© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
The last time the San Francisco 49ers played the Philadelphia Eagles, it was a disaster. There were three turnovers, a brutal display from the offensive line, and an emotionally disheartening loss coming off two weeks of horrific injury luck on the East Coast. There is a much different outlook at this point, but there are plenty of ways for things to go wrong and right for the 49ers. Here are some of the key factors for Sunday’s game:
Yes, tackling. The thing that happens on nearly every football play. But if the 49ers see anywhere near the same offense that the Philadelphia Eagles ran against the hapless Atlanta Falcons — and it’s unlikely Philadelphia’s offense makes a chasmic shift week-by-week — then tackling is absolutely crucial.
Dre Greenlaw had a pick-six, which is actually when he re-aggravated a core muscle injury, but he made some key mistakes, too, in addition to the big plays. His replacement, Azeez Al-Shaair, was third in all of college football in tackles back in 2017, before tearing his ACL, and he made some tremendous plays last Sunday. He was flying around the field, and shut down a number of plays in the backfield or came crashing down on shorter passes — which the Eagles rely on heavily — to either break them up or make the tackle immediately.
Al-Shaair, though, also made some mistakes, especially on the drive in which Jared Goff threw a 43-yard dump screen touchdown pass to D’Andre Swift. Al-Shaair was over-aggressive against some very sound blocking schemes from the Lions, and the Eagles’ entire game plan last week was to get the ball into the hands of their now extremely quick skill position players, and gash un-sound defenses after the catch. They had the lowest intended air yards per attempt at 3.7 yards.
It was a dink-and-dunk heavy game plan, which necessitates the 49ers to be extremely sound and consistent in their assignments and tackling; especially against two very talented run-blocking receivers in J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Devonta Smith. It’s also why I suspect they’ll decide to start Dontae Johnson opposite Deommodore Lenoir, even though Josh Norman is clearly the more talented corner. Johnson has made a living as a special-teamer, and if there is one thing special teams guys know, it’s how to wrap up.
It is worth mentioning that Johnson was burned by Travis Fulgham — inactive last week — for a 43-yard touchdown the last time these teams met. And Fulgham’s no DeVonta Smith.
Johnson is clearly better than Norman as a tackler, and worse in coverage, but against a short pass offense that ran a lot outside the tackles, this is a game that might be largely about making the play in front of you, and forcing a young quarterback and head coach to try you over the top. It’s not sexy, but sound tackling and awareness in zone coverage will be a massive decider in this game.
Eagles’ front versus 49ers’ offensive line, especially Alex Mack
There is no player Alex Mack struggled with more in training camp than Kentavius Street. Street has the quickest get-off on the team and combines an absurd blend of speed and power into a rush that, when his timing is right, is almost unblockable. Even when that type of rush is picked up, Street, is collapsing the pocket. Mack struggled against that blend, and also had a few moments where he struggled against D.J. Jones.
Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox are absolute bullies on the interior, and Brandon Graham and Josh Sweat can sometimes stunt inside, too, where they had success against the weak interior of the Falcons’ line.
This is not to say there shouldn’t be concerns about Mike McGlinchey, whose worst game of last season by a wide margin came against Philadelphia. But in addition to the weight, McGlinchey’s gained confidence this offseason, and didn’t have those sort of “timberrrrr!”-esque snaps where he ends up falling back like a tree during the preseason and training camp.
The main concern is Mack. As a whole, the 49ers’ offensive line had a very impressive game in the season opener, but Mack had a few reps in which he was beaten badly, and ended up on the ground. Given his knowledge of the Shanahan offense and years of being an upper echelon center in the NFL, he knows timing and body positioning extremely well, which allows him to compensate for some of the physical disadvantages of being a 35-year-old who has played 16 out of 16 games in 12 of his 14 seasons. 180 starts is… quite a few.
Against one of the more domineering interiors in the NFL, if Mack and Daniel Brunskill can hold their own, especially to set up the run game early, the 49ers’ offense will be able to get rolling again. That will help keep the offense in rhythm, which allows quicker pass sets. The real danger is falling behind and needing to get into longer pass sets without a believable threat of run, preventing or diminishing the viability of play-action. They have to prevent predictability, and that starts early.
Usage of the Treys
The brain trust of Shanahan and Mike McDaniel admitted this week that the plays the 49ers gave Trey Lance last weekend were less-than-ideal looks. In addition to his TD pass, Lance ran three times for two yards.
This is a game in which the 49ers really need to avoid finding themselves in a pass-heavy position. The Eagles’ front is makes that a less-than viable option, unless the 49ers go quick to try and beat them with tempo. Could a few Lance running plays in a row be a way to get the Eagles off balance early?
Shanahan certainly wants to keep some cards close to his vest before facing the Packers, but it may be worth exploiting Lance’s skillset to gain an edge in what should be a serious trench battle on Sunday.
As for the other Trey, Sermon, it’s time to use his size. JaMycal Hasty gave effort as a pass protector, but it was not impressive. He’s 5-foot-8, 205, which is bulky for a short player, but his lack of length hurt him on all three occasions he got on blitz pickups. At the very least, with no real candidates behind him, Sermon absolutely has to be active, especially in pass protection and certain pass situations.
Until Jeff Wilson Jr. gets back, Sermon’s experience as a pass catcher, and the easiest frame for 49ers quarterbacks to target, must be used. Shanahan said, though, that Trenton Cannon, the newly-acquired running back the 49ers picked off waivers from the Ravens, could be active. If that means any of the other three backs are inactive, especially Sermon, that’s a pretty major concern about their long-term prospects.
X-Factor: Azeez Al-Shaair
In Tuesday’s stock report, Al-Shaair was initially going to be included as a riser, and should have stayed. But a few reckless plays en route to a touchdown drive got him knocked. Despite those issues, Al-Shaair had a very impressive game, and if he stays healthy, the 49ers won’t have much of a let off from Dre Greenlaw; Al-Shaair clearly had the better game given Greenlaw’s issues maintaining gap integrity and attacking the wrong hole.
Here’s the assessment of Al-Shaair that was cut from the stock report:
This man was everywhere. Stats aren’t everything, but Al-Shaair was third on the 49ers with seven tackles, including two for a loss and two pass breakups. He took over at WILL after Dre Greenlaw left with a groin injury and was relentless.
There are definitely things to correct; his eye positioning wasn’t great on a fourth-and-one run in the middle of the third quarter to his side. He was also bailed out by a dropped pass by D’Andre Swift when his feet were too stagnant in coverage. He was also too reckless trying to make a play on the screen touchdown to Jamaal Williams.
But the way he triggers downhill, and the range he displays is not something that can be taught. He has rare speed coupled with the necessary aggression for the position, and while he can be too aggressive at times, he also showed examples — like on a screen pass to Jamaal Williams — of times where he was patient, and didn’t over-extend himself in order to make a yard-losing play. If he can lean on his technique, and employ that patience more consistently, he can be a dominant linebacker.
If Al-Shaair more reckless than patient, he could be a detriment to this defense. But if he limits his recklessness or “freelancing” as Fred Warner called it, he can be a massive force behind the 49ers’ success.