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49ers vs. Packers, The NFC Divisional Game, by the numbers

Can Green Bay exercise some playoff demons against a recurring foe?

Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It’s time for the rubber to meet the road. Every game all season leads to this. Green Bay secured the much desired first-round bye, are getting healthy at a rate even the most optimistic of fans would not have expected, and the opponent must come to a Lambeau Field that is expected to be quite cold. This is what it is all about. How do the teams matchup? Let’s go deep on the 49ers and the Packers, who are favored to win this weekend by our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook.

Jimmy In the Middle

Jimmy Garoppolo is a meme of a quarterback. Not because he’s particularly bad, but because he just does one thing and does it all the time. No quarterback in the NFL throws a higher percentage of passes to the short middle than Jimmy G (35% of passes). No quarterback in the NFL throws more passes to the short-and-intermediate middle than Jimmy G (53% of passes). With this in mind, Green Bay can scheme up some looks defensively to try and force Garoppolo out of his comfort zone. The primary ways to muck this up will be different variations on Cover-1. One of the ways Green Bay has played C1 has been to utilize Darnell Savage as the robber, which looks like this:

The Athletic

You can run robber out of different safety looks, disguising it in a two-high shell, a staggered look like you see here, or with the robber defender even closer to the LOS. What Green Bay will look to do here is to put as many bodies between the numbers and in the first 15 yards from the line of scrimmage as possible. There are several different variations of C1 you can play, but expect Green Bay to utilize robber with Darnell Savage launching at the first sight of Jimmy pulling the trigger. This has been the best way for Savage to play in Green Bay. He’s kind of a tweener where he’s not a true safety but also not used as a corner. His best plays in Green Bay have routinely come on these concepts where he is working downhill and utilizing his elite quick-twitch explosion to blow up plays.

Not only does this fit Green Bay’s personnel, but Garoppolo struggles against Cover-1. His completion percentage drops to just 54.5%, by far his worst against any look, and his success rate of 39.5% is nearly his worst. He has also taken far more sacks against this look than any other. The league-worst sack rate this year belongs to Justin Fields at 11.8%. Garoppolo’s sack rate against cover-1 is 11.6%. If Green Bay can muddy up the middle for Jimmy and force him to take shots down the field with a bad thumb in near-zero degree weather, they should really like their chances.

As far as weaknesses in Green Bay’s pass defense goes, there are no surprises. They rank 7th in DVOA against both WR1 and WR2, and third against “other WRs.” Their weakness is tight-ends, where they rank just 28th. And of course, San Francisco has George Kittle. He is a major matchup problem for Green Bay as they don’t really have a guy that can both matchup with him in coverage and not get steamrolled in the run game. I imagine Green Bay will look to show two to him or put a zone defender in his area often (another benefit of running robber often).

The Packers Run Defense Against Kyle and Co.

Packers fans have suffered through three playoff defeats in the past decade at the hands of a San Francisco running game. The 2019 NFCCG loss may be the most pathetic and that is saying something. What has happened since is a very different story. In the two meetings since that disastrous performance, Green Bay has held 49ers runningbacks to -.04 EPA per rush.

Packers fans have seen pretty volatile run defense performances from Green Bay this season. From the abject disaster against Cleveland to the very stout performances against the likes of Minnesota (twice), San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The reason I highlight these teams is they are from the same Shanahan outside-zone family. In these matchups, Green Bay held the opponents to a combined -.16 EPA-per-rush. The big difference in the Browns game was a plethora of missed tackles, which was not the case for much of the season. Green Bay had Pro Football Focus’ second highest tackling grade this season. If Green Bay can tackle, which every time De’Vondre Campbell has been on the field and not immediately coming off the COVID list that has not been an issue, they have shown they can mitigate the impact of an opposing team’s rushing attack.

One player for whom it has been an issue though is Darnell Savage. Among safeties who played at least 200 snaps this season, Savage has the sixth worst missed-tackle rate. If you bump that qualifier up to 300 snaps only Andrew Wingard had a worse missed-tackle rate. Savage has a propensity to go for the splash hit, which at his relatively small size, can lead to missed tackles. Savage is going to be relied upon as the alley defender quite often in this game (and also will frequently matchup or be in the vicinity of George Kittle), and if Green Bay does end up getting gashed, it will likely be due to missed tackles, and that will likely involve Darnell Savage.

Packers on Offense

The big difference between the 2019 49ers and the 2021 49ers is their secondary. After having one of the league’s best defenses in 2019, the 49ers have fallen to a good-but-not-great unit. Where they do excel though is in run defense, where they rank second in DVOA. Against the pass, however, they are merely just average. This is absolutely a defense that relies heavily on its defensive line. DVOA generally hates their secondary’s performance. Against WR1s, only Jacksonville has been worse. They rank 20th against both WR2s and “other” WRs. Where the Niner’s pass defense does perform well is against runningbacks, where they rank fourth and tight-ends where they rank fifth. This is likely due to Fred Werner, who reaggravated an ankle injury on Sunday. According to his own Twitter account, the scans came back okay, but if he’s limited athletically, they could lose the only part of their pass defense that works.

However, Green Bay shouldn’t spend or need to spend much time throwing to tight-ends and runningbacks. Green Bay has no good receiving tight-ends (sorry small-sample-size Marcedes Lewis), and they have a WR1 that is an absolute target magnet. Expect heavy Davante Adams usage on Saturday night.

Where Green Bay could get into trouble is two-faceted. Number one is an old bugaboo for Matt LaFleur: Running too often against a good run defense. LaFleur likes to run the ball and it’s the bedrock of his offense, but this Niners defense only has one real strength and it is their front. They rank second in rush defense DVOA and second in rush defense EPA-per-play. Don’t waste downs trying to plow into a fortified front when there are massive matchup advantages on the perimeter.

The other potential issue is if Aaron Rodgers returns to hero ball. For much of the season, due to an offensive line full of backups, Rodgers was routinely executing the quick game to perfection. In week 18, with David Bakhtiari back in the fold, Rodgers was spending a lot more time in the pocket hunting shot plays. Now, Rodgers overall time-to-throw wasn’t really any different than it was for most of the season, but a couple of plays he clearly got quite comfortable back there (and for good reason, he had an eternity). The concern is that if Nick Bosa is healthy, that may not be the case. There has been an idea among some (including myself) at Acme Packing Company that when Rodgers’ protection is too good he turns to hero ball more often. If Rodgers tries to play hero and takes sacks or fumbles, that is an avenue for Green Bay to lose. If Green Bay can execute the quick game they have been able to all season, they should be be able to exploit San Francisco’s weaknesses and put up plenty of points.

Who is Going to Win

Frankly, Green Bay is a much better team than San Francisco. Their offense is much better and their quarterback is far superior. Green Bay is also getting a bunch of reinforcements while San Francisco is dealing with injuries to their two most important defensive players. If Green Bay can come out with a gameplan to exploit San Francisco’s weaknesses in the secondary, and hold up like they have for much of the season against the outside-zone teams, they should be hosting a second game next weekend. If they lose the line of scrimmage battles on both sides, try to run the ball too often against a good front, and let Kittle run wild we could be headed to an early off-season sure to be filled with unwanted drama.