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5 necessary adjustments against Philadelphia: Pass protection is paramount

San Francisco was down to their 4th string quarterback, but there is still plenty to learn from the 2022 NFC Championship game ahead of their rematch this Sunday.

San Francisco 49ers vs Philadelphia Eagles Perry Knotts/Getty Images

Many Niners faithful have chosen to block last year’s NFC Championship from memory. I hadn’t watched any highlights of the game until this week. How easy it is to forget that these two teams were tied 7-7 at the two-minute warning before halftime.

San Francisco’s game plan that night was obviously derailed quickly, but there were plenty of signs early, before the Purdy injury, that indicated they would go toe-to-toe with the eventual champs. Still, there are a few coaching decisions that can be corrected before this Sunday’s rematch.

1. Challenge Philadelphia to throw Deep

Hurts and the Eagles’ passing game was barely needed in the previous contest. When they did dropback to pass, there wasn’t much success. Outside of the early fourth down conversion (which wasn’t actually a catch, but that’s for another time) to Devonta Smith for 29 yards, Philly wasn’t able to push the ball vertically, averaging only 4.8 yards per attempt.

San Francisco’s secondary was very stingy, allowing Smith and A.J. Brown to combine for only six catches on 11 targets for 64 yards. The lone 20+ yard play for the Eagle’s offense occurred with Jimmie Ward in coverage on Smith in the slot.

Hurts chose to challenge Charvarius Ward several times in this game to no avail. The average depth of target in his coverage was 25.0 yards, but Ward had allowed only two catches on six targets with two pass break-ups of his own.

But the 49ers did allow plenty of short stuff in last year’s matchup, which was on brand with their bend-don’t-break defense. Their focus was to stop intermediate passing lanes and let teams take the check downs and quick game then swarm to the ball.

This strategy has shown to be very successful in the past, but it may not be the right strategy for this specific matchup. Philadelphia is the best short-yardage team in the league and are aggressive in using all four downs no matter when or where the offense is on the field.

To take away the short passing attack to backs and tight ends (who saw 11 targets last January), the Niners will have to buck the trend of playing their linebackers deeper and instead employ shallower zone responsibilities. This means Wilks will have to feel comfortable leaving his cornerbacks in more one-on-one opportunities. And that will likely force Hurts to throw outside vertically.

Brown has been one of the best receivers in the league again this season, but Ward should have confidence from their previous contest. Ambry Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir at nickel are good enough to handle the Eagles’ other receivers, especially if they are physical at the line with Smith. Maybe it requires too much of a risk of an explosive play or two, but this would also be worth seeing the consequences of now, in case these two teams meet up again in the postseason.

2. Seven in the Box

Philadelphia uses 11 personnel for 70.3 percent of their offensive snaps. That’s the eighth-highest rate in the league. But they only pass out of this grouping 65.4% of the time, the seventh-lowest rate in the league. They aren’t the only team that likes to spread out defenses to run the ball, but they are one of the most efficient at it (0.04 EPA/rush - 7th best).

In the NFC Championship game, the 49ers chose to play with their nickel on the field, rather than a third linebacker, for the majority of the contest (just under 75% of the defensive snaps). Talanoa Hufanga spent about half the game coming down to the box, but with the injuries at safety, it might be asking a lot of inexperienced players in run support. In today’s NFL, it isn’t easy asking defensive coordinators to run base personnel against three wide receiver sets. But it may be a better option against the strong Philadelphia rushing attack.

Or - instead of running Oren Burks on the field - Wilks may find more ways to put five defensive linemen in play. With San Francisco’s riches of defensive line depth, there is an opportunity for plenty of individual mismatches, even against one of the best offensive line units in the league.

The 49ers struggled to control the line of scrimmage in their last meeting with Philadelphia and made a huge move this off-season to help fix that on the interior. Now with the addition of Hargrave, Chase Young, and Randy Gregory, there should be no issues in anchoring down and allowing the linebackers to flow freely to the ball carrier.

3. Set the Edge

One of the most challenging parts of defending the Eagles rushing game is the threat Jalen Hurts poses as a ball carrier. He is undoubtedly what makes that offense as efficient as it is, and they utilize his mobility with designed running plays in a number of ways. Stopping him isn’t as easy as “play a QB spy on him all game”. This season Hurts has 114 carries for 11 touchdowns. He is second among all players in rushing first downs and rushing success rate.

Philadelphia’s offensive line deserves a ton of credit for their work in this production as well. They run a variety of schemes that give Hurts open lanes. Offensive coordinator Brian Johnson will draw up QB counters and powers that attack the defense between the tackles.

But there are even more read option and RPO plays that give Hurts choices depending on what the defense shows. In last week’s victory over Buffalo, it was a quarterback draw that sealed the Eagle’s overtime victory.

Draws and option plays put pressure on opposing edge defenders. The timing of these runs often count on aggressive pass rushers pushing too far upfield, giving Hurts the necessary space to accelerate to the second level.

Linebackers can be caught backpedaling to respect the pass, and it leads to even bigger openings. Too many times in the previous contest, Hurts and the Eagles running backs were finding cutback lanes and beating the 49ers linebackers, who got sucked into the flow of the play, back to the outside.

So to combat this, San Francisco needs to focus their defensive effort on contain. A simple concept that is coached from youth football day one, but easy to neglect when there is a front with so many players that “just want to sack the quarterback”.

Nick Bosa had an excellent rep against an option keeper by Hurts that almost resulted in a safety in the NFC Championship game. More plays like that will force Philadelphia into longer third down attempts where the D-line can finally pin their ears back. But to stop the run early and often, establishing a less aggressive edge and containing runs to inside the tackles could be the difference maker.

4. Get Deebo Involved

Brandon Aiyuk has developed into a true number one receiver. Between his increase in targets and injuries, Deebo Samuel has barely made an impact this season (except for the week three Giants win, where Aiyuk was inactive). Last week there seemed to be a shift in Samuel’s involvement in the offense, as he led the 49ers in targets, receptions, and receiving yards.

There is no question this offense is at its best when Deebo is getting his share of opportunities to make plays. His ability to pick up extra yards after contact is a unique advantage few receivers can match. In last season’s NFC Championship game, Samuel got the majority of team targets and had six carries. However, only one of those rush attempts came in the first half, and he was primarily used as a late game change of pace for McCaffrey.

This time around, Shanahan would be wise to utilize Deebo early and often. The Eagles’ run defense is better than a year ago, allowing the third-fewest yards per game on the ground this season. San Francisco can try hitting between the tackles with CMC all game, but they are at a disadvantage on the interior. Philly’s behemoth defensive tackles Jalen Carter and Jordan Davis will be stiff competition for Banks, Brendel, and Burford to move consistently.

So getting the ball in Samuel’s hand on end arounds, reverses, or even in the screen game will provide creative extensions of the run game that give Samuel the chance to get to the outside. Philadelphia’s cornerbacks are not a strong run support group. Darius Slay has a career high in missed tackle rate. James Bradberry has a career rate over 10%.

The Eagles have had a number of different nickel combinations and last week started Bradley Roby in the slot. The 10-year vet has never been a consistent tackler and missed two against Buffalo. Want to take advantage of the Eagles' aggressive pass rush? Get the ball to Deebo Samuel quickly and let him take out the trash.

5. Pass Protection

Hassan Reddick took over last year’s NFC Championship game. He had five pressures, two sacks (one of which forced the Niners to turn to their fourth quarterback of the season), and one forced fumble. Afterward, there was plenty of chatter about the game plan to leave Reddick against former right tackle Mike McGlinchey with no help or even just with a tight end in one-on-one situations. San Francisco paid the price.

This time around there is no room for error against the Eagles’ pass rush. Their dominant front four may be the best overall unit, top to bottom, the 49ers offensive line has faced. There has to be adjustments made to protect Purdy and specifically ensure Reddick is held in check.

The right side of the offensive line has been bad. The C-RG-RT trio has accounted for 70 total pressures allowed this season. All three players have graded out below 60.0 in PFF’s pass blocking grade, with Spencer Burford posting the second-worst grade of any offensive lineman with a minimum of 150 pass blocking snaps.

Shanahan’s offense has relied on Purdy’s quick time to throw to hide some of the weaknesses up front. But finding more ways to solidify the protection will keep the vertical passing attack open.

It could be as simple as keeping in guys like George Kittle or McCaffrey in obvious passing downs. As great as those players are as receiving threats, they won’t get the opportunity to shred the Philly coverage if Purdy doesn’t have space in the pocket. It could also require delaying the pass rush with heavy play action, chip blocks, draw plays (to keep them honest against the run), and more of the screen game.

San Francisco is favored in this matchup for a reason. But the game isn’t played on paper. The coaching staff must learn from last year’s NFC Championship game to be victorious.