Welcome to Conference Championship Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
This season’s NFC Championship Game will take place at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as the San Francisco 49ers will face the Philadelphia Eagles. Here’s what you should know:
EAGLES’ OFFENSE A DUAL THREAT
After Doug Pederson brought a Super Bowl championship to Philadelphia in 2017, things began to sour rather quickly in the City of Brotherly Love. Following a deterioration of talent thanks to age, free agency and the salary cap, general manager Howie Roseman let go of Pederson and hired his replacement in former Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni.
Sirianni, who worked for Pederson’s championship-winning offensive coordinator in Frank Reich, has brought a similar system to the Eagles. Pederson offense’s – a chip off the old block from his mentor, former Eagles coach Andy Reid – is a West Coast offense-style unit that is built off misdirection concepts, quick underneath throws, screens, bootlegs, run-pass options and occasional downfield route combinations – especially outside the numbers. Philadelphia also rarely utilizes formations from under center.
While Sirianni does subscribe to those approaches, he has put his own twist on them by getting the ball to his running backs often in both the passing and running game. One of the league’s most patient ball carriers in Miles Sanders and backups Boston Scott and Kenneth Gainwell have been the biggest beneficiaries of this approach as they finished fifth in the NFL in rushing one year after they paced the league.
Helping them in that department has been third-year quarterback Jalen Hurts. Hurts, a product of Oklahoma, has utilized his mobility on several types of read option plays with zone, power and counter concepts built into them and has capitalized by rushing for 13 touchdowns, which broke his own franchise single season record for a quarterback that he set a year ago.
Hurts also has a strong arm, and his accuracy, ability to identify coverages and decision-making post-snap has grown by leaps and bounds while executing a passing game that Sirianni has highly schemed for him with defined primary reads. It’s also helped that Hurts has the same offensive coordinator (Shane Steichen) in back-to-back-years for the first time since high school, and he’s set career-highs in passing attempts, completions, completion percentage, touchdowns and passer rating.
To accelerate his growth, Roseman acquired one of pro football’s most physical wide receivers in A.J. Brown from the Tennessee Titans. Brown, perhaps the Eagles’ best pass-catching threat since Terrell Owens, has responded with career-best marks in receptions and yards while tying his four-year high in touchdowns with 11.
The Eagles have depth behind Brown too. Their pass targets include one of the best tight ends in the NFL in Dallas Goedert, a deep threat in DeVonta Smith and reserves Quez Watkins and Zach Pascal have also gotten in on the action.
Blocking for Hurts and his cohorts are All-Pros Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson, Jordan Mailata, Landon Dickerson and Issac Seumalo. This offensive line is one of the best in the NFL thanks to the development prowess of position coach Jeff Stoutland.
Beyond their rushing accolades, the Eagles were also ninth in the league in passing yards and third in scoring.
PHILLY DEFENSE HAS BEEN GREAT
Defensive play-caller Jonathan Gannon, who directed the Colts’ defensive backs for three years, is mostly a fan of zone coverage. An avid fan of longtime NFL defensive guru Vic Fangio (now a consultant for the Eagles), Gannon has taken Fangio’s approach and gotten impressive results with them.
Like Fangio, Gannon doesn’t like to blitz much. Relying on a four-man pass rush with stunts, twists and slants and two-deep safety looks often, he heavily employs well-disguised hybrid coverages that feature man and zone concepts – especially Cover Four, or “quarters”, with each defensive back dividing the field into fourths and matchup principles to take away vertical concepts. While a base 4-3, Gannon will also mix in some 5-2 fronts to stop the run.
A year after struggling in many statistical categories, the Eagles have seen a quick turnaround. Although they were just 17th versus the run, they ended 2022 second in total yards given up, first against the pass, eighth in points allowed, tied for fourth in takeaways and were first in sacks with an eye-popping 70 – 15 more than the second-closest team (Kansas City). In fact, Philadelphia became just the fourth team ever to reach 70 sacks in a season, along with the 1984 Chicago Bears, ’87 Bears and ’89 Minnesota Vikings, and were just three away from breaking the ’84 Bears’ all-time record.
To have success this way, you need to get pressure from a defensive line that has depth and talent. Which the Eagles have in spades. In what might be the deepest line in football, Gannon can trot out former All-Pro Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Robert Quinn, Derek Barnett (out with an injury), Javon Hargrave, Ndamukong Suh, Linval Joseph, Josh Sweat and rookie Jordan Davis on every snap. Haason Reddick followed up his big free agent contract with 16 sacks while Hargrave, Sweat and Graham had 11 apiece.
Safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, one of the game’s rangiest and intelligent centerfielders, holds down the back end along with Marcus Epps and can also play in the slot. Cornerbacks Darius Slay, James Bradberry and Avonte Maddox are one of, if not the best trio of cornerbacks in the NFL (Gardner-Johnson and Maddox are also asked every once in a while to spy mobile quarterbacks and are quite good at it) and T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White are Philadelphia’s linebackers.
The Eagles are attempting to reach their fourth Super Bowl and their second appearance in six years. It’s also their 12th NFC/NFL title game appearance.
49ERS’ OFFENSE DEADLY
Like his father Mike before him, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan relies on an offense that is West Coast-based in its passing game and is very creative in its ability to attack matchups. It also utilizes a lot of play-action passes, bootlegs and rollouts designed around the threat of outside-zone runs and he has rode this approach to three conference championship game appearances and an NFC title in 2019.
The 49ers’ philosophy relies on a mobile offensive line that pushes defenders from sideline to sideline on “stretch” runs that encourages its tailbacks to find holes on the opposite side of the play’s direction and cut back against the grain. Executing these blocks are All-Pro Trent Williams (one of the NFL’s most agile left tackles who excels on screens), Aaron Banks, Jake Brendel, Spencer Burford (who have replaced last year’s interior of Laken Tomlinson, Alex Mack and Daniel Brunskill), Mike McGlinchey and versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
While the outside/wide zone is the team’s foundational run, Shanahan will also use power plays, traps, sweeps and counters as a changeup tactic and will throw in some misdirection concepts like end-arounds and reverses as well. This system has made many a star out of running backs for decades and most of San Francisco’s runs are executed out of “21” personnel (two backs, one tight end).
The reason why the 49ers like to have two running backs on the field most of the time is to give credibility to the belief that they will call a running play at any time while also taking advantage of smaller defenders who are used to being on the field to stop the pass and creating more vanilla coverages. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Shanahan plays with two backs more than any schemer, by a wide margin…. with two backs in, the Niners compel defenses to prepare for more run possibilities, which limits their options in coverages. Shanahan exploits the suddenly predictable coverages through route combinations or mismatch-making formation wrinkles.”
In years past these concepts by the Bay were usually carried out by veterans like Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr. and Matt Breida, but neither of these backs had the ability to affect defensive gameplans both on the ground and through the air. Enter former Carolina Panther Christian McCaffrey, who three years ago became just the third back in NFL annals to have both 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season (Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig are the others). Acquired at the trade deadline in exchange for draft pick compensation, the explosive McCaffrey is arguably the most talented running back either Shanahan has ever had play in this scheme, and he and speedy backup Elijah Mitchell have wreaked havoc for the 49ers.
Handing the ball off to them usually has been quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. “Jimmy G”, as some like to call him, is a former backup to Tom Brady in New England and was acquired in 2017 for a second-round draft pick. When he’s been on the field Garoppolo has shown to be intelligent, decisive and accurate (especially in the play-action game, which creates defined reads for him) and possesses a quick release, and adequate arm strength. Yet he’s rarely healthy or consistent (and he’s once again out with an injury – this time a broken foot), prompting Shanahan to draft the physically gifted Trey Lance from North Dakota State.
The problem is Lance is also out after fracturing his ankle in September – forcing Shanahan to rely on rookie Brock Purdy. A seventh-round pick in April out of Iowa State (and 2022’s “Mr. Irrelevant”, aka the last selection of the draft), Purdy was steady and efficient while holding down the fort to the tune of a 13:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a completion percentage of 67.1. Purdy is also athletic and accurate, but he’s developed some bad habits as of late in retreating backwards and running to his left when under pressure.
San Francisco’s weapons in the passing game are dangerous. Three-time All-Pro tight end George Kittle has blossomed into one of the league’s best at his position and is dominant both in the receiving game and at the point of attack. Speedsters Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk are similar receivers – each are polished route runners, have good hands and are adept at picking up yards after the catch. They can also return punts in a pinch and are liberally used by Shanahan in jet and orbit motion to influence defenders’ responsibilities. Samuel has also emerged as a dangerous ballcarrier on reverses and end-arounds and will sometimes line up at running back (backups Jauan Jennings and Ray-Ray McCloud III sometimes get in on the action as well).
Similar to his predecessors, Shanahan will have his wide receivers, running backs and tight ends line up in unusual places in the formation to determine if defenses are playing man or zone coverage and will have his wide receivers stay inside the numbers to give them additional space to run routes and to serve as additional blockers. His scheme makes excellent use of shifts and motions (especially to create false reads and favorable angles in the running game) and the receivers’ pass patterns work well off one another with many intersecting routes at all three levels.
San Francisco had good production in 2022, finishing the season fifth in total yards, 13th in passing and eighth in rushing. Additionally, they were sixth in scoring.
SAN FRANCISCO’S DEFENSE A DESCENDENT OF SEATTLE’S
When Shanahan was hired by San Francisco he brought in Robert Saleh, a longtime protégé of Gus Bradley, as his defensive coordinator. Bradley was one of the original architects (along with Dan Quinn and Pete Carroll) of the Seattle Seahawks’ fabled Cover Three zone defensive scheme which they employed en route to back-to-back NFC championships and a Super Bowl title between 2013-14.
Saleh has since become the head coach of the New York Jets and his replacement is former assistant coach (and ex-linebacker) DeMeco Ryans. Ryans has kept the 49ers’ system intact and they ended 2022 first in total yards given up, second against the run, 20th versus the pass and first in points allowed (not to mention tied for 10th in sacks and first in interceptions). Their base coverage remains Cover Three – with deep zone coverage from the outside cornerbacks, one safety patrolling centerfield and another near the line of scrimmage – but they have added in more split safety zone coverages like Two, Four and Six to not get beaten by deep crossing patterns.
The prototype for Cover Three-style corners for years has been for them to have length and an ability to excel in press coverage – so the 49ers have made sure that three corners on their roster (Charvarius Ward, Dontae Johnson and Ambry Thomas) are at least 6’0”. Emmanuel Moseley, Deommodore Lenoir and Jason Verrett are also important cogs on this unit, but Verrett, Johnson and Moseley are all out with various injuries. Safety Jimmie Ward – who played multiple defensive back positions in his earlier years – is now the team’s nickel corner out of necessity, and Tashaun Gipson and Talanoa Hufanga are the starters on the back end.
The 49ers have an excellent pair of linebackers for their nickel packages in underrated sideline-to-sideline playmaker Dre Greenlaw and one of the league’s best in Fred Warner (Azzez Al-Shaair is the third linebacker). In front of them is one of the NFL’s elite defensive lines made up of Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw and Samson Ebukam.
The linemen are adept at controlling one or two gaps when defending the run, and Ryans – like Saleh before him – uses one or two of his linemen to two-gap while the rest of the front seven will control just one, which eliminates any potential holes for opposing running backs to go through. Ryans will also have his linemen liberally execute stunts, twists and slants to open up one-on-one opportunities in pass rush situations and especially out of five-man tilted fronts.
This year will see San Francisco play in their 18th NFC Championship Game all-time and their sixth in the last 12 years (and third in four seasons). They’ve also won 12 games in a row including playoffs, the second-longest streak in team annals (18 from 1989-90) and are vying to get to the Super Bowl for an eighth time.
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