Sunday’s NFC Championship Game could be as simple as that. It could very well come down to how much the Eagles’ front four is able to unnerve Brock Purdy and force him into mistakes.
Purdy, the 262nd and last pick in the 2022 draft, has displayed the poise of a 10-year veteran since being thrown into the fire in early December after Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a foot injury. But he hasn’t faced a pass rush as fierce as the one the Eagles will throw at him Sunday and he hasn’t played in front of a crowd as intimidating as the folks who will be saying howdy to him at the Linc.
The Niners have won all seven of Purdy’s starts, including a pair of playoff wins over Seattle and Dallas. He has a 111.4 passer rating in those eight games, including a 66.8 completion percentage, an 8.4 yards-per-attempt average, 16 touchdown passes, and just three interceptions.
But Sunday will be only his third time on the road since he became the Niners’ starter. Seattle and Las Vegas can be loud and unfriendly. But the Linc, well, it can best be likened to walking through the gates of hell for visiting teams and their quarterbacks.
Jonathan Gannon’s defense has been merciless on quarterbacks, both young and old. Their 70 regular-season sacks were the third most since the league officially started keeping track of sacks 40 years ago. They had five in last week’s divisional playoff win over the Giants. In their last seven games, they’ve amassed an astounding 39 sacks.
Eighteen of those 39 have been on third and fourth downs.
But Purdy isn’t easy to sack. He’s been taken down just 14 times in his eight starts. He has a pretty good offensive line in front of him, including All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams, and has the mobility to elude a rush and extend plays.
His 3.12-second snap-to-release time in the Niners’ two playoff games is the highest of any quarterback in the postseason. Yet, he’s been sacked only three times in the last two weeks. That speaks to the time he’s been given to throw by his line.
Purdy doesn’t run very often – he had just 22 rushing attempts for 13 yards in the regular season and has seven carries for 24 yards in the Niners’ two playoff wins.
The bottom line Sunday is that the Eagles need to pressure Purdy. If they can’t, if the Niners’ run game is able to slow down the pass rush and Purdy has time to find Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle, it could be a long day for the Eagles. But not many teams have been able to slow down their pass rush lately, particularly on third down.
Purdy has a 132.4 third-down passer rating. That’s the best in the league. Numero uno. He’s completed 72.0% of his passes, thrown for six touchdowns, and been sacked just four times on 52 third-down pass plays.
But a league-high 32 of the Eagles’ 70 regular-season sacks were on third down. Two more came on fourth down. Nine of Haasan Reddick’s 16 sacks in the regular season came on third down. Defensive tackles Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox combined for 18 sacks in the regular season. Eleven of them were on third down. So, don’t run to the bathroom on third down Sunday.
Hargrave and Cox need to have big games. They need to get inside pressure on Purdy and force him into the laps of Reddick and Josh Sweat and Brandon Graham. If the Niners’ offensive line has a soft spot, it’s inside. Right guard Spencer Burford is a rookie. Left guard Aaron Banks is in his second year. Center Jake Brendel had three starts in four years before becoming the starter this season.
Purdy was under pressure on just 31.9% of his dropbacks in his six regular-season starts. That was the 10th-best pressure percentage in the league in those six games. His pressure percentage in the Niners’ first two playoff games is 36.4. He’s completed just 7 of 19 passes in the postseason when under pressure.
The Eagles’ defense has the highest pressure percentage of any of the four teams still in the playoffs (25.5). The Chiefs is 24.9, the Niners 22.9, and the Bengals 22.4.
Run, Eagles, run
–The Eagles’ 268 rushing yards against the Giants were their second most this season. They rushed for 363 yards in their 40-33 Week 12 win over the Packers. But they’ll be facing a much better run defense Sunday. The Giants were 27th in rushing yards allowed per game this season (144.2). The Packers were 26th (139.5). The Niners were second (77.7). They held the Cowboys to 76 yards on 22 carries last week. The week before in the wild-card round, they held the Seahawks and their offensive rookie of the year candidate Kenneth Walker III to 104 yards on 25 carries. The Seahawks were just the fifth team this season to rush for 100 or more yards against the Niners. The Falcons had 168, the Raiders 135, the Chiefs 112, and the Broncos 101. The Niners lost three of those games (to the Falcons, Chiefs, and Broncos).
–The Eagles had 17 rushing first downs against the Giants. Kenny Gainwell had a team-high seven on 12 carries (for 112 yards). It was the first 100-yard rushing game of his career. Jalen Hurts led the Eagles in rushing first downs during the regular season with 67, followed by Miles Sanders with 62, Gainwell with 17, and Boston Scott with 12.
–The Eagles had 10 runs of 10 or more yards against the Giants. Gainwell had five of them, followed by Sanders with four and Scott with one. They had 74 runs of 10-plus yards during the regular season. That was tied with the Giants for the fourth most in the league behind Baltimore (88), Chicago (81), and Cleveland (77). That’s the good news. The bad news: the Niners allowed just 23 runs of 10 yards or more in the regular season. That was the fewest in the league. The Ravens were a distant second with 35.
–Opposing quarterbacks have averaged just 3.3 yards per carry (226 yards on 68 carries) against the Niners this season. The Falcons’ Marcus Mariota rushed for 50 yards on six carries against them in Week 6 (28-14 Atlanta win), and the Raiders’ Jarrett Stidham had 34 yards on seven carries in a three-point Niner win in Week 17. Justin Fields had just 28 yards on 11 carries in the Bears’ Week 1 loss to San Francisco.
–Thirty-six of the Eagles’ 69 plays against the Giants last week were with 12- or 13-personnel. That includes 17 of 43 first-half plays. The Eagles went with more heavy personnel packages than usual to aid their running game. It’s also why their fourth wide receiver, Zac Pascal, played 24 snaps, which was his third most snaps in the last 16 games. With the possible exception of A.J. Brown, Pascal is their best blocking wideout.
–One hundred forty-three of the Eagles’ 268 rushing yards against the Giants came with 12- or 13-personnel on the field. That’s the second most this season. In their Week 14 win over the Giants, 173 of their 253 rushing yards were with multiple-tight end sets.
–In the Eagles’ last meeting with the Niners – a 17-11 Week 2 loss last season, the Eagles went mostly with 11 personnel. Used 11P on 41 of 55 plays (74.5%). Used 12P eight times and 13P six times. They rushed for 137 yards on 20 carries out of 11P, including 82 yards on eight carries by Jalen Hurts.
–Hurts was 9-for-15 for 70 yards and one touchdown with 11P against the Giants last week. He was 6-for-8 for 61 yards with one TD with 12P and 1-for-1 for 23 yards with 13P.
More numbers that matter
–The Eagles blitzed on eight of 32 pass plays against the Giants. They also used zone blitzes a handful of times. Sent five players on seven of their blitzes and six on the other. Just one of their five sacks against the Giants came on a blitz. That was Haason Reddick’s first-quarter sack. He also split a first-quarter sack with Josh Sweat on a four-man rush. Of the Eagles’ 43 sacks in their last nine games, just seven have been on blitzes.
–Eagles receivers had a total of 24 dropped passes in the regular season. That was tied for the seventh-fewest in the league.
–The Eagles’ defense will face a major challenge from Niners tight end George Kittle Sunday. But they’ve done a good job against opposing tight ends this season. After giving up 13 TDs to tight ends last season, they’ve allowed just three this season, and none in the last 10 games.
–The Eagles have scored on their first possession in nine of the last 12 games. They’ve given up points on their opponent’s first possession once in the last eight games and just four times all season.