What’s the secret to shutting down the Brock Purdy-led San Francisco 49ers offense with his All-Pro weapons?
It’s not impossible on either side, as a staggering 11 teams – the Bengals, Bills, Broncos, Browns, Eagles, Lions, Packers, Raiders, Rams, Ravens, and Vikings – defeated the two Super Bowl teams during the regular season. For comparison, the Chiefs and Eagles lost a combined six times in the regular season ahead of their Super Bowl matchup last year.
How did those teams come out on top against the Niners? We asked our writers who cover them to go back to those specific games and help us figure out how it happened.
How to Beat the 49ers
Zac Jackson, staff writer covering the Cleveland Browns
10/15: Browns 19, 49ers 17
The 49ers struggled to move the ball on the Browns, and though Deebo Samuel (shoulder) and Christian McCaffrey (oblique) making early exits was obviously part of that, the 49ers struggled to block the Browns’ aggressive front. The 49ers marched 85 yards to start the game but struggled to get any traction the rest of the way and finished 3-of-12 in trying to convert third downs.
The 49ers managed just 21 total yards and one first down on their first six possessions of the second half, and the Browns, with backup P.J. Walker at quarterback, used good defense and good field position to get four second-half field goals and win.
The Browns’ defense got to Purdy and consistently sped him up, and without McCaffrey in the second half, those must-pass situations on second and third down were anything but easy.
Related: Our writers explain the game plans used to defeat the Chiefs this season
Alec Lewis, staff writer covering the Minnesota Vikings
10/23: Vikings 22, 49ers 17
The Vikings beat the 49ers at their peak of the season. This was Week 7. Quarterback Kirk Cousins had not yet torn his Achilles. Minnesota’s defense had not yet been ravaged by injuries. This victory, which happened in prime time on Monday night, offered Vikings fans a glimpse of what they felt their team could be.
Head coach Kevin O’Connell and the Vikings’ offense staff structure their offensive game plan around pass protection. They limited the aggression of the 49ers pass rush. Right tackle Brian O’Neill held up against Nick Bosa. Center Garrett Bradbury stood firm against Arik Armstead. And the Vikings’ chip help on the edge provided Cousins a chance to dish the ball. Rookie wide receiver Jordan Addison ripped the ball from 49ers cornerback Charvarius Ward before halftime and galloped to the end zone, altering the momentum.
49ers quarterback Brock Purdy feasted against soft zone coverages for most of the first half, extending plays with his legs. He did, though, throw two interceptions in the second half (and the following day was diagnosed with a concussion). Notably, the 49ers were also without superstar wide receiver Deebo Samuel. His absence placed a lot on Christian McCaffrey’s plate, but he only finished with 45 yards on 15 carries, as the Vikings won, 22-17.
Paul Dehner, staff writer covering the Cincinnati Bengals
10/29: Bengals 31, 49ers 17
The Bengals dominated the 49ers by playing from ahead back in October for a 31-17 win. Notably, Deebo Samuel and Trent Williams were both out for the 49ers. Still, the combination of a tricky game plan rattling Brock Purdy and creating turnovers, along with one of the best performances of Joe Burrow’s career, kept the game in firm control for Cincinnati.
The 49ers left the underneath passing game open and Burrow at one point completed 19 consecutive passes. He rarely got greedy, just taking completion after completion, finishing at 88 percent and passer rating of 134.8. Importantly, Burrow used his legs to break down the 49ers defense, scrambling for 45 yards and four first downs to keep drives alive.
Logan Wilson was able to pick Purdy off with a zone concept muddying the picture in the middle of the field and Germaine Pratt added a pick on an ill-advised scrambling throw by Purdy in the red zone.
Playing from ahead, staying patient in the pass game and taking advantage of Purdy mistakes could prove a repeatable method against the 49ers.
Jeff Zrebiec, staff writer covering the Baltimore Ravens
12/25: Ravens 33, 49ers 19
The Ravens 33-19 victory over the San Francisco 49ers back on Christmas night featured a superb defensive effort in a season full of them for Mike Macdonald’s group. The Ravens intercepted Brock Purdy four times and his replacement, Sam Darnold, once. Purdy got unlucky with a couple of deflections that led to turnovers. However, Macdonald’s defensive game plan completely took the normally unflappable quarterback out of his comfort zone.
The Ravens threw a ton of different looks at Purdy. They simulated pressures and put bodies in areas of the field that Purdy likes to throw in. They mixed up their blitzers, brought different guys off the edge and tackled extremely well in space. It was a masterclass by Macdonald. A number of Ravens players said it was one of the most physically demanding games that they’ve ever played in.
In the end, the Ravens matched and even exceeded the 49ers physicality and that, along with Lamar Jackson’s ability to capitalize on San Francisco mistakes with both his arms and his legs, were the difference in the game.
Jourdan Rodrigue, staff writer covering the Los Angeles Rams
1/7/24: Rams 21, 49ers 20
The Rams’ Week 18 win against the 49ers featured mostly backups playing backups – Carson Wentz against Sam Darnold, starters pulled throughout the first half, etc., as both teams focused instead on the playoffs beginning the following week. Los Angeles head coach Sean McVay did not even call the game – offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, a former Kyle Shanahan coach, did instead. Neither team deployed a complex offensive game plan, as they didn’t want to show anything before the postseason.
In that game, Wentz’s ability to move the ball with his legs, bolder-than-usual calls on late downs and a shutout second half by the Rams defense lifted them over their rivals. It’s hard to take a ton from it in terms of strategy, though, considering the circumstances of both rosters and game plans at that point in the regular season.
(Top photo: Robin Alam/ISI Photos/Getty Images; in-line photo: Loren Elliott/Getty Images, Stephen Maturen/Getty Images, Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)