Eagles DC Jonathan Gannon on defending 49ers’ YAC demons: ‘Key to victory for us is tackling’

Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers offense employ a dangerous set of weapons that can turn short tosses into long gains in the blink of an eye.

Entering Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, the Niners lead the NFL in percentage of yards coming after the catch and YAC success % (percentage of receptions where a receiver outgained the expected yards after catch), per Next Gen Stats.

Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon knows the challenge his defense will face in trying to slow Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Ayiuk, George Kittle, et al.

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“Schematically, they get the ball to guys in space, and then they have the guys that are touching the ball, those are part of their unique skill sets where they can break tackles, they can run away from people, they can make people miss in space, and I’m not just talking about one or two guys. It’s really everybody that’s touching the ball,” Gannon said Tuesday, per the official team transcript. “I think it’s a good job by Kyle. He knows how to get guys in space, and then those guys have unique skill sets. That’s why they’re a really good offense is they’ve got playmakers. So, we’re going to have do a good job with those guys because sometimes guys are going to have help, sometimes they won’t depending on the call.

“That will be definitely a key to victory for us is tackling.”

Samuel leads all players in YAC over expected, per Next Gen Stats, with +229, including playoffs. McCaffrey is first among running backs (+209), while Kittle ranked third among TEs (+108).

The Eagles’ defense has been solid tackling this season, allowing 0.7 yards after catch over expected per reception allowed this season, including playoffs (eighth-fewest in NFL)

What makes Shanahan’s offense even more dangerous is the positionless attack they can deploy. Samuel can line up in the backfield. McCaffrey has shined as a pass catcher, leading all running backs in receptions when aligned wide and in the slot. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk ranks third among RBs aligned tight, per Next Gen Stats (note: Next Gen Stats groups RBs and FBs together). Kittle has at least one touchdown from three different alignments, including five when aligned in the slot (tied-most among tight ends), five when aligned tight (trails only Cole Kmet, 7) and one when aligned wide, per NGS.

During Sunday’s Divisional Round win over Dallas, it was a Kittle catch out of the structure of the offense that jump-started Brock Purdy and the 49ers. The play underscores the difficulty of defending the Niners.

“They do a lot of different things with (Kittle),” Gannon noted. “It’s not just like they align him here and these are the couple things that he does. He does a lot of different things for them, and they use him accordingly like they do with (Juszczyk), the fullback, 44, with McCaffrey, with Deebo, with Aiyuk. They use all those guys in different ways. It makes it hard to defend.

“We’ve just got to understand when he’s aligned in different spots how they’re using him and what we need to take away.”

Given the Eagles’ ferocious pass-rush ability, expect Shanahan to call plays to get the ball out quickly, particularly early until Purdy settles in. The Niners will count on their host of playmakers to make defenders miss and move the chains. If the Eagles’ second-level players don’t tackle well in space, it could be a long day for Gannon’s defense.

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