Eagles primed to exploit a major weakness in the 49ers defense

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Miles Sanders
MIAMI GARDENS, FL – DECEMBER 01: Philadelphia Eagles Running Back Miles Sanders (26) runs with ball to score a touchdown during the NFL game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Miami Dolphins at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida on December 1, 2019. (Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire)

If there was one major takeaway from the Eagles’ playoff matchup against the New York Giants, it was the success of Philadelphia’s 4-headed rushing attack. Miles Sanders and Kenny Gainwell led what looked to be an unstoppable ground game all the way to victory, silencing rumors that the Eagles offense might start the playoffs looking disjointed. While the performance of Jalen Hurts may very well tip the scales, the road to another Super Bowl appearance will be paved by the ground attack.

Eagles facing a much tougher opponent this weekend, but there is an edge…

Unfortunately for the Eagles, they will face a vaunted 49ers defense that ranks second in rushing yards allowed and yards per carry, and has allowed the least first downs and lowest first down percentage in the league. That is a stark contrast from a Giants team that finished last in the league in first down rushing percentage.

Still, the running game will prove essential, not only in its ability to open up the passing attack, but controlling the clock. It is no secret that the m.o. to beating the Eagles in the regular season was time of possession. That is why the Washington Commanders, who led the league in time of possession, were able to hand Philadelphia their first loss of the season. However, second on that list is the San Francisco 49ers.

The 49ers lost the possession battle in losses to Denver, Atlanta and their overtime victory against the Raiders. It is not to say they cannot be beaten without controlling the clock, but the Chiefs were the only team to do so since week 1 of the season. Plus, we all know how dominant the Eagles can be when they control the T.O.P.

The Eagles need to attack this glaring weakness

All of this is easier said than done when considering just how good San Fran has been against the run. Luckily for the Eagles, the glaring hole in the 49ers defense was just exacerbated. While Nick Bosa is an absolute game-wrecker, even when you try to run away from him, the other side of the San Francisco defensive line is in another category and they will likely be missing Charles Omenihu who has played 53% of the snaps on the right side of the line.

While runs towards Bosa result in an average gain of under 3 yards (2nd in the NFL), running backs gain to the tune of 5+ yards per carry when running outside of the tackles to the right (27th in the NFL). With Samson Ebukam now thrust into a full-time starting role, he will have his work cut out for him.

Left EndLT TackleMidRight TKLRight End
Football Outsiders

As you can see from the charts below, the Eagles found a number of ways to attack the exterior of the Giants defensive line. One of the reasons they are so dangerous is the threat of the run option with Jalen Hurts. In doing so they are able to force defensive lines to keep their lateral integrity on the backside.

The reason why this is so important is because one of the easiest ways to shut down outside runs is to set the edge on the play side and “chase” with the backside end. Instead, teams that play Philly generally use a shuffle technique with their ends, which allows them to stay home and read the mesh point. Therefore, in most cases they are out-leveraged to the play side, resulting in carry charts like the ones below.

Alternatively, teams can chase with the backside end and require their linebackers to maintain outside contain. This is what the Bucs did against the Eagles in the playoffs last season. The adjustment this season was to call more QB designed runs, with the RB serving as the lead blocker. Particularly, Sirianni and Steichen have leaned on QB draws, like the one below:

Sirianni & Steichen ned to get creative

Regardless of whether or not the QB designed run is called a draw or a power, as you can see above, the defense is out-leveraged in their gap assignments. Teams have one of two options: ask their middle linebacker to keep pace with Jalen Hurts, which is a difficult ask — although Fred Warner may be the one MLB in the league that’s up to the task — or play zone.

The other adjustment the Eagles can make if the 49ers decide to chase with Bosa and assign an LB to the C or D gap (outside the last man), is to use RPOs and quick play action passes to take advantage of the space voided by the LB. Again, we saw multiple examples of this against New York this past weekend.

Caked into every RPO read is a zone beater concept – as LBs will have a gap assignment in the run game and a zone to cover against the pass. Again we see the benefit of getting the run going early and often. The 49ers play zone more than most teams (approximately 80% of the time according to PFF), so expect to see the Eagles build off their rushing stable and attack zone coverage by using a mix of RPO and zone beater quick passing concepts. They will also likely target the right side of the defensive line with outside zone and keep Nick Bosa honest by running a read option to the backside.

Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire