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5Qs, 5As with the 49ers: When did Brandon Aiyuk develop into Brock Purdy’s WR1?

“Brandon Aiyuk is the alpha when it comes to deep downfield, man-to-man opportunities”

San Francisco 49ers v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Rams head back to the friendly confines of SoFi Stadium against the San Francisco 49ers who are favored by 8 points according to DraftKings Sportsbook. LA is coming off a upset road win over the Seahawks but will be hard-pressed in following up on that performance against a Niners team that has beaten them in eight-straight regular season games.

Fans should expect another heated and physical battle between the two foes on Sunday. I spoke with Ryan Bainbridge from SB Nation’s 49ers blog Niners Nation to gain more insight on the opposition ahead of their Week 2 matchup.

Q - In the 30-7 win over the Steelers, Brock Purdy became the first quarterback to win his first six career starts with at least two touchdown passes in each game. Could you describe what has made Purdy so effective since he took over the Niners’ offense and what kind of limitations of his could the Rams exploit on Sunday?

A - People often claim Kyle Shanahan’s system is QB-friendly, and to an extent it is. He routinely puts the playmakers they have in situations to successfully get separation and operate in open spaces in defenses. But even physically talented quarterbacks might struggle in this system if they can’t keep up with it mentally (see: Trey Lance). The ideal quarterback is one that understands his progressions and can throw with anticipation. Purdy has quickly picked up what Shanahan asks of his quarterbacks mentally. He doesn’t have the strongest arm but he is accurate. And most importantly, he has been able to diagnose opposing defenses pre- and post-snap to get the ball out in rhythm. The biggest surprise that has really elevated Purdy’s game is his creativity. He has the athleticism to outrun a closing pocket and even this past weekend against Pittsburgh was able to spin out of a closing Steeler defender, get his eyes downfield and shoulders squared up to the line of scrimmage to throw to an open receiver. Purdy does struggle with pressure, especially from the interior. He may exit a pocket early or hold on to the ball longer than he needs to. The Rams luckily have one of the greatest defensive tackle-pass rushers of all time, and despite his struggles against San Francisco recently, LA may be able to exploit those shortcomings by putting Aaron Donald in games and stunts that leave him with one-on-one opportunities with the 49ers interior line. Also finding ways to disrupt the timing of receivers with press or bump and run in the secondary could cause hesitation for Purdy that may lead to advantageous results for the Rams.

Q - Brandon Aiyuk had a terrific afternoon in Pittsburgh, leading SF with eight receptions for 129 yards and two touchdowns. Aiyuk is coming off the first 1,000-yard season of his career. There are obviously just so many weapons on this offense but why has Purdy developed such a strong rapport with Aiyuk compared to his other playmakers?

A - Aiyuk has developed into a true “WR1” for a number of different reasons. His strongest attribute is his route running, something that I think most 49ers fans agree is underrated in the national spotlight. In week 1 against Pittsburgh one of his two receiving touchdowns came off of a nasty in-breaking route that left cornerback Patrick Peterson in the dust. Aiyuk shows explosiveness out of stems in his route and has the explosiveness to change direction while accelerating, which can be seen even more after the catch. San Francisco has the best group of YAC playmakers in the league, so Aiyuk isn’t praised as much as other teammates like Deebo Samuel or George Kittle, but he smoothly transitions from catch to runner, making him a threat after the catch. But to answer your question, I think Purdy has developed a trust with Aiyuk in contested catch situations which has maybe separated him from the other skill position players. Primary example would be Aiyuk’s second score against the Steelers where Purdy threw a go-ball to Aiyuk in a one-on-one situation against really strong coverage. Not to say that Samuel and Kittle aren’t also great in contested catch situations, but Aiyuk is the alpha when it comes to deep downfield, man-to-man opportunities.

Q - Speaking of all the weapons on offense, it’s almost unfair with Aiyuk, Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, etc. What kind of gameplan should the Rams develop to try and limit the damage?

A - Great question and if I could provide the answer I would have NFL teams calling me to be their defensive coordinator. But like I mentioned earlier, all of these guys are incredible in gaining yards after the catch. Limiting that is a good starting point and requires tremendous pursuit and effort in running to the ball carrier by all 11 defensive players. I think aggressive defenses that can generate pressure while playing tight man coverage with some sort of press or disruption at the line of scrimmage can find success stopping the 49ers passing offense. Shanahan still wants to run the ball effectively so being able to prevent success on the ground and putting Purdy and company behind the chains would also be an emphasis I would deploy as an opposing defense.

Q - As usual, the defense had a dominant showing, holding the Steelers without a first down until late in the first half. The unit displayed absolutely zero drop off going from DeMeco Ryans to Steve Wilks. Have there been any noticeable changes with the defense under Wilks compared to past units coached by Ryans?

A - It’s still early but there weren’t too many signs of tweaks to the defensive gameplan in Week 1. Shanahan said from the beginning that he didn’t want a complete overhaul of the scheme Ryans ran before taking the HC job in Houston, and Wilks fit that requirement. But there are stark differences from what Wilks was doing last year in Carolina to what San Francisco has been doing the past few years under Ryans and Robert Saleh before him. Wilks has previously utilized a blitz-heavier system with more single-high looks than what the 49ers have applied recently. However, without having the numbers to back it up yet, the defense didn’t appear dramatically different in week one than from their 2022 form. There were a few noticeable blitzes from LB Fred Warner and S Talanoa Hufanga that was more of a rarity under Ryans. However, the defensive line was still creating a ton of pressure when only rushing four and brought down Pickett for five sacks on the day. Time will tell if Wilks’ fingerprints show up more on the defense as the season progresses.

Q - The 49ers are listed as an 8-point favorite with an O/U of 44 according to DraftKings Sportsbook. What are your expectations for the game and what do the Niners have to do to continue their regular season winning streak against LA?

A - San Francisco has won eight straight regular season games against Los Angeles and it would be hard not to feel confident heading into this contest. This is probably the worst roster, on paper, since acquiring Matthew Stafford that the Rams have carried into a 49ers game. But, this team did put together an impressive performance last week in their win against Seattle, even without Cooper Kupp. McVay is easily one of the top ten coaches in the league at designing gameplans to attack their opponents weaknesses and I think they will surprise some people at season’s end. But it’s easy to see why the Niners are favored and I expect them to get the win and cover. Obviously they have had some close contests the past few years, but the firepower San Francisco can create on offense will just be too much for the Rams to match. The Niners defense should keep their hot streak as well as Kupp won’t be in the lineup after heading to IR. I will take the under and, despite the game being in Los Angeles, I just think what San Francisco did to the Steelers should show how hard it will be to score a lot of points on them.