Last year, the 49ers were riding high after a do-or-die victory over the Rams in Week 18. Then, with their backs against the wall, the 49ers rallied to clinch a playoff berth over a divisional rival.
Jimmy Garoppolo was fighting through a thumb injury, and Deebo Samuel capped a historic season with a touchdown pass, a rushing touchdown, and nearly 100 receiving yards.
Dallas was the 49ers’ next destination for wild card weekend.
This year, the 49ers coasted into the postseason. Week 18 was a formality. The focus was staying sharp, securing the second seed, and maintaining health.
Winning ten straight games is no small feat in the NFL. However, when you consider the fact that three quarterbacks started this season, it becomes remarkable.
The 49ers will host Seattle on Saturday and will host at least one more playoff game if they advance.
So what are the differences between last year and this year?
2021 vs. 2022
Jimmy Garoppolo entered his second playoff run as the 49ers’ quarterback. The offense ranked seventh in yards per game (375.7), first in yards per play (6.11), seventh in rushing yards per game (127.4), 12th in passing yards per game (248.3), first in passing yards per play (8.21), 23rd in interception rate (2.72%), 14th in third down percentage (40.20%), first in red zone conversions (66.67%) and seventh in points per game (25.1).
Brock Purdy has a total of five starts under his belt. The offense has scored 35, 21, 37, 37, and 38 points in those games. Not to mention, 33 against Miami in relief of Garoppolo.
The offense overall finished the year: fifth in yards per game (365.6), fourth in yards per play (5.94), seventh in rushing yards per game (138.8), 13th in passing yards per game (226.8), fourth in passing yards per play (7.53), seventh in interception rate (1.76%), sixth in third down conversions (45.02%), 18th in red zone conversions (45.02%), and fifth in points per game (26.5).
The difference is Christian McCaffrey. The offense took off with his addition. Defenses now have to account for elite playmakers at every skill position.
What about the defense? DeMeco Ryans was masterful down the stretch with his game plan and adjustments in 2021. Charvarius Ward was signed as a top-flight cover corner. The stout 2021 defense returned the rest of the starters, with Tashaun Gipson as the only outside addition and Talanoa Hufanga taking over for Jaquiski Tartt.
There is no doubt about this year’s defense being stingier than last year’s statistically.
Finishing third in yards per game allowed (310), sixth in yards per play (5.11), seventh in rushing yards allowed per game (103.5), sixth in passing yards per game (206.5), third in sacks per pass attempt (8.81%), and ninth in points per game allowed (21.5) isn’t easy to improve.
The 49ers did improve in some categories. The defense ranked second in yards per game (300.6), fourth in yards per play (4.98), second in rushing yards allowed (77.7), and first in points per game allowed (16.3).
Here is the contrast from last year to this year: the defense took a step back in sacks per pass attempt, finishing 14th (7.42%).
The passing defense has been a point of contention for the past few weeks. Last year, the defense allowed 206.5 passing yards per game (sixth in the NFL) but had an interception rate of 1.65% (28th in the NFL).
Contrast that with this year. The 49ers finished 21st in passing yards allowed (222.9) but finished third in interception rate with 3.37%.
The biggest difference between last year and this year (quarterbacks aside) is the boom-or-bust nature of the secondary.
It begs the question, what are you willing to sacrifice? Giving up big plays with the chance of game-changing turnovers or playing it safe and not giving up explosive plays?