Anticipating the Worst: How the Eagles Could Beat the 49ers and How to Keep it From Happening
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After barely escaping their Week 1 game against the Detroit Lions alive, the San Francisco 49ers square off against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2. It would be more accurate to say the team “survived,” but not all of its players did. Lead running back Raheem Mostert lasted just four plays before he suffered a season-ending knee injury. Cornerback Jason Verrett, whom the 49ers hoped to lead their secondary in 2021, is lost for the season as well. This happens every season to NFL teams, but on the heels of a historically injury-plagued 2020 season, 49ers fans are starting to develop the yips.
Verrett leaves bigger shoes to fill and that causes more concern for the game against the Eagles. Verrett was the 49ers’ CB1, and the drop off from him to CB3 is quite a bit larger than Mostert to the rest of the 49ers backfield. These aren’t the only two concerns for the 49ers this coming Sunday. This Eagles game has become more difficult in the wake of losing Mostert and Verrett, but it was never going to be that easy.
The Mobile Quarterback Issue
Eagles starting quarterback Jalen Hurts is athletic. Mobile quarterbacks are something the 49ers’ defense has had trouble defending since the Kyle Shanahan regime took over. Now, this is not to say that mobile QBs don’t give all defenses fits. It is one of the reasons general manager John Lynch traded three draft picks to get Trey Lance. It’s just that the 49ers’ defensive line has done such an amazing job against stationary QBs that mobile QBs look like such a problem. How do the 49ers overcome this problem? It’s pretty simple really.
All they have to do is continue to do what they have been doing. Hurts is coming off his best game of his career, in which he completed 77.1 percent of his 35 attempts for 264 yards and three touchdowns touchdowns. He also rushed the ball seven times for 62 yards. He did all this against Atlanta’s Swiss cheese defense, though. What this all means is that Hurts accounted for 74.5 percent of the Eagles’Week 1 offensive yards. If the 49ers’ defensive line and linebackers can stay in their lanes and win their individual battles, they should be able to lower those numbers.
The 49ers need edge rushers Dee Ford and Nick Bosa to meet in the middle of the Eagles’ pocket on a regular basis. The Falcons aren’t even close to as talented on the defensive side of the ball as the 49ers are. With their ability to rotate defensive tackles and defensive ends, keeping their line fresh and aggressive, the Niners should be able to wear out the Eagles’ offensive line. If the line minds their gaps and stay in their lanes, it will allow the 49ers’ two very talented linebackers (Fred Warner and Azeez Al-Shaair. Dre Greenlaw has been ruled out with a groin injury.) to clean up any off-script rushing attempts Hurts takes. As far as defending the read-options plays the Eagles will employ, it again comes down to the defenders being disciplined and keeping to their roles. If the line can absorb the blockers and allow the linebacker to make their plays, the Eagles offense will find itself in lots of third-and-long situations. That’s when players like Bosa and Ford can tee off on Hurts.
The DeVonta Smith Problem
Smith, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, had a good debut game. He took his first catch for a touchdown, and had the most yards in a debut game since DeSean Jackson first suited up for the Eagles. Smith is really the first Eagles WR that will scare defenses since Jackson was torching defenses on long bombs. After lining up on 87 percent of the Eagles’Week 1 offensive snaps, it’s quite obvious that Smith is going to be the focal point of the Eagles passing game.
With the ability to line up in the slot and outside, expect the Eagles to move Smith around in an attempt to create mismatches in the not so deep 49ers’ secondary. 49ers’ defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans probably hopes the Eagles will line Smith up in the slot more than outside, allowing top slot cornerback K’Waun Williams to go one on one with him. The 49ers will not be able to completely shut down the ultra-athletic Smith, but if they can neutralize his impact, they will be able to slow an Eagles’ attack that feasted on the overmatched Atlanta Falcons.
The rookies in the secondary (Deommodore Lenoir, Ambry Thomas, and Talanoa Hufanga) will need to step up this week. Shanahan has not told anyone who will be starting in place of Jason Verrett, but they have brought in journeyman players like Dre Kirkpatrick and Josh Norman recently to help fill the role. Whomever sees the bulk of snaps – and it looks like Lenoir will get the first opportunity – needs to find a way to knock Smith off his routes and cause Hurts to hold onto the ball longer than he wants, giving the front seven the opportunity to bring Hurts down or force him to move onto his second or third options.
The Winning Formula
It’s possible that the Falcons’ defense made the Eagles offense look more dynamic than it was, but it is also possible that Hurts is ready to ascend to a top offensive threat in the NFL. The 49ers’s offense looked like the best unit in the NFL over the first two quarters against the Lions. Shanahan’s run game can be legendary, and the 49ers will need to employ an abusive ground attack against the Eagles. Whether this means sprinkling in more Trey Lance snaps to keep the defensive players questioning what’s coming next, or rotating rookies Elijah Mitchell and Trey Sermon along with second-year back JaMycal Hastyto keep fresh legs churning.
If the 49ers can control the line of scrimmage and get their tight ends and fullback Kyle Juszczyk to the second level, the team will be able to ground and pound their way to keeping Hurts and the Eagles’ offense off the field. This will force the Eagles to push their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, opening up the play-action bootleg pass. The second part of that equation is quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo continuing what he did last week against the Lions, connecting with receivers like Deebo Samuel and allowing them to rack up the yards-after-catch.
The team will also need output from Brandon Aiyuk this week after he was shut out by the 49ers’ play calling in Week 1. If George Kittle can be dominant over the middle of the field as a pass catcher, and continue to pancake players in the run game, the offense should be able to keep third downs manageable and convert them. With the offense winning time of possession and not turning the ball over, the defense doesn’t have to be special. They just need to play their roles and not let an individual mistake lose it for them.
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