While most get caught up in that side of the ball, there aren’t many realistic scenarios that involve the Packers stopping the Niners when they have the ball. Schematically. Personnel-wise. Matchups. Experience. Speed. The 49ers blow teams out. It’s what they do, and there’s not much opponents have done about it.
There’s one specific formation that I want to highlight today: a mismatch that favors the 49ers.
Excellent in Empty
Per Sports Info Solutions, Brock Purdy had 89 dropbacks during the regular season when the 49ers had an empty formation. That’s when the running back is split out as a wide receiver, and the quarterback is alone in the backfield.
Purdy’s completion percentage was lower than usual at 63 percent but averaged a video game-like 11.2 yards per attempt. The formation makes the 49ers unguardable, as you’re looking at one side of the field with a combination of Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Christian McCaffrey, and George Kittle.
Jauan Jennings will be paired with one of the players mentioned above on the other side of the field. You’re guaranteed to get a 1-on-1, and by spreading the field out, defenses are in a bind and can’t funnel coverage in a particular direction.
The results have been unstoppable in favor of the home team. No team grossed more yards, had a higher yard per attempt, or generated more EPA than the Niners out of empty this year.
Another benefit of being empty is that once the ball is caught, most of the defenders have their backs turned, which leads to yards after the catch — a 49ers’ specialty. San Francisco will also have No. 15 back instead of No. 84. Jennings is comfortably one of the most important players returning for the playoffs.
McCaffrey’s gravitational pull deserves an assist. Teams will break the huddle planning to double him, but when you do that, you’re begging to get beaten in coverage. That was the case against the Eagles and Cardinals in the second half of the season.
But this is where Purdy naysayers may want to look away. We’re still seeing “system QB” and “Checkdown Charlie” lines of thinking despite 16 games of showing nothing but the opposite.
One of Brock’s greatest strengths is allowing his wideouts to make a play. In some instances, that means heaving the ball deep and letting them run under it. Sometimes, that requires Purdy to take a three-step drop and let it fly:
The timing and accuracy Purdy has allows Shanahan to call more empty formations. It’s difficult to protect, and the quarterback is susceptible to the blitz. But when you have a quarterback who knows the offense and can read the picture the defense presents to him, the results from above are what you get.
This following example is my favorite because it tells us who Purdy is. Watch No. 15 off to the left. He’s open. Easy pitch and catch. It’s an easy first down, and you keep the chains moving. No, thank you, says Purdy. He saw the safety sitting flat-footed and made him pay.
Purdy’s instincts tell him to look deep, and his check-down is at the intermediate level. At worst, OK, he’ll throw it short. But that goes against who Purdy is, and that’s been the case since high school.
It’s the reason the 49ers are favored to win the Super Bowl. Expecting to have 10-play drives in the playoffs and being able to march up and down the field isn’t realistic. Against a Packers defense that was the eighth-worst in the NFL in yards allowed and yards per attempt against empty, it’s reasonable to expect Shanahan to dial up a handful of empty formations that’ll put his players in a position to succeed.
The Cowboys waited until the third quarter to go empty and had ample success. The game was over by then, so it didn’t matter.
Another area where the Packers struggle is at defending tight ends. They’re 27th in DVOA guarding tight ends. Kittle averages five receptions and 87 yards at home. He has at least 67 receiving yards in every home game outside of one. The Packers are 23rd in QB rating against tight ends this season and have allowed the 39th most yards per attempt.
Saturday night has a George Kittle 100-yard game written all over it. Kittle isn’t the only player in line for a successful evening.
The 49ers have the matchup advantage on these slot fades, too. Deebo Samuel’s collegiate teammate, Keisean Nixon, was an undrafted free agent in 2019. He’s the Packers’ slot cornerback. On 89 targets this season, he allowed 80 percent of those for completions with a 101.4 passer rating.
Carrington Valentine starts opposite of Jaire Alexander. He was drafted in the 7th round in 2023. He allowed 11.6 yards per reception this season on 70 targets. These players are responsible for slowing down Aiyuk and Deebo, with Shanahan calling the plays.
Good luck, Green Bay.