Wildcard weekend is upon us. Just like the Faithful, the 49ers will get to kick their feet up, grab a snack, and watch the first round of the playoffs while relaxing. In their conference, San Francisco is 4-1 against the rest of the teams on their side of the bracket (including their backup-led loss to the Rams in week 18).
Their divisional matchup could be against four teams, one of which they didn’t play this season (Green Bay). Here is how the Niners’ potential opponents from the NFC are built and what to watch for when they take the field this weekend.
Here are the offensive and defensive efficiency rankings of potential #49ers' opponents in the Divisional Round.— Akash Anavarathan (@akashanav) January 9, 2024
1. Eagles defense is Bottom-3
2. Rams/Packers' offense is Top-5
3. Buccaneers are a middle-of-the-road team
How would you rank potential playoff opponents? pic.twitter.com/CajITAL1sw
Strength: Defensive Spine
By most metrics, Tampa’s an average all-around football team. They aren’t particularly successful in any one given aspect, but when you look at the roster, their best talent is along the “spine” of the defense. That’s their middle defenders at each level.
Starting with nose tackle Vita Vea. Vea had a sack, four tackles, and one quarterback hit in the Bucs matchup with the 49ers earlier this season. He’s a stout run defender and one of the best DL anchors in all of football. Vea was one of the main cogs in Tampa, giving up the fifth-fewest rushing yards this season.
Behind Vea is veteran Lavonte David. David is arguably the most under-appreciated off-ball linebacker over the last decade and had another strong season in 2023. He’s a great tackler and stellar at recognizing running plays. David is almost 34 now and isn’t as great in coverage. George Kittle had eight catches for 89 yards against Tampa back in week 11.
The final piece to the Bucs spine is safety Antoine Winfield, who posted PFF’s number one overall grade at the position. W-i-nfield’s numbers (six sacks, three interceptions, six forced fumbles) are worthy of an all-pro nod despite being snubbed from the Pro Bowl roster, although he was named an All-Pro.
Bucs safety Antoine Winfield Jr. has been selected as an AP first team All-Pro. Mike Evans was awarded second team All-Pro. Winfield’s monster season: 122 tackles (six TFLs), 12 passes defensed, eight QB hits, 6.0 sacks, six forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and three INTs.— JennaLaineESPN (@JennaLaineESPN) January 12, 2024
Weakness: Rushing Offense
The Buccaneers’ offensive line is a good unit in pass protection, but are one of the league’s worst when running blocking. PFF grades them as 17th in pass blocking but 32nd in run blocking. ESPN ranks them 22nd in pass block win rate but 32nd in run block win rate. They were the only team to average less than 3.5 yards per carry. It’s hard to pinpoint why this team struggles to run the ball.
Running back Rachaad White gained 990 yards on the ground this season and showcased his workhorse ability while becoming a threat in the passing game. White was 7th in the NFL in yards after catch this season and accounted for 10 receiving ‘big plays’, 7 more than the number of rushing big plays he accumulated. If White and the running game aren’t effective in the playoffs, Tampa Bay will likely have a quick exit.
Strength: Offensive Line
Philadelphia’s offensive success starts up front. The offensive line owns PFF’s highest-ranked pass-blocking and third-highest run-blocking grades. They rank first in run block win rate and seventh in pass block win rate. They’ve helped pave the way for a top-ten offense in DVOA built to run the ball, which is still incredibly valuable in the playoffs. Lane Johnson, Jason Kelce, and Landon Dickerson made the Pro Bowl. Jordan Mailata is the third-highest-graded tackle per PFF.
Pass protection grade of offensive linemen in True Pass Sets only pic.twitter.com/mM6j3ieyUH— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) January 9, 2024
Only the Commanders gave up more passing yards and touchdowns through the air than Philly. The loss of both starting safeties from last year’s Super Bowl squad clearly was an issue for this team’s identity. Even with the mid-season acquisition of Kevin Byard, the Eagles struggled to stop opposing quarterbacks.
Not to mention, most of the success from the 2022 version of this defense rested on the backs of the defensive line, which put up historic pressure stats. This year that hasn’t been the case, and it’s made the secondary issues much more noticeable.
Their team Coverage grade per PFF is 24th this season. Cornerbacks Darius Slay and James Bradberry are experiencing near-career-lows in coverage and have been exposed for poor tackling. It looks like they are on the decline from the prime of their careers, and Philadelphia doesn’t have anyone else on the roster to mitigate the problems in the backend of the defense.
(6) Los Angeles Rams
Strength: Offensive balance
The Rams finished the season 10th in passing yards and 11th in rushing yards. This isn’t a strength that is unique to LA; several other playoff teams, like the 49ers, Dolphins, Lions, and Bills, are in or near the top 10 in both categories. But it is different from the Rams' Super Bowl-winning team from just two years ago.
During that run, LA relied heavily on Matthew Stafford to carry the offense through the air. Sony Michel led the roster with 845 yards on the ground. They were 10th in passing attempts and 24th in rushing attempts. This season, Kyren Williams has become a workhorse running back, and Sean McVay has been more focused on establishing a rushing attack. This version of the Rams was 14th in pass attempts and 12th in rush attempts. With their effort to a more balanced approach, this is a tougher offense to prepare for in the playoffs.
Weakness: Defensive Youth
The roster turnover from their 2021 Super Bowl run was reason enough to expect this team to miss the playoffs heading into the season. What they’ve been able to accomplish this year shouldn’t be taken for granted, but it’s still a young team that will be asked to rely on inexperienced players to take a step on the biggest stage.
That’s true for most of the Rams roster, but especially on the defensive side. There are only a handful of veterans, some who have been in the postseason and some who have not. At the center of it all is perennial all-pro Aaron Donald, the second-oldest non-special teamer on LA’s roster (32). No other defensive starter is older than 29. Defensive backs Akhello Witherspoon and John Johnson III are the only other players on that side of the ball with over five years NFL experience.
Strength: Passing Game
It was a bit of a rocky start to the Jordan Love era in Green Bay, but by the end of the year, the third-year pro had found a groove with a young set of skill players to create a well-oiled passing machine. Love finished the season second in passing touchdowns (32) and fifth in EPA/dropback (min. 150 attempts).
This passing game is so dynamic because Love and HC Matt LaFleur are not focusing the game through one target. Four receivers, two tight ends, and a running back had at least 40 targets. Ten players caught a touchdown pass. Although their youth may show more in the postseason, it’s a versatile and youthful group of playmakers on offense that can hurt you from anywhere on the field.
Weakness: Rushing Defense
Green Bay allowed 128.3 rushing yards per game this season, the fifth-most in the league. They’re a bit soft in the middle, especially. Outside linebackers Rashan Gary and Preston Smith are solid at setting the edge, but no interior lineman has a PFF run defense grade over 62.0. Former first-round pick Devonte Wyatt has especially been a liability.
There are issues when runners get to the second level, too, where seven out of their eight defensive backs with a minimum of 150 run defense snaps have a missed tackle percentage over 14.0%.
Even though they held a solid rushing attack in check the final week of the regular season, expecting them to hold up against the Cowboys’ rushing attack in round one is a stretch. If they get the chance to play the Niners in round two, I have a feeling it will be a nostalgic Shanahan day of exposing this franchise’s woes against the San Francisco rushing attack.