Since Brock Purdy has taken over as the starting quarterback, the 49ers' offense has scored 2.52 points per drive, a number that would rank fourth in the NFL this season. If you remove the four drives that resulted in kneel downs, that number will jump to 2.76 points per drive. For reference, the Kansas City Chiefs are currently ranked first in the league in that category at 2.72 points per drive.
So how have the 49ers been able to maintain this top-notch efficiency while adjusting to their third different starting quarterback this season? Look no further than the skill that Purdy has demonstrated to have the often overlooked but eternally invaluable ability to hit the open man within the structure of Kyle Shanahan’s offense.
There’s a reason you always hear respected pundits and former players alike sing the praises of Shanahan and his scheme, often referring to it as the most quarterback-friendly system in the NFL.
There might not be a better play caller in the NFL than Shanahan when it comes to understanding the defensive rules of opponents and using that to exploit weaknesses in coverage, which in turn creates wide-open throwing lanes.
Purdy has shown a consistent ability to identify these open reads and pull the trigger on throws that may not be glamorous on the surface but has led to huge chunk plays that have ultimately resulted in an explosive scoring output that has seen the 49ers' offense average 31 points per game in his three starts.
Here’s a great example from the 49ers' Week 14 win over the Buccaneers. With 1:30 remaining in the first half Purdy is able to hit Brandon Aiyuk on a “Swirl” route for a 25-yard gain.
Brock Purdy connects with Brandon Aiyuk on “Double Swirl” for a 25 yard gain with under a minute and a half remaining in the 2nd quarter— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 14, 2022
This chunk play sparked a two minute drill that ended in a touchdown to push the 49ers lead to 28-0 at the half pic.twitter.com/GHKKOdezm2
By NFL standards, Aiyuk is wide open, and this is a throw that you’d like to think that the majority of quarterbacks at this level will see and execute. Unfortunately, that is just not always the case, and even if it was, who cares if a throw gets made into a tight window or if the target is completely uncovered? All that matters is the end result, which on this drive ended up being a touchdown on a drive that was sparked by this chunk play.
Speaking of that touchdown, it also highlighted Purdy's ability to see the opportunities that aren’t always readily apparent within this scheme. Part of Shanahan’s greatness stems from his ability to give a quarterback confidence in a predetermined read before the ball is even snapped due to how often that primary look on a given call will, in fact be open.
On this play, the 49ers are running “Tony Knife,” and the primary read to Aiyuk is there for the taking. The man coverage dictates Aiyuk to break outside, and Purdy could have easily pulled the trigger for a decent gain that put the 49ers in a better spot to tack on a field goal heading into halftime, which would have been understandable and more than acceptable.
Christian McCaffrey is going to be running a ‘Go’ route on a built-in alert, and Purdy is able to identify the separation McCaffrey has on the nearest defender and lets this rip for a 28-yard touchdown.
Kyle Shanahan has to be elated now that he has a QB who is willing and able to throw built in alerts— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 14, 2022
28 yard TD to McCaffrey on “Tony Knife”
Aiyuk running ‘TONY’ is the primary and the ‘Go’ by CMC is the alert
Great recognition by Purdy to see this and let it rip for a TD pic.twitter.com/bwwjIMawqB
That’s the difference between simple execution and excellence. By most measures, it would be a success if Purdy pulled the trigger on a predetermined look and sets up an easier field goal try for Robbie Gould.
Instead, Purdy and the 49ers' offense came away with a touchdown while delivering what was the final blow to the Buccaneers' chances of winning before the first half even concluded.
One of the things that stands out on that throw is something that has stood out regularly during Purdy’s time as the starter. Ball placement. This is pivotal even when throwing to open receivers due to the ability that the immensely talented skill-position players on the 49ers roster possess to rack up yards after the catch.
There was a great example of this in the 49ers' Week 16 win over the Commanders, as Purdy hit George Kittle with an exceptionally placed ball that allowed Kittle to rack up an additional 15 yards after the catch. Again Kittle is open, but the ability to hit him in stride turned what would have been a modest gain into an explosive play.
One of the most impressive things we’ve seen from Brock Purdy is the consistency with his ball placement— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 27, 2022
Kittle is able to rack up an extra 15 yards after the catch because of where Purdy puts this ball pic.twitter.com/Z7VyTVBJjR
That ball placement creating chunk plays was also evident on the second touchdown of the afternoon when Purdy connected with Kittle. Despite Kittle being as open as you could possibly be at this level of football, Purdy is able to maximize the yards after the catch because of where he puts this ball.
George Kittle’s 2nd touchdown of the day— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 27, 2022
Looks like “FK 18 ZAP STAY KEEP LT Y SHALLOW”
Washington bit hard on the run action and Purdy was able to hit his primary read to Kittle on the shallow cross pic.twitter.com/iU28sKT74H
While the scheme does a lot of the leg work here, Purdy has also done a tremendous job of making the system work for him and, in turn, creating an easier post-snap process as he works through his progressions.
Take this example from the Commanders game. The 49ers are going to dial up a ‘Sail’ concept that floods the field side with a 9/7/flat three-level route combination. Kyle Juszczyk motions across the formation prior to the snap, bringing with him a traveling Washington defender that’s going to alert Purdy that the Commanders are in man coverage.
This keys Purdy to lock in on the “Chase” route to Aiyuk, which is going to be the preferred read with that area of the field cleared out by the go route being run by Jauan Jennings. Aiyuk runs a great route that creates separation at the top of his stem, and Purdy hits him for a 54-yard gain.
49ers picked up 54 yards on this sail concept that’s going to flood the field side with a 9/7/flat three level route combination— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) December 27, 2022
Aiyuk creates separation at the top of his stem on a ‘Flag’ route and picks up a big chunk of yardage after the catch pic.twitter.com/fzcwteb444
As long as Shanahan is the one dialing up plays for this 49ers offense, these open reads are going to be there for whoever is under center. And when you combine Purdy’s ability to execute within this scheme with the treasure trove of skill position players to get the ball to, it creates optimism that this is not a flash in the pan and that this offense can sustain the requisite level of success to keep them on the path to championship glory.