It all starts up front for the 49ers on Sunday against the Eagles.
One of the most pivotal offseason priorities was to shore up the offensive line, leaking oil during 2020 in pass protection. The 49ers’ front office responded by bringing back Trent Williams, adding Alex Mack, keeping Dan Brunskill exclusively at guard, and changing Mike McGlinchey’s offseason diet.
The results were promising in Week 1.
Pro Football Focus graded Alex Mack, Laken Tomlinson, and Trent Williams with clean sheets — no pressures allowed in pass protection. Mike McGlinchey and Dan Brunskill allowed one pressure each, but that was a far cry from last season when the 49ers’ offensive line was on the receiving end of heavy criticism due to their poor play.
But was that a byproduct of their improvement or facing a depleted Lions’ defensive line? The first litmus test for the 49ers’ front five comes in Week 2 against a much more talented Eagles’ defensive line.
The Eagles tallied 23 pressures in Week 1 vs. Falcons, with interior defenders Javon Hargrave and Hassan Ridgeway doing most of the damage. Veteran Fletcher Cox and fourth-year player Josh Sweat were also stout in their 2021 debuts. Of course, let’s not also forget about Brandon Graham (who never seems to age) and Derek Barnett.
Rookie defensive coordinator, Jonathan Gannon’s group tallied a 13.1% adjusted sack rate in Week 1, according to Football Outsiders, which would be fourth in the NFL.
Philadelphia’s defensive line has always given the 49ers nightmares. During their Week 4 matchup last season, the Eagles’ front pressured Nick Mullens 25 times, including six sacks which was a huge factor in Philadelphia’s upset victory.
Their last matchup before that in 2017? Eagles racked up 35 pressures and four sacks.
Kyle Shanahan and Mike McDaniel’s focus should be on how to keep the Eagles’ defensive line off balance all game. There should be a huge emphasis on avoiding long distances on second and third-down — situations that would allow the Eagles’ pass rushers to pin their ears back and tee off on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
Even in the limited times that Garoppolo was under duress in the season opener, he was fantastic. The 49ers’ quarterback was under pressure on seven plays, completing 4-of-5 passes, for 112 yards, including one touchdown and no interceptions, with a passer rating of 158.3.
The last two times that the Eagles and 49ers faced off, No. 10 didn’t suit San Francisco, and that’ll be just as big of a factor as the improvement to the offensive line. Nonetheless, slowing down the slew of Eagles’ pass rushers should be front and center on the 49ers’ offensive game plan.
I don’t think the Eagles will have the same caliber of success pressuring Garoppolo on Sunday. I predict the 49ers will once again get their rushing attack going (which averaged a dominant 5.8 yards per carry in Week 1). Setting up shorter distances on third down should prevent the 49ers’ offense from protecting Garoppolo for a long time.
Also, having their starting quarterback on the field in this matchup will also help the 49ers’ offensive line avoid predicament situations, ultimately leading to a better offensive output on Sunday (and hopefully their second win).