3TFO: 49ers @ Packers, Wild Card Round
The final wild card game of the weekend brings the 12-4 San Francisco 49ers to Green Bay to play the 8-7-1 Packers. The forecast is calling for a high of zero degrees on Sunday. With kickoff being at 3:40 CST, the temperature will be dropping throughout the game. If the predictions hold up, this will be one of the Top 10 coldest games in NFL history. This kind of cold shouldn’t be an advantage to either team.
The Packers have won three of their last four and are coming off a thrilling division-title winning finale against the Bears. However, they have struggled mightily on defense and needed some help from both the Bears and the Lions to get into the dance. The 49ers come in as winners of six straight games and their recent success against the Packers (won three straight) should also give them a little mental edge. In the divisional round in last year’s playoffs, Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick combined for 39 carries for 300 yards. The Packers held the same duo to 28 carries for 66 yards in the first meeting this year, but in turn allowed Kaepernick to throw for over 400 yards and three touchdowns. The last couple of years, the 49ers’ offense has seemingly always had the answer to the Packers’ defense. The veteran leader of the 49ers’ offense leads off my first of three matchups to check out.
Frank Gore vs. Packers Run Defense
With the frigid conditions on Sunday, expect the Packers to get a steady diet of Frank Gore. Despite turning 30 this year, he’s still hanging on and had a vintage Frank Gore year. His 1100+ yards rushing ranked ninth and his nine runs over 20 yards tied him for second in the league. He also ranks sixth in our Breakaway Percentage signature stat, rating at 35.2%. Additionally, Gore had the top blocking grade out of any running back at +10.8, showing that for at least another year he is still a premier all-around back. When Gore does need a rest, the Packers will not get a break as he will have Kendall Hunter to spell him. Hunter himself is averaging 4.6 yards per carry on the year.
The Green Bay run defense started off the first six games very well, but they have since fallen off the map. As a team, their cumulative run defense grade ranks 29th in the league. Their problems start up front. B.J. Raji finished off last year in dominant fashion and finished the year with the seventh-highest grade out of all 3-4 defensive ends. In 2013, he ranks 43rd out of 45 with a -13.6 grade, and his -9.5 grade against the run is ranked dead last. Throw in the regression of the aging Ryan Pickett and the struggles of C.J. Wilson and the only solid run defender the Packers have up front is Mike Daniels. The inside linebackers have been equally as bad for the Packers defense. A.J. Hawk is ranked 52nd out of 55 inside backers and Brad Jones isn’t far behind (ranked 36th out of 55). No matter who the Packers put at linebacker, they seem to get stuck on blocks or end up taking themselves out of plays with poor instincts and positioning. The Packers will have to play some of their best run defense to even have a chance in this ball game.
Packers Receivers vs. 49ers Cornerbacks
Even though the Packers lost some name recognition when Greg Jennings signed with the Vikings and Donald Driver retired, they still have one of the best receiving corps in the league. Jordy Nelson finished second in our overall wide receiver grading with a +23.7 mark and his 1,314 yards were a career high. Jarrett Boykin is the latest young receiver to step up for the Packers, and, despite a slow start to the season, still ended up with 49 catches for almost 700 yards. Throw in the always steady James Jones and the return of the explosive Randall Cobb and all four of the Packers’ wideouts finished with a positive grade. If Randall Cobb would have been healthy, all four of these wideouts would have forced at least 10 missed tackles a piece. The Packers usually love to use three wide receiver sets with Andrew Quarless in at tight end. Look for the Packers to try all four of their wideouts on the field with Eddie Lacy.
The 49ers have been a very solid pass coverage team as a whole. They rank third overall in our cumulative team grade, but when you isolate just the cornerbacks you can see a couple weak spots. Tramaine Brock has been very solid. His +9.0 grade overall is ranked 15th out of all cornerbacks. Tarell Brown hasn’t been too bad either and hovers right around an average grade. Carlos Rogers play, though, has been spotty this year. After two straight years of grading out positively in coverage, he dropped to -6.8 this year. Rogers is also banged up and may be a 50/50 shot to even play in this game. The 49ers did add Perrish Cox back to the roster this week for insurance, but he hasn’t been able to stick with a team all year. The 49ers love to stay in their base defense as much as possible. The matchup with these Packers receivers should be interesting and could test some of the 49er sub packages (and their tackling in general).
David Bakhtiari vs. Aldon/Justin Smith
The Packers love of spread-type formations could leave rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari on an island. Bakhtiari has had a great rookie season and is one horror show of a game (-7.1 against Cincinnati) away from having a positive overall grade. He also ranks a very respectable 18th out of all tackles in our Pass Blocking Efficiency stat, having only allowed pressure on 4.8% of his pass blocking snaps. That being said, this will be the most difficult challenge yet for the rookie. The four games he did struggle in pass protection this year were against teams with long athletic edge rushers in Cincinnati, Detroit (twice), and against these same 49ers. Bakhtiari has also struggled with his run blocking (ranked 72nd out of 76) which will factor into this matchup.
Aldon Smith will look to punish Bakhtiari with his speed and Justin Smith will try to beat him up with his power. Aldon ranks second out of all 3-4 outside backers with a 15.1 Pass Rush Productivity rating. His 55 QB pressures still ranks in the Top 10 even though he missed a significant amount of playing time this year. Justin Smith currently ranks fourth out of all 3-4 defensive ends in PRP and his 56 total pressures rank fifth. Both Aldon and Justin can make Bakhtiari’s life miserable in the run game as well. Even though he isn’t as dominant as he once was, Justin Smith still has a Run Stop Percentage of 8.3% which ranks in the Top 10. If the rookie can just hold his own, the Packers will be ecstatic. If he’s not able to, these two defenders can take over this game.
You can follow Chris on Twitter: @PFF_CPhillips