The Washington Commanders are coming back to FedExField to take on the San Francisco 49ers on New Year's Eve. Here are three keys the Burgundy & Gold getting an upset, presented by KIA.
1. Make life difficult for Brock Purdy.
It's wild to think that people had so many questions about Brock Purdy last season, many of which were justified with him being the last pick in the draft. Now, he's playing better than almost any quarterback.
Purdy looked fine managing an impressive San Francisco offense a year ago. Now, he's managed to elevate it. He's second in passing yards, fifth in completion rate (68.8%) and second in touchdowns (29) all while ranking 21st with 416 attempts. Sure, having Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel while working behind one of the best offensive lines in football helps, but he also leads the league in QBR (71.7) while also ranking first in deep passes of 20-plus yards, according to Pro Football Focus.
Few have succeeded at disrupting Kyle Shanahan's methods of getting the most out of Purdy's abilities, but it's one of the best ways to weaken the 49ers' offense. Purdy has the eighth best completion rate when pressured, and he's tied for fourth most interceptions. He's also had 11 turnover worthy plays this year, which is tied for seventh, and he's second behind Sam Howell in batted down passes.
The Commanders have been in a slump when it comes to getting quarterbacks on the ground for the past month. They only have three sacks in the last four games, and all of them came against the Rams. Their pass-rush win-rate is in the bottom half of the league, as is their pass-rush grade from PFF.
While the 49ers' offensive line is a challenge for any defensive front, the Commanders must find a way to get past it, whether it's from blitzes or players simply winning their matchups, if they hope to get an upset.
2. Get Christian McCaffrey on the ground.
In an offense that is full to the brim with dynamic playmakers, Christian McCaffrey continues to stand out as the 49ers' best weapon.
McCaffrey was good for the 49ers last season following his trade from the Panthers; he has been great in 2023, recording a career-high 1,395 yards to go with 21 total touchdowns. McCaffrey is known for being an elusive player, and so far, he's lived up to that reputation yet again with an elusive rating of 65.8 from PFF, another career high for the 27-year-old back.
McCaffrey's physicality, an underrated part of his skill set, has been on display this season as well. Not only does he lead the league with 893 yards after contact, but he has also forced 57 missed tackles, which is tied with Travis Etienne Jr. for the most among running backs.
And McCaffrey makes defenses pay for not bringing him down. He has 41 runs of at least 10 yards and the most breakaway yards for his position. So, McCaffrey is a player who can run players over and run away from them. It's a deadly combination that makes it easy to see why he's the NFL's best running back this season.
Missing tackles has been a problem for Washington all season. They have 118 this season, which is already higher than the 105 the team had in 2022 and its most since 2019. That will need to improve on Sunday. Otherwise, it'll be another big day for McCaffrey, who has had four 100-yard performances in the last five games.
3. Get the ball out quickly.
Jacoby Brissett is questionable with a hamstring injury for Sunday, but whoever plays quarterback for the Commanders is going to face one of the most fearsome pass-rushes this season when they line up under center for his first start of the season.
It's hard to find something the 49ers' defensive line isn't good at. Nick Bosa, who has double-digit sacks for the third consecutive season despite getting the third most double teams among edge defenders, leads a defensive line that is 10th in pass-rush win rate. Bosa is constantly in quarterbacks' faces with 88 total pressures. As a team, they have 14 players with at least one sack this season.
The 49ers are deep at every position, but defensive line might be their most talented from top to bottom. Arik Armstead, Javon Hargrave, Chase Young and Javon Kinlaw are just a few of the more notable names on the roster, all of which excel at rushing the passer.
Brissett, who has yet to be sacked this season, is going to face a relentless wave of pressure from Bosa and his teammates, assuming that he plays. So, the best way to minimize that is by getting the ball out quickly to let his playmakers do the work. Brissett has done a decent job of that; over the last two games, he's gotten rid of the ball at an average speed of 2.5 seconds. While it's a small sample size, it's still one of the faster release times among quarterbacks this season.
That has led to some success for Brissett. His average depth of target is just nine yards, and yet the Commanders' offense amassed 328 combined yards with him under center against the Rams and Jets.
That is not an instant recipe for success. The 49ers still have a solid unit in other areas of their defense, the most obvious example being Fred Warner. Getting the pressure off Brissett or Howell does give the offense its best chance at being functional, and if the unit can get in a groove, it should lead to Washington at least being more competitive.