The 2021 regular season is in the books as the NFL’s wild ride moves into Wild Card Weekend. With seven teams from each conference making the playoffs for the first time in history, 14 teams have Super Bowl aspirations. Two of the most fascinating games this week are a Week 6 rematch between the Philadelphia Eagles and the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers along with a rekindling of the legendary rivalry between the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys. The Eagles and 49ers are both very intriguing road underdogs and it wouldn’t surprise me if either team emerged victorious after this week.
Philadelphia’s ceiling is greatly dependent on the play of quarterback Jalen Hurts, the productivity of their running game, and their ability to pressure Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady while playing coverage behind their pass rush. I recently spoke to an NFC East coach on the offensive side of the ball who described to me just how difficult the Eagles offense is to defend. Their zone read and inside zone run game out of the shotgun makes life difficult for defenses, and when plays break down or he isn’t able to process the defense properly, Hurts is capable of saving plays with his legs (which I broke down in detail for The 33rd Team).
Philadelphia does their best to minimize Hurts’ importance as a passer, and with Tampa Bay’s defense more susceptible to the run than in 2020, he should be able to rely on his legs. Hurts has shown the ability to make second reaction plays, particularly while moving to his right, and the Buccaneers will have to focus on containing him. This skill, along with a penchant for avoiding turnovers (the Eagles have the third-fewest giveaways in the league this year), helps compensate for his lack of overall field vision and his tendency to be a beat late with some throws. Even when not seeing the field with the necessary clarity, his legs bail him out and result in positive plays.
The same NFC East coach relayed that the Philadelphia defense plays fast and is very scheme dependent – partly a function of not having great individual talent. The Eagles like to play five-man fronts and rush with five defensive linemen, often playing man coverage or three under, three deep zone coverage behind their pass rush. However, the coach I spoke to pointed out that against a quarterback of Brady’s caliber, the Eagles will have to primarily rush just four and play zone coverage behind. Otherwise, Brady will beat their man coverage and exploit the voids in three underneath zones.
Defensive tackle Javon Hargrave and defensive end Josh Sweat are the two players that have stood out the most on Philadelphia’s defensive line. Hargrave has shown flashes of dominance inside as a pass rusher and against the run; he ranks among the leaders in sacks and pressures by a defensive tackle. Sweat has registered the most sacks of his four-year career with 7.5 and has shown the ability to beat tackles inside, with a club-rip move, and the physicality to drive them back in the pocket. He is a strong edge pass rusher with a desirable blend of length, quickness, flexibility, and closing speed – I believe if he played predominantly as a wide 9 defensive end, he could be among the league leaders in sacks.
The San Francisco 49ers begin with Kyle Shanahan and his capacity to scheme on offense. Under Shanahan, the 49ers are among the best teams at playing with the eye discipline of defenders and putting them in conflict. They accomplish this through multiple avenues including motions, misdirection concepts, and run action. Though the Cowboys play the highest percentage of Cover 1 in the NFL, Shanahan’s offense sees explosive wide receiver Deebo Samuel line up all over the formation. Because of this, polarizing Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs will not always match up with him throughout the game, especially because he won’t travel inside with Samuel. Diggs has shown himself to be a playmaker this season and leads the league in interceptions but has also proven to be a beatable cornerback as evidenced by allowing the most receiving yards in coverage by any player. Samuel has also become a foundational part of the 49ers running game, aligning as a running back in both I formations and offset in the shotgun. He is a naturally powerful runner with contact balance and finishing traits as well as a powerful run-after-the-catch receiver.
One matchup in the passing game that fascinates me is Jayron Kearse versus George Kittle. Kearse has been the Cowboys predominant TE matchup all season in their high percentage cover 1 defense, and he brings a different dimension to the matchup with his size and physicality.
Shanahan is old school in his belief that football games are four quarter games and that what you do in the first quarter gives you indicators to how the defense will respond. He banks these telltale keys and comes back to them as the game progresses. The same principle drives the 49ers significant use of motion (San Francisco used motion on 68.2% of plays during the regular season). Whether the defense moves in response to the offensive motion or maintains the same alignment, Shanahan and the 49ers are able to gain information.
San Francisco is one of the few teams in the NFL that truly stays with the run game. The second drive of the second half in their must-win matchup against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 18 perfectly exemplifies their philosophy. Trailing by seven, the 49ers began their drive with 10 straight runs, none longer than nine yards as they methodically moved down the field. The drive was capped off on the 11th play with a 24-yard Deebo Samuel touchdown pass to wide receiver Jauan Jennings. Shanahan is not necessarily a believer in winning through creating a few explosive plays, instead preferring to study the defense, gain information, and exploit this knowledge later in the game.
On defense, the 49ers have a very good front six (San Francisco, like many teams, plays base defense [22.3% of snaps] much less than nickel defense [69.5% of snaps]). Defensive end Nick Bosa has played at a high level and ranks in the top five among all defenders in sacks and forced fumbles. He is as good as there is in the NFL as a pass rusher playing off contact and is a top leverage edge rusher with one of the best speed-to-power moves in the league through outstanding hand usage. Defensive lineman Arik Armstead has also played well this season with the majority of his snaps coming on the interior, and the 49ers pass rush over the past month has seen other key contributors emerge.
Defensive linemen Samson Ebukam and Arden Key have proven to be good offseason signings as they’ve been multi-positional players in the 49ers nickel fronts, aligning at both defensive end and defensive tackle. They have allowed San Francisco to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks from inside and off the edge with just four defensive linemen while complementing Bosa and Armstead well.
The 49ers have also gotten productive snaps from guys considered secondary players, including defensive tackles Kevin Givens and D.J. Jones. Givens has flashed in the run game and displayed off-the-ball and lateral quickness along with hand usage to control and displace offensive lineman. Jones has also proven his mettle in defending the run with strength and excellent foot quickness for his stout body type. San Francisco’s rotation of defensive lineman will be key to any postseason success they have.
At linebacker, Fred Warner has displayed great awareness and the ability to both cover and be a part of the 49ers pass rush. Linebacker Dre Greenlaw returned against the Rams for his first game since Week 12 and played explosively, racking up 12 combined tackles. San Francisco’s secondary does remain a concern, but rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas is an improving player and intercepted Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford in overtime to seal the Week 18 victory. Fellow cornerback Emmanuel Moseley also had an interception of Stafford in his first game since Week 13.
I would not expect the Cowboys to be able to sustain their offense through running the ball against this 49ers run defense. San Francisco has given up the seventh-fewest rushing yards per game and rushing yards per attempt in the league as their front six has led a stingy defense. The crux of this game will be dictated by how well the Cowboys can throw the ball against the 49ers and how well they can protect quarterback Dak Prescott.
I am not a prognosticator, and I don’t make predictions, but these two Wild Card matchups fascinate me. There are so many tactical variables to focus on, and it would not surprise me at all if both games were highly competitive.
Aadit Mehta contributed to this story