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Aaron Rodgers’ career-low wasn’t a coincidence, and neither is 49ers’ grasp atop NFC

© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It is not often that Aaron Rodgers is shut down by a defense. And when I say “shut down,” I mean constricted to the point that he is deprived of any opportunity to breathe life into a hapless offense.

Rodgers was silenced

On Sunday night, in a nationally-televised game, Rodgers was rendered incapable of stemming the tide. By the conclusion of the 49ers’ thorough, 37-8 pasting of the Green Bay Packers, he was relegated to the sidelines, watching backup quarterback Tim Boyle trudge his offense through the final, meaningless minutes in Rodgers’ stead.

Rodgers was not woeful. He did not turn the ball over after his opening drive fumble, and his only opportunity to be intercepted was on a deflected pass. He was simply smothered, sacked five times (and six, counting one of Nick Bosa’s which was wiped off the board) and limited to 20 completions on 33 attempts, for 104 passing yards. That is a historically-low number for Rodgers.

There is only one other time in his career in which he has thrown for such a paltry total after starting a game and playing most of it: November 10, 2015, against the Denver Broncos.

On that day, against the soon-to-be Super Bowl-winning Broncos, Rodgers was 14-of-22 for 77 yards. As was the case on Sunday, he threw no interceptions, but was sacked thrice. And while that total was a career-low in a start (min. 15 attempts), Sunday set a new career-low in yards per attempt. Rodgers mustered 3.15 yards per attempt against the 49ers, equivalent to a trio of run plays that fail to move the chains.

From the 49ers’ perspective, now sitting at 10-1 atop the National Football Conference, there was a recipe for a defensive masterclass in place from the outset. But the Packers’ loss of right tackle Bryan Bulaga just seven minutes into the game put chum into the shark-infested waters of the 49ers’ defensive line.

Nick Bosa recalled that injury and seeing Bulaga’s replacement of Alex Light. He chuckled.

“I was like, ‘I’m on the left [side],” Bosa said. “I definitely wasn’t planning on him coming in but it was definitely happy when I saw him out there.”

Bosa, Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and D.J. Jones were the core group marauding upon the Packers’ offensive line. Even Pro Bowl left tackle David Bakhtiari, a Bay Area native and Serra High School alumnus, was woefully outmatched by Bosa, who frequently bull-rushed him into Rodgers and forced double- and occasional triple teams.

Armstead had a pair of sacks in the game, and was the first 49er to reach double-digit sacks on the season. His 10.0 sack total is not only a career-high and more than his career total preceding this season, but it’s also good for fifth-best in the NFL. Buckner split one with a blitzing Jaquiski Tartt and Bosa had one that counted (plus the other negated by a penalty).

Fred Warner had 11 tackles, one short of his season-high from a week prior. His sack-fumble was his third sack and third forced fumble of the season in yet another game where he proved he’s the most irreplaceable player on the team. Jimmie Ward was the definition of an eraser, breaking up three third down pass attempts and racking up six tackles, including one for a loss.

All those sacks don’t account for the number of times Rodgers was forced out of the pocket, either for a short gain, or an incomplete pass. The times in which he could throw freely do not come to mind with ease.

“I mean, it doesn’t matter who’s getting it,’ Bosa said. “We’re all coming, we’re all making them check up, pump fake, hold the ball, whatever. It’s just a free-for-all.”

One change on Sunday was the return of Jones, the third-year nose tackle out of Ole Miss, who has quietly had as good a season on the interior as any of those aforementioned players. He has grown into the season to the point that he can be counted on to stop first down runs at the line of scrimmage or behind it at least one or two times a game.

His get off and speed for his 6-foot, 305-pound frame provides a rare blend of force, and may have contributed to the groin injury which sidelined him for three games this season. The impact he had in a four-tackle (two for a loss) game on Sunday was not lost on Bosa.

“He’s an unbelievable player,” Bosa said. “He’s probably one of the most important parts of our team, especially when it comes to stopping the run on first down, just intimidating the offensive line because nobody could block him. He’s just a wrecking ball.”

The adaptability

But even without Jones, and without Dee Ford, and with Ronald Blair III out for the season, the 49ers have lost just once, in a game in which they lacked both George Kittle and Emmanuel Sanders… and still nearly and probably should have won.

It’s that adaptability that reveals the core of what makes this team not simply dominant, but the rightful favorites to win the NFC, even with a schedule that provides one questionably “easy” game (the Atlanta Falcons) over the final five.

In the offseason, Jerick McKinnon returned to injured reserve. Swing tackle Shon Coleman tore his ACL.

Jeff Wilson Jr., signed off the practice squad, and Raheem Mostert have both played like starting-quality running backs and are outstanding special-teamers.

The loss of Coleman, who was consistently impressive in the preseason, would only be an issue if one of Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey were out, a seemingly unlikely scenario.

Yet, by Week 2, Staley was out for six-to-eight (it was eight) weeks, and is out again. By Week 5, McGlinchey was out for four-to-six weeks. Suddenly, the unheralded duo of sixth-rounder Justin Skule and AAF recruit Daniel Brunskill were carrying a dominant running game and protecting Jimmy Garoppolo with consistent results.

When fullback Kyle Juszcyzk went out at the same time and for the same timeline as McGlinchey, Ross Dwelley filled in. When George Kittle was lost for the past two weeks and a quarter, Dwelley stepped up, catching two touchdown passes and making one first down catch against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 9 that secured the win.

When Ahkello Witherspoon suffered a foot sprain in Week 3 — then playing at a Pro Bowl level — Emmanuel Moseley not only took over for him capably, but has made it difficult for the 49ers to make the switch back to starting Witherspoon. Moseley played for the full duration of the first quarter, and was taken over for by Witherspoon after that point. He returned when Witherspoon cramped up at the start of the second half, and relinquished the job to him once again.

Moseley told KNBR that, like last week, he found out the plan for the game on Sunday morning, as it was relayed to him by defensive backs coach Joe Woods. Head coach Kyle Shanahan said some soreness from Moseley, and Witherspoon’s solid performance, was the cause for keeping the change in effect.

When Kwon Alexander tore his pectoral, rookie Dre Greenlaw took over the starting WILL job and has looked like anything but a backup linebacker (he was technically the starting SAM linebacker, though the 49ers mostly run nickel packages).

This is all to say, there are hardly any players whom the 49ers cannot replace, maybe five total.

Four of them are offensive skill players: Kittle, Emmanuel Sanders, Deebo Samuel and Jimmy Garoppolo (Nick Mullens is a capable replacement, but losing Garoppolo’s leadership, presence and quality isn’t replaceable). The only defensive player whose absence would be truly irreplaceable is Fred Warner.

You can also argue Bosa, Armstead, Richard Sherman, etc., but all of those players have capable replacements. Warner is the quarterback of the defense and his range and intelligence could not be replaced adequately on the fly.

Warner’s improvement, coupled with the defensive line overhaul, which includes the addition of defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, and a massive improvement in the secondary from top to bottom, has created a defensive monster.

This 49ers defense matches up with many of the historically-good defenses of the last 30 years, although they are also joined by this year’s New England Patriots.

Graphic by Jake Hutchinson, stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference

The coaching

When you talk to any player on the 49ers, they point to a level of involvement from Shanahan, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, special teams coordinator Richard Hightower, and their position coaches which has yielded tangible results and improvement.

Among the most highly-praised position coaches are defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, defensive backs coach Joe Woods, offensive line coach John Benton and inside linebackers coach Demeco Ryans.

This team thrives with its line play, and is shored up by its tremendous coverage and linebacking range and athleticism.

On the offensive side, it all runs through Shanahan and his cohorts: passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur (brother of Packers head coach Matt LaFleur) and run game coordinator Mike McDaniel, with the veteran Benton trusted to implement complex offensive line blocking schemes. The coaching is undeniably effective, and two examples were present on Sunday.

While Shanahan intended to ease Ahkello Witherspoon back in, he showed no reluctance in riding him when he was hot. He started Emmanuel Moseley, who played the entire first quarter, before Witherspoon took over, aside from a brief bout of calf cramps.

“We’re still just trying to ease Ahkello back in. He had a pretty good week of practice,” Shanahan said. “Still thought he was about a week away to get his starting job back. It’s a matter of time before he does get that. We planned on putting Ahkello in a couple series each half. We knew when this day ended that he was going to get a couple series and then E-Man, I think his ankle is a little bit sore.”

The other example was on the offensive line. When Justin Skule struggled early, at one point allowing a sack and being pegged for a holding call on the same drive, the 49ers made a switch, putting in Daniel Brunskill for the remainder of the game at left tackle.

That decision, Shanahan said, lay with Benton. He said that the plan was always to get Brunskill in (take that with some salt), and that he was impressed with Brunskill after the change, in that he didn’t notice him.

“That was just a call John Benton made, our O-Line coach, during the game,” Shanahan said. “I know Skule, there were a couple pushes in the pocket on two of them. I believe one of them was a sack. I’m not sure what happened on the other.”

The play-calling ability of Shanahan is indisputable and well-renowned. He’s executed a running attack heavy on counters and zone runs, which take advantage of fantastic fullback and tight end blocking to set up deadly play action passes that often force coverage busts.

On the other side of the ball, Saleh has stepped away from a Cover 2 defense which failed him in past seasons, opting more for Cover 3 and quarters coverage, while adjusting to a wide-nine defensive front (implemented by Kocurek) and moving to mainly nickel packages.

While he rarely blitzes (there tends not to be a need to with the defensive line’s effectiveness), he drew up a handful of blitzes which worked effectively on Sunday, with Tartt getting a half sack on one, and Warner getting a sack fumble on another. There has been an increased prevalence of stunts, as well as disguised coverages, with secondary players and linebackers faking blitzes and dropping into coverage.

But as much as their schemes have been tremendous, both Saleh and Shanahan have demonstrated a colossal amount of trust in their lieutenants, and that has borne results as much as any other factor.

The quarterback

This comes last, which is fitting for this team, and not many others in the upper echelon. You go down the list and every top team has a quarterback whose name is known by every kid who has ever looked at a TV screen on Sunday in the past three months (and excluding Jackson, the past half decade).

The 10-1 New England Patriots: Tom Brady

The 9-2 Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson

The 9-2 Baltimore Ravens: Lamar Jackson

The 9-2 New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees

The now 8-3 Packers: Aaron Rodgers

Yet, Garoppolo stands out. He’s not quite in that tier, or at least the perception is that he’s not quite there. And that perception is fair.

He tends to throw a bad interception or two a game, or fumble the ball. Sunday was just the third time this season in which he has not. Sometimes, as was also the case on Sunday, he failed to go through his progressions effectively and made the wrong decision.

But more often than not, he executes the game plan with a sense of poise that isn’t so intangible. He was 14-of-20 for 253 yards with 2 touchdowns and a 145.8 passer rating. He didn’t make mistakes, and he led by example.

That’s not hyperbole.

After an opening drive touchdown, the 49ers punted on three of their next four drives. At that point, Garoppolo gave a speech to the offense on the sidelines, warning them that Rodgers would not lay down so easily (he was, rather, forced into submission). The 49ers punted just twice after that, only one of which was a three-and-out.

By the end, the 49ers had 37 points and zero turnovers.

That sort of calculated aggression is on display in every dull press conference Garoppolo gives. He tends to know what not to say, and why not to say it. When he turns the ball over, no matter how many times it is, he rarely fails to rebound. It’s also why he’s 16-3 as a starting quarterback, and while he doesn’t always have to carry his teams in the box score, he is rarely, if ever, out of games.

As it stands, his stats, aside from the interceptions, are up the NFL’s top tier. He has the seventh-highest completion percentage (68.8 percent), is tied for the fifth-most passing touchdowns with 20, and has the 11th-highest passer rating (100.6).

When it comes to third downs, he’s been elite. According to No Checkdowns, he ranks third in accuracy (77.4 percent), and second when that rate is adjusted for depth of target (72.8 percent) on third downs. And in the fourth quarter this season (when the 49ers have often run the ball with massive leads), he’s the third-most accurate quarterback in the league (86.4 percent) and has thrown zero interceptable passes.

“He’s a stud, man. We know what we have in 10,” said Mike McGlinchey. “Everybody else around the country doesn’t seem to credit him for what he is. I mean he’s one of the best quarterbacks in football, and he’s got one of the best play callers calling the plays, so when you have those two things working together, we’re going to be very very fortunate on the offensive side of the football.”


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