NFL Analysis


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San Francisco 49ers Prove They Belong with NFC Elite

San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey
Nov 19, 2023; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey (23) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the first quarter at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers could not have gotten their bye week at a better time. 

Two weeks ago, the 49ers took their week off after a three-game skid featuring losses to the Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings, and Cincinnati Bengals. Quarterback Brock Purdy could not stop turning the ball over in the fourth quarter, and the 49ers lost close games because of it. The losing streak, short as it was, had people ready to hit the panic button and flip the 49ers narrative on its head. 

Not anymore. The 49ers had their bye week and got themselves right for a playoff push. 

After trashing the Jacksonville Jaguars fresh off the bye last week, the 49ers came out firing for the second week in a row, cruising to a 27-14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The passing offense was unstoppable. Purdy completed 21 of 25 passes while pumping out 0.54 EPA per play, the 11th-highest single-game mark of any quarterback this season, per TruMedia.

Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers offense looked how it was supposed to for the first time in a month.

On the Mend

So, where were these 49ers for the last month? And why did they return to form out of the bye? 

Injuries. Sometimes it’s as simple as that. A 49ers offense built on a handful of All-Pros lightening the load for its auxiliary players was briefly without the star power they’re used to having. Star LT Trent Williams, WR Deebo Samuel, and RB Christian McCaffrey battled varying injuries during the mini-losing streak, starting with losing to the Browns. 

Williams played almost all that ugly Cleveland game but suffered an ankle injury that kept him out for the next two weeks. Samuel suffered a similar fate. He started that game but quickly went down due to a shoulder issue that kept him out through the bye week. Even McCaffrey left that game in the second half because of an oblique injury. McCaffrey started the next two games, only to be held to some of his lowest rushing totals and efficiency numbers of the season. 

The 49ers offense wasn’t the same without those three in the lineup. They could not get ahead of teams early and grind them down for the rest of the game the way they’re built to. Easier buttons were tougher to find, and the margin for error was as slim as it’s ever been for this iteration of the offense. The whole flow of the operation just felt off. 

That is because those three players — Williams, Samuel and McCaffrey — have a multiplicative effect on those around them. They do a lot, so others only have to do a little. Replacement-level players become serviceable, and role players become impact players because of what those three guys allow the rest of the offense to do.

Best of the Best

Williams epitomizes that for an offensive lineman. Think about how many tackles in the league you would genuinely feel comfortable leaving on an island all game against anybody besides Williams. It’s not more than a handful. Laremy Tunsil, Tristan Wirfs and Penei Sewell are locks. Maybe Christian Darrisaw and Andrew Thomas are in that group. But that’s really it. These dudes are rare. 

There’s double value in having a tackle like that. It’s not just that Williams can extinguish even the NFL’s best pass rushers. It’s that pass protection help can be pushed elsewhere. When Williams is healthy, the 49ers can constantly slide away from him or chip to the other side. Even letting McCaffrey get out on as many option routes as he does is at least partially a function of Williams’ ripple effect in pass protection. If Williams is absent, both of those pillars fall away.

49ers’ Dynamic Duo

Samuel and McCaffrey do the same thing for the skill group. McCaffrey is the closest thing to a running back turned wide receiver in the league, and Samuel is the inverse of that. McCaffrey is an integral part of the passing offense as an underneath option weapon, and he is a legit wide receiver when they feel like using him that way. Conversely, Samuel is the offense’s screen and schemed-touch guy and the offense’s de facto RB2. 

Having those two on the field together fundamentally changes the structure of the offense, thanks to the space they can create. 

McCaffrey and Samuel are underneath weapons. Samuel can win deep sometimes, but that’s not what he does best. He’s a quick-twitch bowling ball of a receiver who will always get twice as many yards after catch as he should. McCaffrey also does most of his damage near the line of scrimmage, both as a runner and high-volume option route runner. 

When those two guys are in the game at the same time, defenders will have a hard time keeping their eyes out of the backfield. Pass-rushers play a little slower, waiting for misdirection, linebackers bite on play-fakes, safeties get caught flat-footed trying to sort out all the pre-snap movement, and so on. McCaffrey and Samuel slow down defenses and make them play with bad eyes. 

They also give defenses less opportunity to double Brandon Aiyuk or play two-high shells that might allow for underneath yards-after-catch opportunities. A defense can’t sell out to stop Aiyuk if Samuel, McCaffrey and George Kittle can run rampant, but they also can’t play a bunch of two-deep coverages that let McCaffrey pound away on the ground or give him and Samuel space to work in the short area. 

It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t predicament for defenses every single week. That dynamic was missing when Aiyuk and Kittle were on the field with no Williams to bolster the offensive line.

All Roads Go Through San Francisco

It’s almost silly there was any panic about this offense in the first place. The turnovers and losses were tough to swallow, but this offense was a machine when it was healthy. Now the 49ers are healthy again and, if you can believe it, they have returned to being a machine. 

So long as the injury gods allow it, this is what the 49ers offense will do for the rest of the season. They were on this pace before the Browns game, and it’s clear that all they needed to reach those heights again was to have all their studs on the field again. There’s only so much a defense can do against a field-tilting left tackle and four legit star skill players. 

That puts the 49ers back on track to fight for the first seed in the NFC. Now at 7-3, the 49ers are in lockstep with the Dallas Cowboys, only one game back from the 8-2 Detroit Lions, and potentially just a game back from the 8-1 Philadelphia Eagles, depending on how Monday night’s game goes. 

They don’t play those teams every week, so they might need a little help to get the first seed, but the 49ers are the best team in the conference when the offense is rolling like this. They have every ingredient necessary to make their fourth NFC title game in five years.

All roads to the Super Bowl go through the 49ers, same as it ever was.