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3 things the 49ers must accomplish to become the best team in the NFC

What do the Niners need to do to prove Deebo right?

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The NFL schedule will be released on Thursday, and it’s fair to say the 49ers’ rematch with the Eagles will be one to quickly circle on the calendar.

Those 49ers who did not depart this offseason who played in the NFC Championship Game will have long since had revenge on their mind. The prevailing opinion in the San Francisco ranks being the contest was never a fair fight after Brock Purdy tore an elbow ligament on the first offensive series. Josh Johnson subsequently replaced him, only to suffer a concussion and leave the Niners without a recognised quarterback.

Plenty on the Philadelphia side of things would be irritated by such an assessment, and the Eagles deserved credit — irrespective of who was at quarterback for the 49ers — for dictating both lines of scrimmage in their victory.

Yet wide receiver Deebo Samuel fanned the flames of what could soon be the definitive rivalry in the NFC by saying in an interview with Complex that the Eagles are his new most hated team.

“All the trash talk coming from the Eagles fan base and the players, you just get tired of that. My most hated team is the Eagles right now. 100%,” said Samuel.

He then added of the title game: “We lost because we played with 10 people. I ain’t going to keep going on about what could’ve happened and what would’ve happened, but yeah, it would’ve definitely been a different outcome.”

With San Francisco’s defense holding the Eagles to 121 net passing yards and 3.4 yards per carry, there is reason to believe the game would have been much closer than the 31-7 final score had Purdy not suffered his elbow injury.

But it is also fair to say that — after a draft in which the Eagles significantly stacked the deck with some of the most talented prospects in the class — that the gap between them and the 49ers may have widened.

So, a few days out from the date of that blockbuster likely prime time clash being revealed, how do the Niners set about bridging that divide?

Make the McKivitz gamble work

Samuel said in the interview that the “sky is the limit” for the 49ers if they stay healthy. They have consistently failed to do that at the quarterback position, and a big factor in ensuring they can keep their signal-callers upright in 2023 will be the play of right tackle Colton McKivitz.

The 49ers’ decision not to add competition at the right tackle position, save for signing Matt Pryor as insurance, after losing Mike McGlinchey in free agency, was a huge show of faith in McKivitz.

Set to play alongside second-year guard Spencer Burford, it is the right side of the offensive line that opponents, including the Eagles, will likely look to attack to cause disruption in the San Francisco backfield.

As such, there will be tremendous pressure on McKivitz and the coaching staff to be ready to handle such attention from defenses.

McKivitz has held up extremely well in spot starts on the left-hand side. But he will still be regarded as the weak link. And, after the 49ers’ title game hopes were derailed by a quarterback hit that came from Purdy’s right, he must ensure such assessments prove false by quickly vindicating San Francisco’s belief in him.

It is a significant gamble by the 49ers to go with the 2020 fifth-round pick as a starter at a key position and, for San Francisco to slow down a deep and dangerous Philadelphia front, it is one that must pay off.

Find the right answer at TE2

That Haason Reddick sack came on a play on which Tyler Kroft was unable to effectively pass block the Eagles’ edge rusher.

There has been plenty of debate about the virtues of having a backup tight end attempt to block a pass rusher of Reddick’s talent. Such blocks are a well-established feature of the Kyle Shanahan offense. But it is difficult to believe Kroft’s failure in that moment was not a factor in San Francisco’s choice to double-dip at tight end in the draft.

It may be ambitious to suggest either Cameron Latu or Brayden Willis could step in as a rookie and successfully pass block against Reddick. But their arrivals could be vital to the Niners running a higher percentage of their play-action game without asking starting tight end George Kittle to stay in to block.

The 49ers sent Kittle out in a route on the Reddick play, and the threats posed by him, Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk contributed to the latter getting open downfield.

Plays on which the 49ers can get all their major pass-catching weapons into patterns while countering the aggressiveness of the Philadelphia defense with play-action are the perfect weapon to attack a group that is weakest at linebacker. Yet, they can only work if the 49ers can provide the protection to the quarterback to allow the play to develop.

A greater usage of 22 personnel could be the answer. It would allow the Niners to get their star-studded pass-catching quartet into routes while leaving at least one extra man, either fullback Kyle Juszczyk or a second tight end, or both, in protection.

In that sense, it is arguably Willis, despite being a seventh-round pick, who is more likely to be the skeleton key in helping weaponise the 49er attack from 22 personnel sets. While Latu has experience blocking from the backfield, Willis was more regularly used in a more varied role in playing fullback and H-back as well as in-line.

That experience may enable the 49ers to depend on him to play some fullback snaps as a rookie and potentially line up Juszczyk as a de-facto second tight end who can offer greater dependability as a blocker.

Regardless of whom the 49ers pick as their TE2 on the depth chart, they need to have an option they are confident can present a threat in the passing game and hold up enough as a blocker. That way they can get Kittle out into the route more regularly while sacrificing little in protection when they face teams with the pass-rush talent of the Eagles. If one of Latu or Willis can fulfil that role, the 49ers odds of topping the NFC will improve.

Rediscover an effective interior rush

While the 49ers have the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and the NFL’s pre-eminent edge rusher, Nick Bosa, leading their defensive line, their interior rush was found severely lacking in 2022.

Arik Armstead, who was limited to nine games last season because of injury, led all 49ers interior defensive linemen with 20 quarterback pressures, according to Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus.

The interior of the 49ers’ D-Line accounted for just 55 pressures. Putting that into context, Javon Hargrave — who helped the Eagles create chaos in the Niners backfield in the title game — registered 57.

San Francisco’s solution was to make perhaps the defining move of free agency and sign Hargrave to a four-year, $84 million contract.

The Niners will look for Armstead to stay healthy and form a devastating interior pass rush duo with Hargrave that can take their defensive line to another level.

With no standout reserve option behind that pair, there is a significant burden on the shoulders of Armstead and Hargrave. Kevin Givens is a useful rotational lineman, and the Niners will hope this is finally the season Javon Kinlaw stays on the field and delivers consistently productive snaps.

On top of that, it appears likely the 49ers will use defensive end Clelin Ferrell as an interior rusher, the former fourth overall pick having displayed some promise in that role with the Raiders. Still, in reality, the hopes of the interior rest on their staters.

Should they excel, then escape routes for mobile quarterbacks such as Jalen Hurts figure to be fewer. With a consistently effective interior rush, quarterbacks may be regularly forced to attempt to quickly bail to the outside, increasing the likelihood of them running directly into Bosa for a clean-up sack. Such sacks will be even more commonplace if Drake Jackson can take a year-two leap at the other edge rusher spot across from Bosa.

Getting a handle on the Eagles’ dynamic Hurts-led run game will also be of great importance to the 49er defense in future matchups with Philadelphia. But the unpredictability of that rushing attack is lessened if the Eagles are put behind the sticks.

That happened on only three of the Eagles’ offensive series in the title game. It is a crucial contributor to Philadelphia’s Super Bowl run whom the 49ers will lean on heavily to ensure they can put the Eagles in negative down and distance more often and contain Hurts and company more effectively in 2023.

Hargrave maintaining his 2022 form and living up to expectations will go a long way to the 49ers bridging the apparent gap between these two top-tier rosters.