Dan Campbell’s Detroit Lions are leaving the friendly confines of Ford Field to face their toughest task yet: the No. 1 seed San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, the site for this year’s NFC Championship game.
As always, we would never pass up the opportunity to get some intel from the opponent’s perspective. Ahead of this matchup between the Lions and 49ers, we called on Ryan Bainbridge from NinersNation.com to give us some insight into what makes this San Francisco offense such a juggernaut, the misconceptions surrounding Brock Purdy, the challenge linebacker Fred Warner presents for opposing offenses, what sort of difference Chase Young has made since being acquired at the NFL’s trade deadline, and what Deebo Samuel’s health status could mean for your betting slip this weekend.
Finishing the regular season with the ninth-best offense DVOA (31.8%) since 1981, this 49ers offense is one of the best we’ve ever seen in the NFL. In fact, it’s the greatest San Francisco offense in the franchise’s storied history according to the DVOA statistic.
What is it about this offense this year that helped catapult it to unprecedented heights in the Kyle Shanahan era?
First off, it starts with the quarterback. I know Purdy’s abilities and success is a topic of hot discussion, but what he brings to the offense is not something we have had in the Kyle Shanahan offense. The skill players are obviously an incredible bunch and Shanahan has created a scheme to get the ball in their hands. But Purdy’s ability to create when plays break down has given the offense an extra layer. His decision making, and ability to diagnose pre-and post- snap has gotten the offense out of jams countless times.
This offense is able to sustain long drives AND now has the explosive play variable when pushing the ball deep. Again, that is not something that existed with Jimmy G (or any other recent 49ers QBs) under center. It should be noted too that for as dynamic as the offense is, the offensive line has not been the best iteration of the unit in the Shanahan era. Purdy’s quickness and pocket presence has helped hide some of the blemishes up front, especially in the passing game. But of course, this side of the ball is at its best when the running game is executing at a high level and having a guy like Christian McCaffrey makes that possible almost every down. He has been a true difference maker this season and deserves plenty of recognition and praise, too.
Brock Purdy had one helluva season full-time quarterbacking this offense from the jump. The national opinions on Purdy’s attributes and abilities range from “MVP” to “right place at the right time.”
What are some misconceptions about his game, what is Purdy’s quarterback superpower, and how has that helped this offense reach the heights it has this season?
To continue a bit from the first answer, one of the general misconceptions about Purdy is that he is throwing a bunch of screens and checkdowns and accumulating stats on the back of yards after the catch. Are the 49ers the best YAC team in the league? Probably. But Purdy led the league in air yards per attempt. The percentage of his passing yards that is a result of YAC is about the same percentage as the past few MVP’s seasons (and lower than Mahomes rate in 2022). So while there is an element of added juice to his numbers from the skill players around him, it isn’t an outlier when compared to other elite quarterback seasons.
49ers fans aren’t blind. We see the differences in skillsets between Purdy and guys like Mahomes and Allen. We don’t even try to compare athletic abilities. But we do find it odd that other fan bases try so hard to discredit his MVP-level production this season just because he doesn’t have the arm or athleticism of the other top guys in the league. His superpower isn’t like their superpowers, and that’s okay. What Purdy does do at an elite level is mental processing. For a 24-year old to exhibit the composure and confidence to know what to do before and after the ball is snapped in this offense is really remarkable. Pressure doesn’t get to him and he makes his reads and progressions like a 10-year veteran. And he won’t get credit for it because it’s this intangible thing, but 49ers fans know that every time Purdy lines up to take the snap, we trust whatever comes next. Against the blitz. In the red zone. On third down. You name it, Purdy is prepared to handle it.
Fred Warner is the prototype/unicorn at linebacker for a modern defense: a three-down player who doesn’t come off the field because of the down and distance. He plays the run (90.7 run defense grade) and the pass (83.3 coverage grade) unlike any other guy at his position in the league.
What kind of possibilities does Warner’s abilities open up for this San Francisco defense?
In years past, you could point to the 49ers front four and claim that was the reason the defense was so dominant. They were able to generate pressure constantly and it forced opposing offenses to rely on a quicker passing game which let the secondary take more chances. This year that has not been the case. Instead it’s the pass coverage that is leading the defense. And at the middle of that is Warner, who seems to always know what the opponent wants to do and is able to take it away. Throwing in the middle of the field against Warner is a dangerous game. He can run with wide receivers in the slot and is physical enough with tight ends and running backs that there really is no mismatch when he drops back. In the running game, he commits quickly, which is a result of diligent film study and trusting his cues. There just aren’t many weaknesses to Warner’s game and it allows everyone else on the defense to play much looser.
Detroit’s defense has been starving for a pass-rush threat opposite of Aidan Hutchinson all season, and many fans were left scratching their heads at the trade deadline when the Lions stood pat. Meanwhile, the 49ers went out and added Chase Young for a relatively low price tag.
Can you boil down the impact Young had on the 49ers defense in the second half of the season, and maybe touch on one of the few statistical weaknesses exhibited by this group: their 15th-ranked DVOA run defense?
Young has been solid since coming to San Francisco midyear. It was a low-risk, high-reward trade for San Francisco which has shown mixed results. Young isn’t as explosive as he was expected to be coming out of Ohio State in 2020. While he has some flashes of speed-to-power rush ability, overall he hasn’t provided the impact the San Francisco defense needed opposite Bosa. Young nabbed only 2.5 sacks in 8 games with the Niners. What hurts even more is that Young hasn’t proven to be a commodity against the run. He posted one PFF run defense grade over 70.0 in his time with San Francisco, and was credited with 8 ‘stops.’ He had 13 stops while in Washington for the first half of the season. It’s not that Young isn’t a welcomed addition that may get better as he gets more comfortable in the 49ers defensive system. It’s just that we were hoping for another Nick Bosa and got more of what was already on the roster.
With that being said, Young hasn’t been the only one struggling against the run. Teams have been very efficient this season running on San Francisco and it’s hard to pinpoint why. The linebackers are really strong in pursuit and it doesn’t feel like they are out of position. But the defensive line is getting very little push, especially on the interior, and the secondary has been very inconsistent in support and tackling. Last week’s Divisional matchup against the Packers showed that explosive running teams (like Detroit) will find success on the ground if they stick to it. Which is worrisome heading into the Championship game.
Each week, I’ve asked other writers about any sort of wisdom they’d share for the week’s game, but I have to shoehorn the topic of Deebo Samuel’s health ahead of this NFC Conference Championship game into this question because DraftKings makes the rules.
If Deebo can’t go, how different does San Francisco’s offense look, who do you think gets the extra attention in this game, and how can a gambling Lions fan capitalize on this with their bet slip for the NFC Conference Championship?
We have seen this season that the 49ers offense is much less dynamic without Deebo on the field. Kyle Shanahan hadn’t done much to adapt to Samuel’s absence last week, and after the injury was still calling plays for his ‘role’ that ended up in touches for Ray-Ray McCloud and Jauan Jennings. Nothing against those players, but it’s not the same variable by a long shot. If Deebo can’t go this week, I think there is reason to suggest Shanahan will focus more on the running game with McCaffery and hopefully add in some snaps for Elijah Mitchell, potentially getting both backs on the field at the same time. But Detroit’s pass defense would be wise to send extra coverage to Brandon Aiyuk. He was shut down a bit last week after Deebo’s departure, in large part to Green Bay’s extra eyes on the first time all-pro receiver.
The spread for this game stands at San Francisco (-7). It’s hard not to feel a bit anxious about facing the Lions offense. They can win from all over the field and have the playmakers to make you pay for bad tackling or missed assignments, which plagued the Niners in the Divisional round. But, I still like the 49ers offense to find a rhythm in this game and put up a ton of points. If the defense can make Goff uncomfortable just once or twice, and either force a turnover or punt, it could be the difference in this game. I will take the Home Team and the points and hope to see the Scarlet and Gold in Vegas for the big game.