The difference between 1-3 and 2-2 is a gap as wide as the grand canyon. And considering the volatility of this 49ers season laden by expectations, Jim Harbaugh’s crew had to have Sunday’s win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the worst way.
When looking at the film, the defense's preparation really stood out. The high level of advanced scouting was clear as coordinator Vic Fangio had his team ready for unique looks Chip Kelly’s Eagles threw his way.
It started with the tempo. After the game players talked about the week of practice that included no huddling and getting the calls in late on purpose, forcing the players to adjust on the fly. It put an emphasis on getting lined up correctly and on time. The communication in the secondary was improved in a big way after two third-quarter gaffs allowed the Cardinals to score - and win - the previous week.
The defense also benefited from an Eagles offensive line that was really banged up. Four of five positions were filled by backups and it allowed the 49ers to pressure Nick Foles more than they had other quarterbacks in previous weeks. Justin Smith had another outstanding game, as did Ian Williams against the run. Rookie linebacker Aaron Lynch took over as the team’s nickel pass rusher on the left side of the defense, moving Ahmad Brooks over to Aldon Smith’s spot rushing the QB’s blind side. It appears Corey Lemonier will be relegated to special teams duty only from here out after being largely ineffective through the first three games.
Foles did not have a good game. He had a few chances to make some game-changing throws, but ultimately the pass rush and lack of ground game prevented him from getting into any kind of rhythm outside of that late drive that stalled at the 49ers’ 1-yard line.
Offensively, San Francisco got back to running the ball, doing most of their damage behind a pulling Mike Iupati, who had his best game of the season. But there are serious questions about the ability to protect Colin Kaepernick. The Eagles had four sacks, not including one on third down on their third-quarter touchdown drive that was wiped out by a penalty.
Kaepernick avoided a number of sacks and made a few stellar throws, including the touchdown to Stevie Johnson, a 23-yard third-down completion to Anquan Boldin down the right sideline in the second quarter and another down the left sideline to Michael Crabtree in the fourth.
Here’s what we saw from the tape:
Antoine Bethea continued his very good start to his 49ers career, forcing two turnovers and making a number of key plays on the back end of the defense. His effort Sunday earned him NFC defensive player of the week honors.
Bethea’s nice day started on the second drive, when he made an open-field tackle on a swing pass to McCoy. For most of the game Bethea was in perfect position against the run, filling holes vacated by the front and containing McCoy in cut-back lanes.
Perrish Cox’s strong outing got started when he ran step-for-step with Jeremy Maclin deep down the right sideline before breaking up the long pass. Cox stayed with Maclin while keeping his eyes on Foles in the backfield and was in good position to make a play on the ball. Justin Smith hit Foles right as he threw it.
In the second quarter, Cox let Maclin get inside of him deep down the field, but Foles rushed his released and threw the ball back toward Cox’s coverage. A throw toward the inside might have resulted in an 85-yard touchdown.
Cox allowed just four receptions on 12 targets, according to Pro Football Focus' charting.
Cox and Bethea were both on Macin on Foles deep interception in the fourth quarter. Justin Smith’s pressure forced an under-thrown ball, but really, no one was open down field. It was easy pickings for Bethea.
The 49ers’ first drive culminating in the Eagles’ blocked punt was marred by two mistakes that put the ball at the 2-yard line. First, on third-and-7, tight end Vernon Davis flinched for a false start from the left slot. And then on third-and-12, Kaepernick was sacked by Trent Cole and Connor Barwin.
On that third-down play, Philadelphia ran a zone blitz with six men at the line of scrimmage. The two linebackers on the outside dropped into zone and the pass rush got Kaepernick before the play could develop. The 49ers would have been better off dialing up a draw or regular running play to avoid the disastrous field position, which resulted in the blocked-punt-turned-touchdown.
On the touchdown, the Eagles overloaded Dan Skuta’s side of the field with two rushers, pushing him back into Lee. Linebacker Casey Matthews was lined up over snapper Kyle Nelson in the A-gap, but pushed into Skuta, who was also dealing with tight end Trey Burton. Skuta was pushed back into Lee.
Lee said this week he didn’t even kick the ball, he kicked Skuta. It resulted in a painful ankle injury, although it doesn’t appear there is any structural damage or the punter will miss any time.
Fullback Bruce Miller had an outstanding day blocking fore Gore, who finished with 119 yards on 24 carries, starting with his seal block on the left edge against DeMeco Ryans on Gore’s first carry that went for 15 yards.
Two plays later, the 49ers were called for offensive pass interference, which simply wasn’t there. Stevie Johnson ended up making a 17-yard reception up the left sideline. He was open because corners Brandon Boykin and Cary Williams ran into each other, not because either was picked by an offensive player.
Miller’s best block of the day came on Gore’s 28-yard run in the third quarter. Miller came around the left side, flanking a pulling Mike Iupati, and blocked Carey Williams while Gore streaked down the left sideline. Linebacker Emmanuel Acho was trying to cut Gore off to the sideline, but hit the deck when trying to get around Williams, who was on the ground courtesy of Miller’s block.
On Kaepernick’s touchdown pass to Gore at the start of the second quarter, the Eagles did a terrible job defensively, although it was an outstanding play from Kaepernick. Once he broke to the left side of the field, the entire Philadelphia defense, all 11 defenders, were on the left side of the hash marks leaving Gore with more than half the field to himself back to the right.
Boykin came all the way over from the left of the numbers to get to Gore back on the right. But a nice hesitation and stiff arm by Gore let him get free down the sideline for the 55-yard score.
Terrible play by the defense. Heads-up play by Kaepernick and Gore to leak out.
Malcolm Jenkins’ interception of Kaepernick happened because of Jenkins’ film work during the week. It was a case, where Kaepernick often gets in trouble, where he decided where he was going before the snap. He took the shotgun snap, shifted his eyes right to Brandon Lloyd on the slant, and Jenkins left his man over the middle to sit in the throwing lane and pick it off.
With the the linebacker in the middle of the formation was there to prevent the slant to Boldin, Jenkins’ man, he was afforded the ability to sit on Kaepernick’s throw to Lloyd. Ultimately Kaepernick needed to pick up Jenkins and go somewhere else with the ball.
Darren Sproles' punt return for a score was the first time this year the 49ers really missed “aces” Bubba Ventrone, C.J. Spillman and Darryl Morris. The punt was too the sidelines, and just about all the 49ers’ were in the middle of the field expecting a cutback. But after gunners Kassim Osgood and L.J. McCray over ran the play, Sproles had a free run up the sideline for the easy score after Eric Reid and Michael Wilhoite were sealed along the sideline.
LeSean McCoy could never get going, in part because of the Eagles’ banged up offensive line. But it was clear the 49ers were well prepared for Philadelphia’s running game. They didn’t overcommit and stayed in their lanes, leaving very little room for McCoy to operate. And, of course, they tackled well, which is paramount to stopping the run.
McCoy finished with just 17 yards on 10 carries.
Bethea’s strip of Zach Ertz on the Eagles’ first drive in the third quarter was the turning point in the game. Philadelphia had a 21-13 lead at the time, and it put the 49ers in position to make it a one-point game after dominating time of possession in the first half.
Kaepernick was sacked by Trent Cole two plays later on third-and-15, but it was wiped out by a curious defensive holding penalty on Williams trying to cover Stevie Johnson over the middle of the field. Instead of having to settle for a 50-yard field goal, the 49ers got a first down at the Eagles’ 23.
Kaepnerick’s touchdown pass to Johnson was one of those plays few quarterbacks can make. It was third-and-11, and the Eagles were showing blitz. Kaepernick adjusted his protection to bring tight end Derek Carrier to help block against the pass rush.
In turn, the Eagles recalled the blitz, rushing just three and having eight men in coverage. The pocket surrounded Kaepernick and he had room to his left to move in attempt to get Johnson open in the front corner of the end zone. Kaepernick made a perfect throw away from coverage and Johnson made an outstanding catch while managing to drag his toes in bounds. It was one of Kaepernick’s best plays of the season.
Lynch had a very nice fourth quarter after a nondescript start to his afternoon. He beat right tackle Todd Heremans with a quick swim move on a second-and-14 play on the Eagles’ three-and-out drive, pressuring Foles and forcing an incompletion.
That play was preceded by Bethea’s recognition of Foles’ audible, when he checked to a run to the left. Bethea called it out and Demarcus Dobbs and Dan Skuta stopped McCoy for a four-yard loss.
On the 49ers’ final field goal drive, the key play was Kaepernick’s 16-yard designed scamper down the left sideline on third-and-13 - the patented “Alex Smith play.”
The Eagles defense should have known better. Safety Nate Allen up hovering over Joe Staley as the eighth man on the line of scrimmage, leaving Williams are the only defensive back on the left side. Boldin crack blocked Allen, leaving Williams to be blocked by Carlos Hyde.
Hyde went for low block, which was just enough to spring Kaepernick down the sideline for the first down.
The drive resulted in a field goal, ultimately because of a third-down delay of game penalty. Those clock issues were more closely detailed here.
Bethea was MVP of the goal line stand. On the second down run, McCoy would have scored between Reid and Chris Culliver, who were both battling blocks. Bethea knifed in to tackle McCoy at the 1.
And on third down, his blitzed forced an early throw from Foles, who missed a leaking Brent Celek in the back left corner of the end zone. For the second-straight play, any hesitation from Bethea might have meant the ball game. Lynch’s pressure on the fourth down play was important as well.
On their final drive, Philadelphia really hurt itself with penalties, one come in on a punt return that prevented a chance at decent field position with 1:34 left. They were forced back to their 31 on an illegal block above the waist, then a Jason Peters hold stuck them at the 21.
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