NFL Conference Championship Stats Notebook: One key matchup will determine the winner of 49ers-Eagles

The Eagles allow the lowest passer rating and yards per attempt on throws to players lined up out wide in the NFL

The 49ers can throw a wave of high-end receiving talent at you. And they can do it in so many ways.

San Francisco featured multiple snaps with Deebo Samuel in the backfield and Christian McCaffrey out wide early in last week’s game. They came out with two-back sets and had Kyle Juszczyk assigned to the widest receiver positions to occupy Trevon Diggs in coverage on a big completion to George Kittle.

It’s the most unique, diverse offense in the NFL.

They are going to need some of that multiplicity this week against the Eagles. The outside areas of the field have turned into a no-fly zone for Philly's opposing passing games. Philly already has an absurd pass rush with 20 more sacks than any other team this year and four players recording double-digits. The fact that they also employ two star corners, James Bradberry and Darius Slay, is almost unfair.

Brock Purdy has been far more aggressive throwing deep and outside the numbers than his predecessor in this offense. Don’t expect him to try it much on Sunday. You just aren’t throwing into the teeth of this secondary with that pass rush bearing down on you.

Brock Purdy #13 of the San Francisco 49ers is an NFL quarterback
Brock Purdy could have his hands full against one of the best secondaries in the NFL. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

With slot corner Avonte Maddox banged up for Philly, that area has been a cause for concern. We’ve seen teams simply avoid the outside throws outside against the Eagles. The Giants didn’t get much done in the passing game last week but slot receiver Richie James did draw 10 targets. Maddox did practice for the first time in a month this week and could suit up. Even if he does, it’s hard to imagine Shanahan wanting his rookie passer to test Philly's outside corners too often in isolated coverage.

The good news for the 49ers is that most of their passing game flows over the middle of the field anyway. Purdy converted some big third downs late in the game last week when Shanahan emptied out the formation and Purdy could point and shoot over the middle. Purdy completed all five of his throws to the slot last week overall. One of them was a big third-down slant route from Brandon Aiyuk, who is typically their pure perimeter receiver.

We’ll have to see more creative deployment like that to get receivers like Aiyuk and Samuel free releases and lined up against slot defenders if the 49ers are going to score enough and, most importantly, keep Purdy from firing too often into the coverage of Slay and Bradberry under pressure.

The 49ers allow the lowest first downs per rush on first and second down this season

The skill positions players on both sides will put eyeballs on TV sets and butts in seats for the NFC championship game. Many fantasy football heroes from this season will take the field for both the 49ers and the Eagles.

That’s cute but I hate to tell you, this game will be won in the trenches.

The biggest strength-on-strength matchup will come when the Eagles have the ball and try to establish the run. Only one running back has gone over 60 yards against the 49ers all year and it took Josh Jacobs until overtime to get it done late in the regular season. Those wide-open rushing lanes the Eagles found against the Giants last week won’t be there. Philadelphia averaged a beefy 6.2 yards per carry without including any of Jalen Hurts’ rushing work.

The Eagles have a good stable of backs but their rushing dynamism comes on the back of a well-executed scheme and the best offensive line in the league.

No one pushes around a front seven or moves like a pack of nimble bears like this unit does, led by Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson. The Eagles rank sixth in Football Outsiders adjusted line yards overall but lead the NFL in “second-level” line yards. That’s where this unit is so dangerous. When you get hefty but quick guys like these on the second level, perfectly executing blocks, that’s when five-yard runs turn into 10 or 15-yard bangers.

If Philadelphia can push a previously unmovable San Francisco defense around, they’ll win this game. It doesn’t matter how great any skill position players are; they can win this game straight up in the trenches. Despite the 49ers' greatness up front, it can be done with Kelce and the boys in tow.

And speaking of the Kelces ...

The Bengals rank sixth-best in defensive success rate on throws to tight ends

I can’t shake the image of the Chiefs wide receivers letting them down in a big game. It’s been a nightmare scenario haunting my brain essentially from the dawn of the season. The lack of downfield dynamism from JuJu Smith-Schuster, the lack of outside separation from Marquez Valdes-Scantling or Justin Watson, the myth-making of Kadarius Toney as anything more than a gadget player — can we really trust this group not to leave opportunities on the field in a massive game?

The best way to avoid any of that is to continue featuring Travis Kelce as the frontman of the passing game.

Last week, Kelce inhaled 48.6% of the targets from both Chiefs’ quarterbacks. Half of the passing game simply flowed through the dynamic tight end. With Patrick Mahomes’ scrambling ability possibly compromised, it would make sense to continue to lean on Kelce in the quick passing game.

Bengals' defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has been at the forefront of innovative defensive football in today’s game. He mixes up game plans week to week — and sometimes even quarter-to-quarter.

Cincinnati has been great at defending tight ends all year. They even held Kelce to 56 yards on four catches in their regular season matchup. The Bengals have a varied and dynamic safety combination and even used big cornerback Tre Flowers as a pseudo-tight-end eraser at times this year. Against the Bills last week, rookie safety Dax Hill moved to cornerback with Flowers out of the mix and was in coverage for a crucial third down stop on a Dawson Knox target.

Stopping tight ends with such high success is just one of the ways Anarumo’s defense gives this unit an edge against some of the best passing games in the NFL.

Kelce hasn’t gone under 95 yards in a playoff game since 2019. Slowing him down will prove a more difficult path than ever for the Bengals and Anarumo, now that Kelce’s more of an offensive gravitational force than ever. If we see a banged-up Mahomes getting the ball successfully to Kelce on stop routes and intermediate targets in big windows all day, the Chiefs can get the Cincy monkey off their back.

If they can’t feature their best pass-catcher by far, they’ll risk falling to this team in the AFC title game for the second straight season.

The Chiefs have the second-best early-down pressure rate when playing zone coverage

The Bengals' backup-laden offensive line didn’t just survive in Buffalo last week, they thrived. They consistently pushed the Bills around in the run game and Joe Burrow was under pressure on a measly 12 dropbacks.

It was supposed to be a weakness. It ended up being a huge reason they won that divisional round matchup. I know it seems like reductive analysis but it’s hard to avoid the Bengals offensive line as a key to the game this week once again.

The dirty secret about the Bills' defense: It’s not as good as you think. Most of their investments up front, (and they’ve made plenty of them) haven’t worked out to the degree you’d expect. Buffalo is around the middle of the pack in pressure rate and quarterback hurry rate.

Meanwhile, Kansas City is among the top-ranked teams in pressuring the quarterback, especially on crucial early downs when playing zone coverage.

Chris Jones has had a verifiable Defensive Player of the Year type of campaign. He won’t win the award but he’s been fantastic this season, clearing any other interior distributor this year. They have some guys on the edge, as well. Rookie George Karlaftis led the team in pressures, per PFF, while Frank Clark led the way in hits, and they got some good snaps out of Carlos Dunlap too.

Those guys, especially Jones, disrupting the Bengals' passing game on early downs will be critical. For all the praise heaped on Lou Anarumo, Steve Spagnuolo has long been a game plan-based coach for the Chiefs when the playoffs arrive, like multi-layered zone coverages with a press on the line to take away some of the seemingly unstoppable Jamar Chase stop routes. If they can throw off the route timing as Buffalo so badly failed to do, then some of these pass rushers can get home.

Burrow has gotten so much better at not taking sacks this season. That’s the mark of true quarterback growth for this superstar passer. The Chiefs need to get him back into old habits this weekend.

Keeping the Bengals in third-and-long situations isn’t a guarantee of success. No team can flip the field with big plays in high-leverage situations like Burrow, Chase, Higgins and Co. However, it’s better than getting nickel and dimed to death the way Buffalo was last week.

Getting early down pressure and not giving Burrow the same looks every snap will be crucial to the Chiefs getting by in this game. It won’t work every drive; the Bengals will get theirs. You just have to have a few more good moments than bad ones over the course of the game if you’re Spags and the Chiefs' stop unit.

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