One of the interesting narratives coming into this particular game against the San Francisco 49ers is the tension between rest and rust. Does playing in that Wildcard Round really help a team stay focused or does having the bye to rest give an advantage? This may be a false dichotomy. The team which has played the previous week may not quite the well oiled machine and the team coming off the bye may not as rested as one may think.
John Clayton picked up an interesting tidbit on Monday about this very point. It seems that in trying to understand the playoff loss to the Giants last year, coach McCarthy commissioned a wide range of studies. One of those studies focused on the amount of players taking a high number of defensive snaps throughout the year. As a result of this study it seems the Packers have attempted to build more depth to their defensive framework as well as more of a rotation in and out, attempting to keep most of the defensive stars in the 60-70% of defensive snap range when possible. Kevin Seifert has a good break down of the specific Packer method of keeping players fresh.
Meanwhile, it seems the 49ers use a significantly different method of fielding a defense. Rather than having a deep rotation, they keep one core unit on the field most of the time. Clayton reports that nine players on the Niner defense have a snap count north of 980 (to give you a point of reference the McCarthy line seems to sit around 880 snaps). Justin Smith of the Niners would also have a snap count above 980 if he had not been sidelined late in the season.
This puts a new spin on the rest versus rust debate. Obviously the 49ers have a very talented defense filled with star players. The more they play together the better they can work as a unit….but does over using them throughout the season wear out these players? Does having the bye week help rest these players? Or are the Packers a bit rusty as a unit since there is not the same core unit of players for the defense to fall back on?
These are not easy questions to answer, but this week’s game may provide an interesting test for McCarthy’s new theory. If the Packers seem to have the fresh legs then it may validate the notion that rest throughout the season is a good call, and perhaps a smarter call than just resting the players for a game or two at the end of the year. Then again it’s just as possible the 49ers just needed a week breather and come back a fresh well oiled machine, each player knowing where the other guys around him are due to the high number of snaps that they have played together this year. Only time will tell.