It’s Week 13 and the San Francisco 49ers face their toughest matchup yet. Despite being favored on the road against the team with the best record in football for 2023, they do not hold all of the advantages on paper.
SF OFFENSIVE SKILL (QB/WR) VS PHI SECONDARY
Only three teams allow more passing yards per game than the Philadelphia Eagles this season. The Eagles started out sluggish in several games this year so these numbers aren’t inflated by garbage time comeback attempts by their opposition either. They’ve surrendered the second-most passing touchdowns in 2023 and have fewer interceptions than all but four teams.
This has to be an area of this matchup that San Francisco feels confident in attacking. Starting cornerbacks Darius Slay and James Bradberry have not been as productive as they were a season ago. Slay is averaging the highest amount of yards after catch per reception since his rookie season. Bradberry has already given up seven touchdowns, one less than his career high. Bradley Roby has received the nod as the starting nickel the last two weeks, after a mixed bag of results from several other defensive backs logging time. The former first-rounder has held his own in limited action but, like Slay, has had issues with tackling.
The YAC Bros in San Fran have to be salivating at this matchup and Shanahan, Purdy, and the offense should find plenty of opportunities to do damage in the quick passing attack. Even with the trade for safety Kevin Byard, there hasn’t been much of a difference in the issues with Philadelphia’s secondary. Against the Buffalo Bills last week, Byard looked out of position en route to a 154.2 passer rating when targeted as the primary defender in coverage.
SF OFFENSIVE COMBO (Running Back/Tight End) vs PHI 2ND LEVEL DEFENDERS
Speaking of Eagles safeties, Byard isn’t as bad as his most recent play. He is likely still learning the scheme and building a level of collaboration with his new teammates. Even though he is allowing a career high completion percentage in coverage, he still has five seasons of at least four interceptions and can change a game with a big takeaway.
It’s actually Byard’s running mate, Reed Blankenship who is making waves at safety. A 2022 UDFA, Blankenship owns Philadelphia’s second highest grade on defense and the tenth highest coverage grade of any safety this year. There’s also an issue of Blankenship giving up four touchdowns this year and the Eagles struggle mightily against tight ends - they rank dead last in DVOA against the position. George Kittle has to be a factor, and much like the Dallas Cowboys game I expect Kyle Shanahan to push the offense through the all-pro.
Starting linebacker Zach Cunningham has missed Wednesday and Thursdays practices with a hamstring injury and his status for Sunday is to be determined. With Nakobe Dean on injured reserve for the second time this year, Philadelphia may have to manage without their two best linebackers and rely on Nicholas Morrow, Christian Elliss and Ben VanSumeren. Philly’s run defense is much improved - more on that in the next blurb - but this is undoubtedly the biggest mismatch when the Niners have the ball. To get Christian McCaffrey and Kittle in one-on-one opportunities in the middle of the field will be paramount to the offense’s production.
SF OFFENSIVE LINE vs PHI DEFENSIVE LINE
The battle in the trenches will dictate the outcome of this game. That goes for both sides of the ball, but it’s when San Francisco is on offense there is an obvious disadvantage for the away team. Philadelphia owns ESPN’s fifth-highest pass rush win rate (51 percent) and second-highest run stop win rate (35 percent). Despite lacking the historic sack numbers from a year ago, this Philly unit is much more well-rounded and have been especially stingy against the run. Only the 49ers and Bears give up less yards on the ground per game.
We know that last year San Francisco struggled to block Hassan Reddick in the NFC Championship game, but this year have already faced better pass rushers; TJ Watt, Myles Garrett, Micah Parsons. But it’s the depth along the Eagles front four that make this matchup particularly concerning. Reddick and Josh Sweat have a combined 104 pressures this season (via PFF). Only 49ers Nick Bosa and Chase Young (114) have more from an edge duo.
On the inside, tackle Jalen Carter is PFF’s highest graded rookie and the second-highest graded interior defensive lineman in the entire league. Carter’s rare blend of size, power, and agility have made him a nightmare for guards and centers. Along with Carter, 2022 first rounder Jordan Davis has shown signs of development into a dominant run-stuffer and is coming off his best game of the season against Buffalo. Fletcher Cox is an aging veteran that is second on the team in interior pressures. Cox has been a starter this year but a groin injury has kept him from practicing.
There are still plenty of other rotational pieces San Francisco will have to prepare for. Brandon Graham is the only other edge with 100+ pass rush snaps. He is past his prime but has a role as a feisty situational rusher that knows how to get under the skin of opposing offensive linemen. Even a guy like defensive tackle Milton Williams is contributing amongst a unit that knows how to keep their big guys fresh.
PHI OFFENSIVE LINE vs SF DEFENSIVE LINE
In order for San Francisco to win this game, they have to be victorious in this matchup. There’s an argument for the arrow to be pointed in either direction when comparing these two units, so call it a bit of optimistic forecasting. Philly owns the number one run blocking grade (PFF) and number one run block win rate (ESPN). They also have the number two pass blocking grade and number six pass block win rate.
All trench measures from PFF and ESPN— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) November 28, 2023
The Eagles are very good in the trenches and the Giants are...not pic.twitter.com/3uaLJbQMUC
Perennial All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson is fully expected back in the lineup after missing last week with a groin injury. Left tackle Jordan Mailata is actually grading out better than Johnson, with PFF placing him as the sixth best at the position this season. And once again, Jason Kelce is hanging around the top-graded centers in the entire NFL.
If there were a slight weakness to the Eagles starting five it’s the guard play. Second year pro Cam Jurgens missed five games but is back to his spot on the right side. In his first year as a starter he’s shown to be a real mauler in the run game but doesn’t grade as high as a pass blocker, giving up 11 pressures in six games this season. But on the other side of Kelce is Landon Dickerson who has quickly become one of the better young guards, boasting ESPN’s number one run block win rate among interior linemen.
Arik Armstead has not logged a practice yet this week and his absence would be concerning enough to shift the advantage to Philadelphia. Though he says he will be there on Sunday, so maybe the skepticism is misplaced. Chase Young and Nick Bosa have shown dominant clips against the Eagles offense in previous games (in Young’s case when he played for the Washington Commanders), but the 49ers interior group was problematic in the NFC Championship game. The addition of Javon Hargrave provides plenty of support in generating pressure but has it addressed the primary issues from last year’s matchup? Even the struggles against the run from the three-game losing streak are still fresh enough to cause concern in facing the best rushing team in the league.
PHI OFFENSIVE COMBO vs SF 2ND LEVEL DEFENDERS
Tight End Dallas Goedert has missed the last two games for Philadelphia after requiring forearm surgery. He has the DNP label but there is some chatter that he could suit up Sunday. Goedert is on that second tier of tight ends in the NFL but didn’t get much going in the NFC Championship Game, being held to only 4.6 yards per catch on a team high five receptions.
The former second rounder is third on the team in catches, yards, and targets, so his absence would be a big deal for the Philly offense that has very little production outside of their starting tight end, Smith, and Brown. Jack Stoll, who has 19 career catches, would be the next man up.
In the off-season, the Eagles traded for running back D’Andre Swift from Detroit. Swift has been a huge addition to an already productive rushing attack. He is fourth in the league in yards and adds a much more explosive presence in the backfield compared to last year. He has found a great chemistry within the dynamic Eagles rushing attack, showing decisiveness and vision, like in this great cutback against the Bills last week.
Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw will have to be more impactful in this rematch for the Niners to stall the Philly running game. Although they held that side to less than 4.0 yards per carry last January, it’s arguably gotten more difficult on linebackers with Swift and Hurts at the mesh point. Any sort of hesitation may result in openings for big plays. It’s great to see this dynamic duo back to full health and playing like the best twosome in the league, now they need to prove it against a dominant rushing attack.
PHI OFFENSIVE SKILL vs SF SECONDARY
Right now Jalen Hurts is the favorite to win the MVP trophy at the end of the season. The Niners have seemingly fixed the issues that plagued them against some of the league’s better passers (Burrow and Cousins), but neither pose the rushing threat that Hurts does. Game planning for the Eagle’s offense requires tremendous discipline in both phases.
A.J. Brown was kept in check the last time these two teams played, grabbing only 50% of his targets for only 7.0 yards per reception. Brown was on an absolute tear midway through this season, securing 125+ yards in six straight games. But the past three contests he has combined for 111 yards. Even though he has cooled off he is still fourth in the league in receiving yards and is a big play threat throughout the entire route tree. Charvarius Ward will have to have one of his best games as a 49er to prevent Brown from making a big play to give the Eagles momentum.
Devonta Smith has been able to produce as one of the better number two receivers in the league and he is perhaps the perfect complement to Brown. Smith is great against zone coverage with smooth route running and at his best playing off the line of scrimmage, in the slot, or in pre-snap motion. Whereas Brown is a man-beater even against press due to his physical style of play and ability in contested catch situations. Stopping both of them is a challenge and requires plenty of mix on the back end.
With Ji’Ayir Brown starting, the pressure will be on the rookie to not only play the run but provide support to the corners against this tandem of receivers. No other Philly wideout has more than seven catches this season. So seeing Wilks blend man-to-man and exotic zone looks will have to be part of the chess match when Hurts has the ball.