Commanders’ playoff hopes may come down to stopping a third-stringer

Commanders’ playoff hopes may come down to stopping a third-stringer

ASHBURN — Jonathan Allen started listing the offensive assets that the San Francisco 49ers have at their disposal. There’s Trent Williams at left tackle, Christian McCaffrey at running back, Kyle Juszczyk at fullback, George Kittle at tight end and Brandon Ayiuk and Deebo Samuel at wide receiver. Samuel (ankle) isn’t even healthy, but they still have plenty of weapons. 

So it’s no wonder, Allen said, that Brock Purdy has still been able to keep the 49ers’ offense humming — despite the rookie being San Francisco’s third quarterback of the year.

“With the masterminds they’ve got back there,” the Washington Commanders defensive tackle said, “they’re going to be a good offense.” 

Those “masterminds” refers in part to 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, the former Washington offensive coordinator who has been long regarded as one of the top offensive innovators in the NFL. That label has especially held up this season as San Francisco ranks seventh in yards and ninth in offensive DVOA (efficiency) — even as the 49ers lost quarterbacks Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo to injury. 

Constant quarterback changes can be a nightmare for any NFL team. The Commanders know that better than most. But for San Francisco, the 10-4 49ers have been able to absorb the churn as Purdy — the last pick in this year’s draft — has performed well enough for San Francisco to not just stay afloat, but thrive.

To keep their playoff hopes alive, the Commanders (7-6-1) will have to stop a player who began the year as a third-stringer. But over the last three games, Purdy has bee no ordinary third-stringer.

“It’s a great story,” Commanders defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said of Purdy. “It really is. The guy came in unfazed, big matchup against the Dolphins and just played lights out. And hasn’t looked back. It’s a great story.

“I’ve got family out in the Bay Area and they were all talking about it.” 

Purdy, a four-year starter at Iowa State, not only entered San Francisco’s Week 13 game against the Dolphins last month after Garoppolo suffered a broken foot, but he helped lead the 49ers to a victory with an efficient 25-of-37, 210-yard outing. Over the next two weeks, the 22-year-old posted passer ratings of 134 and 117 — and combined for 402 yards, a 70% completion percentage, four touchdowns and zero interceptions. 

Shanahan helps alleviate some of the burden for Purdy by designing a crafty run game, which has thrived with McCaffrey, San Francisco’s big midseason trade acquisition. Like his father Mike, Kyle Shanahan is known for getting production out of the run game no matter the running back in the backfield. 

The 49ers have had a different leading rusher in each of Shanahan’s six seasons at the helm, though McCaffrey — with his threat as a receiver — seems particularly well-suited to fit Shahanan’s offense. Defensive end James Smith-Williams praised the way the 49ers get teams to “run sideways,” while safety Bobby McCain complimented how San Francisco gets its playmakers out in space.

Also helping matters for San Francisco: the 49ers have the top-ranked defense in football. San Francisco’s unit is holding teams to a league-low 15 points per game, bolstered by a dominant front four and respectable back seven. 

“They get a lot of production out of their linebacker play with Fred Warner,” wide receiver Terry McLaurin said. “You can tell he’s really the leader of their defense. He does a great job of getting them in their right calls and they trust him to really guard any position.”

But the reason that the 49ers — a 7 ½ point favorite for Saturday’s game — are still thought of to be Super Bowl contenders is that oddsmakers don’t seem to view Purdy as much of a drop off from Lance or Garoppolo. As much as Shanahan’s offenses have drawn praise, the coach still struggled to win games his first two seasons in part because of inconsistent quarterback play.  

There’s been little regression, if any, with Purdy. The quarterback has still hit on quick-read passes and play-action shots that are staples of Shanahan’s system. 

“A lot of guys didn’t give him the chance (after) being drafted the last pick of the draft,” said quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who said he relates to Purdy’s underdog status. “I kind of feel that similarity towards him. He’s doing a great job, man. You watch the film, he knows what he’s doing. He throws a nice tight spiral. He’s moving that offense well. Our defense got a tough task on their hands. 

“Hopefully he can take a week off and not play as well.”