eagles XO’s gives a great compilation of clips where Sanders, Gainwell and Scott get behind blockers when out in space.

According to Sports Info Solutions, there are two running backs in the league who use their designed gap the most in an RPO play, Saquon Barkley 73 times, and next is Miles Sanders, 55 times.

So, if the 49ers want to slow down the Eagles’ rushing attack, they will have to start with attacking Sanders at the line of scrimmage. But there is another back who also deserves a ton of attention. That’s the Eagles second back in command, Kenneth Gainwell.

Gainwell on the inside.

(Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

Kenneth Gainwell is the Eagles’ hidden gem.

He is the back who gets the most bang for the buck. In the divisional game, against the New York Giants, he had 13 touches for 123 yards and one touchdown. He also leads the team in yards per attempt with 5.4.

He has the highest EPA (0.88_ among the Eagles running backs, and lowest stuff percentage (11.1%) when facing loaded box (8+ defenders). He also has a higher EPA when in the red zone then his teammates, at 7.11.

With Gainwell only standing at 5-foot-8, he can get low behind the lineman and force the defense to guess his direction.

We can see how Gainwell gets low once he gets the ball then waiting for his blocks to form. In week 16 against the Dallas Cowboys, Gainwell had three back-to-back rushes up the middle when inside the redzone taking the Eagles offense from the cowboys 25-yard line to set up a Minshew sneak touchdown from the one-yard line. This was all on the ground. This allowed the Eagles to go ahead 17-14 in the second quarter. If only they used his service’s a little more, they may have won that game.

The downside to using Gainwell in this upcoming matchup is if the 49ers are able to clog the middle, Gainwell isn’t as effective when running the ball outside the tackles. His EPA drops to -1.76 and he’s hit at the line 36.4% of those carries.

The 49ers allow the least number of total rushing yards (856) yards after contact (577) and first downs (48), when they place a defender in a 0, 1, and 2i technique.

The issue for the 49ers is that they place a defender in those gaps at the second lowest in the league.

So, the middle should be a point of attack for the Eagles. Kevin Givens and Arik Armstead may be the biggest factors in this weekend’s NFC Championship game.

Running at Nick Bosa.

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

The 49ers have the best defense in the league. They have the highest turnover differential, +13. They are tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers with the most interceptions, 20. They are tied with the New England Patriots with the second most turnovers, 30. They’ve allowed the fewest yards after contact with 822, per SIS. They’ve allowed the second fewest rush yards behind the Tennessee Titans, 1,321. They also have the best run defensive EPA, with -0.14.

So, it’s a tall task to expect the Eagles to just run all over the 49ers. But there is one weak point of their defense. The key is attacking outside Nick Bosa.

According to Football Outsiders, when offenses rush outside their right tackle, towards the right end, they have the most success against the 49ers.

The 49ers defense is ranked 27th when offenses can get to the outside, but fifth or higher in every other area of the field. This could be a point of attack with an Eagles RPO play, or a jet sweep. Which is how the Dallas Cowboys gained a first down on a fourth-and-1 in the divisional matchup.

With the 49ers using a wide-nine defensive philosophy, Bosa may be sticking out past the Eagles tight-end, or right tackle. The quarterback keep could force Bosa to make reads which may freeze him and make him susceptible.

The Eagles used an RPO with Scott to get around the Giants edge defender Jihad Ward, who was lined up far to the outside.

Jalen Hurts is also a huge threat to that side when using an RPO. He has the sixth highest yards when running to the right outside area of the field, with 208 yards. He also has an EPA of 14.20, per SIS, which is the second highest behind Justin Fields.

Of course, Bosa is a very good run defender; he’s actually the fifth highest graded at 82.2, per PFF. Therefore, it’s important that the Eagles use an RPO when attacking that side and always attack the inside first, then use speed to get to the outside. Expect this game to be a shootout, and the run game may end up being the deciding factor.

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