Last night as I was writing I watched a playthough of Mega Man 3 with commentary over at IGN. I owned the game as a kid and have many fond memories of playing it and so watching the guys over there talk about the game and seeing the levels again brought back those happy memories of old. About midway through the video one of the commentators said something about the in that game boss fights that I find particularly applicable to today’s game against the San Francisco 49ers. When talking about the Robot Master fights he said that many people tend to over think them, spending so much time trying to find the individual weakness of the particular boss in that level and letting that psych them out. A better strategy he suggested was keeping track of your health bar and the opponents’ health bar and ensures that you are always giving more damage than what you are taking. This is good advice when facing a pretty straight forward team like the 49ers. The Niners are going to try and out scheme you. They aren’t going to try and out think you. They aren’t going to look for that one key matchup to exploit. They are going to line up and try and pound you into the ground. Thus, to beat them a similar approach needs to be taken…making sure you are doing more damage than you are taking.
In football terms this means that the Packers should not get so obsessed with finding the right personnel group to exploit or individual match ups to attack. Rather they should focus on scoring touchdowns on offense and holding the Niners to as many field goals as possible. It means staying focused on both sides of the ball and winning along the line of scrimmage. It means doing the little things and executing on what they do best, rather than pretending to be something they are not….because there is one way that the 49ers are very much like the Minnesota Vikings of last week: they struggle when playing from behind. It’s not the way this team is built and they have struggled to put together a comeback win so far this season.
Unfortunately the similarities between the Niners and the Vikings end there. The Niners are one of the most talented teams in the league and have dynamic playmakers on offense and defense. The Packers have a tall order in front of them today, but if they stick to these five keys they should be in good shape.
1. Stay balanced on offense. One of the great McCarthy lines of all time is that the Packers "won’t play scared." Alas I think the Packers did play scared in Week 1, in fact I would argue that McCarthy himself called the game a bit scared. The Packers abandoned the running game from the get go and focused so much on trying to blow the doors off the 49ers in the passing game that the offense itself became a liability. This week that simply won’t do. The Packers need to at least stay at a 60/40 pass to run ratio, and things get even better if they can hit a 50/50 ratio.
That’s going to be tough because the 49ers can defend the run better than anyone, and typically defend the run with only seven in the box. Despite this problem the Packers have to stick by their guns. The running game, even an ineffective one, will slow down the pass rush and keep the Niners somewhat honest on defense. If the Packers abandon the run then it’s open season on Aaron Rodgers.
2. Stay disciplined on defense. My bold prediction of the day….if the Packers maintain gap integrity on defense then they hold Frank Gore less than 100 yards rushing for the day and win the football game. Yes Colin Kaepernick is a good passer, maybe better than Alex Smith, but Kaepernick throwing into this secondary is a match up I’ll take any day of the week…..Gore against this run defense may be hit or miss. The key is gap integrity and collapsing the running lanes.
The good news is that the middle of the defense has come a long way in this regard since week 1. Brad Jones brings a bigger, stronger presence than D.J. Smith did early in the year. B.J. Raji has stepped up his play since moving to DE, and Ryan Pickett has done a much better job of anchoring the middle of the line than Raji did when manning the nose. The defensive line rotation has also come a long way during the year with C.J. Wilson, Mike Neal, and Mike Daniels all exceeding expectations this year.
The problem for the Packers is going to be in the linebacker group. Can the OLB"s keep contain and funnel the running backs back towards the middle of the field? Can A.J. Hawk shed blockers and get penetration? If these things can happen then the run defense should be fine. If not….well, Gore was only one of two rushers who ran for over 100 yards against this defense and it could easily happen again.
3. Tackle. The Packers’ defense has been a bit wishy-washy on this skill lately. Some games it’s lights out and they tackle with an attitude that was not seen last year. Other games they are falling all over themselves and getting pushed around like rag dolls. The embodiment of this trend for me is Erik Walden. Last week he was a terror when given the opportunity. He was able to tackle more furiously than I had seen him since his high watermark in late 2010 against the Bears. Other weeks he has been a terror for other reasons, falling down and getting stiffed armed like a chump. Hopefully this is just been Walden saving his best for last and has now turned it on for the playoffs.
If the Packers can effectively tackle this week it can go a long way matching the intensity of the 49ers and should buy the offense time to wear down the NIners' defense. If the Packers fail though then expect the Niners to play ball control to keep Rodgers off the field and break the Packers defense.
4. Execute on the little things. In the first match up the Packers made critical drops, lost the turnover battle, and had more penalties than the 49ers. Any one of these mistakes could be fatal when playing a tough and disciplined team…doing all three is certain doom. In 2011 the Packers could afford to play a little sloppy since they had the passing attack to cover it up. This year they are not as talented in that regard, so attention to the details is everything.
The biggest of these is going to be winning the turnover battle. The Packers need to force at least one turnover today. It’s not easy, but it needs to happen. The good news is that the 49ers are a little less disciplined with the football with Kaepernick starting than they were with Alex Smith….however it’s not like they have suddenly become a Jay Cutler-esque offense which has the potential to give the ball away in bunches. Kaepernick will still make smart decisions most of the time, but it’s up to the defense to capitalize on the few mistakes that Kaepernick will make. For the offense, limiting turnovers is another major reason for balance. Rodgers is one of the most efficient passers in the game, and will often take the sack to prevent the turnover, but having a running attack to fall back on eliminates some of the danger of throwing into a talented Niners’ defense.
5. Be patient. The Packers have a little more room for error in this game, mostly due to having the edge at quarterback. This means that the Packers can afford to fall a little behind but still stick with the same game plan. Naturally the Packers can’t put themselves in too deep a hole early, but a score or two behind is not the end of the world. If the Packers do fall behind, it’s essential that they don’t press or throw out the game plan. Stay with balance and gap control. Stay with the little things. The Packers have the ability to come back from some manner of deficit. After all, look at what the Patriots were able to do against this same team….and if the Packers limit turnovers they shouldn’t even fall into that deep a hole.
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