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Packers pass rush caught fire at right time and must affect game against 49ers

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Green Bay’s ferocious front got after Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, requiring some heroics from Wilson to make plays. If the Packers can pressure Jimmy Garoppolo the same way, it could swing the game.

Divisional Round - Seattle Seahawks v Green Bay Packers
Za’Darius Smith hunts quarterbacks and it’s about to be Jimmy G season.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

If America runs on Dunkin, Za’Darius Smith runs on slights. The first-year Green Bay Packers edge rusher took his frustrations at a Pro Bowl snub out on poor Kirk Cousins in one of the dominating single performances by a defensive player seen in Green Bay since Charles Woodson or Clay Matthews in their primes. Smith wore a “Snubbed” t-shirt under his jersey for the playoff game against the Seahawks, a game in which he harassed Russell Wilson all night, finishing with a whopping 11 pressures according to Pro Football Focus. Missing out on the Pro Football Writers of America All-NFL team may not be enough to fuel Big Z, but Green Bay heading to Northern California as massive underdogs might.

And his team needs him.

In order to beat the heavily favored 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, the war daddies for the Packers must bring the artillery. The Smith Brothers and Kenny Clark combined for 25 pressures against Wilson on Sunday, on a night when Mike Pettine’s group pressured Wilson on over 50% of his dropbacks. But that’s been their MO all season. Seattle doesn’t protect Russ, he creates ridiculous plays anyway; it’s a symbiotic relationship even if Seahawks fans increasingly view the coaching staff as parasites, sucking the life out of their All-World quarterback.

In the Week 12 matchup, the Packers managed just seven pressures total on 24 Jimmy Garoppolo dropbacks, and that was with Justin Skule starting for the injured Joe Staley. Kyle Shanahan’s offense allowed pressure at the third-best rate in the NFL this season, though oddly they are 26th in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate (PBWR) stat. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey is the only offensive linemen to be in the top-10 at his position in PBWR. Center Weston Richburg posted the 29th pass blocking grade among interior offensive linemen via PFF (playing at least 20% of snaps), the highest of any of the interior blockers for the 49ers, and he’s out for the year. Starting guards Laken Tomlinson (61st) and Mike Person (82nd) barely qualify as “starting” caliber based on their grades holding up in pass protection, and replacement center Ben Garland (69th) doesn’t fare any better.

Much of their ability to keep Jimmy G clean stems from great scheme and high efficiency. On shot plays, the 49ers create max protection for beautiful two or three-man routes to put defenses in a bind, and on shorter rhythm passing games concepts, almost always have a safety valve for the quarterback can go when the pressure comes.

For the Packers though, Preston and Za’Darius Smith each rank inside the top-10 in the league in Pass Rush Win Rate, the sister stat to PBWR. Perhaps more importantly, Kenny Clark played his worst game of the season against the 49ers, and immediately after, ripped off his best stretch as a pro. In the six games, including playoffs, since that debacle in Santa Clara, Clark notched 5 sacks and 27 pressures. He terrorized the Seahawks’ interior, which isn’t that much worse than the 49ers’. Where San Francisco boasts a significant edge is on the outside with a healthy Joe Staley back in the mix with McGlinchey.

Not coincidentally, Clark’s rise matches with Pettine’s elevated use of big No. 55 inside as a rover. We started to see Pettine lean heavily on Smith starting against the Giants, and Green Bay’s defense took off from there. This provides a possible counter to finding pressure against the 49ers. It’s the defensive line version of throwing away from Richard Sherman: attack where they’re vulnerable rather than putting your best player against theirs. If Clark and Smith play against the 49ers the way they did against Seattle, Green Bay can get in Garoppolo’s face, throw off the timing of the passing game, and potentially force him into throwing the ball to the guys in the white jerseys.

While the Vikings created some pressure with Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, they lack the interior mavens Green Bay can throw at this 49ers offensive line. Minnesota’s duo wrecks games on the edge, but lacks the same kind of versatility to kick inside and be effective.

Though the final score doesn’t indicate a good performance—in fact, it was by far the worst defensive performance of the season by DVOA, which accounts for how good the 49ers offense can be—the Packers started strong. After the touchdown on a drive that started inside the five, the Green Bay defense allowed 98 total yards and six points on five first-half drives, including two drives with net negative yardage.

For roughly half the game, this group held the fort, waiting for the Packers offense to snap out of its doldrums. Aaron Rodgers and Co. couldn’t, leaving their counterparts to get gashed, left on the field for far too long as the offense dotted the score sheet with three-and-outs. But the Seattle game offers hints of growth beyond the pass rush in this department.

The killers for the Packers came, as they have all season, with big plays. A turnover leads directly to seven points. Green Bay can’t afford to do that again, but on the defensive side of the ball, the Packers played with discipline against the Seahawks, not allowing them to use hard play action to create down the field with Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf. The big plays came from Wilson’s sorcery, buying time or moving out of the pocket to find someone downfield. Green Bay executed its game plan consistently, and the second-half surge didn’t stem from blown coverages, missed tackles, or a lack of aggressiveness. Wilson bended time and space to his will as Packers fans have seen Rodgers do many times before.

Garoppolo relies on his scheme far more. He can process quickly and knows the offense well enough to know what kind of bind the concept puts the defense in, leaving him free to quickly read it and fire. A 42-yard catch-and-run by Deebo Samuel for a touchdown blew the game open at 13-0, and a long George Kittle shot play touchdown all but ended the hopes of a Packers comeback.

On Sunday, the Packers didn’t let players run free across the field, or take the cheese on play-action. Shanahan presents much stiffer challenges for opposing defenses than Brian Schottenheimer, but disciplined defense provides an answer to either and we hadn’t seen it consistently from the Packers much of the season.

It’s no coincidence that as the pass rush got going against the last month and a half, the secondary returned to flying around, making plays as it had early in the season. Deploying Smith as a rover not only eased the burden on Clark facing double-teams, but bolstered the interior run defense. Jaire Alexander balled out on Sunday despite giving up a touchdown to Lockett (which included a blatant take down right in front of the official), and the Packers safeties are making plays all over the field with their versatility and speed.

To beat the 49ers, the Packers will need their best players to be at their best, something they were not the last time these two teams met. What we saw Sunday, though, was Green Bay’s stars meeting the moment and leaving their imprint on the game. They have a key advantage they didn’t maximize last time. If the Packers pressure Handsome Jimmy the way they pressured Wilson, they’ll finish with 10 sacks. That would be unlikely, but given the way Clark and the Smith Brothers are rolling, they have the potential to tilt the field back in Green Bay’s favor in the trenches, an essential factor in an attempt to spring the upset.