Patrick Mahomes proved Mike Pettine right: it’s quicker to get to Miami through the air than on the ground. But after Pettine’s Green Bay Packers defense took a brutalizing at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers’ ground attack, the intuitive suggestion to close to gap between the Packers and the NFC Champions started with playing better run defense. And to be sure, not being historically bad would be a good start. On the other hand, stopping San Francisco ground attack didn’t separate the Chiefs from the Packers; an advantage in personnel and mindset plus a little luck did the trick. In closing the gap between the two NFC finalists, the Packers can follow the Chiefs’ lead, without taking a reactionary approach to what happened in Santa Clara to end the season.
In that ill-fated NFC Championship Game, the Packers gave up 6.8 yards per carry to the 49ers with leaky run fits, weak edges, and missed tackles. San Francisco turning long runs into touchdowns particularly hurt Green Bay. Kansas City, though, didn’t execute significantly better, allowing Shanahan’s crew to put up 6.4 yards per tote, including a slew of chunk plays on well-designed misdirection runs with rookie phenom Deebo Samuel.
From a personnel standpoint, the Packers front boasts significantly more talent than the Chiefs, with two top edge rushers and one of the best interior defenders in football. Kansas City’s linebackers aren’t significantly more athletic or instinctive than Green Bay’s. They executed somewhat better, but also followed a vastly different game script for a simple reason: Patrick Mahomes’ playmakers came through, as did he.
When the 49ers demanded the Packers play underneath, Matt LaFleur found no answers to consistently spring Davante Adams free, and with little else on the roster in terms of players who can win 1-on-1, driving the length of the field proved difficult. For all the well-deserved accolades the Chiefs receive for their explosive offense, they were also one of the best teams in the NFL putting together long drives last season. Meanwhile, the Packers were a bottom-10 team in three-and-outs.
Green Bay surely could use a boost of explosive ability. The Chiefs geometry works because Tyreek Hill takes the top off defenses, Travis Kelce kills teams in the middle of the field, and they have at least two more guys who can catch a ball underneath and house it. How many do the Packers have?
When Rodgers rolls out of the pocket, there’s no Kelce beating a linebacker, or Mecole Hardman springing away from a cornerback, or Sammy Watkins cooking Richard Sherman on a move inspired by Adams. When the 49ers pass rush bears down on the pocket and Rodgers has to fire, who aside from Adams can win with regularity? Too much reliance on LaFleur to scheme guys open leaves the Packers vulnerable to great execution from defenses.
Early in the season, Marquez Valdes-Scantling provided that deep threat off play-action, but once teams decided to force the Packers to play more underneath, the passing game struggled with continuity putting together drives. If they could hit chunk plays, they’d move it, and they bogged down when they couldn’t. MVS could well still be a useful player, but with only Adams to regularly threaten defenses underneath, defenses found it too easy to prevent big plays and take away Adams underneath, leaving the Packers without answers.
Whether it’s internal development from guys like MVS, Equanimeous St. Brown, or Jace Sternberger, or player acquisition this spring with free agency and the draft, Green Bay’s success in the playoffs relies on finding the pieces to make the geometry of the offense fit. Sternberger, for example, doesn’t have to be Kelce to make it work. A threat, something a defense has to think about, provides enough.
And this isn’t a new or complicated notion. It’s foundational to team building
Checklist for building a roster in today's NFL— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) November 20, 2018
Role/Number of players
Pass rusher (2)
Off Playmaker (3)
Def Playmaker (3)
Quality OL (3)
That's where I'd start. Once you fill those 12 spots, you'll have an outstanding foundation.
We'll discuss on today's MTS Podcast
Adams and Aaron Jones form a formidable 1-2 punch to rival any team’s, but beyond that, the vertiginous advantage drop-off proved a fatal flaw in January.
Adding to the personnel may not be enough; it wasn’t for the 49ers, who boast the most balanced roster in football, and it almost wasn’t for the Chiefs either. Andy Reid called an uncharacteristically aggressive game to counter a painfully bland one from Shanahan in terms of clock management and strategy. The Chiefs went three times on fourth down, converting two of them to extend drives. Across the sideline, the 49ers kicked a field goal on fourth-and-2 deep in Chiefs territory and didn’t call timeout at the end of the first half, robbing them of the chance to take a halftime lead.
In the NFC Championship Game, LaFleur eschewed a fourth-and-1 at midfield on the opening drive, a decision the 49ers promptly answered with a touchdown, as if authored by the football gods of karmic retribution. The “all gas, no brakes” approach requires going for it there and in similar situations across the season. A field goal on fourth-and-short cost the Packers against the Eagles as well.
One might forgive Kyle Shanahan for playing it safe with Handsome Jimmy, but no quarter will be given for a coach with the two-time MVP under center.
A 7-0 or even a 3-0 game fundamentally alters the script. Shanahan had to pass with Garoppolo in the Super Bowl because the game remained close. They had to keep trying to score points with the most combustible star in our game on the other team, supported by an army of playmakers. This correlates directly with the first point; playmakers who can change a game with one play, or hurt you on third down force opponents to account for that in their approach.
Richard Sherman called this out after the first meeting. They weren’t scared of the Packers’ passing game and it allowed them to play differently, more aggressively and with more confidence. Imagine how another home-run hitter would create pause. Or a middle-of-the-field threat.
Against the best teams in the league, a little luck or a break here and there often spells the difference. The Chiefs made the play, albeit much easier, to create the turnover and scuttle a 49ers drive in the first half despite poor play from Mahomes. Kevin King missed two chances in the NFC Championship Game to pick off Garoppolo, who threw two gift picks including the clincher on Sunday in the Super Bowl. If King holds on, the ripple effects could be serious.
When Za’Darius Smith admits he and potentially his teammates weren’t quite up for the game, these are moments that a heightened focus could inexorably alter. Having now played in these moments—remember, the Chiefs lost the AFC Championship Game last year because their defense couldn’t get stops—there won’t be any excuses for not mustering the requisite verve to meet these moments in the future.
This is 1,000 words to explain something fairly simple: add a playmaker to the offense and sharpen the mindset/approach of the team in these big games. Rodgers says his team isn’t that far from beating the 49ers and from that standpoint he’s right. The path isn’t complicated or convoluted, but even San Francisco couldn’t quite execute it in Miami. Starting with the offseason, finding that proverbial missing piece sets the table for LaFleur, Rodgers, and the Packers to fix the rest.