The analysis surrounding the NFC Championship has been peculiar, to say the least. By the sounds of the average NFL pundit, the 49ers' defense will allow 30 points this weekend, and the Eagles will waltz their way to the Super Bowl.
We’ve watched the Niners put a stranglehold on opposing offenses all season, albeit with a few bumps and bruises along the way. But bumps and bruises should be expected of any team, no matter how great. After watching the Eagles’ offense, I have four thoughts heading into Sunday’s game.
49ers’ D will be a step up in class for the Eagles' offense
The Philadelphia Eagles are one of the few offenses in the NFL that could rival what the 49ers have done since Brock Purdy took over as the starting quarterback. The Eagles scored 38 points last week and have topped the 30-point mark three times since Week 13.
But when you dig a bit deeper into the defenses the Eagles faced, their offensive output becomes less impressive:
Eagles offense since Week 13
|Eagles Opponent||Eagles points scored||Opponent DVOA||Opponent EPA per play allowed||Opponent Success rate|
|Eagles Opponent||Eagles points scored||Opponent DVOA||Opponent EPA per play allowed||Opponent Success rate|
|Divisional Rd - Giants||38||29th||31st||26th|
|Week 18 - Giants||22||29th||31st||26th|
|Week 17 - Saints||10||1st||1st||3rd|
|Week 16 - Cowboys||34||16th||8th||11th|
|Week 15 - Bears||25||32nd||32nd||32nd|
|Week 14 - Giants||48||29th||31st||26th|
|Week 13 - Titans||35||30th||30th||30th|
In fairness to the Eagles, you can only play who is on the schedule. The only data point we have of Philadelphia playing an elite defense is skewed, thanks to Gardner Minshew starting that game.
Last week’s Giants game was not a good stress test for Philly’s offense. Defensively, New York was poor at tackling, slow to the ball, and lacked physicality. Their performance was the opposite of the 49ers’ average defensive performance this year in every facet.
No position stood out more than New York’s linebackers. They ran to the wrong gap about once every series and created a massive running lane for Miles Sanders. On the other hand, San Francisco’s linebackers are in a class of their own.
The play below illustrates how effective Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair are when filing the gaps:
Azeez and Dre play with the necessary recklessness to take on blocks without sacrificing their gap responsibilities. So while the 49ers haven’t faced an offense this diverse, Philadelphia hasn’t played a defense as complete as the Niners’ all season.
The Eagles boast an exotic rushing attack that becomes lethal when you add Jalen Hurts, but they’ve faced little resistance during the past month and a half.
Philadelphia hasn’t seen the style of football the 49ers play, both physically and schematically, all season. The Niners’ zone is top-five rated. Five of the Eagels previous six opponents all play zone at a bottom-seven rate.
The Eagles faced two teams in their previous 12 games where the opposition relied heavily on zone. Hurts’ EPA shoots up to 0.29 against man coverage compared to zone.
Since Week 10, the only positive EPA performance from Hurts against a zone-reliant team came against a Titans team that had just fired its general manager and had otherwise played above their talent level all season.
DeMeco Ryans did a marvelous job confusing Dak Prescott with different disguises and zone looks in the Divisional round. Much like Dak, Hurts holds on to the ball longer than most QBs — Hurts sack rate goes up by five percent against zone coverage and his third down conversion rate dips by 15 percent.
Ridiculous rushing attack
Since Week 13, the Eagles have nearly double the EPA on the ground than the team in second place. Philadelphia has a success rate of 49.5, which is good for third in the league during that stretch and only 0.2 percent away from first place. They are first in DVOA by two percentage points.
The Eagles are in the NFC Championship, and their rushing attack is why. This matchup is best on best. The 49ers have allowed the third-fewest rushing EPA, although they are “only” 9th in DVOA and 13th in defensive rushing success rate.
Those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Football is a game of matchups. The Eagles rely heavily on inside zone. They had the third most inside zone attempts in the NFL, the most yards (572), first downs (42), and the highest EPA by nearly double, per Sports Info Solutions. Philadelphia has its bread and butter, and they excel at it.
Conversely, DeMeco’s run defense has been stingy all year. On all inside runs, the 49ers allowed 2.8 yards per carry on 179 attempts. Thirty-eight went for first downs, but 19 of those plays ended up as tackles for a loss. Per Sports Info Solutions, the 49ers allowed the lowest EPA per rush in the NFL.
But that’s without adding Hurts’ legs to the equation. The Eagles have the third most designed quarterback runs plus zone-read keepers in the NFL (58), fourth-most yards (285), and 17 first downs.
The quarterback run game is a prominent portion of the Eagles' offense. According to Sports Info Solutions, 36 percent of Hurts' rushing yards this year came during designed runs.
Here’s a look at Hurts’ eight quarterback runs against the Giants in last week’s Divisional round:
Defending the Eagles diverse running game will be arguably the biggest challenge the 49ers have faced this season. The primary reason is the lack of game reps the 49ers' defense has faced against a running quarterback. However, the stats show the Niners’ D has been sound, despite the common perception. Playing more zone coverage allows the 49ers to have more eyes on the quarterback. That’s helped the 49ers in an area that many pundits perceive as a weakness.
Including the playoffs, Sports Info Solutions charted the Niners with only having faced 16 designed runs. On those plays, the defense has surrendered three yards per play, six first downs, six tackles for loss, and a -0.25 EPA per rush, which is the fourth best in the NFL.
Here’s DeMeco Thursday at the podium discussing the 49ers' plan to slow down the Eagles' quarterback runs:
“When it comes to him scrambling around, that’s all 11. It starts with our defensive line being where they’re supposed to be. We just have to do our job. We can’t make a bigger deal than what it is. Everybody has to do their job and be where they’re supposed to be. And we play defense that’s all 11 swarming. That’s what’s going to help us defend the quarterback.”
Outstanding offensive line
Hurts and Sanders are excellent runners, but as goes the Eagles' offensive line, so does their running backs. The Eagles are fourth in Football Outsiders' adjusted line metric and second in “second-level yards,” which tells you how often the running back gets between 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage.
According to Pro Football Reference, 837 of Sanders's 1,269 rushing yards came before contact. I hope Sanders bought his offensive line Christmas presents, since 65 percent of his yardage came before contact.
The 49ers' offensive line is more of a sum of its parts along the interior. But the Eagles have good players everywhere. In fact, according to Sports Info Solutions ‘total points earned metric,’ Philadelphia has four of its O-line starters in the top 25, and three of them are in the top five.
During Thursday’s press conference, DeMeco Ryans said, “their offensive line is the strength of their team.” That is not hyperbole. This is the only unit in the NFL (outside of the Lions) that can confidently say they can go toe to toe with the 49ers' defensive line.
Center Jason Kelce going against Arik Armstead is football nirvana. Those are two of the best players at their positions. Philly’s guards Landon Dickerson and Issac Seumalo will give Armstead and Javon Kinlaw all they can handle.
Per Sports Info Solutions, Lane Johnson had one blown block in pass protection since Week 10. No stat will do Johnson justice, as he’s one of the best players in the NFL.
The “weak” link of the Eagles' offensive line is left tackle Jordan Mailata, who allowed six sacks and one quarterback hit on the season. In addition, Mailata allowed double the number of pressures as any other Eagles lineman.
The Giants had a couple of opportunities against Mailata 1-on-1 and took full advantage. This is where the Defensive Player of the Year needs to make his mark. New York is big up front with one hyper-athlete in Kayvon Thibodeaux.
San Francisco has the size, but their athleticism, specifically their quickness, will be trouble for Mailata, Seumalo, and Dickerson on obvious passing downs. That’s why it’s imperative for the 49ers to win on early downs, something they’ve struggled with in recent weeks.
Pressure shows your true colors
Jalen Hurts has immense value and is a legitimate MVP candidate this season. He not only takes care of the football but also pushes the ball down the field to his weapons, making defending the Eagles difficult.
A.J. Brown is a deadly deep threat and Hurts leans on him. With how productive the duo has been, why wouldn’t you?
A.J. Brown set career-highs in receiving yards (649), touchdowns (7), and receiving yards over expected (+222) on vertical routes as the Eagles main target in 2022.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 25, 2023
The 49ers allowed 1,248 yards to vertical routes this season (5th-most in the NFL).#SFvsPHI | #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/wsD36ml82m
Jalen Hurts targeted the seams on 48.1% of his passes this season (17th in NFL), significantly higher than in his first 2 seasons (37.8%, lowest).— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 25, 2023
Hurts has been productive on those passes, earning the 2nd-highest NGS passing score (93, incl. playoffs).#SFvsPHI | #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/YwwMEOs6MD
But, and there’s always a but, Philadelphia’s passing game leaves a lot to be desired. The concepts the Eagles rely upon don’t give necessarily pose a threat to the 49ers secondary.
There are mirrored routes, which means both sides are running the same route concepts or route combinations, which can make it easier to defend. Of course, when you have Hurts, Brown, Dallas Goedert, and DeVonta Smith, even the most elementary passing game will produce.
However, the more I watched the Eagles, and even last week, if you’re willing to get beyond the score, the more I came away thinking the 49ers' defense is in good hands.
DeMeco Ryans said the 49ers' secondary needs to make a play when the ball is in the air. That’s what Sunday will come down to. That’s a scary proposition, as many will remember the 50/50 passes that haven’t gone the team’s way during the past month, but those are all low-percentage throws.
As much as Hurts has progressed as a quarterback, he still struggles with pressure. That’s not abnormal for the position. Every quarterback does. But it’s different with Jalen. He tends to bail from the pocket at the sight of the opposite color.
Hurts got away with running from clean pockets last week. He won’t be as fortunate against a disciplined 49ers defense. Ironically, forcing Hurts from the pocket could be the deciding factor for the Niners defense.
When Hurts is outside of the pocket, he has a 37 percent completion percentage, 4.2 yards per attempt, and his quarterback rating plummets to 52.5. His decision-making and effectiveness look anything but that of an MVP candidate when forced to throw on the run.
But the 49ers must stop the run and make open-field tackles off the Eagles' quick game passes to get Philadelphia into said situations.
After the Chiefs, this will be the best offense the 49ers have faced all season, and it’s not close. Philadelphia is top four in yards, points, and success rate per drive. Much of this battle will be fought in the trenches. In a matchup that boasts the best offensive line against the best defensive line, whichever side plays the best situational football will likely prevail.