The San Francisco 49ers enter their away matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles as 2.5-point underdogs and will need to focus on their keys to the game in order to come out ahead. The Eagles have much more latitude than the 49ers, playing at home and with a slightly more complete team and diverse offense that can find multiple ways to victory.
San Francisco will have to be a bit more disciplined. The 49ers are perhaps the most impressive team remaining in the playoffs. That doesn’t mean that they’re the best, but they’ve been the most efficient in unusual circumstances, having weathered the loss of two quarterbacks during the season and emerging from that somehow even better than before.
Their defense is the best in the NFL and perhaps one of the best in recent memory. They’ve been riding that fact throughout the playoffs, beating another elite defense in the Dallas Cowboys in order to get there. But up against another great offense and defense, the 49ers will need to dial in on their keys to victory for the game.
3 Keys to Victory for 49ers in NFC Championship Game
49ers Must Protect Brock Purdy
Naturally, the 49ers need to “protect” Brock Purdy in the traditional sense to limit pressure in the pocket. But they also need to protect Purdy from being further exposed to his own weaknesses, as San Francisco found against Dallas.
Purdy, unsurprisingly, had his worst game against the best defense he had yet to face. In fact, it was only one of two defenses in the top 10. His total performance in those two games looked statistically okay — he had a passer rating of 99.1 — but Purdy clearly struggled during long stretches of his games against both the Cowboys and Commanders.
Purdy has had some issues throwing on the run, particularly to the left, and has trouble throwing deep or outside the numbers. While it looked like some of those issues vanished against the Seahawks in the Wild Card round, they reappeared against the Cowboys.
The Eagles are a good defense and know how to dial up pressure to force Purdy into uncomfortable situations. They, along with the Cowboys, are the two leaders in pressure rate across the NFL.
We saw Dallas do an excellent job against the formidable 49ers offensive line, with Micah Parsons finding ways to make arguably the best left tackle in the NFL look helpless at times. Against another elite tackle, Andrew Thomas, Eagles edge rusher Josh Sweat did incredible work over the course of their two matchups this year.
It’s possible for the Eagles to get pressure on San Francisco. The 49ers will need to find ways, as they did in the second half against Dallas, to deal with that kind of pass rush. And they’ll need to make sure that the passing lanes over the middle are available for Purdy in order for him to play at his best, which again, they did do in the second half against Dallas.
If Philadelphia can force Purdy to roll to his left or get him away from passing over the middle of the field, it will be tough for the 49ers to generate offense. They’ll need to protect both him physically in the pocket and his passing game with clean, easy reads that enable their incredible yards-after-catch team.
The 49ers Must Stop the Quarterback Run
Every “key to the game” involves stopping the run. Truthfully, it does not impact most games as much as analysts think it does. The run game matters, but it’s substantially less important than the passing game, and overfocusing on the run can leave a team poorly equipped to deal with bigger threats.
Except in these games.
The Eagles have done an excellent job truly marrying their run and passing games and are one of the few teams in the NFL that finds ways to be efficient running the ball. The reason for that isn’t just because of their excellent offensive line. It has to do with the fact that Jalen Hurts is a legitimate run threat.
Philadelphia has a complex running game, but it relies on simple football principles that have been true for as long as quarterbacks could both run and pass. In short, the Eagles can leave a defender unblocked and “block” that person with the threat of the QB run.
That frees up a blocker to go elsewhere and block someone closer to the point of attack, giving them a numbers advantage. Quarterbacks change blocking math by adding one more blocker to the count.
In practice, it means that the Eagles will often pull a tackle on a read-option play, leaving an edge defender unblocked. Then, at the mesh point, the quarterback can choose whether or not to hand the ball off or keep the ball himself and run it.
He makes that choice based on what the unblocked defender does. If the unblocked defender attacks the quarterback or hesitates trying to read, then the QB hands it off. If he attacks the running back, then the quarterback keeps it and runs into the space vacated by the defender.
This has proved to be devastatingly effective for teams with run threats at quarterback, and it’s no accident that the most effective running games in the NFL often involve quarterbacks with this quality: the New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears, Atlanta Falcons, and… the Philadelphia Eagles.
Philadelphia stands alone in efficiency as runners. At 0.072 expected points per run, they double the positive output of the second-place team, the Ravens, at 0.034. The Eagles also aren’t reliant on feast-or-famine-type play, like the Bears.
They rank first in the NFL in run success rate and are the only team in the NFL to have a success rate running the ball north of 50% at 50.7%. The second-place Ravens, at 47.6%, are quite a bit further away.
The 49ers aren’t strangers to this phenomenon. They’ve played against Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson, who have been lightly involved in designed runs and heavily involved in scrambles. The 49ers’ defense has been fine against QB-rush teams, but not excellent in the same way as they’ve been against passing offenses.
After all, two of their three losses all year were to Atlanta and Chicago. Quarterback rushing played a big portion in both losses, with 78 quarterback run yards over both games.
Unlike RB yards, quarterback rushing goes down later in games because of kneels, rather than up. When protecting a lead, teams with QB rushing threats will hand off to their running back or kneel the ball.
Without kneels, that total rises to 80 total yards over 14 carries or 5.71 a pop.
The 49ers are good at stopping the run, except when the run game matters. They’ll have to shore that up.
The 49ers Need To Dictate Tempo
The 49ers are one of the slowest teams in the NFL when it comes to time between snaps, and that’s for many reasons. The first is that they value the time Purdy and their other quarterbacks have had to evaluate the opposing defense and figure out their presnap reads or adjust the play at the line of scrimmage.
Not only that, it allows them to run more shifts and motions, forcing the defense to maintain eye discipline, as someone like Deebo Samuel runs across the formation or declares their coverage when a defender follows a defender to the other side of the field.
This has naturally been helpful for them, given how often they run those presnap motions. But the Eagles are a team that has excelled when they have a read on the opponent and the ability to adjust their defense or present confusing looks to the opposing offense. On plays that took longer than 30 seconds from the previous whistle to the snap, Philadelphia has the fourth-best defense in expected points.
On plays that look less than 30 seconds, they’ve been a pedestrian 20th in the NFL. Hurry-up offenses have done more against them than any other type of offense, and the Eagles have relied on their ability to get set or provide a confusing look to opponents more than anything else.
If Philadelphia is forced to play fast and adjust quickly, they revert to their attackable base defense. And it becomes much easier to pick apart their zones for after-catch production.
The Eagles can’t match on the other side of the ball. Despite having the second-best offense in the NFL in slower-tempo situations, they struggle in hurry-up, ranking 27th in EPA on those plays.
Not only that, the 49ers’ defense has been good in both types of tempo. They’re able to find ways to call the right defense even when they don’t have their full array of play-calling options available to them.
Add in the fact that Hurts does become an average passer when blitzed — often not able to throw to a hot route that sometimes isn’t even there — and the 49ers have a blueprint for how to approach the game. It runs counter to their offensive philosophy, and they’re less efficient in hurry-up situations, but it’s something San Francisco should consider in the leadup to the game.