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Here’s how 49ers win, or lose, against Packers

© Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

For two non-division opponents, the 49ers and Packers know each other about as well as they possibly could.

They’ve seen each other five, and soon to be six times over the past four years, with the Packers holding a 3-2 edge over that period. Their two losses were back-to-back drubbings where they gave up 37 points, doled out by the 49ers in 2019, including the NFC Championship.

In many ways, these teams haven’t changed all that much. But San Francisco was a reliable, dominating force in 2019, whereas it’s wound a bohemian, unpredictable path to the playoffs this time around. It has insisted on winning and losing in spectacularly odd ways.

But at their cores, neither team is notably different from two seasons ago.

49ers aren’t who they were in Week 3, should be able to impose run game

San Francisco is founded on imposing its will with a physical run game, coupled with a short-to-intermediate passing game built on timing and run after the catch.

But that run game has evolved substantially since its Week 3 loss, with Deebo Samuel providing invaluable touches.

His touchdown potential on runs from anywhere on the field provide a home run threat on every play, and the league-high pre-snap motion (only team motioning more than 70 percent of the time) that Kyle Shanahan employs makes it a harrowing proposition for defenses to identify who’s actually going to get the ball.

The shift happened in Week 10 against the Los Angeles Rams. After their worst loss of the season, a 31-17 embarrassment to the Colt McCoy-led Arizona Cardinals, Samuel took five rushing carries the following week, when San Francisco demolished the Rams 31-10.

Samuel had carried the ball just six times in the nine prior weeks, and from that point on, the 49ers went 8-1 with him in the lineup, losing against Seattle in his sole absence this season.

Since drafting Samuel, San Francisco is 28-13 when he plays more than two snaps. They are 4-8 without him.

Even when it’s not a perfectly-designed play, Samuel has the ability to carve his own lane. Offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel said Wednesday that the “wide back,” as he appropriately entitled himself, has changed how he and Shanahan think about play design.

“It changes your job description a little bit to where you’re trying to give a guy opportunities and not necessarily thinking exactly about defining stuff,” McDaniel said. “You’re more abstract about, ‘Hey, how do we get the ball with space?’ So that is a unique thing that we’ve kind of grown into.”

And that’s without mentioning Elijah Mitchell, who’s coming off the most productive rookie rushing season in 49ers history and is producing at a comparable level to Raheem Mostert. He finds positive yardage where they don’t seem to be found and has that explosiveness to rip off runs at the second level.

None of this, of course, happens without outstanding blocking. And the blocking has been just that. Brandon Aiyuk has shown an extra commitment to the run game. He had an outstanding block against Micah Parsons on the Mitchell touchdown run last week, and was rewarded with an unpenalized punch to the head.

He and Jauan Jennings have been the key so often to unlocking those explosive runs. He’s been a complete and utter menace as a blocker and so often pulls off the final block needed to turn a great play into a touchdown. He did so on the George Kittle toe-tap touchdown along the sideline against the Seahawks.

Of course, Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk are excellent blockers who do much of the dirty work, but you expect them to be effective. When receivers are digging out safeties like the 49ers, it’s a brutal challenge for defenses.

Then there’s the offensive line, which turned a corner in the middle of the season, right around the Rams game. Even with the loss of Mike McGlinchey, Tom Compton stepped in as one of the best blocking tackles in the NFL.

In fact, Pro Football Focus ranked Compton the league’s second-best blocking tackle behind only Trent Williams. The 49ers’ offense as a whole graded out as the league’s best run-blocking group in the NFL.

Against a Packers team which is mediocre at stopping the run — above average on the interior, below average on the edges — that should provide an opportunity for explosive runs.

You can see the Browns, who run a similar offense to the 49ers, using the shotgun sweep with D’Ernest Johnson against Green Bay that the 49ers so often use with Samuel.

Green Bay allowed the fourth-most yards per carry in the NFL (4.7 yards). There’s a reason teams rushed on first down against them 30.1 percent of the time, more than any other team in the league. It’s usually effective.

In short, the 49ers need their run game to be effective on Saturday, and all signs are that it should be.

Packers’ offense: A combination of brute, inefficient force and incisive passing

Rodgers has been ridiculous this season. He hasn’t thrown an interception since Week 10 against Seattle, and has thrown just two since Week 2.

He’s launching to every part of the field and being judicious about his placement. He throws, overwhelmingly, to areas where his receivers can make a play on the ball and defenders cannot.

Against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 11 — one of the Packers’ four losses and a tremendous defensive performance — he was getting pressured consistently. The Vikings were playing sound in coverage and ruthless in the trenches, getting both coverage sacks and quick pressures when the coverage wasn’t perfect.

And still, in the face of near-defensive perfection (at least in the first half), Rodgers remained a wizard, throwing this sickeningly good touchdown.

One point to be fairly concerned about is K’Waun Williams, particularly on slot fades. He is extraordinarily vulnerable to them and looks to have lost a step. His coverage in general has taken a step back this season, and whether it’s the attrition of being a diminutive corner who plays with brutal physicality or something else, he’s not been what he once was in coverage.

Rodgers absolutely loves to throw the deep fade and Williams has been beaten that way. Here’s last week, when he was burned flat out by Amari Cooper on a slot fade touchdown.

And here’s week three, when the same thing happened against Allen Lazard from inside the Packers’ own half.

On the bright side for the 49ers, the Packers have listed Marquez Valdes-Scantling as doubtful.

While he’s no Davante Adams, Valdes-Scantling is a massive part of the Packers’ vertical offense. In the Week 11 game against Minnesota, he was targeted seven times in the first half, four of which were on deep shots.

That said, there’s still Adams, Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb, who while on the back end of his career, still knows what Rodgers wants. Lazard is a ruthless blocker, too, and Adams is still the best receiver in the game.

Rodgers said that this touchdown to Adams came from a pre-snap look the two shared. Adams was supposed to run an in-cutting route that would turn vertical, but he and Rodgers realized that wouldn’t have worked and without speaking, turned it into a slant for what looks like the easiest pitch and catch of all time.

Those two also run the sweetest fade in the NFL. At its best, it’s unstoppable.

Now, the Packers’ run game, from a purely analytical perspective, is average. It’s not exceedingly efficient. If you include their screen game, which is excellent, it’s a slightly different story.

In general, they struggle to secure chunk runs; they are tied for the fifth-fewest 20-plus-yard runs in the NFL, at seven. They’re most threatening with Jones running outside zone, but they lean heavily on straight-up dives.

Why would you choose to run the ball inefficiently? Because it wears on a defense. As Chargers head coach Brandon Staley — yes, the nerd — said earlier this year, “there’s a physicality to the run game that’s real.”

With A.J. Dillon especially, the Packers inflict damage through the middle. It’s not unlike the Rams’ approach in the first half of the regular season finale, when they continued to run the ball ineffectively, churning the clock and keeping the 49ers’ defense on the field. But their passing game was ruthlessly effective, and continued to convert on third downs.

Green Bay has a similar threat, though is unlikely to be as extreme as McVay’s offense was in relying on third downs. So while their run game won’t be favored to rip off chunk runs, the force of Dillon, who’s a muscled-out, 250-ish-pound brick wall of a running back, in a game which will drop to around 7 degrees by the second half, is a very real threat in terms of consciously creating attrition.

He’s been more involved in their offense this season and is averaging 4.3 yards per attempt.

Imagine that sort of run in weather that feels sub-zero. He’s not even looking for a hole. Dillon just puts his head down and runs straight ahead and ends up with four yards because he’s a large, strong pain in the ass to tackle.

Recipe to overcome Rodgers: Create pressure, force impatience, hold in the red zone

We’ve established how good Rodgers is. But he’s still human. Barely, but he is. That Minnesota game was one of the best defensive performances he’s faced, and he made mistakes. He fumbled, and was lucky to recover it, and nearly threw this interception to Bashaud Breeland, who was excellent, and who the 49ers would be wise to study.

The Vikings got pressure on Rodgers consistently in that Week 11 game, and their coverage on the backend was usually outstanding. Here’s an example (ignore the offsides from Everson Griffen, which doesn’t impact the play) of the pressure preventing Rodgers from throwing to two or three open targets.

The recipe against Rodgers is first, to make sure the Packers’ run game isn’t a viable option. Since Week 9, the 49ers have allowed just one 100-plus-yard rushing game, and that was from the 73-yard fake punt from Seattle.

The rest of the calculus is bringing pressure with four. Rodgers loves seeing blitzes because it almost certainly means someone is open.

Then it’s about being sound in coverage on the back end. Fred Warner acknowledged that on Tuesday.

“We all know how amazing he is. Again, another MVP caliber season,” Warner said. “I think the biggest thing is, like you mentioned, whatever our game plan is going to be, we got to be sticky in coverage. We got to make sure we’re getting pressure up front and we got to work together as a unit to to kind of throw him off balance a little bit.

“But that’s easier said than done. He’s probably going to have one or two plays or more in the game… But it doesn’t matter where we’re at in the game. We got to keep our level of intensity high and our attention to detail, focus throughout the entire game.”

Like Warner said, Rodgers is going to have his plays. That’s inevitable. The 49ers’ job is to stay sound, and force him to take checkdowns and underneath throws, and limit the explosives. Make him get bored of taking the throws that are there, and then stay sticky in the end zone.

Trying to limit the damage in the red zone could be the difference. If the Packers’ offense churns out yards, that’s not ideal, but if it doesn’t result in touchdowns, it’s manageable.

Green Bay has a roughly average red zone offense, ranking 18th this season with a 58.57 touchdown conversion rate in the end zone. San Francisco, at 67.27 percent, ranks first in that category.

The rub: All the above, no Garoppolo disasters and aggressiveness from Shanahan

At his best, Jimmy Garoppolo is quick and decisive. He makes throws on time, to the correct spot. He gets the ball out of his hands with timing that put his targets — all of whom gifted in the arts of yards-after-catch discovery — on a platform to rattle off yards for catch. They’re not typically difficult throws, but they come out with a crucially specific timing.

That, again, is Garoppolo at his best. At his worst, which might only be three plays a game, he’s allowing the opposition to get back into the game.

If you remove the overthrow to Brandon Aiyuk and great escape turned overthrow interception, the Dallas Cowboys would have lost by double digits. That bizarre end of the game never has a chance of happening.

If he does that again this week, the 49ers will lose, barring the defense creating multiple turnovers from a Green Bay team which leads the league with just 13 giveaways all year.

While Garoppolo needs to protect the ball, Kyle Shanahan cannot call a conservative game.

Unlike last week, when the 49ers should have been favored, they are the underdog here. Aaron Rodgers is playing MVP-caliber football and has not shown a real weakness against specific coverages.

Seriously, he’s shredded every coverage he’s seen this season (EPA is expected points added).

The only way to disrupt him is to pressure him and play sound defensively, coupled with offensive production.

Shanahan needs to be hyper-aggressive like he was in Trey Lance’s start vs. Arizona, just with better playcalling on those fourth downs. Taking field goals like he did in the first half of Dallas is asking the other team to beat you, and Rodgers will.

The other unmentioned points are the injuries. David Bakhtiari is listed as questionable and only looked like half of himself in his first game of the season, a 27-snap performance in Week 18 against Detroit. Nick Bosa has been limited in practice the last two days and is obviously a crucial piece the 49ers need. He’s had huge success against Bakhtiari in the past.

In summary, the 49ers should be the underdogs here. They need to play a clean offensive game founded around physicality, winning the time of possession and be aggressive on fourth downs when the chances present themselves.

The defense needs to bend, not break, and be able to pressure Rodgers with some level of regularity to win. This game does not favor the 49ers, but it’s only a lean towards Green Bay. They have the monumentally better quarterback, which will always make their path easier, but this is a game which could well be decided by who has the ball last.

 

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