The stats do not lie. The San Francisco 49ers are No. 2 in the NFL in yards-per-offensive play, averaging 6.4 yards a play, and 6.7 yards a play during their current three-game winning streak. Much of that is through Christian McCaffrey.
Yep, a big reach here as to who the Eagles will need to stop this Sunday in the NFL showdown between the Niners (8-3) and the Eagles (10-1) at Lincoln Financial Field at 4:25 p.m.
If the Eagles are planning to get home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, they must stop McCaffrey. An Eagles’ loss gives the Niners the tiebreaker, and with the Eagles going back-to-back hosting a rested San Francisco 49ers team, then expected to win in Dallas against a rested Cowboys’ team, that is a tall ask and could shift the power of the NFC towards San Francisco.
McCaffrey leads the NFL in rushing with 939 yards, which is 154 yards better than the nearest rusher, Miami’s Raheem Mostert (785). McCaffrey’s 85.4 yards-a-game average is third in the NFL. As a team, the Niners are ranked No. 7 in rushing in the NFL, averaging 136 yards a game, slightly better than the Eagles at No. 8 (133.3).
If Fletcher Cox cannot go, still recovering from a groin injury, that will thin what has been a tiring Eagles’ defensive front. As a whole, the Eagles’ defense was on the field for 95 plays against the Buffalo Bills in their 37-34 overtime. That can have a wearing effect, considering Haason Reddick and Josh Sweat played more than 80 snaps, and Jordan Davis (62 snaps) and Jalen Carter (76) played a combined 138 snaps. Then when you add linebacker Nicholas Morrow out there for 87 plays, Zach Cunningham leaving because of a hamstring injury after 55 plays, and linebacker Christian Elliss being exposed on 27 snaps, catching up to McCaffrey will not be easy.
How will the Eagles gameplan for the best running back in the NFL?
“That’s a good question,” Eagles defensive coordinator Sean Desai said when posed that question this week. “You’ve got to put bodies around him. Have to get different looks, affect his route progression from different angles and put different matchups on him because they do a great job creating matchups there. So, we’ve got to be able to have multiple different ways and different angles at which we want to cover him and leverage them.”
Over their last two games, the Eagles have given up 341 yards rushing combined to the Kansas City Chiefs (30 attempts/168 yards) and the Bills (40/173), surrendering an average of 4.8 yards a carry. McCaffrey is dangerous running between the tackles, in open space, and can break off long runs on the outside.
During the Niners’ three-game winning streak, they have led the NFL in yards-per-play, averaging 6.7 yards, while the Eagles are No. 20 in that metric, averaging 5.1. In the last three games, San Francisco leads all NFL defenses in yards-per-play, giving up an NFL-low 4.2 yards a play while the Eagles have plummeted to No. 18, giving up 5.3 yards a play. During that winning streak, McCaffrey has rushed for 287 yards on 56 carries, averaging 5.1 yards a carry and 384 yards from scrimmage.
Late in the fourth quarter against Buffalo, the Eagles’ defense broke. In the drive that put the Bills up 31-28, the Bills ran right through the Eagles on four-straight plays for 11, 11, 12 and 7 yards. On Josh Allen’s 7-yard TD pass to Gabe Davis with 1:52 to play, Elliss seemed to have no idea where the ball was and who he was assigned to.
Will this be what the Eagles will rely on against the San Francisco on Sunday?
There is no question the Eagles have the talent to stay with San Francisco. But will they have the stamina after the pounding they endured three games into their six-game schedule gauntlet?
This could get ugly.
Joseph Santoliquito is a hall of fame, award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has written feature stories for SI.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com, MLB.com, Deadspin and The Philadelphia Daily News. In 2006, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for a special project piece for ESPN.com called “Love at First Beep.” He is most noted for his award-winning ESPN.com feature on high school wrestler A.J. Detwiler in February 2006, which appeared on SportsCenter. In 2015, he was elected president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.