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Elite Defense and O-Line Can Lift 49ers Past NFC's Best in the Playoffs

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxCorrespondent IDecember 16, 2022

49ers DE Nick Bosa
49ers DE Nick BosaSteph Chambers/Getty Images

There's a perception in today's NFL that a team cannot make a legitimate Super Bowl run without an elite quarterback. Well, the San Francisco 49ers are poised to put that theory to the test.

San Francisco is now on its third starting quarterback of the season. Yet, as the 49ers showed once again on Thursday night, their defense and offensive line are strong enough to challenge the best the NFC has to offer.

Are the Seattle Seahawks among the conference's best? No, but the 7-7 Seahawks aren't pushovers either. Thursday's game was a tough, physical divisional battle that San Francisco faced in a hostile environment. While the 49ers didn't exactly make it look easy, they dominated in the trenches, forced mistakes on defense and delivered a decisive 21-13 victory.

The 49ers have now won seven in a row and are as hot as any team in the NFL. They continue rolling with that aforementioned third-string quarterback.

Let's talk about rookie quarterback Brock Purdy for a moment, because he is one of the top stories in San Francisco right now. Taken with the 262nd and final pick of 2022, Purdy was Mr. Irrelevant on draft weekend and largely unknown in Week 1.

Starter and 2021 third-overall pick Trey Lance suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2. Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a season-ending foot injury two weeks ago, which handed the keys to Purdy.

In his two-plus games since, Purdy has done nothing to disappoint. Against Seattle, he finished 17-of-26 for 217 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for a key first down on San Francisco's final drive. He did it all without one of the 49ers' best players in wideout Deebo Samuel.

More importantly, the rookie has shown poise, accuracy, a solid understanding of Kyle Shanahan's offense and an ability to push the ball down the field. Just check out this play from Thursday, during which Purdy surveys the field, works through his progressions and finds tight end George Kittle breaking loose in the secondary.

49ers on NBCS @NBCS49ers

GEORGE KITTLE AGAIN 😱 <a href="https://t.co/k54u1Viu4g">pic.twitter.com/k54u1Viu4g</a>

That was Purdy's second touchdown pass to Kittle of the game. The first came as the result of some very creative play design by Shanahan.

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

BROCK PURDY HIT EM WITH THE DOUBLE FAKE 😮<br><br>(via <a href="https://twitter.com/NFL?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@nfl</a>)<a href="https://t.co/NwtxHd4ftN">pic.twitter.com/NwtxHd4ftN</a>

The bottom line is that anyone high on the 49ers a couple of weeks ago when Garoppolo was healthy should still be extremely high on them—even with Mr. Irrelevant running the offense.

And plenty of folks should be high on the 49ers because of their defense, their running game and their offensive line.

The line, headlined by All-Pro Trent Williams, can open holes for in-season trade acquisition Christian McCaffrey. The former Carolina Panthers star has become a force in San Francisco and came into Thursday's game with 426 rushing yards, 316 receiving yards and six touchdowns.

Against Seattle, McCaffrey rumbled for 108 rushing yards, 30 receiving yards and a touchdown.

That line helped pave the way for a ground-oriented nine-play, 71-yard drive at the end of the game to chew up the final 3:35 and seal the win.

The line can also give Purdy time in the pocket to survey the field, which is critical in a passing attack predicated on spacing. Shanahan doesn't rely heavily on timing patterns but rather utilizes the threat of the run and route patterns to get receivers open.

Prime Video Sports Analytics & Insights @PVSportsStats

Brock Purdy has thrown 62% of his passes to open receivers tonight. HC Kyle Shanahan has drawn up a great game plan to make it easy for his rookie QB and SF is in control

If Purdy has the time to see receivers breaking open, he's shown that he can be dangerous. The 49ers are loaded with offensive playmakers, and they're expected to have Samuel back at some point in the postseason.

The 49ers expect Samuel "to return at some point during the regular season," according to ESPN's Nick Wagoner.

Purdy has shown that he can get the ball to those playmakers.

Prime Video Sports Analytics & Insights @PVSportsStats

Brock Purdy has found his TEs and RBs tonight with great success. He's 11/14 for 89 yards &amp; 2 TDs. their EPA/TGT is 0.43, an extremely efficient number when measuring how successful these throws have been in helping SF score

Then, there's the defense, which has been dominant since giving up 44 points to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 7. Since then, San Francisco has not surrendered more than 17 points in any game.

Coming into Thursday, the 49ers ranked first in rushing yards allowed, 12th in passing yards allowed, first in total yards allowed and first in points allowed for the season.

This elite defense—headlined by Nick Bosa, Dre Greenlaw and Fred Warner—gives San Francisco a big margin for error, almost regardless of who is under center.

This margin, San Francisco's ability to protect the passer (24 sacks allowed on the season) and its ability to run the ball are exactly why the 49ers can get past teams like the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs.

The Eagles, who own an NFL-best 12-1 record, have been spectacular. However, they've thrived on racking up points (first in scoring), getting sacks (49) and forcing turnovers on defense (23).

Philadelphia also ranks a modest 24th in yards per rush allowed (4.7).

Dallas is a similarly built team, ranking third in scoring, third in points allowed, logging 48 sacks and amassing 23 defensive turnovers—but also allowing 4.4 yards per play on the ground.

While Jalen Hurts and Dak Prescott may give the Eagles and Cowboys the edge at quarterback, respectively, San Francisco matches up extremely well with both the Eagles and the Cowboys. The Minnesota Vikings, who are 10-3 but are also a largely offensive squad, are an even better matchup for the 49ers.

Minnesota ranks 10th in scoring but dead-last in yards allowed and 24th in points allowed. That's not a formula that plays well against a 49ers defense that limits points, especially in the second half.

PFF @PFF

The 49ers' defense has been DOMINANT <a href="https://t.co/4vYtNrrEUG">pic.twitter.com/4vYtNrrEUG</a>

San Francisco did allow 10 second-half points to Seattle, but it's worth noting that starting cornerback Charvarius Ward exited with an injury before the Seahawks found their first touchdown.

According to the Amazon broadcast, Ward exited for a concussion evaluation and was cleared but did not return. Before that, he was spectacular against star Seahawks wideout DK Metcalf.

Next Gen Stats @NextGenStats

Charvarius Ward aligned across from DK Metcalf on 25 of 35 routes (71% shadow) in the first three quarters before leaving the game with an injury.<br><br>Ward forced 3 tight windows on 6 targets in coverage against Metcalf, allowing 4 receptions for 33 yards.<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/SFvsSEA?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#SFvsSEA</a> | <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/FTTB?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#FTTB</a> <a href="https://t.co/pK4Raqkmbs">pic.twitter.com/pK4Raqkmbs</a>

Seattle was still held to 277 total yards and 16 first downs while converting just four of 13 third-down tries. Rookie sensation Kenneth Walker III was held to just 3.9 yards per carry after averaging 4.7 coming in.

Geno Smith was sacked three times and faced constant pressure throughout the game.

Now, before we prematurely crown the 49ers as Super Bowl favorites, it's worth noting one big fact. We haven't seen how Purdy performs when facing a significant deficit. There's a difference between being a reliable game-manager and being a signal-caller who can spark a comeback.

Of course, with this defense and offensive line, the 49ers may not face a large deficit again before this year—at least until Super Bowl LVII, if they get that far.

The 49ers' formula of winning in the trenches, with defense and on the ground has taken them to two NFC title games in the past three years. There's every reason to believe it can take them to a third in the coming months.