The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of the team.
The Washington Commanders are heading into a critical matchup against the San Francisco 49ers that will drastically affect their playoff hopes. Here are three keys to securing the upset, presented by KIA.
1. Stick to the offensive identity.
Logan: The 49ers' defense ranks No.1 in the NFL, and it is clear why. The front is headlined by Nick Bosa, who is fast and powerful, playing with an awesome forward lean while also displaying masterful hand use. Arik Armstead is a long, lean athlete at the three technique that can rush the passer at a high level but is also disruptive against the run. The rest of the players, even the rotational pieces, fit a mold. While the defensive line is tremendously talented, it isn't a group traditionally associated with stopping the run. Yet, they are tremendous at it.
A big reason for this is the linebackers and how they are coached. They are headlined by Fred Warner -- arguably the best linebacker in the NFL. Not only is his tremendous speed and athleticism on display almost every play, but his recognition is truly elite. His counterparts, Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair, are slightly undersized but fast and physical.
Having three linebackers on the field instead of two and a nickel is an advantage when it comes to stopping the run, because linebackers are traditionally better tacklers. However, the 49ers' defense is productive in both packages because of how quickly the linebackers and nickel read and react to run looks. This quick response by the second level of the defense prevents offensive linemen from sticking on double teams, which allows their athletic defensive line to win matchups and disrupt the opposing run game.
So, how does Washington maintain their identity verses the fantastic front of the 49ers? The speed of the front makes them exceptional against runs that attack the defensive perimeter. This bodes well for Washington, which is a downhill running team that specializes in runs that are usually targeted at the defensive interior.
Over the course of the season, San Francisco has struggled to stop these types of runs. Kansas City was able to get vertical movement on their double teams and re-establish the line of scrimmage. The movement made the linebackers' fits more challenging and allowed Kansas City's running backs to power forward for extra yards.
Over the last seven weeks, Washington has shown a mastery of these types of runs, duo, counters and tight zones. It is Washington's strength against the closest thing San Francisco has to a weakness.
With aggressive defenses like the 49ers, it's important to incorporate some type of misdirection. Kansas City ran multiple jet sweeps, handing the ball to wide receivers for large gains. They also incorporated this type of action when they handed the ball off to the running back. This backfield action created hesitation in the linebackers, which allowed the Kansas City double teams to create great movement.
Scott Turner has used similar jet action throughout the last seven weeks with similar effect. Combine this with Washington's developing play action passing attack, and it appears that Washington could stress the San Francisco defense.
The Washington took off from Dulles International Airport earlier today to head to California for their Week 16 game against the San Francisco 49ers. Here are the best photos from their trip.(Photos by Emilee Fails/Washington Commanders)
Zach: There is plenty of legitimacy to what Logan said about adding some misdirection into the game plan, but the Commanders have put themselves in playoff contention because of their dedication to being a downhill running team. So, if Washington aims be that against the 49ers, it must give Brian Robinson the ball more often than it did last Sunday.
Robinson carried the ball 12 times against the New York Giants, and while the lack of carries can be partly credited to Washington needing to pass more often, it does not change that Robinson could have had more attempts. Both Turner and Ron Rivera mentioned they would like to get him the ball more, particularly in the red zone.
The numbers against the Giants certainly pointed to him being a productive weapon; after all, he averaged 7.1 yards per carry. But the effect that kind of average can have on the offense is clear. Robinson rarely gets tackled for negative yardage, which gives the unit easier third downs to work with. That, in turn, takes some of the pressure of Taylor Heinicke in those situations.
A healthier dose of Robinson should allow Washington to fix its red zone issues. He has one carry for two yards in that area of the field, and Turner said he intends to keep Robinson in the "front of my mind" in those scenarios.
2. Get in advantageous situations on defense.
Logan: Brock Purdy has been the main story for the 49ers. He shows courage and composure that is unexpected for such a young player. He can make plays in the rhythm and timing of the offense that are pleasantly surprising. However, he is limited as a passer, and Kyle Shanahan knows that. As a result, Shanahan has done a good job of insulating Purdy by leaning heavily on the run game as well as the play-action passing attack.
Purdy has done a great job understating his role and has handled these responsibilities very well. However, Purdy is still untested in game flow situations where he must throw the football. Against Miami, he did lead a two-minute drive that was impressive, making throws under pressure as well as some tight window throws. But there are times in his starts when he shows why he was last pick of the draft.
The goal for Jack Del Rio and the Washington defense should be to stop the run and get the ball into Purdy's hands. Obviously, Purdy has some skill, but Shanahan seems to be deploying a similar game plan to the Commanders in recent weeks: run the football and play excellent defense in the hope of decreasing the offensive variance.
Stopping the run increases offensive variance by giving Purdy more opportunities to throw the football. While Purdy has been efficient, much of that has stemmed from Shanahan's ability to create low difficulty throws that lead to big plays. If Purdy were forced to run a traditional drop back passing offense, his erratic play will likely give the Commanders' defense more opportunities to create turnovers.
This sounds simple, but the 49ers can be patient. They have no need to rush out of their game plan because they understand, much like the Commanders, their defense can keep them in games. As a result, the Washington offense will need to support the defense here by creating some type of urgency for the 49ers, urging them to get out of their comfort zone and force Purdy to win the game.
Obviously, it is a tall task on both sides of the ball, but to win a game like this, it will take a full team effort.
Zach: Purdy has surprised most people with how he has played this season. He has managed to keep the 49ers afloat as the third quarterback to play for the team, and that alone is worthy of recognition. With that said, he has benefited greatly from having Shanahan as a play caller.
As Logan said, the goal for Washington is to make Purdy look like the last pick in the draft, and there are two ways to do this. The first is to put him in third-and-long situations that will force him to keep drives alive with his arm and allow the Commanders' defensive line to crash the pocket around him. Trent Williams will be a challenge for any of Washington's pass-rushers, but Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne should get some opportunities to bring Purdy down.
Given how good the 49ers' offensive line is, though, the pass-rush will need time to get to Purdy. That is why Del Rio could also disguise coverages and make Purdy hold onto the ball longer. Del Rio has a history of making life difficult for younger quarterbacks as they try to decipher all the looks thrown their way. What's more, Washington's secondary is versatile and talented enough to execute these concepts and catch Purdy off balance.
3. Have an answer for George Kittle and Christian McCaffrey.
Logan: The 49ers have the most unique group of skill position players in the NFL with receivers that play running back, fullbacks that play receiver and receivers who block like tight ends. Deebo Samuel is out with an Injury, but San Francisco still has plenty of playmakers, specifically George Kittle and Christian McCaffrey.
Kittle is a tight end who plays with glorious physicality and freakish athleticism that has become a prerequisite for the position. His physical approach is perfect for the play-action/boot concepts of Shanahan's offense.
McCaffrey represents the way the running back position will inevitably head. While backs like Derrick Henry and Robinson will always have a place in the NFL, running backs who run routes like a wide receiver is the future. McCaffrey's ability to run the football with the quarterback under center while also being able to win on an option route against a corner are fantastic and constantly present matchup issues.
One of these players, coupled with an elite receiver, would be easier for the Commanders to handle. There are corners for the receiver, while Kam Curl could handle Kittle or McCaffrey. However, when you have an elite pass-catching back and an elite tight end on the same team, the matchups become more challenging.
Curl could be allocated to one of these players in coverage if he plays. He did an excellent job against McCaffrey when he played for the Panthers and has also gone toe-to-toe with the likes of Travis Kelce. Right now, McCaffrey is the more the more frequently used weapon getting between 20-30 touches a game.
So, who matches up with Kittle? Fortunately, the team as a couple of options. From a physical tools standpoint, Percy Butler is the most talented safety of the bunch, but his limited experience on defense would give me pause. Much like Butler, Jamin Davis has the physical tools to match up with Kittle and has shown tremendous promise as a coverage linebacker. However, he has been inconsistent, which verse a player as explosive as kittle would make me nervous.
That leaves Darrick Forrest as the man I would choose. Forrest has played well above anything I thought he was capable each week. His ability to play in the box and post has given the defense a lot of flexibility. He has not been consistently used as a matchup tool, but he is playing with such confidence that if I had to pick a player to match up with Kittle, it would be him.
Obviously, these matchups will only be fraction of the game plan. Del Rio likes to mix in his zone coverages. But when they man opportunities arise how Washington chooses to match up with these Kittle and McCaffrey will play a critical role in how effective the defense can be.