But we’ve reached the end of another regular season, so there’s no better time for the final confidence check as the 49ers take the week off before their divisional round game.
The 49ers finished at 12-5 and have home-field advantage throughout the postseason, so this group has plenty of confidence. While two losses came in the final three weeks, there was significantly more good than bad in the second half of the season, with a 7-2 record after the bye week.
Same rules as last time, the position groups are ranked in order of most confidence to least, starting with the position I feel is the biggest reason for the 49ers 2023 success:
1. Quarterback (previous: 4)
Kyle Shanahan has used plenty of quarterbacks with the 49ers, but none had the numbers Brock Purdy did in 2023.
In just his second season - and first as the starter - Purdy not only broke the 49ers franchise record for passing yards in a season but also the yards per attempt record, breaking a record that’s stood for 62 years - John Brodie in 1962, with Joe Montana matching the record in 1989, the offense under Purdy scored the third-most points in franchise history, averaging 29.4 points per game in Purdy’s 16 starts.
A year later, those first five starts last year have turned into 21 career starts for Purdy, averaging 256 passing yards per game with a 7.4 touchdown percentage compared to a 2.3 interception percentage. He’s sustained the play over an entire season, and the production of the 49ers passing game has only improved because of the quarterback.
Purdy’s 9.1 yards per attempt over his first 21 career starts is the second-highest in NFL history behind Kurt Warner - hall of famer - and in front of Patrick Mahomes and Ben Roethlisberger - future hall of famers.
There’s belief that the talent around Purdy is why he’s been successful, but there’s plenty of evidence to say the offense works so well because of the quarterback. There’s enough to have confidence in Purdy’s elite play to run through the postseason and the foreseeable future.
2. Wide receiver/tight end (3)
You can’t tell the story of the 49ers without Purdy’s pass-catchers.
Brandon Aiyuk set a career-high in passing yards, while George Kittle and Deebo Samuel had their best seasons since 2019 and 2021, respectively. Aiyuk has developed into Purdy’s favorite target, seeing a team-high 105 targets while averaging the highest yards per reception (17.9) of the trio on his team-high 75 receptions.
But while Aiyuk was the primary target, Kittle and Samuel are targets 1B and 1C instead of secondary options. The trio of 49ers pass-catchers had 13 100-yard games between them, with Kittle and Samuel combining for six of those games, with San Francisco 8-2 in the ten games with at least one 100-yard receiver - although the 49ers are somehow 1-2 in the three games with two 100-yard receivers.
We’ve known just how good the 49ers pass-catchers are for a few seasons now but with Purdy
establishing himself, each has seen a significant uptick in production compared to last season.
3. Running back (5)
Christian McCaffrey is outstanding. I know it. You know it. Everybody knows it. But I’ve gained confidence in this group because of Elijah Mitchell’s recent re-emergence.
Mitchell had a poor start to his season. In his limited number of touches, Mitchell averaged 2.4 yards per attempt on 30 rushes over his first six games, including a three-game stretch where he averaged negative yards on six attempts. But he’s found consistency in his last five games despite the inconsistent touches, averaging 4.6 yards per attempt on his previous 45 rushes.
It’s not at the same volume, but the yards per attempt over his last five games (4.6) is just below the 4.7 yards he averaged in his rookie season. Mitchell nearly maintained that consistency in his previous two games, taking 31 of his 75 carries this season, and still averaged 4.3 yards per carry in the absence of McCaffrey.
The carries behind McCaffrey in the playoffs will be few and far between, but if Mitchell can get four yards per pop on those touches, it can only help the offense with McCaffrey off the field.
4. Defensive line (1)
The drop from the top spot for the defensive in the last confidence check is more about how good the offense has been. My confidence in the defensive line has grown since our previous inspection.
You can cut the season for the pass rush into two parts: pre- and post-Chase Young. While the newest member of the defensive line only has 2.5 sacks in his nine games with San Francisco - he had five in seven games with Washington this season - the numbers suggest a significant improvement with Young.
In the eight games before the Young trade, the 49ers’ defense had 18 sacks on 330 dropbacks - 5.4 percent, on-pace to be the 49ers’ second-lowest sack percentage of the Nick Bosa era, slightly better than in 2020 when Bosa missed all but two games. In the nine games since acquiring Young, the 49ers have 30 sacks on 339 dropbacks - 8.8 percent, a pace that would be the best of the Bosa era.
Even Bosa’s production increased since Young’s arrival, recording 7.5 sacks in the nine games after the trade, finishing the season with 10.5. It could be the effects of Bosa missing camp and having to get into game-playing shape in actual games, but the improvement was sudden after adding Young, with Bosa recording five sacks in the first three games, the trade for his fellow Buckeye.
While the pass rush has corrected itself, there has been some concern in the run defense with Arik Armstead out. In the 12 games before Armstead’s knee injury, the 49ers defense allowed 100 or more rushing yards just three times. Still, it’s only happened three times in the five games since the injury, including allowing a season-high 234 rushing yards against Arizona. The 102 rushing yards allowed in the loss to Baltimore were the fewest rushing yards in a game for the
Ravens since Week 1 of last season, for what that may be worth.
Thankfully, Armstead should be back for the divisional round, meaning the run issues should get
5. Linebackers (2)
Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw still combine to make one of the best linebacker duos in the league, but there is the concern of missed tackles.
While missed tackles have been a concern for the entire defense, the 49ers linebacker pair has had their fair share of struggles. Warner and Greenlaw set career-highs in missed tackles and missed tackle percentage - Warner at 15.8, Greenlaw at 11.8 - with Warner finishing the season with the fifth-highest missed tackle percentage among 57 qualifying linebackers (Greenlaw finished 21st-highest).
There’s no reason to believe the issue would continue into the postseason, but it’s something to note for the playoffs.
6. Secondary (7)
I have had this feeling that the secondary would bottom out at some point over the past few weeks, but it just hasn’t happened.
Since injuring his knee against Tampa Bay, the 49ers’ defense has been without Talanoa Hufanga, but there’s been no drop in production. The 49ers defense has allowed more than 250 passing yards twice in the seven games since, with San Francisco 2-0 in those games.
With Hufanga’s injury and Isaiah Oliver losing his starting spot, Charvarius Ward, Deommodore Lenoir, Ambry Thomas, and Ji’Ayir Brown have stepped up and kept the secondary in good form.
Ward should have heavy considerations to be an all-pro with his production as the 49ers No. 1 cornerback. Lenoir has stepped in and played solid both out wide and in the slot in place of Oliver. Thomas has taken strides and is improving weekly while playing the most snaps in his career. Brown was able to step in for Hufanga and force turnovers with a pair of interceptions in his five starts.
If the secondary can stay healthy in the postseason, there should be zero concern in this group as we advance, especially with how well the pass rush has performed in the back half of the regular season.
7. Offensive line (8)
Here is where the confidence could improve in the position groups, starting with the offensive line.
Let’s start with the good: obviously, the 49ers’ run game continues to be one of the best in the league, and it’s been relatively consistent in protecting Purdy. In the first eight starts with Purdy at quarterback, he was sacked eight times. He was sacked eight times in the last eight games of his season. The 49ers’ 6.5 sack percentage allowed is about the middle of the pack, tied for the 12th-lowest percentage in the league with Philadelphia.
Another positive has been the emergence of Jon Feliciano. Spencer Burford went down with a knee injury, creating a need at right guard. Feliciano has stepped in and hasn’t allowed a sack in 244 snaps at the right guard, allowing only 15 pressures and two quarterback hits on 431 total snaps.
Where the concern comes from is with Colton McKivitz at right tackle. An offensive line is only as strong as its weakest link, and McKivitz has been that. The right tackle has been responsible for 25.1 percent of pressures allowed by the San Francisco line and half of all sacks allowed. He has yet to find his footing all season replacing Mike McGlinchey, and he’s not just the weak spot on the line but on the entire offense.
8. Special teams (6)
The special teams might have been above the offensive line, but Week 18 happened.
Let’s discuss the elephant in the room and first put some context behind Jake Moody’s season. Overall, it was a good season for the rookie kicker. He made 21-of-25 field goals on the year, finishing with the 10th-highest field goal percentage (84 percent) in 49ers history with a minimum of 25 attempts (Robbie Gould’s 2022 season was the ninth-highest percentage at 84.4).
He also finished tied for the most made PATs in franchise history, although that’s more about how good the offense is at scoring touchdowns than Moody.
But then Week 18 happened. Moody missed a 38-yard attempt - his first miss inside of 40 this season - followed shortly by his first missed PAT. At maybe the worst possible time, right before the playoffs, flashbacks of his misses in Cleveland and Minnesota reared their ugly heads.
While there were only four misses on the season, there’s plenty of common ground between them to give cause for concern. All four misses happened in not only losses but also one-possession losses.
All four misses happened at a point in the game where the score was within one possession. Lastly (and possibly most concerning), the misses were bunched together with Moody’s first three misses happening in a two-game span, and his last miss was followed by his lone missed PAT.
Yes, numbers do suggest Moody has been trustworthy this season, but in the Max Kellerman hypothetical - would you trust Jake Moody down one point with three seconds left in the NFC Championship Game with the fate of the universe on the line, or the Martians have the death beam pointed on Earth? The answer feels closer to a no than it does a yes right now.