There's no more unlikely quarterback matchup on Super Wild Card Weekend than Geno Smith against Brock Purdy. In fact, it's probably the least likely matchup we've ever seen. At season's start, Smith and the Seahawks had the fourth-longest odds to make the postseason, while Purdy was simply trying to make the roster after being taken with the final pick of the 2022 NFL Draft.
Yet four months later, here we are. The 49ers won both regular-season meetings, though only one of the two came with Purdy at the helm. The first, back in September, featured Trey Lance starting and getting hurt and Jimmy Garoppolo coming in. So, while we can't learn as much from that one from a 49ers' offensive perspective, we can learn plenty from the more recent meeting.
Here's what to look for Saturday afternoon.
When the Seahawks have the ball
San Francisco star defensive Nick Bosa is the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year, and the Seahawks certainly contributed to his candidacy. In two games against the Seahawks, Bosa had three sacks, two forced fumbles and an absurd 13 pressures. He's an absolute terror for any opponent, and the Seahawks will certainly hope to have a plan that limits his game-wrecking opportunities.
Bosa, of course, is not the only threat on a loaded 49ers defense. For the Seahawks to be successful, they have to allow Smith time to throw. In two games against San Francisco, Smith was pressured on 39 percent of his dropbacks (second-highest of any opponent) and took, on average, 2.6 seconds to throw, third-fastest of any opponent he faced. But when he was given extra blockers and extra time, he was able to use his arm strength and the 49ers' aggression to his advantage. Here are three examples:
Smith had the league's highest completion percentage and lowest off-target rate when pressured this season, and he averaged a very respectable 8.4 yards per scramble when pressured, a higher number than Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, among others. Will he have to improvise some against this defense? Yes. Absolutely. But Smith can do it if needed -- and if afforded enough time to hit the top of his dropback before doing do.
This is another good example in which multiple extra blockers -- this time two tight ends -- makes a world of difference. Smith is never pressured and can deliver a strike to Tyler Lockett, even on a long-developing route.
Of the three plays, this may be my favorite. Lockett is in motion, Bosa (97) commits fully on the read option, and even star linebacker Fred Warner (54) flows with the play for one extra step. Smith's mobility is enough of a threat that both Warner and Samuel Womack III (26) have to step up to prevent a run, and Smith has an easy toss to Lockett to get his offense out of the shadow of its own goalposts.
The Seahawks' top two wide receivers, Lockett and DK Metcalf, are terrific. The Seahawks don't need to spread things out with several receivers to be effective. Rather, they must protect Smith with extra blockers and misdirection, allowing him to drive the ball downfield to his two favorite targets.
Geno Smith Expected Points Added per Dropback vs. 49ers This Season
6 or more blockers
No play action
Those sorts of numbers are in line with Smith's season as a whole. He's at his best with enough protection to process what's going on downfield off of play action. Attacking the 49ers' defense is no easy task, but playing to Smith's strengths would be enormously beneficial.
When the 49ers have the ball...
How rare is it for Purdy to be starting Saturday? Consider this: He and Skylar Thompson (Dolphins) will become the first seventh-round rookies to start a playoff game since 1950. The good news for Purdy is that he should have his full complement of weapons, and if things get ugly -- and they might, weather-wise -- he can lean on a strong rushing attack. In the two matchups this season combined, the 49ers rushed 79 times for 359 yards and three touchdowns.
So expect to see a lot of Christian McCaffrey and Elijah Mitchell, and not just in the run game. While the Seahawks have gotten unexpectedly great performances from their corners defending wide receivers, the defense as a whole has been abysmal against running backs and tight ends.
Seahawks Defense This Season by Target Position (with League Rank)
Yards per attempt
Against Seattle specifically, Purdy targeted running backs or tight ends on season-high 52.9 percent of his throws. Safe to say, things went pretty well, especially when it came to tight end.
Notice how on both examples, Purdy uses his eyes (and in the first clip, two pump fakes) to manipulate the defense to overreact to defend the flats. The 49ers are excellent at using pre-snap motion: Only the Dolphins used motion on a higher percentage of plays this season, and only the Chiefs and Bills averaged more yards per play on plays with motion. Purdy had the league's best passer rating (min. 100 attempts) on plays with motion. In the Week 15 game against Seattle, San Francisco averaged 7.7 yards per play when using motion, its third-best in any game this season.
If there's one area the Seahawks can disrupt Purdy, it's by generating some pressure without blitzing, and this is something they do well. This season, Seattle ranks sixth in pressure rate when not blitzing (32.4 percent) and third in sack rate when not blitzing (7.7 percent). Purdy, meanwhile, took a sack on 7.6 percent of his dropbacks when not blitzed this season, fifth-highest in the NFL. It's a big ask to not bring extra players -- especially against a team that runs the ball so well -- but it could be the Seahawks' best plan of attack.