The San Francisco 49ers are the #1 seed in the NFC Playoffs for a reason: they’re really good.
Their offense can put up big point totals and their defense can erase even the best quarterbacks. Just ask the Green Bay Packers, who were on the receiving end of an excellent full-team performance from the 49ers in a 37-8 loss in Week 12.
But the 49ers aren’t infallible. The “3” in 13-3 proves as much. The Packers have a shot. Not necessarily a great one, but beating San Francisco in San Francisco (well, okay, Santa Clara) isn’t an impossibility.
Here’s what our writers think they’ll have to do to make it a reality.
Evan “Tex” Western - Don’t let George Kittle go off
On offense, the Packers have to find a way to get going against a 49ers defense that has Dee Ford back, a player who missed the last meeting between the two teams. But the Packers have an excellent offensive line that can match up with any defensive front and give the offense a fighting chance. The matchup that I simply don’t see the Packers having a clear answer for is 49ers tight end George Kittle.
In the last game, the Packers let Kittle go off for six catches and 129 yards, nearly half of the yardage total coming on a 61-yard touchdown in the second half. That was his only catch after halftime, but it effectively closed the door on any slim hope of a comeback. In the first half, the Packers largely bottled up Kittle until late in the quarter, when he ripped off back-to-back catches of 18 and 22 yards to set up one field goal drive, then picked up another 22 to put San Francisco in field goal range just before the half.
Kittle is an athletic menace, and attacking the Packers’ defense with a tight end may be the best way to throw the ball against this team. If they can find a way to keep Kittle in check and avoid letting him move the chains on third downs or generate explosive plays, I like Green Bay’s chances.
Peter Bukowski - Limit big plays
This would have worked better for the Vikings had their quarterback and offensive coordinator not peed down their legs (Congratulations, Browns). Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle didn’t beat them, but the Minnesota offense stagnated to the point it didn’t matter, plus Cousins threw the brutal turnover teams simply can’t afford against such a disciplined defense.
The plan against the 49ers mirrors what Green Bay did against the Seahawks: Dare them to run and if they want to hand it off 40 times, awesome. As Tex mentions, that mitigates the impact of Kittle, as well as playmakers like Deebo Samuel and Emmanuel Sanders, though the latter hasn’t been much of an impact player despite the frustrations from Packers fans over not trading for the ex-Bronco receiver.
It’s worth pointing out the Packers defense played extremely well against the 49ers offense for most of the game. The 42-yarder to Samuel and the 61-yarder to Kittle blew the game open, but through seven possessions, this was a two-score game. If Mike Pettine and his defense can take those plays away, and maybe add a turnover, the game script changes immeasurably.
Paul Noonan - Take risks
The 49ers, in a nutshell, operate as follows:
- Entice you to throw underneath.
- Tackle your poor receiver.
- Limit deep passing through pass rush.
Beating them is uncomfortable because you essentially have to make risky throws, and expose your quarterback to danger. Until recently, riskier downfield throws were not Rodgers’ M.O., but if the Packers are going to score, this has to happen. This is why the most successful quarterbacks against San Fran this year are all deep specialists (see: Wilson/Murray/Brees).
You just can't be doing this against San Francisco. pic.twitter.com/wOLSVsbRdP— Badger Happy Noo-nan Year (@BadgerNoonan) January 15, 2020
Jimmy Garappolo isn’t great and hopefully the defense can help the offense by turning him over once or twice, but fundamentally, scoring on this defense requires playing much like they did last week on offense.
Jon Meerdink - Minimize pressure on Rodgers
This is, obviously, extremely difficult. But it’s not impossible! Several times this season, teams have found ways to mitigate San Francisco’s powerful pass rush.
Here are two noteworthy examples. Though the 49ers didn’t have Dee Ford to complement Nick Bosa, San Francisco barely laid a hand on Drew Brees in their Week 14 thriller. They failed to sack him and only hit him three times, allowing Brees to complete 29 of his 40 attempts for 349 yards and five touchdowns.
Then, in Week 16, San Francisco managed just two sacks in a loss to Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons. They did hit Ryan eight times, but the Falcons avoided having their drives derailed by costly sacks.
(In should also be noted that in Week 13, the Ravens allowed just one sack in their 20-17 win over the 49ers. But Lamar Jackson is their quarterback. “Be Lamar Jackson” is good advice for avoiding sacks but is difficult to implement unless you already happen to be Lamar Jackson.)
Now, New Orleans and Atlanta are markedly different teams than the Packers, New Orleans in particular. Compared to the Packers, the Saints have weapons galore in their passing game and can more easily exploit available mismatches. And as I noted, the Saints also benefited from Dee Ford’s absence.
But the point is, it’s possible to at least slow down San Francisco’s ferocious front. With Bryan Bulaga over his flu bug, the Packers will have all hands available as they try to come up with a way to do it.
Matub - Score more points than the 49ers