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Three things to look for in 49ers vs. Packers

© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the 2019 NFC Championship rematch.

Sure, the 49ers and Packers faced off last year and it was a 34-17, no-contest Packers win. But that came at a vacant Levi’s Stadium with no Nick Bosa, no Jimmy Garoppolo, and too many other absences worth counting. Injuries still figure to weigh heavily into this one, but the gap this Sunday figures to be less chasmic than it was in 2020.

Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and co. against… Billy Turner?

What’s going on with the tackles in the NFC North this season? First the Lions lost stud left tackle Taylor Decker for their opener, which pushed Penei Sewell back to his far more comfortable side on the left, but also bumped Matt Nelson to starting right tackle, where he got whooped, especially by Dee Ford.

Now, it’s the Packers down to their third-string left tackle. David Bakhtiari is still on the PUP list while he recovers from a torn ACL and backup tackle and starting guard, Elgton Jenkins, who played well in Bakhtiari’s stead, was downgraded to out with an ankle injury.

That leaves Bosa to match up with *checks notes* Billy Turner, a former third-rounder out of North Dakota State.

Here’s Bosa’s assessment of the matchup:

Yeah, he’s not all that concerned with who the Packers put on the left side. The Packers, though, most certainly are.

It could be a bloodbath, though you should expect a couple things; one, for Bosa to be chipped regularly — using receivers and tight ends to hit him off the line at the snap has quickly become one of the main modes of slowing him down — and two, for Bosa to be held.

Officials don’t catch or call every holding penalty, and there were a few occasions in Detroit when Bosa was held and it wasn’t called.

There was an especially egregious instance in Philadelphia when Arik Armstead won his one-on-one and had a clear lane to Jalen Hurts. Mysteriously, Armstead slowed down… while waving his arms in the air to show he’d obviously been held. Nothing was called and Hurts escaped a situation which should have been a guaranteed sack. The Eagles later turned that drive into a touchdown.

This is not to take pot shots at officials, but rather, to say the Packers do not have the firepower to play one-on-one football on the left side, whether it’s Bosa, Ford or Armstead, all of whom have been excellent thus far.

Heck, Kentavius Street has been a bully on the inside and D.J. Jones and Javon Kinlaw are both holding their gaps and creating push up the middle, and Arden Key and Samson Ebukam have had their moments too. The Packers would be committing malpractice if they didn’t chip and also hold at times. You can’t get away with something if you don’t try.

How will Shanahan approach the run game, and what could that mean for Lance?

With Kerryon Johnson activated, the 49ers’ running back corps is Trey Sermon, Johnson, Trenton Cannon and Jacques Patrick. Cannon is the only one in that group who is in a mold similar to Raheem Mostert and Elijah Mitchell in terms of speed and frame.

One of the reasons the outside zone has been so dominant for the 49ers is that they’ve had backs like Mostert, Mitchell and Hasty, who can turn well-blocked outside zone runs into explosives, and get downhill quickly to get positive yardage out of plays which aren’t blocked as successfully.

This isn’t to say this offense can’t or won’t run outside zone without speed backs. Shanahan said this week the 49ers have had myriad running backs in his system with a variety of skillsets, and you’ll still see the outside zone on Sunday.

But every running back excels in their own way, and Sermon, Johnson and Patrick are built for success much more in the inside zone world. They aren’t one-cut backs. While they’ve got different styles, that trio all tends to run with a bit of patience, followed by power and burst.

And that might be just fine. The 49ers ran outside zone heavily against the Packers in the 2019 NFC Championship game, but some of their most explosive plays, including the first Raheem Mostert rushing touchdown, came on the inside. Mostert ran a trap play, blocked by Mike Person, and went surfing into the end zone.

While they leaned on outside zone, the 49ers ran inside zone and trap plays exceedingly well, with some of their most explosive plays coming in that framework. With a group of backs who have a skillset more favorable to those types of runs, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Shanahan lean more on inside zone, traps and gap-blocked power runs.

In that NFC Championship game, there were also a couple of hugely successful end around plays. If, as expected, there’s no Mitchell, it’s reasonable to expect an added element of creativity in the run game.

This could be an opportunity to manufacture some easy touches for Brandon Aiyuk on end arounds or jet sweeps, and more significantly, this could be a chance to really work Trey Lance back into the offense.

Sermon was a running back in an option offense at Ohio State and worked plenty with Lance this summer running the option, so there shouldn’t be concerns about familiarity in running those plays with him, like there could be with the other backs.

My prediction at the start of the season was that Shanahan would save something special for his old friend Matt LaFleur by keeping Trey Lance mostly under wraps until this game.

The running game could use a jolt without Mitchell, and Lance has serious speed towards the edge which could be a massive bonus without Mitchell in the lineup. This might be a rose-tinted assessment, but this could be the game in which we see more of Lance, Sermon and Aiyuk.

The Shanahan – LaFleur dynamic

This isn’t an assessment on the status of Shanahan and LaFleur’s relationship.

In a strictly football sense, when Shanahan faces an old friend or disciple in LaFleur or Sean McVay, the scheming goes to a completely different level.

Regardless of where the two are at personally, there are absolutely some elements of intrigue here. Shanahan called LaFleur before the draft about Aaron Rodgers, and whether that did or did not rub LaFleur wrong, he surely wants to secure a no-caveat win over Shanahan.

In their three meetings, Shanahan is 2-1, with a stunning, 37-8 drubbing at Lambeau Field in Week 12 of the 2019 season, followed by a 37-20, road-grading performance to win the NFC Championship at home later that year. Green Bay won 34-17 against a browbeaten, COVID-19 depleted 49ers team helmed by Nick Mullens last season.

This time around, the Packers are down to their third-string tackle and lost Za’Darius Smith to injured reserve with a finger injury. Their situation is far more dire than the 49ers’ is at the moment.

Both coaches will undoubtedly see this as an opportunity to make an early-season statement against their former colleague. The 49ers can win their first home game of the season and avoid the slump they often carry after a two-game road trip, while reclaiming their dominion over the Packers and proving their first two games weren’t just wins against sub-par opponents (Philadelphia might not be that sub-par, by the way).

Green Bay will see this as a chance to prove their season opener was a fluke, and that their Week 2 win over Detroit, was well-earned. It also gives LaFleur some bragging rights in the arena of the post-Rodgers sweepstakes.


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