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The Most Important Passing Yards Are Gained on the Ground

Quarterbacks get all the credit but the teams left in the N.F.L. playoffs thrive because playmakers like Deebo Samuel, Travis Kelce, A.J. Brown and Samaje Perine pick up yards after their catches.

49ers receiver Deebo Samuel runs with the ball in his right hand and pinned to his chest. A Cowboys defender dives toward him from behind to try to make a tackle.
Deebo Samuel averages an 8.8 yard gain after every catch to lead a San Francisco 49ers offense built on short passes.Credit...Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

The quintessential San Francisco 49ers forward pass travels roughly 15 feet through the air. It can 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 transform what looked like a meager 5-yard pass into a highlight.

The 49ers have long been notorious for relying upon short tosses to speedy yet burly receivers to maximize 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 in the 2022 regular season.

That’s right: Kansas City, while still an aerial circus, also relies heavily on yards after the catch to supplement its offense. So do the Philadelphia Eagles, who finished tied for fifth in the N.F.L. with 5.8 YAC per reception. Even the Cincinnati Bengals, whose signature play remains a moon launch from Joe Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase, finished tied for 11th in the league with 5.2 YAC per reception.

All four 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 is much more than one way to spin some YAC.

The 49ers’ offense, originally built for the unassuming Jimmy Garoppolo, is almost 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 tight end with the traits of a Marvel superhero. No defense is equipped 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 field in search of mismatches. Purdy plays more like a point guard than a quarterback, dishing out dimes and then 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 highest figure in the N.F.L. among receivers, despite missing four 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.

Thanks to all the evasive maneuvers, the typical 49ers completion traveled just 5.4 yards downfield through the air, tied for the ninth-lowest figure in 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, however, Mahomes and the team downshifted into a shorter passing attack built around Travis Kelce, who led all tight ends with 24 broken or eluded tackles in 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.

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Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce’s tackle-busting runs helped the team lead the N.F.L. in total yards after catch this season.Credit...Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

On the rare occasions Kelce is not open, Mahomes often jettisons short lobs to running back Jerick McKinnon, whose 9.7 YAC per reception ranked third in 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 deal with the Giants.

Mahomes sprained his right ankle against the Jaguars, limiting his mobility and ability to plant his foot to throw downfield. He is expected to play against the Bengals in 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 start. 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, however, generates much of his YAC on leisurely jogs into the end 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 reach him, the highest figure in the league.

Not all of the Eagles’ yards after catch come on glorified victory laps, however. As 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 time defenders sift through all the blocking and braiding, tight end Dallas Goedert (7.6 YAC per reception) or receiver DeVonta Smith (5.2) might already be in the end zone.

A strong downfield passing game can force the opposing defense to play on its heels, which creates lots of open space for catch-and-run opportunities in the middle of the field. Kansas City and Philadelphia use such tactics effectively, but Cincinnati excels at punishing opponents who line their safeties up in the stadium parking lot 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 short Burrow lobs when defenses are preoccupied elsewhere. Chase himself sometimes evades defenders after catching quick screens (16 broken or eluded tackles in just 12 games) or threatens them with what looks like a deep route, then turns to snag a short 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 in the N.F.L.

While the other remaining Super Bowl contenders have enjoyed success after the catch this year, 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 are not very good at. If the 49ers finally win a Super Bowl using their YAC tactics, the message should be clear for the N.F.L.’s rebuilding franchises: Flood the field with versatile ballhandlers, be creative, and do not be afraid to take the ball out of the quarterback’s hands a little more often.

Knowing the N.F.L., however, those franchises would more likely come away from a 49ers championship thinking, “let’s do whatever it takes to find the next Brock Purdy.”