They had no answers for No. 90 in gray: the lanky, powerful disruptor for the Seattle Seahawks, whose speed, power, and unrelenting will eventually broke the San Francisco 49ers. Jadeveon Clowney dominated that contest in a way defensive ends rarely can in the modern NFL, and he did it with just one official sack. The Packers have chaos agents of their own who could follow a similar path, but Green Bay has an advantage the Seahawks did not: Mike Pettine has two.
In week 10, Pro Football Focus charted Clowney with 11 pressures and 4 QB hits. Starting 49ers tackles Mike McGlinchey and Joe Staley each gave up 7 pressures in the contest on a night when Jimmy Garoppolo never found comfort or rhythm in the pocket. According to NFL’s NextGen Stats, Jimmy Garoppolo was a paltry 3/18 for 59 yards and a pick on 10+ yard passes against the Seahawks, the lowest completion percentage (16.7%) by a QB this season with at least 15 attempts. He also posted one of the worst performances in terms of air yards per pass of the season.
Clowney’s disruption scuttled the 49ers offense to the point Garoppolo turned in one of the most inept performances of the season by a quarterback, one that could have been even worse statistically had the Seahawks defenders not displayed the dexterity of a moose wearing oven mitts on would-be interceptions.
Compounding matters, the protection didn’t get any better last week against the Cardinals when rookie sixth-round pick Justin Skule replaced Staley who is out after having surgery on his finger. McGlinchey gave up 6 pressures to the Cardinals while Skule allowed 8, the second and third-worst performances of the week across the NFL. Chandler Jones and Terrell Suggs present challenges for most teams, but the Smith Brothers provide more than a challenge, to a nearly Sisyphean level for opposing offenses.
That same week Clowney pulverized the 49ers, Za’Darius Smith hung 12 pressures and 3 QB hits on the Panthers according to PFF, but his coach Mike Smith had him for 14 pressures despite no sacks. On his own, Big Z can do what Clowney did. He’s done it all season. In fact, the two have rushed opposing quarterbacks the same number of times this season. Smith boasts 57 pressures to Clowney’s 44, despite being double-teamed at nearly identical rates.
Smith’s mere presence offers more opportunities for his running mate and unofficial brother. Preston boasts the fourth-best pass rush win rate in football in part because he’s being double-teamed far less than his counterpart, around 16% compared to 26%. For context, Za’Darius is 9th in win rate and Clowney is 7th.
More to the point, given the blocking situation for the 49ers and Za’Darius Smith’s talent, coupled with Garoppolo’s struggles when pressured and his penchant for turnovers, World War Z could be coming to the Bay. But it’s more than that, worse for Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers. Preston is coming too.
Green Bay’s Achilles heel this season comes when teams push the ball down the field. If Garoppolo doesn’t have time to throw, that becomes infinitely more difficult, as evidenced by his performance against Clowney and a thoroughly mediocre Seahawks defense. In fact, the Packers defense, for all of its critics among Cheesehead Nation, ranks ahead of Seattle in total defense and passing defense by DVOA.
One player, particularly a pass rusher, can ruin a game. The 49ers and Handsome Jimmy have proven to be particularly susceptible to this despite not losing often because of it. A tremendous defense and a soft schedule lightens the burden placed on what has been a middling offense this season (16th by DVOA).
If a virtuoso pass rusher and top-tier quarterback is the model to beat the 49ers, how about a team with a top-tier quarterback and two virtuoso pass rushers? This was the recipe Brian Gutekunst envisioned when he signed not one but both of the offseason’s high-priced pass rush targets. These are the kind of games they’re getting paid top dollar to wreck on their own, and it just happens to come with the top spot in the NFC up for grabs.