There is no question that the San Francisco 49ers (1-2) will have their hands full on Sunday as they face the Philadelphia Eagles (3-0). A dynamic offense that is much like an up-tempo run-and-gun basketball game, Eagles head coach Chip Kelly has his team playing fast, aggressive, and bold. And while the 49ers defense has to deal with the multiple formations they use, two players continue to be the engine that makes that offense go in All-Pro RB LeSean McCoy and RB Darren Sproles.
Aside from Minnesota Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, McCoy is the best running back in the NFL in my opinion. His ability to make plays after the catch or handoff is simply amazing. His vision is bar-none and his knack for making people miss is a thing of beauty. But the question remains, can he be stopped by the 49ers defense? I believe he can be contained but not stopped.
The 49ers have a great defensive mind in DC Vic Fangio. One of the best in the game, Fangio will ensure McCoy is stalked at all times. Whether using ILB Patrick Willis to spy on McCoy coming out of the flat on passing downs or using SS Antoine Bethea to provide help in the box, Fangio will do whatever it takes to keep McCoy bottled up. And while he will likely be making plays outside the tackle box, look for Kelly to use him creatively coming out of the backfield to get him one-on-one with a safety or linebacker as McCoy will often run a shallow dig-route when blitzing occurs.
Make no mistake McCoy is a man among boys and at the top of his game, so the 49ers defense will need to stop him on initial contact. McCoy has the elusiveness, agility, and speed to make people miss, so it will be up to the 49ers front seven to bring him down on initial contact or yards after contact will occur which may result in first-downs. And if McCoy is contained, look for Kelly to go with his plan B in diminutive but speedy running back, Sproles.
Sproles does it all! He can return punts, he can line up in the slot, and run between the tackles. Simply put he’s the epitome of a swiss army knife. To think that Sproles is not as dangerous as McCoy is ridiculous. Both of these players are deadly threats in their own right and will look to prove it on Sunday.
In five career games against San Francisco, Sproles has amassed only eight carries for 20 yards. However, the passing game is a different story, as Sproles has racked up 31 catches for 232 yards and one touchdown. A dual-threat running back that is a mismatch for first-round pick (No. 30) DB Jimmie Ward if he lines up against him in the slot, look for Eagles QB Nick Foles to target Sproles anytime that mismatch arises off the quick-slants. Ward has had trouble in camp playing the quick slant and not much has changed since the season began so expect Kelly to use Sproles a lot in the slot.
One way to counter this mismatch is by having Ward play outside leverage allowing Sproles to cut inside toward the inside linebackers. If this happens, Willis and ILB Michael Wilhoite can then put a hit on Sproles coming across the middle, making him pay a toll. But would a flag ensue? He’s only 5-6 and that will surely fall under the helmet-to-helmet category as Willis would practically have to hit from his knees to avoid the penalty. All joking aside, the penalties need to stop, so Willis along with the other defensive players will have to find a legal way to wrap up the diminutive running back in real-time.
With the 49ers defense geared to face the best 1-2 running back tandem in the NFL, they will need to bring them down on initial contact while setting the edge, as both of these players are home-run threats once they have real-estate to work with. And while I think that McCoy can be contained, look for him to get his touches, as I predict him to have a stat line around 18 carries for 87 yards and one touchdown while adding three catches for 18 yards.