In the modern NFL that is highlighted by extravagant quarterback play and high-powered passing offenses, the 49ers have carved their own lane by scrapping their way through these playoffs with a gritty style of play that is reminiscent of the days of old.
The conversation among national media talking heads this week will all but assuredly spend an abundance of time glossing over the fact that the 49ers continue to find ways to win football games despite being at a severe disadvantage at the most important position in the sport.
But, guess what? That doesn’t matter because these 49ers aren’t dependent on riding the success of their quarterbacks the way the other three remaining teams are.
They are winning games their way, and they’ll be damned to have anyone tell them that they are the inferior team just because their passing offense isn’t lighting up the stat sheet. Instead, they are going to continue to pride themselves on their ability to win the war of attrition in the trenches and wear down their opponents with a steady diet of physicality at the line of scrimmage.
In their last three games, the 49ers' defense has amassed an astounding 77 pressures while sacking the opposing teams' quarterback five times in each of those three contests. Without context, those numbers are spectacular. What makes them even more impressive is the fact that two of those three games came against teams that finished the season top five in pass block win rate (Rams #1, Packers #5).
The 49ers have eclipsed a 30% pressure rate in seven consecutive games and have gone over 40% in five of those seven games. They pressured Aaron Rodgers at a 32.4% rate, which was the highest Rodgers had faced in a game this season, which clearly went a long way in aiding the 49ers' upset bid in a thrilling victory at a snow-covered Lambeau Field.
What’s most impressive about this is that they have been dominating the trenches while only rushing four the majority of the time. Their ability to throttle opposing offensive lines while dropping seven into coverage has arguably been the most prominent factor behind the team reeling off three consecutive road victories in must-win games.
As great as the defensive front has been for the 49ers, this smash-mouth brand of football has been present on the offensive side of the ball as well. Rookie running back Elijah Mitchell leads the NFL in rushing yards during these playoffs with 149, and do it all superstar Deebo Samuel is in third place with 111 of his own. In addition, the 49ers have gone on the road twice in these playoffs and beaten two quality teams while only averaging 139 yards through the air in those games.
And I have no doubt in my mind that’s exactly the way Kyle Shanahan wants it. If he had his way, I truly believe Shanahan would turn every game he coached into an Army/Navy type of contest, where running the ball is king and passing attempts come at a premium. Sure, there may be some reluctance to let it rip due to the volatile nature of the quarterback under center, but I don’t see these game plans as an indictment on Jimmy Garoppolo.
I think this team was constructed with the vision of being the bullies we’ve seen them develop into, and rightfully so as the “death by a thousand papercuts” approach of continuing to run the ball (nearly to a fault) has worn down exceptionally talented opposition that offered some level of resistance to the 49ers rushing attack early on in these games (think week 18 in LA and the Divisional round vs. Green Bay specifically).
This can largely be credited to not only how physical the blocking has been but because of how tough the 49ers ball carriers have been to tackle when toting the rock. Mitchell leads all players in these playoffs with 114 yards after contact, at an average of 2.59 yards per attempt. Samuel has averaged 2.70 yards after contact himself, which makes you wonder just how demoralizing it is for these opposing defenses who are on average ceding nearly 3 yards AFTER they are even able to get a hand on these playmakers for the 49ers.
That in itself has been a struggle at times, as we have seen the evolution of this 49ers ground game reach unfathomable levels of creativity as this season has gone on. In the victory over Green Bay, I saw something I’ve never seen before on a football field.
Shanahan trotted out 6 offensive linemen on a 3rd & 1 around midfield and lined up Trent Williams behind his usual spot at left tackle (Colton McKivitz was the left tackle on this play) before motioning Williams across the formation to the right to lead block with a head of steam before the snap on a toss to the right side.
Williams obliterated Packers edge rusher Rashan Gary, who stands at 6’5 280 pounds himself. But what is Gary to do? No matter how big or strong you may be as a defender, what exactly are your options as a 320-pound first-team all-pro tackle comes barreling at you with a running start.
This kind of creativity from Shanahan meshing with the physicality and sheer athletic ability of a player like Williams was poetry in motion for anyone who is a fan of the game of football.
More than that, it exemplified that the 49ers are continuing to validate a long time saying “styles make fights.” No, they don’t have an MVP like Patrick Mahomes under center or a young prodigy like Joe Burrow. They don’t even have a Matthew Stafford (whose arm talent has been severely underrated for years), but you know what? They don’t give a damn about any of that because they’ve shown to us and, more importantly, themselves, that they are capable of winning games THEIR way.
When you combine that physicality and gritty style of play and sprinkle in a bit of that late-game magic we have seen from Jimmy Garoppolo (remember he marched his team into field goal range in Green Bay after Aaron Rodgers went three and out with the same opportunity), the sky is the limit.
Those talking heads can keep on talking about how the 49ers don’t have this or don’t do that well because as long as the bullies from Northern California have a say in things, those narratives won’t matter if we continue looking up to see a final score tally that sees the team in red and gold as the victor.