The 49ers’ defense carried the team through the first four months of the season, but the NFL’s top-ranked unit is starting to show some cracks in 2023.
The Raiders exposed a few vulnerabilities in Week 17. The Seahawks found a few more in the Wild Card Round. Now the Dallas Cowboys seem poised to challenge this Niners’ defense in a whole new way on Sunday.
The Niners’ secondary is scrambling. The pass rush lacks the same punch it had early in the season. The rush defense is getting pushed around a bit.
This 49ers’ defense is still strong — you don’t simply go from excellent to awful — but we haven’t seen greatness from this unit since the calendar flipped.
But fret not, Niners fans, because the 49ers’ offense has turned into a juggernaut — a unit capable of carrying this team to the Super Bowl.
It was sneaky, like Brock Purdy’s athleticism, but the 49ers have scored 34 points per game since the seventh-round rookie took over the offense in the first quarter of the team’s Week 13 game against the Dolphins.
A small sample size? Sure. But the points output is no fluke. In the NFL, yards translate into points, and the Niners have averaged 396 yards per game with Purdy at the helm. Only two teams in the NFL had a higher per-game average over the course of the season — the Chiefs and the Bills.
There’s an obvious answer as to why the 49ers’ offense has jumped 10 points per game since Jimmy Garoppolo was at the helm.
And no, it’s not just the quarterback.
The Niners’ trade to acquire running back Christian McCaffrey would have been the turning point of any other team’s season. He’s been exceptionally impactful, not just statistically, but tactically, too.
Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan has long coveted a running back who was as effective as a pass catcher as he was running the ball. In the coach’s first full offseason, he signed Jerick McKinnon to a four-year, $30 million contract. The idea was that Shanahan could move McKinnon all over the field — if the defense keyed in on the running back, another player (or two) would be left with a great matchup; if the defense deprioritized defending the running back, he’d be the one to burn them.
It never worked out with McKinnon, who was frequently injured during his Niners’ tenure, only playing one unremarkable season — 2020.
Shanahan was so keen on the idea of a do-it-all running back, though, that he turned wide receiver Deebo Samuel into a running back last season. That worked well, but it wasn’t precisely what Shanahan wanted.
This season, McKinnon is living out Shanahan’s fantasy in Kansas City — the do-it-all back has nine touchdowns since Week 13. That’s OK, though, because the Niners finally found their perfect running back with McCaffrey.
Not only is the former Carolina Panther a brilliant between-the-tackles runner, but his route-running, particularly from the slot, gives Shanahan access to every page of his playbook for the first time in his Niners’ tenure.
Add Samuel to the mix, and defenses have no idea what personnel grouping to have on the field. That creates the mismatches that are the foundation of Shanahan’s offensive philosophy.
If only that was the end of the Niners’ weapons: There’s also Brandon Aiyuk — who has developed into Shanahan’s latest prolific ‘X’ receiver — third-down maestro Jauan Jennings, and, some guy named Kittle.
The only weakness on this 49ers’ offense right now is the interior of the offensive line, and they’re pretty good. Yes, Seattle’s massive defensive tackles tossed around undersized center Jake Brendel and left guard Dan Brunskill on Saturday, but Brendel bounced back in the second half of the game, and rookie left guard Spencer Burford proved up to the task when he was subbed into the game.
The Niners’ offense, with McCaffrey confusing defenses and Samuel adding to their problems, can paint the entire canvas. The Niners can run the ball inside or outside and throw it sideline-to-sideline and deep, too.
They can do that because they have a quarterback who can execute all those plays.
Purdy’s received countless accolades over the past few weeks, and all earned, but what stands out the most to me is how much rhythm the Niners’ offense has with him at the helm.
It helps to have an absurd amount of weapons and arguably the NFL’s best play-caller on your side, but if being a “system” quarterback for Shanahan and the 49ers were so easy, we’d be talking about C.J. Beathard or Brian Hoyer right now.
Shanahan hasn’t coddled the rookie. No, he’s throwing even more on his plate than his predecessors. The importance of the moment calls for it. Purdy — with his excellent decision-making and plus talent with both his arm and his legs — has proven he’s capable of it.
“We didn’t have the luxury to sit there and worry about stuff the way the game was going,” Shanahan said of Purdy’s first action, in Week 13 against the Dolphins. “We just had to call plays to try to win the game, and he did such a hell of a job, and he’s done it every time since. We have a lot of confidence in him, and he gives us more and more confidence each week.”
Purdy is delivering the ball on time and in stride to receivers. He’s selling play-action concepts and keeping defenses honest with his scrambling ability. The Niners’ offense flows with him at the helm. It allows Shanahan to find rhythm with his play calls. Top-to-bottom, the Niners’ offense is making beautiful music right now.
And it’s needed with the Niners’ defense — so outstanding for so much of the season — slipping a bit in recent weeks.
In particular, the Niners have struggled to corral No. 1 receivers.
They’re hardly unique in that distinction — those top receivers are paid a lot for a reason — but in the Purdy era, we’ve seen Tyreek Hill (9 catches, 146 yards, touchdown), Davante Adams (7 catches, 153 yards, two touchdowns), and D.K. Metcalf (10 catches, 136 yards, two touchdowns) give the Niners the business.
Even the Washington Commanders were carving up the Niners’ secondary. With Dallas’ CeeDee Lamb coming to town Sunday, the trend might continue.
But if Sunday’s game is a shootout, the Niners are well-equipped to win.
This is an offense-first team now, and that’s anything but an issue.
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