After struggling last week to sustain drives midway during their 30-21 defeat to the New England Patriots, the San Francisco 49ers offensive unit will have to find more ways to move the ball when the blitzing defense of the Philadelphia Eagles comes to Candlestick Park this Sunday for an important NFC conference showdown.
Both teams are 2-3. Both are coming off back-to-back losses and both are in need of a big win. But for the 49ers, Sunday's contest brings an opportunity to compete against one of the most respected defenses in the National Football League.
Led by defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, the Eagles have built a reputation around the League as a team who will bring extra defensive players with the intent to force you to stop their pressure.
That's exactly why the 49ers offense is preparing rigorously for Philadelphia's multiple blitz packages for this Sunday.
"The Eagles typically bring a ton of pressure and they bring it on every down," center Eric Heitmann said. "It's not just third down, they'll even blitz on run downs. For us as an offensive unit we have to be able to pick up that pressure if we want to be successful."
The 49ers o-line will keep close watch on Eagles defensive end Juqua Parker, who leads the team with 3.5 sacks. Two of their other defensive ends, Darren Howard and Trent Cole also have 2.5 and 2 sacks respectively.
"Their ends really do a great job of getting up the field and they're very active guys," Heitmann said. "They've shown they have a variety of moves in the pass rush game."
But it's not just the pass rushing ends who will be trying to get in the backfield and stop the likes of JT O'Sullivan and Frank Gore.
"A lot of times they bring more than you can block," Heitmann said. "So as an offensive line, we have to be able to handle the most dangerous guys and the quarterback has to be able to get the ball out hot. If we can do that, if we can block the guys that are the most dangerous, we do have a good chance to win."
Each member of the 49ers offense is well aware of the number of blitzes that Philadelphia's defense has been known for sending at opposing teams.
"You can't help but be conscious of it," quarterback JT O'Sullivan said. "When you turn on the film it shows up. But it's not the only thing that they're good at. They're a solid defense across the board so we've got our work cut out for us."
The responsibility of protecting O'Sullivan doesn't fall solely on the big guys up front though. San Francisco's tight ends and backs must chip in and slow down a Philadelphia defense that boasts 18 sacks in five games, which is tied for the lead in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I expect to see everything," running back Michael Robinson said. "I expect to see them sending everybody. Linebackers, corners, safeties, anybody who is out there on the field, expect them to be blitzing at some point and some time. We just have to be aware, know our assignments, know our job and just do what we do."
One way the 49ers hope to combat the Eagles pressure defense is by making their adjustments prior to the snap of the ball based on what they see from the defense.
"Normally when a team blitzes a lot, we have a lot of hot reads and sight adjusts," tight end Vernon Davis said.
Davis, who has been quiet statistically so far this season with five catches in five games, has not lost his confidence or his desire to help the team in the passing game.
"I want to help out as much as I can as far as catching passes. That's what I'm here to do, make plays. That's what I want to do," he said. "I guess there's really nothing I can do if two-three guys are running with me. You can't stop that. If they're running with you, they're running with you for a reason."
While Davis has attracted attention from linebackers and safeties, the 49ers receiving corps have been able to use that open space and make plays in the passing game. The 49ers top three wideouts, Isaac Bruce, Bryant Johnson and Arnaz Battle have 13 or more catches this season.
The 49ers wide receivers would like to continue establishing their presence in games, but will have a tough matchup against the Eagles defense, who has three top-notch cornerbacks, Asante Samuel, Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard in their lineup up to the challenge of facing Bruce, Johnson and Battle.
For many of the 49ers wideouts, the chance to go up against a corner with the caliber of skills as Samuel is a welcomed challenge.
"He's a veteran guy, he's been in the League awhile and he's been known to make plays," rookie wide receiver Josh Morgan said of Samuel. "His technique is fundamentally sound and he doesn't make a lot of mistakes out there. He doesn't let anyone beat him. So what we have to do as receivers is, go after him and compete every play and make plays."
The Eagles secondary also features a six-time Pro Bowl safety in Brian Dawkins, who is a playmaker against the run and the pass.
"B-Dawk, he's critical to their defense," Robinson said. "He does a lot of things. Some safeties cover better or play the run better, he does both well. They have two safeties that cover pretty well and they both play the run really well. They also don't mind bringing either one of them. We have to keep our eyes open, know our jobs and our assignments."
On first and second downs, is when the 49ers hope to make the most yardage, thus keeping them in more manageable, and more favorable third down situations.
"For us this week, we have to be really good on first and second downs," Heitmann said. "We cannot have third and long situations against this defense, because of the pressures that they bring. If we stay out of third and long then we have a good chance to move the ball down the field. On first and second down we have got to be able to run the ball effectively, because our offense
opens up after that."
Getting the run game going this week would help in shifting a time of possession battle that was so one-sided a week ago against the Patriots.
"It's very important for us to keep the ball and keep our defense off the field," Robinson said.
Field position is going to play a big part in this. We have an explosive offense, they also have an explosive offense. Whoever can sustain drives longer, whoever can control the ball can control field position and the game."