It was a tale of two halves for the 49ers, who went down 24-7 at halftime before showcasing the elite offense and commendable defense that earned them a 12-5 record over the regular season.
Over the last 30 minutes of the game, it felt that everything went the 49ers’ way, as they compiled five consecutive scoring drives to open the second half while stopping the Lions' offense on each of their first four chances.
That allowed San Francisco to go on a 27-0 run, which ultimately shifted the momentum of the game in their favor, as they did just enough to win a trip to the Super Bowl.
Quarterback Brock Purdy had a much stronger second half for the second consecutive game, consistently making the proper reads while extending several plays to keep drives alive for the 49ers offense.
In doing so, Purdy activated a lesser-known element of his skillset: his scrambling ability.
Now, while not possessing elite speed, the 49ers’ quarterback has always been an elusive quarterback, which has elevated his playmaking ability and “gamer” mentality.
But, that element of his game was especially present in Sunday’s win, where Purdy scrambled for 52 total yards on three different attempts within the last 20 minutes of the game.
All three opportunities came at key moments in the game, as Purdy gained first downs on 2nd & 11, 2nd & 6, and 3rd & 4 on consecutive drives, which all led to scores.
Why is Purdy’s scrambling ability important?
Well, it’s similar to the capability of his Super Bowl adversary, Patrick Mahomes, who has evolved his playmaking ability by involving scrambles to extend plays.
Like Purdy, Mahomes isn’t the fastest quarterback, but possesses just enough mobility to create additional opportunities for his team, going off-schedule when necessary to extend drives.
In the playoffs, quarterback play ultimately comes down to taking what the defense gives you, and utilizing one’s scrambling ability is key to executing that idea.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan clearly believes so, and thought Purdy’s ability to scramble was the reason why San Francisco won on Sunday.
“I thought it was the difference between winning and losing,” Shanahan said about Purdy’s three scrambles. “He made some big plays with his legs, getting out of the pocket, moving the chains on some first downs, some explosives. He competed his ass off today. Wasn’t easy for any of us. He kept grinding and was unbelievable there in the second half.”
However, while it may not pop up on the stat sheet on a weekly basis, Shanahan has known about this ability of Purdy ever since his first extensive action with the 49ers against the Miami Dolphins.
“I think Brock has been scrambling and making plays ever since we got him in,” Shanahan said after the game. “All you got to do is go back to the first game versus Miami. Brock makes a lot of plays with his legs. Did it in college, too. Makes a lot of off-schedules. I thought it looked like how Brock looks every time he plays.”
“Yeah, the first time he got in the preseason you could see him do it,” Shanahan added on Monday. “Then I always go back to his first NFL game with Miami. He made some plays moving around when they were blitzing the heck out of him.”
Prior to Sunday’s game, Purdy had only rushed for over 20 yards once this season (Week 8 vs. Cincinnati), but it has always been a part of his identity, as the aggressive quarterback consistently looks not to give up on a play, even to his detriment at times.
But, the scrambling ability of Purdy has added a new dimension to the 49ers’ offense, which they hadn’t been able to use in their prior playoff runs.
While the 49ers offense has been one of the best at getting receivers open on early reads, Shanahan understands how invaluable it is to have a quarterback who has the knack for scrambling and going off-schedule when necessary, especially when defenses present good coverages.
“It’s so huge. You always want a guy who can sit there and get the ball to the right people every single time and find that hole in the defense and make those throws standing in there and being accurate,” Shanahan said about Purdy. “But that’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s impossible to get to number three without someone beat. When you do have a quarterback who’s got a knack for when to do it. He doesn’t do it a ton and just give up on open plays.”
“He’s got a natural ability of when to give up on the play. When to make a guy miss. When to turn it off schedule. No matter what happens, he gives you a chance. Everyone knows because everyone saw it, but those plays he made with his feet last night in the second half that was a problem for the defense and they had some good coverages on. He kept the chains moving and also found a way to get some explosives doing it too.”
Purdy, known for deflecting credit to his supporting cast, believes that the off-schedule magic comes naturally to him through the flow of the game, which was apparent in Sunday’s win.
“Yeah, I mean, obviously my job is to distribute the ball to guys that are open,” Purdy acknowledged after the game. “Then, if something is not there, especially in this kind of game, you’ve got to find a way. I feel like throughout my life I’ve scrambled and stuff here and there. Since I’ve been here, I feel like I haven’t done it a whole lot. Obviously tonight, I was just trying to keep the chains moving, keep the ball moving forward, then obviously give our team some momentum and some juice. I had to do it so I did it, yeah.”
Deebo Samuel, on the other hand, made sure to share the credit for his quarterback, pointing out his sneaky speed and elusiveness, which has amazed his teammates.
“It is just amazing because I don’t think very many people know how fast and elusive Brock is until he starts running,” Samuel said. “I think that I messed up one of his touchdowns trying to get a lead block and he ran into me and bounced off. I feel like if I would have made that block he would have scored.”
But now, the 49ers are going to need that talent to present itself one more time if they’re going to beat Patrick Mahomes at his own game in the Super Bowl.
Facing an elite defensive coordinator in Steve Spagnulo, Purdy will likely face unique coverages that will force him to extend plays. Can he showcase that playmaking knack with his feet one more time?