A quick peek at the San Francisco 49ers’ box score would have you thinking Thursday night’s 30-12 win over the New York Giants was just another day at the office. San Francisco scored exactly 30 points for the third game in a row and sealed a 3-0 start. The score made it seem there was nothing out of the ordinary for a team expected to run through the NFC on its way to the Championship Game once again.
But that’s not how the game played out at all. It was anything but a classic 49ers steamroll.
Trouble was on the docket before the game even kicked off. WR Brandon Aiyuk was listed as questionable with a shoulder injury coming into the day and was ruled out by game time.
For as many other stars as the 49ers have, Aiyuk is the team’s best pure separator. He is the guy San Francisco can trust to win any 1-on-1 to give Brock Purdy easy answers. Not having Aiyuk available for a game against a Wink Martindale defense, where blitzes and single coverage make up the entire game plan, was bad news.
The Giants blitzed Brock Prudy on 33 of his 39 dropbacks (84.6%), the highest blitz rate in a game in the NGS era.
Likewise, Purdy averaged the fastest time to throw of his career (2.34 seconds).
💡 Purdy vs Blitz: 20/31, 247 yards, 2 TD
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 22, 2023
Martindale smelled blood in the water. While he’s normally a blitz-heavy guy as it is, Martindale turned the dial up a notch. The Giants blitzed Purdy on 19 of his 24 drop backs in the first half (79.3 percent), which would have been the highest blitz rate of any team in NextGenStats’ database going back to 2016.
Purdy was visibly rattled by the heat. Purdy’s time-to-throw plummeted down to 2.36 seconds in the first half. He was getting the ball out in a hurry, but not because he had answers. Purdy was spraying the ball all over the place, missing on anything from the 49ers’ tried-and-true in-breaking routes to simple swing routes in the flat. It was maybe the worst half of football he has played as a 49er.
San Francisco’s only saving grace was special, sometimes lucky, play from its skill players. The 49ers converted two third-and-longs on screen passes, one from Deebo Samuel and another from Christian McCaffrey, as well as managed another conversion thanks to a Giants penalty in the red zone. That doesn’t even include a tipped pass Ronnie Bell caught or Jauan Jennings making an outrageous grab behind his back without breaking stride. The 49ers still got some points on the board, but the process looked as wonky as ever.
The problem with a titan like the 49ers offense is that you have to maintain your best level for four quarters to beat them. They’re too talented and well-coached for a weird first half to ruin a game entirely. Coach Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers came back out of the locker room with answers.
Shanahan changed his approach after getting blitzed to oblivion in the first half with no signs of Martindale letting up. The entire San Francisco offense turned into an effort to withstand the blitz — which included a heavy dose of the run game, same as ever for Shanahan, but also meant a return to some max protection, as well as empty formations to clear the picture up for Purdy.
Purdy’s dagger to end the game encapsulates it all. With six minutes left in the fourth quarter, Shanahan dialed up a seven-man protection to let Samuel go win 1-on-1 down the sideline. The Giants fell right into the trap. Seven Giants defenders rushed, and seven Giants defenders got blocked up. Purdy had enough time to rip the ball to Samuel’s outside shoulder. As we’ve become accustomed to, he finished the job.
The end result of all those second-half adjustments was that standard 49ers box score.
Purdy finished with over eight yards per attempt and two touchdowns. Samuel finished with over 100 yards, about a third of which came on a gnarly catch-and-run in the third quarter. George Kittle had a 29-yarder of his own in the second half that helped get him to 90 yards on the day. Somehow, McCaffrey’s 119 yards from scrimmage only felt like a sideshow, not the main attraction.
That kind of resilience is the mark of a great team.
Normal playoff teams might stumble without their star players or let a game slip from their hands the moment they get punched in the face early on, but the true contenders find a way. San Francisco’s effort embodied that.
It didn’t matter that Aiyuk missed the game. It didn’t matter that the Giants had seemingly found an answer for the 49ers’ offense. It didn’t matter that Purdy looked like a pumpkin for half the game. Shanahan regrouped, the stars came to life and the quarterback settled down and trusted the team around him.
The resilience of the San Francisco offense is only made sweeter by the team’s defensive effort a week ago. Los Angeles Rams QB Matthew Stafford was carving the unit up left, right and center with passes to Puka Nacua and Tutu Atwell, but the defense battened down the hatches heading into the second half. The pass rushing unit turned it up, and the secondary pounced on a couple of opportunistic interceptions to shut the door on a feisty Rams team.
Now, three weeks into the season, the 49ers have proven they can win every kind of game. They can steamroll teams like they did the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1. And as the last two weeks have shown, San Francisco can also get turnaround performances from both sides of the ball to finish out games that were, at some point, in jeopardy.
The 49ers are the team everyone thought they would be.
The quarterback play isn’t perfect, but a rare collection of skill talent and an elite coaching mind go a long way in putting together another special offense; in addition, the defense is still firing on all cylinders.
With a dash of toughness and fortitude to finish off the recipe, the 49ers once again have all they need to maintain their spot at the top of the NFC.
Derrik Klassen is an NFL and NFL Draft film analyst with a particular interest in quarterbacks. Klassen’s work is also featured on Bleacher Report and Reception Perception. You can follow him on Twitter (X) at @QBKlass.