© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The 49ers are “fully” healthy. Those quotation marks reflect the fact that being fully healthy in the NFL is far from what being fully healthy means everywhere else. But for the first time all season, there is not one single 49ers player who is questionable. In a legacy-shaping game that should send the 49ers to the Super Bowl, they will have every asset available (outside of the injured reserve).
The Week 12 matchup
And when the 49ers are that healthy, it’s hard to find weaknesses. Naturally, with Jaquiski Tartt, Kwon Alexander and Dee Ford all back, the criticism has to get a bit nitpicky. The only clear “weakness” is at right cornerback, and that’s only if you assume that Ahkello Witherspoon will start, which, he won’t (the 49ers haven’t said who’s starting, but it should pretty clearly be Emmanuel Moseley, who told KNBR Thursday he didn’t know who would start).
Both Witherspoon and Moseley faced Davante Adams in the 49ers’ 37-8 drubbing of the Green Bay Packers in Week 12, with Moseley starting the first quarter and Witherspoon playing the rest of the game (the snaps ended up being about even due to Richard Sherman and Witherspoon both being sidelined temporarily).
In that game, Adams caught seven of 13 targets for 43 yards and one touchdown. Not exactly a king’s ransom. Of course, his performance, along with Aaron Rodgers’ historically-low 104 yards and a touchdown, were anomalies.
It’s unlikely either will be shut down in the same way they were in Week 12, and both have improved since that point, especially Adams (more than 93 yards receiving each game and four total touchdowns in his last four games).
But to believe, suddenly, that Rodgers, in the midst another season in which he doesn’t look like his old self, will decimate the 49ers’ NFL-best secondary (league-best 169.2 passing yards allowed per game) is to be more afraid of the past than the reality of the present.
One of the reasons that the Packers had such a horrible time in that Week 12 meeting was that they turned the ball over early, couldn’t run the ball, and fell into a quick deficit. While the Packers ran for 117 yards, it was on 28 carries and came inefficiently, and when the game was out of hand.
The 49ers’ effectiveness at stopping Aaron Jones saw Jamaal Williams’ heaviest usage of the season (11 rushes for 45 yards, seven receptions for 35 yards). If the Packers run the ball more efficiently from the jump on Sunday, they’ll be able to open up their passing attack.
But those anomalies were as much the product of fantastic defense as poor offense, and the 49ers’ defense is playing the best it has all season.
The adaptability of Saleh versus LaFleur
The Vikings’ issue last week was that they’re so run-dominant that the 49ers knew it was coming, and prepared almost exclusively for a run-heavy diet. Green Bay isn’t so predictable in terms of running and passing, but they are predictable in one damning way.
As Dieter Kurtenbach breaks down here, the Packers are best in the first and third quarters, when head coach Matt LaFleur can plan out what he’s going to call. When he has to call plays in the flow of the game, he struggles, while the 49ers and Kyle Shanahan excel in such situations.
Here’s the breakdown of points per quarter for Green Bay and San Francisco:
Robert Saleh knows LaFleur as well as anyone in the NFL. LaFleur was Saleh’s best man at his wedding and the two frequently played chess together as graduate assistants at Central Michigan University. One thing that Saleh has done excellently is adapt on the fly, as was most clearly shown in the 49ers’ 20-7 win against the Rams in Week 6.
LaFleur hasn’t shown that same ability, and Saleh knows the nuances of his scheme. The same could probably be said of LaFleur knowing Saleh’s scheme, but the 49ers’ defense is chameleon-like in its ability to adapt and change coverages.
Saleh leans on his assistant coaches. If a defensive front isn’t working effectively, he’ll threaten blitzes, having Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw (or potentially Kwon Alexander) put themselves at the line of scrimmage before dropping back into coverage, and/or doing the same with safeties and nickel corner K’Waun Williams.
He’s not afraid to use a bracket if there’s one true threatening receiver as the 49ers did against Julio Jones (which lost them the game, but with Dre Greenlaw and Marcell Harris playing the coverage), and at times against Adams. The malleability of the defense is the reason that LaFleur had such a difficult time the first go-around, and why he should have similar trouble on Sunday.
Why there’s no real weakness in the defense
It’s easy to point to Moseley as the weakest part of the 49ers’ secondary. And you’d be right, but only due to the fact that everyone else in that secondary is playing together seamlessly at a debatably All-Pro level. Moseley is not actually a weakness.
Just as Saleh is adaptable, so too are his players.
A prime example of this is that Week 12 game. In the third quarter, the Packers ran a screen play for Davante Adams against Jimmie Ward and Richard Sherman which worked and went for seven yards. When they tried it again, Sherman pointed out the look to Ward, who blew it up as soon as Adams caught the ball. You can see Sherman point it out on the video below.
“Same play,” Ward told KNBR. “Basically he just said it’s the same play. He looked at me, I looked at him, he pointed, so I shot. Richard, he’s smart enough, he knows the game, you can’t really run the same play on him twice. Something will happen. TFL, pick, something.”
6 min later, Ward stuffs it after Sherman points it out pre-snap. #49ers
Ward: "Same play… He just said it's the same play. Looked at me, I looked at him, he pointed, so I shot. Richard, he's smart enough, he knows the game, you can't really run the same play on him twice." https://t.co/s5jrnAgKMR pic.twitter.com/QemamTOuQy
— Jake Hutchinson (@hutchdiesel) January 19, 2020
When reviewing the film of that game, Ward frequently helped Moseley out in coverage against Davante Adams, creeping in that direction as plays developed. Ward had six tackles (one for a loss) and two pass breakups, as well as a key third-down stop in that game (shown below).
He said that knowing the Packers’ tendency to throw to Adams is as easy as reading their contracts.
“That’s where [Rodgers] wants to go with the ball,” Ward said. “I get a sense of that on film, but you can just look on paper. You can look on paper and see which guy gets paid the most. Who is he throwing it to that’s getting paid the most? Oh, okay, this guy’s getting paid the most. So that’s most likely where the ball’s going. So it’s just common sense and just watch film and you can see it bright as day. It’s like backyard football.”
Ward had two PBUs in that game – here's one of them, against Adams pic.twitter.com/Qqad2otu5k
— Jake Hutchinson (@hutchdiesel) January 19, 2020
K’Waun Williams has been tremendous at nickel corner, and when the 49ers switch things up to go with more exotic looks, he’s proven to be a tremendous blitzer and tackler in the run game. His coverage abilities make it difficult for teams to exploit a mismatch in the slot.
The other unsung hero of the defense is Tartt, whose impact this season was most easily appreciated when he was replaced by the coverage-challenged Marcell Harris. Ward and Tartt of course go back to high school, and were described by Richard Sherman as being like a “married couple” with the way they bicker during games.
The difference in having Tartt back for the Divisional Round against the Vikings was evident. While his presence in the box score isn’t often massive, he’s always in the right place, and has a knowledge base that makes adjustments in coverage seamless.
“He has years under his belt so he knows his stuff, so me and him communicating, it’s just on another level,” Ward said. “You can create more plays. You can play fast because if you already know what’s coming, it takes all the confusion out.”
Witherspoon described the greatest difference in having Tartt on the field in the comfortability he provides.
“It’s the communication and it’s the comfort for me. I know when Kwon talks, his voice is comfortable,” Witherspoon said. “I know that I can speak to him about adjustments and he’s going to listen and apply and I can trust that on the next rep. Same thing with Tartt, like I don’t even got to speak to my man and I know exactly what we’re in. And it’s not anything against Marcell [Harris] or Greenlaw who have replaced them. It just is what it is through time and experience and reps with one person.”
That seamlessness isn’t going to evaporate, and with Sherman leading a group that’s been starved of success for most of their careers, a let-off seems unlikely. The 49ers’ secondary has been the best in the NFL for most of the season. To expect that it will all fall apart now — with an improved pass rush thanks to Ford’s return, the return of their best coverage linebacker in Alexander and the coverage glue that Tartt provides — because it’s a massive stage and it’s the boogeyman of Aaron Rodgers is to listen to fear, not reason.