The quintessential San Francisco 49ers forward pass travels roughly 15 feet through the air. It may possibly be thrown by the rookie quarterback Brock Purdy to targets like Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey or George Kittle, who then dodge, weave, sprint or steam roll through defenders to rework what looked like a meager 5-yard pass right into a highlight.
The 49ers have long been notorious for relying upon short tosses to speedy yet burly receivers to maximise yards after the catch, or YAC. The 49ers led the N.F.L. in YAC per reception in 2019 (6.6), 2020 (6.2) and 2021 (6.5). They tied the Kansas City Chiefs and Carolina Panthers for the league lead with 6.6 YAC per reception within the 2022 regular season.
That’s right: Kansas City, while still an aerial circus, also relies heavily on yards after the catch to complement its offense. So do the Philadelphia Eagles, who finished tied for fifth within the N.F.L. with 5.8 YAC per reception. Even the Cincinnati Bengals, whose signature play stays a moon launch from Joe Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase, finished tied for eleventh within the league with 5.2 YAC per reception.
All 4 teams that reached their conference’s championship game counted as much or more on their playmakers to generate passing yardage as they did upon the fastball-hurling heroics of their quarterbacks. Yet there may be rather more than one technique to spin some YAC.
The 49ers’ offense, originally built for the unassuming Jimmy Garoppolo, is nearly custom tailored to the needs of an inexperienced passer like Purdy.
Samuel is a receiver with the moves and power of a running back; McCaffrey a running back with a receiver’s speed and hands; and Kittle a decent end with the traits of a Marvel superhero. No defense is provided to cover three receivers with such diverse skill sets, and Coach Kyle Shanahan clumps them into unpredictable configurations then sends them into unexpected patches of the sector in the hunt for mismatches. Purdy plays more like some extent guard than a quarterback, dispensing dimes after which watching the drives and dunks.
Once Purdy’s tosses reach their targets, the juking and trucking begins. Broken and eluded tackles are an unofficial stat, but per Sports Info Solutions, Samuel broke or eluded 27 tackles on receptions, the best figure within the N.F.L. amongst receivers, despite missing 4 games with injuries. McCaffrey broke or eluded 13 tackles after joining the 49ers via a trade from the Panthers in October. Brandon Aiyuk, the 49ers’ deep threat, added 16 broken or eluded tackles, while Kittle pitched in 12.
Because of all of the evasive maneuvers, the everyday 49ers completion traveled just 5.4 yards downfield through the air, tied for the ninth-lowest figure within the league, but resulted in a 12.0 yard gain, the league’s fifth-highest average.
Patrick Mahomes hardly requires training wheels to operate Kansas City’s offense. When Kansas City traded the All-Pro deep threat Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins before the season, nevertheless, Mahomes and the team downshifted right into a shorter passing attack built around Travis Kelce, who led all tight ends with 24 broken or eluded tackles within the regular season and caught 14 passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s 27-20 divisional-round victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
On the rare occasions Kelce shouldn’t be open, Mahomes often jettisons short lobs to running back Jerick McKinnon, whose 9.7 YAC per reception ranked third within the N.F.L. Kansas City’s game plans are also loaded with shovel passes and other glorified handoffs designed to deliver the ball to Kelce (5.9 YAC per reception) or speedsters like Kadarius Toney (7.3), who was acquired in a midseason cope with the Giants.
Mahomes sprained his right ankle against the Jaguars, limiting his mobility and skill to plant his foot to throw downfield. He is predicted to play against the Bengals within the A.F.C. championship game Sunday; if he cannot, the backup Chad Henne (essentially an assistant coach in pads and a helmet) gets the beginning. Either way, Kansas City will probably rely heavily on its YAC game.
For pass-catchers like Samuel and Kelce, yards after catch typically involve a slalom through rush-hour traffic. The Eagles’ A.J. Brown, nevertheless, generates much of his YAC on leisurely jogs into the tip zone after torching a defender on a deep catch. Brown produced 152 yards after catch on passes that traveled 20 yards through the air to achieve him, the best figure within the league.
Not the entire Eagles’ yards after catch come on glorified victory laps, nevertheless. Because the Giants learned their 38-7 loss to the Eagles on Saturday, Philadelphia Coach Nick Sirianni likes to scatter his receivers near the sideline so Jalen Hurts can fling quick screens immediately after the snap. By the point defenders sift through all of the blocking and braiding, tight end Dallas Goedert (7.6 YAC per reception) or receiver DeVonta Smith (5.2) might already be in the long run zone.
A powerful downfield passing game can force the opposing defense to play on its heels, which creates numerous open space for catch-and-run opportunities in the midst of the sector. Kansas City and Philadelphia use such tactics effectively, but Cincinnati excels at punishing opponents who line their safeties up within the stadium car parking zone to stop the deep threats Chase, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins.
Bengals running backs Joe Mixon (7.8 YAC per reception) and Samaje Perine (8.4) often leak out of the backfield for brief Burrow lobs when defenses are preoccupied elsewhere. Chase himself sometimes evades defenders after catching quick screens (16 broken or eluded tackles in only 12 games) or threatens them with what looks like a deep route, then turns to snag a brief catch before strolling through the open countryside as they stumble backward. All of those short jabs inevitably set opponents up for a deep haymaker.
A passing game built around quick throws neutralizes the opponent’s pass rush: bad news for the Eagles’ defense, which led the league with 70 regular-season sacks and hopes to pressure Purdy into making mistakes. A YAC-focused offense also forces defenders to make difficult open-field tackles, spelling trouble for Kansas City, which missed 82 regular-season tackles, tied for sixth most within the N.F.L.
While the opposite remaining Super Bowl contenders have enjoyed success after the catch this 12 months, Shanahan’s 49ers remain the experts at forcing tiny cornerbacks to tangle with the likes of Samuel, making sluggish linebackers chase McCaffrey and Kittle and ensuring other defenders do the things they will not be superb at. If the 49ers finally win a Super Bowl using their YAC tactics, the message needs to be clear for the N.F.L.’s rebuilding franchises: Flood the sector with versatile ballhandlers, be creative, and don’t be afraid to take the ball out of the quarterback’s hands somewhat more often.
Knowing the N.F.L., nevertheless, those franchises would more likely come away from a 49ers championship considering, “let’s do whatever it takes to search out the subsequent Brock Purdy.”