Green Bay played the San Francisco 49ers twice last season: on November 24 and on January 19. That’s about three months and five months prior to the draft that starts on April 23.
It seems many of us have forgotten that these two “contests” were bloody massacres. They were utter routs. The haves versus the have nots. I feel that – no matter how painful – we should take a pre-draft moment to reflect back on these slaughters.
The Pack traveled to California last November sporting an 8-2 record. They were coming off their bye week, which meant they should have been well rested and pretty healthy – and that the coaching staff had an extra week to game plan for the big event.
The 49ers came in with a 9-1 record. The media anticipated a close game, though the Niners were considered to be a slight favorite.
It got ugly, and it happened fast. Less than two minutes in, the Pack turned an opening possession into a Niners’ TD – you’ll recall Rodgers juking backwards trying to avoid blitzers then fumbling the ball away on his own 2-yard line. By the half, the score was 23-0.
The second half got no better, with the final score being 37-8. If it weren’t for the Niners going into a prevent defense, and offense – which allowed the Packers to have a 10-minute advantage in time of possession – the 49ers might have run up 50 points.
I can’t remember a Packer team being so thoroughly dominated – or the outcome of a Packers game being decided so quickly. The Niners’ top rusher, Raheem Mostert, had 45 yards on 6 carries (7.5 ave.); and the top receiver, George Kittle, caught all six balls thrown his way, for 129 yards. The Packers either had no workable plan to hold down the opponent’s offense, or they didn’t have the manpower – maybe both.
Less than two months later these same adversaries faced off again in the NFL Championship game. Once again Mike Pettine’s guys got steamrolled. The halftime score was even worse: 27-0. Raheem Mostert, this time getting 23 more carries than in the first game, ran up 220 yards and four touchdowns. His average of 7.6 yards per carry bettered even his first effort.
How complete was the Niners’ offensive superiority? Mostert established the all-time NFL record for yards gained on the ground in a playoff game. As a team the Niners rushed for 285 yards, and once again they went into a second half slow-down mode, or the final score of 37-20 would have been much more embarrassing. Coach Shanahan was actually very merciful toward his pal, Matt LaFleur.
Bottom line: the Packers’ run defense was hapless; it was like a lamb being led to the butcher’s block. These two teams will meet again this season, at least once and perhaps twice. What steps are the Packers taking to prevent a repeat performance?
The 2020 Packers
The biggest change so far in the Packers defense is that ILB Blake Martinez has been replaced by Christian Kirksey. I believe this is a net loss for the Packers, though I’m warming up to the newcomer. At any rate, if the ILBs are the keys to mounting an effective run defense, then the Packers have more work to do. Blake had 15 tackles and a sack in the two 49ers games.
What about the defensive line? Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry are still there, and the Smiths remain at the edges, while Kyler Fackrell is gone. Among my picks of players who might have a breakout season (Raven Greene, Chandon Sullivan, Curtis Bolton) one or all of them might step up and strengthen the run defense. Bolton, who missed all of last season with an ACL tear, is a particularly aggressive pursuer and tackler.
2020 Forty Niners
Unlike Green Bay’s defense, I expect the 49ers’ offense to be even more formidable this year than last. Almost all of their skills players are young and getting better: RB Mostert (27), RB Matt Breida (24), RB Tevin Coleman (26), FB Kyle Juszczyk (29), TE Geroge Kittle (26), WR Deebo Samuel (24), QB Jimmy Garoppolo (28). Their projected O-line starters, at ages 25, 28, 28, 30, and 35, are mostly in their prime, – and the old man is 6-time Pro Bowler OT Joe Staley, who was named to the NFL 2010s All-Decade Team.
We don’t yet know when the regular season game will be, but it will be played on the Coast for the third straight time.
Besides, the other teams the Packers will face this season will surely be viewing the film of the two 49ers games, and planning to mimic the Niners’ offensive game plan. If you aren’t worried, you haven’t been paying enough attention.
The Packers’ second big chance to acquire more talented defensive players is approaching. Will the Packers have the two San Fran slaughters heavily on their minds when the draft commences on April 23? We’ll soon find out.
In checking out various mock drafts, I’ve looked around so see what positions the Pack will focus on in the early rounds. Here’s who several forecasters think the Packers will select in the first, or early, rounds – and their positions:
Chris Trepasso (CBS Sports) – WR Jalen Reagor; IDL Justin Madubuike
Peter Schrager (NFL Network) – LB Jordyn Brooks
Mel Kiper Jr. (ESPN) – WR Tee Higgins; TE Adam Trautman
Bucky Brooks (NFL Network) – OT Josh Jones
Will Brinson (CBS Sports) – WR Brandon Aiyuk
Bryan DeArdo (CBS Sports) – WR Jalen Reagor
Ross Uglem (Packer Report) – WR Jalen Reagor; IDL Jordan Elliott; LB Troy Dye
Joel Klatt (Fox Sports) – WR Brandon Aiyuk
Frankie Taddeo (Sports Illustrated) – WR Tee Higgins
Brent Sobleski (Bleacher Report) – LB Jordyn Brooks
Of the above ten guys, seven think the Packers first draft pick will be one of three wide receivers. Only two think it will be a defensive player, namely a linebacker. The other two think an interior defensive lineman will be chosen.
I’d be the last person to deny that the Packers also have big needs on offense. In keeping with the theme of the post, however, I’ve got to ask: how will the Packers avoid more drubbings by the 49ers – and other strong run teams – if they don’t draft one or more ready-to-play defensive linemen or linebackers in the early rounds?
While I won’t be a bit surprised if Green Bay selects some defenders in Round 4 or later, does anyone think such picks can contribute this year to containing a guy like Raheem Mostert?
If the draft goes the way the above pundits think it will, I’d say the free agency signing of Christian Kirksay looms as a critical move. For the Pack’s defense to stand a chance against the Niners, Kirksey needs to stay healthy and play like he did back in 2016 and 2017.
I also think the above mock drafts lend support to my earlier speculation that second-year man Rashan Gary might be inserted as an interior defensive lineman. It’s sink or swim time for last year’s 12th draft choice. It’s also conceivable that at times Preston Smith could move to the interior and Rashan could man the edge. Gary gives Pettine lots of options.
Otherwise, the shelves are pretty bare: there’s interior guys Montravious Adams and Kingsley Keke, and little-known linebackers Greg Roberts and Randy Ramsey. In his third year with the team, Adams, the 93rd overall pick in 2017, saw his numbers decline from the previous year. Keke, a fifth-round pick in 2019 was in on less than 10 percent of the defensive plays, but did manage 10 tackles in that brief time.
But wait, I neglected to mention a guy who went undrafted in 2018. That’s right, the stats indicate that Tyler Lancaster has started 15 games in two years for the Pack, and he’s quietly recorded 56 tackles and 1.5 sacks in that time. Tyler, a large man at 6’3” and 313 pounds, had a decent career at Northwestern – capped by being named honorable mention All-Big 10 as a senior.
Green Bay tendered Lancaster to a one-year contract as an exclusive rights free agent on March 17. Just looking at the stats, Lancaster might have better prospects of strengthening the team’s defense than draftees Adams and Keke, or anyone who Gutekunst picks out this week.