SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Kyle Shanahan speaks most clearly and deeply with his play calls and game plans. The offensive heart, soul and conscience of the 49ers are all laid bare, every weekend, through his helmet and on the field. There is nothing to hide from it, and Shanahan does not want to hide from it.
And what happened in the 49ers’ playoff opener on Saturday against a Seattle defense clearly destined to stop the run? A lot of things happened. Everything that matters has happened if you want to understand what’s going on with this team as they head into next weekend’s divisional round and beyond.
Shanahan asked rookie Brock Purdy to throw a pass on the first play (wild incompletion with a wetball), second play (19-yard completion) and fourth play (incompletion), called Purdy to throw a long sideline on play five (7-yard gain) and throwing a pass on play six (incomplete) on the 49ers’ path to a field goal for the game’s first points. Then Shanahan continued to call passing plays – 19 in the first half alone, down from just nine points.
It wasn’t immediately dominant, but the tone of that 41-23 win at Levi’s Stadium was set. The proof was inescapable. That’s the way for the 49ers right now, in the playoffs, and possibly for much longer than that. They will face either the Vikings (if they win Sunday) or the winner of Monday night’s Tampa Bay-Dallas game (if the Vikings lose). And whoever the team facing the 49ers will know they have to figure out how to beat Brock Purdy.
It’s not that Shanahan will ever give up the run, and in fact things evened out pretty quickly in the second half (the 49ers were left with 33 carries and 30 assists). But now the 49ers can launch a full air attack if they want. And they want it.
In Purdy’s first playoff game and just his sixth NFL start (and it became the first playoff win for a rookie QB since Russell Wilson in 2012), Shanahan put the game in his hands and was quite happy to stick with it for a long time. Because it worked, especially against a Seahawks defense that was stacking the line of scrimmage.
“I think they were trying to take the run away from us, but we came out shooting,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “And definitely meat on the bone, but still explosive plays all day. I get what their plan is, we have a rookie quarterback and we have a hell of a running game. I’m sure they’re trying to get him to throw the ball. I’m sure that’s everyone’s plan.
“But I think he proved it was good. We can make big plays in the passing game.
– NFL (@NFL) January 15, 2023
That’s the way now for the 49ers because Shanahan has so much faith in Purdy, who missed a few throws early (when it was light rain) but continued to hit plays all game, including seven more passing plays. 15 meters. That day, Purdy was 18-for-30 for 332 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 131.5; he also ran four times for 16 yards and a TD.
“It would be easy for (Shanahan) to say, ‘Okay, let’s keep trying to run the ball, let’s get 3 or 4 yards and just deal with this thing,'” Juszczyk said. “I think he has this confidence in Brock that he can make plays himself.”
Of course, Shanahan let Jimmy Garoppolo throw it just eight times in the 49ers’ NFC Championship Game win over the Packers in January 2020. Prior to that, Garoppolo only threw it 19 times in the Round of 10 win. division against the Vikings.
This is no knock on Garoppolo; the 49ers won those games, that’s what mattered. But the thing is, it’s a whole new thing here. Purdy has proven he can take on more responsibility than Shanahan has given any 49ers QB in six seasons, and that’s only building.
“It was like that from the start, once he came into that game against Miami, when we didn’t have the luxury of sitting around and worrying about how the game was going,” said Shanahan said. “We only had to call plays to try and win the game, and he did a hell of a job. And he’s done it every time since. I have a lot of confidence in him and gives us more and more confidence every week.
And Purdy continues to do a little more each week. He has shown impressive elusiveness in the six games he has played since joining after Garoppolo was injured in that game in Miami. But on Saturday, the performance increased exponentially – Purdy zigzagged and zigzagged away from the pressure a handful of times, leading to huge plays, a few touchdowns and, most importantly, zero losses or terrible turnovers.
“A few of those touchdowns, I think that’s something I’ve done my whole life in terms of finding a way when it’s not there,” Purdy said.
Purdy’s best improvisation actually came on a miss in the fourth quarter, when he ran almost to the left sideline, then ran the full width of the field, rigged a Seahawks defensive lineman , then threw a laser at Brandon Aiyuk in the end zone. . Aiyuk couldn’t get the ball back, but that was quite the exclamation point.
Yes, his teammates noticed it.
“It’s great to see the things he’s doing there, his little slide getting by,” receiver Deebo Samuel said. “It tires us a bit; we have to run too, try to open up. But it works.
Last week in a game against the Cardinals, Shanahan saw Purdy run into a 17-yard sack that put the 49ers out of field goal range and said he almost immediately yelled at him about it.
Kyle, you just saw that it really works in this game, is Purdy’s extended scrambles okay now?
“No,” Shanahan said with a deadpan nod.
“He was great on some,” Shanahan said. “The latter was very close, it was amazing the throw he made at BA in the corner. I know he just missed that. But he has the sense. He certainly makes me nervous on some of them. them. But he’s done a hell of a job running away. He knows his body… tries never to give up a play. And he’s been very smart on the ball so far.
It was enough to catch the eye of a fairly notable NFL fan.
PURDY GOT GAME!!!!!!!!!
— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 14, 2023
“LeBron said that?” Purdy said when told about the tweet, looking genuinely thrilled. “Oh, that’s great.”
Offensive tackle Trent Williams said, “I love that Brock is getting the attention he deserves. He’s a good player, man. And I think anyone who watches football can see that. I’m not saying he’s the next Aaron Rodgers or Pat Mahomes, but he does everything we need him to do and more. I think we can keep winning with him, obviously.
Not everything went perfectly. But the 49ers veterans liked everything they saw from Purdy, when things were wet and slightly underwhelming early on and then when they scored 25 straight points to start the second half.
Typically, Purdy mostly blamed himself for the 49ers who found themselves down 17-16 at halftime despite beating the Seahawks 249-176 up to that point. It happened because the 49ers had to settle for two short field goals in red-zone practices, and a few defensive breakdowns suddenly gave Seattle plenty of life.
“Coming into halftime, Kyle was direct, he was, ‘Hey man, the plays are here, the opportunities are there; we just have to keep it simple and get it to the guys,'” Purdy said.
The answer: The 49ers played 13 TD games immediately after getting the second-half kickoff, concluded by Purdy himself on a 1-yard net. Then Charles Omenihu stripped the ball from Seattle QB Geno Smith on the next possession and Nick Bosa recovered. And the rout suddenly broke out.
Amid this frenzy, Purdy maneuvered and found Elijah Mitchell wide open in the right flat for a 7-yard touchdown. Purdy’s first read was Aiyuk on his left, but Aiyuk was covered. Then Purdy got some pressure, rolled to his left, felt more pressure, so he backed up in the middle and turned it over to Mitchell on the flat right. Easy TD.
Then came this:
341 meters in total. 4 tutorials in total.
– NFL (@NFL) January 15, 2023
At the time, it almost looked like Purdy had started throwing it at Mitchell before he had even fully turned on him. Which Purdy basically confirmed. Instinct, both ways. That’s why he said he was celebrating so loudly.
“Just a broken game,” Purdy said. “I was trying to go left to BA and follow my progress from there. It just broke down. Elijah did his job in terms of protection, and if he had time, he could get out. It was my last reading. The front panel just broke down. When I rushed over, Elijah was where he needed to be.
“And that’s why I was excited. I had this confidence in him to be here, and the same for him in myself. Just a huge part of the game, to build momentum, just a big game for everyone and a big moment for everyone.
The moments are getting bigger for the 49ers. Their rookie QB is certainly not diminishing. If anything, he’s better. It’s right there in the field. It happens.
Thompson: Seahawks hit first, but Deebo Samuel hit hardest
(Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)