3TFO: Packers @ 49ers, NFC Divisional
It’s hard to say that very many fans won’t be looking forward to this rematch. The 49ers have one of the league’s stingiest defenses and will be tasked with shutting down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense. It worked well back in Week 1, and though Green Bay lost by just eight points, the game never really looked like it was out of San Francisco’s complete control.
As usual, the 49ers will be leaning heavily on their defense, but the increased offensive production is what really sets them apart from last year’s squad. Similarly, the Packers are relying on their reigning MVP and his passing abilities, but the defense has picked itself up from the record lows of a year ago, thanks to some quality play out of more than a few young defenders.
Green Bay has changed a bit since the last meeting, mixing up the offensive line and running back positions on offense. They’ve lost some young players in the front seven on defense, but their secondary is getting healthy at just the right time. San Francisco has changed much more, though, with a complete swap at quarterback. Colin Kaepernick replaced an injured Alex Smith back in Week 10, and though Smith has since recovered, Kaepernick’s youth and play-making ability have seen him hold the starting spot. He hasn’t had a 300-yard game yet in his young career, but all of his objective numbers are above and beyond what you would expect out of a sophomore second-round pick.
The winner will either take a trip to Atlanta or host the surging Seahawks for a chance at a Super Bowl berth. It’s hard not to like the chances of whichever club wins this game, and with that, let’s break down what it will take for each team to get the W and move on.
49ers Wide Receivers vs. Packers Corners
The 49ers have been relatively injury-free this season, but recently the injury bug has hit the receiving corps, with both Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams landing on Injured Reserve since Thanksgiving. In that time, Michael Crabtree has exploded into the spotlight, racking up 538 yards (48.7% of his total yardage) in the last five games. Crabtree saw an average of 10.4 targets per game in that span, far above his average of 6.0 through the first 11 games of the season.
The healthy receivers behind Crabtree are rather underwhelming, though. Randy Moss has posted just one game over 50 yards this year, though his 2.04 Yards Per Route Run is actually higher than both of his injured teammates. In three- (and possibly four-) wide receiver sets, San Francisco will have to rely on a combination of Ted Ginn Jr. and A.J. Jenkins. Ginn has two receptions for one receiving yard (yes, you read that right) this year, and Jenkins managed to drop the only pass thrown his way.
Though a certain outside linebacker is the media star of the Packers’ defense, the best positional group is the slew of young corners. Seventh-year man Tramon Williams is actually the veteran of the bunch, and while he’s been targeted more often than all but 10 other corners, only 53.3 percent of those balls have been completed. Sam Shields spent almost half of the season sidelined with an ankle injury, but he still managed our 12th-highest coverage grade at the position. It’s hard to argue when you look at his production — he’s allowed a completion once every 16.3 snaps he’s in coverage, best among corners with at least 300 coverage snaps.
The Packers will be disappointed by the 49ers’ lack of three or more wide receiver sets, but with a nickel corner like Casey Hayward, they’ll find an excuse to get him on the field. Hayward, who earned our Defensive Rookie of the Year award, has been nothing short of outstanding. Quarterbacks throwing at the second-rounder have registered a QB rating of just 30.8. His +19.3 coverage grade is second-highest among corners, and he’s yet to allow a touchdown while reeling in six picks. He’s also yet to miss a tackle in run support, and his combined Tackling Efficiency of 19.3 puts him in fine company. If the Packers can get ahead early and force the 49ers to air it out, this ball-hawking secondary may be able to put the game away on their own.
While the Packers’ secondary has held up well, they’ve at times been exposed due to the sheer amount of time opposing quarterbacks have had to throw the ball. Yes, this is the team with Clay Matthews, but they haven’t seen much consistent pressure from anyone else, which was blatantly obvious as the Packers’ pass rushing earned a combined -13.9 grade in his midseason absence. On the opposite side, Erik Walden has notched roughly half the amount of pressures as Matthews despite rushing the quarterback more often.
The player with the second most sacks on the team is actually defensive end Mike Neal, who looks like he might finally be turning into the player Green Bay thought it was getting with its 2010 second round pick. Neal’s Pass Rushing Productivity of 8.5 trails only two other 3-4 DE’s and his 26 total disruptions are third on the team despite starting the year with a four-game suspension.
Fortunately for San Francisco, they’re well suited to shutting down the Packers’ pass rush. Left tackle Joe Staley figures to see quite a bit of Matthews, and although he’s given up eight sacks, he’s only allowed one hit and 16 more hurries. He gave his second-year quarterback a warm welcome to full time duty, surrendering just two hurries and one sack in Kaepernick’s first four starts. Neal lines up in a variety of places, but Mike Iupati will likely see more of him than any other 49er. He’s struggled some with penalties (10 of them) but he’s hardly a liability, giving up only two sacks on the year.
As with most young quarterbacks, keeping Kaepernick upright will be of utmost importance. With a clean pocket, he has a QB rating of 112, but it’s been a different story under pressure. When rushers get home, Kaepernick’s rating drops to 64.5, completing a shade over half of his passes with no touchdowns.
Can Green Bay Ground Game Get Going?
It’s no secret that the Packers’ offense runs through Rodgers. Ironically though, the three games when Rodgers dropped back to pass the most were all losses. Never did Rodgers drop back more this year than in Week 1, and the chief reason for that was a complete lack of any running game. The only Packer running back to touch the ball in that game was Cedric Benson (who has since landed on I.R.) and the results showed exactly who was in charge of that battle; Benson managed 18 miserable yards on nine carries as Green Bay quickly lost all semblance of a balanced offense.
Replacing Benson has been a bit of an experiment, with Alex Green initially getting most of the carries and even the re-signing of Ryan Grant. But if recent games have been anything to go on, it will be DuJuan Harris who will be handling the bulk of the load. Harris has rushed for three scores and forced seven missed tackles, a tremendous haul considering he’s only been on the field for 100 snaps.
Justin Smith is one of the league’s most talented interior linemen, but it’s rare a team shows as much respect for a player as Green Bay did for Smith back in September. Not one of their called runs went anywhere near the veteran defensive end, as all nine went to the right. Smith has missed the last few games with a triceps injury, and though he’s likely to play, his snaps may be more limited than usual. And while that doesn’t appear to bode well for the 49ers, his replacement Ricky Jean-Francois has maintained the high level of production since Smith’s injury. Over the last three games of the season, he’s made seven stops and has earned a +5.2 grade in run defense.
In all likelihood, the 49ers will often find themselves with just two defensive linemen on the field, as they’ll spend the vast majority of the game in nickel and dime packages (unless Patrick Willis, who was left on the sideline for much of the Week 1 contest to make room for the extra defensive back, is again removed regularly.) That would leave Willis and Navarro Bowman responsible for cutting down runners before they can do any damage. In run defense, the duo have the second- and third-highest Tackling Efficiency figures (65.0 and 49.5, respectively), as they’ve combined to miss just three tackles on runners this year. Shutting down the run early will force the Packers into an imbalance offensively, allowing Aldon Smith to pin his ears back and do what he does best, which only bodes well for San Francisco.