San Francisco’s defense yields 113 rushing yards per game, ranking in the middle of the league at 16th most. The comparable number for the Packers, who yield the tenth most, is an insignificant eight yards more per game. Like defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, the Niners are normally tuned into stifling the pass game rather than the ground game.
It’s at pass defense that SF excels – the Niners’ roster was built this way. They are tops in the league at restricting passing yardage, allowing a miserly 169 yards per game on the regular season. In contrast, the Packers rank a semi-respectable fourteenth, which translates to yielding 63 more yards per game than the Niners. That’s a significant margin.
Combining the two numbers, SF ranked second (to the Pats) in least total yardage given up, while the Packers were a lowly eighteenth. The Packers will have to show considerable improvement if this yawning gap is to be narrowed on Sunday. Much of that challenge rests on Aaron Rodgers’ shoulders.
The 49ers owe their defensive success to their exceptionally strong pass rush. As a team, the 49ers finished 2019 tied for fifth in sacks with 48. To get there, San Francisco has invested a tremendous amount of money and draft choices. This was made possible by a series of losing records in recent years: 5-11 in 2015, 2-14 in 2016, 6-10 in 2017, and 4-12 just a year ago.
Their most acclaimed pass rusher is Joey Bosa, the third overall pick in the 2016 draft. Bosa recorded nine sacks, and 25 quarterback hits, in 2019. Even so, he was surpassed in sacks by fifth-year man and former first round pick Arik Armstead, who had 10 sacks (and 18 QB hits). In addition, they have 295-pound defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, the seventh overall pick in 2016, who had 7.5 sacks (and 14 QB hits) on the year.
And if that’s not enough, coming off of an injury is defensive end Dee Ford, the 23rd overall pick in 2014. After receiving the franchise tag from the Chiefs last March, Ford was signed up two weeks later by San Francisco – at a cost of $85.5 million over five years. Though limited to eleven games in 2019, he managed to record 6.5 sacks. Ford returned from injury against the Vikings, and played about half the game.
As Minnesota put up so feeble a struggle, the Niners actually were able to rest many players for part of the game on Saturday,
Rodgers was sacked five times by the Niners in Week 12. If there’s a repeat, the Pack will again be routed. However, signs indicate that’s unlikely, as Rodgers – to his great credit – has averaged being sacked fewer than twice a game over the last six wins.
Though it sounds strange in 2020, the 49ers’ foremost pass defender is none other than Richard Sherman, the kid from Compton who will turn 32 in March. Sherman has bested Rodgers several times over the years when playing for Seattle. He was also named to his fifth Pro Bowl team this season, after a two-year absence, though whether that was based as much on reputation or current performance I wouldn’t know.
Though his stats this past season weren’t what they used to be (61 tackles, 11 passes defended, and three interceptions), in his second year with the Niners he still finds ways to force incompletions. Many teams still won’t throw to the offensive right side of the field when Sherman is patrolling there. On Sunday, will Sherman stay parked there, or will he shadow Davante, who predominantly lines up on the offensive left side?
Whether the Niners’ boffo pass rush can again disrupt quarterback Rodgers will be a key to who will come out on top in the NFC Championship game.
The encouraging thing is that Green Bay has an excellent O-line, and four decent tight end blockers, to counter the strength of the 49ers. For that matter, the running backs and even the receivers have all shown their willingness to contribute as blockers – they’ll all be needed if Rodgers is to stay upright come Sunday.
Changes Needed for a Different Result
My biggest concern is that San Francisco could stifle the Packers’ run game – if they snuff out Aaron Jones like they just did to the Vikings’ Dalvin Cook, the Packers entire offense might implode.
Against the Seahawks, Jones’s stats weren’t good, but they were also a bit misleading. He must have had at least a half-dozen carries where he was met behind the line of scrimmage, resulting in lost yardage several times.
I blame the play calls. In most of these cases, the play designs featured no deception, fakery, options, or surprises. The Seahawks simply stacked things up wherever Jones was headed, which was usually right up the gut – and which included most of those third-and-short and goal-line carries. It takes some guts to go wide and risk a loss in these situations, but continually doing the predictable isn’t the answer.
As I’ve maintained ad nauseum, about one of three rushes by Jones should go wide, not up the middle. His strengths are quickness and elusiveness, not raw power – he needs some amount of open space in which to work.
I’d also recommend more two-back sets, more receivers put in motion (and not always just for show), so defenders can’t readily tell who will get the ball or which direction the play will go. One sweep per game doesn’t establish a credible threat of our running backs going wide. In general, LaFleur needs to do much more to disguise, and vary, how he employs his running backs.
Whenever Rodgers operates from the shotgun and out of an empty backfield – which is all too often – the defenders no longer have to think – opportunities for confusion or blown coverages by defenders are lost.
Additionally, the coach needs to COMMIT to passing to his RBs – Aaron and Jamaal are among the best receivers on the roster. Seventeen games in, I shouldn’t have to keep pleading for this. Passing to the RBs is the ideal way to counter teams with single-minded pass rushers. Against the Seahawks, Jones and Williams combined for three throws, two catches, 13 yards – unacceptable.
Of all the changes that are warranted by the Packers since Week 12, my first priority would be to significantly alter the game plans and play calls. LaFleur way back in January summarized his offensive philosophy as being to create the “illusion of complexity.” Good idea. Now let’s see more of it in the team’s second visit to Levi’s Stadium.