The San Francisco 49ers lost a tough one on Sunday night in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter when Aaron Rodgers completed two passes down the middle to get the Green Bay Packers in position to let Mason Crosby kick the game winning field goal.
It was a microcosm of the entire night, a night that featured two head coaches seemingly in tension with one another as the story that unfolded over the weekend prior to the game about the awkwardness surrounding a Rodgers trade rumor that would’ve sent him to San Francisco.
The national broadcast never mentioned the details of this controversy but the body language of the two coaches, or at least Matt LaFleur, suggested otherwise. The storyline of the tension between the once former colleagues overshadowed the stellar performance of the Packers defense led by defensive coordinator Joe Barry.
LaFleur’s offense can be expected to go into any game with Aaron Rodgers and steal the show due to the high powered explosive nature of the talent it possesses. But Barry’s defensive unit was it’s offense’s equal and limited the 49ers to less than 70 yards of rushing offense. The 49ers have not looked that inefficient running the ball in quite some time.
Packers gap-and-a-half defensive line technique
Barry’s is employing similar tactics that he picked up from coaching under Brandon Staley with the Rams in 2020. Staley is off the Vic Fangio tree and employs a more 3-4 cover-2 style defense is something that Barry has been installing since the spring.
The technique employed by the defensive front, known as “gap-and-a-half”, allows the defense in the second and third level to overlap in run fit assignments and in 2-high coverage shells and use corners and safeties to fit the run from depth and limit gains.
In the first quarter, we see two good examples of the blocking surface and the overlap that Staley’s influence on Barry’s defense creates.
First play, 1st quarter, 8:59, 1st and 10 at SF 37
After moving the ball for a first down on their first drive, the 49ers come out in 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end) and run a wide zone toss (Toss 18 Force) to the right. The Packers defense is aligned in a 2-high cover-6 shell with quarters into the boundary and cover-2 to the field. This is a front that has traditionally given the 49ers trouble in the past against Staley and Fangio-based schemes.
Preston Smith (#91) is the edge defender playing the gap and a half technique on receiver Deebo Samuel (No. 19). Behind him is corner Jaire Alexander (No. 23), the force defender outside of Smith should any run get to the near edge. Smith can play the gap and a half on Deebo in the scenario.
You can see Smith press Deebo’s outside shoulder while his head is inside the D gap while moving laterally with the play. He sheds Deebo and works inside the D gap, defeating Deebo’s fullback Kyle Juszczyk’s block to make the tackle.
Behind Smith, Alexander and safety Adrian Amos are there to fit the run in case the running back is spilled. Smith’s technique is meant to keep some defenders clean, in this case on an outside run, the corner and safety are there to clean up.
Second play, 1st quarter, 3:19, 1st and 10 at SF 25
The 49ers come out in the same personnel grouping as above, 21 personnel, and run a sweep to the right with Deebo out of their “Deadpool” package. “Deadpool” is a series of runs and push passes in the 49ers offense designed specifically for Deebo to take on a sweep or fly while the rest of the offense blocks the play like “18/19 Zorro” (on “Zorro”, the fullback blocks the first defender inside the tight end, on “Force”, the fullback blocks the first force defender outside the tight end).
The Packers are aligned in quarters coverage this time but it does not really change the responsibility of the edge defenders. Smith is still the edge setter with Alexander behind him.
At the snap, Smith engages tight end George Kittle and the fullback Juszczyk as he moves laterally with the ball carrier. The rest of the defensive front is moving laterally and not penetrating so as to not create any cutback lanes for the ball carrier. Smith again plays gap and a half and controls Kittles outside shoulder with his outside arm.
Smith then gets his head inside the blockers and flashes in the gap getting Deebo to bounce outside. This time, Krys Barnes (No. 51) and Alexander are there to make the stop since they were able to replace Smith on the edge.
The Packers continued to give the 49ers running game fits while basing out of 2-high coverage shells due in large part to the defensive line, a worthy performance for a unit missing Za’Darius Smith.
Kenny Clark, Preston Smith, and Rashan Gary were in the back field all night making life difficult for the 49ers offensive line.
Packers efficient red zone offense
The Packers have a variety of low red zone run-pass option specials they like to use that isolate Davante Adams in situations that cause confusion due to his short motion inside the slot receiver before bursting back out at the snap.
In week eight of 2020, the Packers called this spot-flat concept where Adams motions in then reverses course back out to the flat. Rodgers executes a play fake that draws the defenders up as Adams cuts out to the goal line. He catches the pass for six.
Against the 49ers on Sunday night, LaFleur called the same play with the same result.
The only difference here for the offense is the position of the running back, who is over the strong side to the field instead of the weak two receiver side like the play against Minnesota. The 49ers are man coverage with Josh Norman (No. 26) over Adams and Deommodore Lenoir (No. 38) over Alan Lazard in the slot.
Adams’s motion in forces Norman to bounce over Lazard and Lenoir to travel with Adams. At the snap, Lenoir keeps running with the motion while Adams breaks back out underneath the natural pick that Lazard’s spot route creates.
Another red zone touchdown was set up in week two versus the Lions and I covered it at length in my week two game review.
In that play, Rodgers found Robert Tonyan for a touchdown down the seam when the safety shaded too far to the boundary. Normally, Tonyan would break outside on the corner route, but he correctly read the safety’s leverage and traveled up the seam with Rodgers on the same page.
On Sunday night they came right back to the play but this time Marquez Valdes-Scantling ran the corner route from the #3 slot instead of the tight end. The play call has the #1 and #2 receivers running underneath shallow routes.
The #2 receiver in the formation will break off and angle up toward the end zone. Last week against the Lions, the #2, Lazard, was also open on this route. The #3, Valdes-Scantling, runs the corner with the safety closing off the middle of the field.
The 49ers are in cover-3 inside the red zone, a risky defensive play call in compressed space. Lenoir is the corner over the #1 receiver in trips and as soon as Tonyan breaks inside, Lenoir should be zoning off and gaining depth in the end zone and looking for a receiver with no threat from #1.
He got caught looking inside and didn’t sink back under the corner route in time. Rodgers placed a perfect pass over Lenoir’s outstretched arm for six.
Rodgers makes 49ers coverage defense pay with quick well placed throws
Demeco Ryans received a lot of criticism for being unable to slow down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense, a criticism that I think is misplaced and undeserved, especially against future hall of fame quarterback who made adjustments to beat the 49ers pass rush with quick timing and precise throws.
Depending on whose charting you look at, Rodgers’ average time to throw was anywhere between 2.09 (Pro Football Focus) and 2.38 seconds (NFL NextGenStats).
The Packers have a somewhat unique vertical game, not so much the concepts themselves, but in where they like to line up their personnel. One of their favorite concepts is the “double go (middle read)” or “989” concept where the receivers on the outside run go routes and the slot or tight end inside runs a post or dig route where he “reads” the coverage in front of him and runs a post against 2-high safeties or a dig against single high safety.
On their first third down, the Packers are running double go but from the slot receivers out of a 3x2 empty formation. Adams is lined up on the two receiver side with Tartt in press coverage and rookie safety Talonoa Hufanga shaded to that side.
The three receiver side has Tonyan as the inside slot (No. 85) and Alan Lazard as the number two middle slot. The number one receivers on both sides are running quick hitches, Adams and Lazard are running slot fades, and Tonyan is running the middle read route.
Rodgers sees in the pre-snap assessment that Hufanga and Tartt have removed Adams from the play. Rodgers drops back and throws in about 1.8 seconds from snap to throw deep down the field to the slot fade to Lazard being covered by K’Waun Williams.
Also, notice Nick Bosa? He wins inside on this rep inside but is rendered ineffective as soon as Rodgers releases the pass.
Rodgers hit two more of these quick fade passes down the sideline to Adams later in the game and the coverage was near perfect. On the first pass with Lenoir in coverage, he maybe could’ve been tried to recover closer to Adams and used the sideline to force a tougher throw, though that completion is as tough as it gets and not many quarterbacks make it.
On the second throw, Dontae Johnson was in a better position than Lenoir to play the pass, but that also didn’t matter as Rodgers threw Adams open on the sideline away from Johnson. There isn’t much the defender can do in that case.
I timed both throws from snap to throw in about 1.7 seconds in the two clips above and I was about a half second behind the release of the ball in stopping the clock so it was probably faster than 1.7, more like 1.5. That’s not enough time to affect anything. He’s that good.
Kenny Clark’s big night
Although Kenny Clark has no sacks, he has recorded 14 pressures this season so far and recorded six on Sunday night per Pro Football Focus.
Sacks are a flashy stat to be sure, and the Packers the Packers recorded their first five of the season against the 49ers, but the pressures from Clark are equally important in moving the quarterback off his spot and forcing errant throws.
Pass coverage forces off-target throws
If there is one thing 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo does well, it’s convert third downs. The Packers were determined to not let that happen. The 49ers offense converted just one third down the entire first half.
Packers defenders prevented 49ers receivers from getting open on several key third downs and kept Kyle Shanahan’s offense from getting into a rhythm. In the second half, the 49ers did convert some third downs on the opening second half scoring drive but getting their offense off the field in the first half until the final three seconds but the coverage defense was as crucial to the Packers success as every other facet covered above.
This was a crucial NFC win for the Packers and one that will likely have playoff implications for both teams and the Packers ended up on the right side of the final result. The offense is clicking and the defense is opening up more of their playbook with personnel groupings and schematic changes. This was an important victory the Packers will look to build on in the coming weeks.