The Packers know who their opponent is this Saturday evening. They’ll take on the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday night in Green Bay for the ninth time in their playoff history together with the series tied up at 4-4.
The 49ers have won the last three playoff meetings, not that those games particularly matter for the current moment except to say that the ninth iteration adds to the storied history. For Matt LaFleur and Kyle Shanahan, the head-to-head records are 2-2 including playoffs. Shanahan is 2-3 versus the Packers since 2017.
And someone in the media, or most actually, will probably bring up the 2005 draft where the 49ers passed on drafting Aaron Rodgers. We’ve all heard the story before. But this will be the fourth time Rodgers has faced the 49ers in the playoffs and he will be looking to win his first against them.
These teams met in Week 3 with the Packers winning a narrow game 30-28 in the game’s final minute when Rodgers quickly hit two passes for 42 yards to set up the game-winning field goal for Mason Crosby. In that game, the 49ers offense came to life in the second half after backup quarterback Trey Lance got them on the board in the final seconds of the first half.
But what is the base of the 49ers offense, what do they do well in the pass and run game, and where might the Packers be able to limit what the 49ers do offensively to have a chance to win?
49ers core run game concepts
The 49ers are predominantly an outside zone running team. Everything they do on offense revolves around putting defenses in horizontal conflict whether it’s the outside runs to the edge of the horizontal stretches, the passing game creates that space for the wide receivers to gain maximal yards after the catch.
The base running play of the 49ers offense, though, is the outside zone and they can get it to it by either a traditional handoff or by incorporating the toss element into it where the toss gets the ball into the hands of the running a bit quicker so that he can get downhill to the edge faster. On this particular play, the fullback Kyle Juszczyk does not line up in a traditional fullback alignment.
Garoppolo sends him on a jet motion across where he has blocking responsibility to block the first defender inside the tight end after ensuring the tight end’s defender does not slip inside. Notice how he chips him to prevent the defender from taking an inside track before moving to the next force defender.
The 49ers also have several counters if the defense starts setting the edge more aggressively and selling out to stop the outside runs.
For defensive ends that like to get upfield aggressively, the 49ers will run their “Lightning” run concept, an outside zone windback play that takes advantage of the backside defensive end’s aggressiveness in pursuing the run from the backside. The run action itself looks like counter with the running back taking a counter step before cutting back the other way.
The Colts backside defensive end chases after the run upon seeing this counter step and as he gets upfield, the sift blocker bluff blocks and bypasses him to lead block on the edge. This is an effective run play particularly against teams with wide edges.
Since the 49ers like to run a lot of outside zone toss, they’ll also use the same toss action to run inside zone.
If the defense sees the toss action, they push to the edges hard and flow out of the box. The fullback sift blocks the backside edge and the running back is able to hit the running lane up the middle effectively due to there being no defenders around in the second level until he’s seven yards downfield.
The running game with Deebo has accelerated the 49ers offense and they are not really using him any differently than they would any other running back in their scheme. But the effect it has on a defense is keeping them in sub packages like nickel and removing an extra big body off the field in favor of more speed.
That might work against traditional 11 personnel passing concepts, but moving Deebo into the backfield as a running back is much more preferable to the 49ers run game right now than staying in 21 personnel.
The 49ers offense can be much more physical against smaller defensive personnel in the game like they were versus Dallas in the wildcard round this past Sunday using him on sweeps, wide zone, and inside zone runs out of 11 personnel.
The Packers defense finished the season ranked 28th in DVOA run defense, Football Outsiders efficiency metric that measures how well an offense gains 60% of the yards remaining toward a first down or prevents an offense from acquiring those yards.
Some of those rankings could be skewed by performances against Cleveland, the second Chicago, and Baltimore. But the Packers cannot afford any lapses versus the 49ers run game.
The Packers will have to rely on Preston Smith and Rashan Gary to eat double teams and prevent 49ers blockers from getting to the second level on their wide zone runs. In the clips above, both Smith and Gary were able to eat the double teams that kept second-level players like Devondre Campbell free and clear to make open-field tackles.
Campbell had an all-pro season because of tackles like the one in the second clip above where he plays aggressively downhill, tracks the inside of Deebo, and tackles him in space.
49ers core passing game concepts
The 49ers passing game lives over the middle of field and is built around getting receivers in space, creating yards after the catch, and taking advantage of Garoppolo’s quick release. The less thinking he has to do, the better.
Shanahan has built a passing game that allows their best players to do the bulk of the heavy lifting. Garoppolo is hurt with a separated tendon in his throwing hand, making passing that much more difficult for the 49ers quarterback.
As a result, Shanahan has had to get creative to get his offense some yards and points. Here against the Rams in Week 18, the 49ers have a dagger concept called that is normally a vertical stretch concept.
Shanahan adds a horizontal stretch element to it with Deebo on the jet motion to the flat. The motion pulls two defenders to the numbers and the clear out route occupies the safety. Receiver Jauan Jennings is wide open for the touchdown.
On another similar play design versus Minnesota in early December, Garoppolo was able to hit an extremely tight window throw to Jennings on the dig route. Shanahan wanted to create space for the throw and the play design was meant to pull the flat defender out of the window with Kittle’s shallow flat route, and pull linebacker Eric Kendricks across the field with Trent Sherfield’s deep crosser. Kendricks didn’t take the bait so Garoppolo waited a tick longer and threw the pass inside of Kendricks and fitting the pass in between the safety and corner.
49ers 3rd down play calling
The Packers will need to be able to keep the 49ers from getting to 3rd-and-4 or less as much as possible. If they don’t, it could be a long night for Green Bay. In these situations, the 49ers like to utilize a variety of concepts that give the receivers freedom to dictate the route on “choice” routes. On a choice route, the receiver has primarily three options at the top of his route: cut inside or cut outside based on the defender leverage, or sit in the zone.
The 49ers use these concept to great effect and Garoppolo never goes anywhere else. The route’s are combined with other routes that are designed to clear space and give that receiver running the choice route a 1-on-1. In recent weeks, these have been drive extenders for the 49ers, especially versus the Rams and Cowboys.
In the first match-up, the 49ers were 2-for-5 on 3rd down in the first half and didn’t convert on 3rd-and-6 or longer. In the second half, the 49ers converted four third downs to first downs that were greater than eight yards to go with a fifth third down converted due to a defensive pass interference.
Overall, the 49ers only converted 31.7% of the time in situations of 3rd-and-6 or greater. In situations of 3rd-and-5 or less, the 49ers converted 52.6% of the time (both stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference Stathead). The Packers will need to be sound up front and force the 49ers offense into more 3rd and long situations. The key to that will be how they move around Kenny Clark.
Clark was able to wreck shop in the Week 3 game and is a big reason why the Packers won: because they largely controlled the trenches and turned the 49ers into a 1-dimensional passing team. Yes, the score was close, but the 49ers cannot possibly rely on Garoppolo to carry the burden, though at times he’s shown he can. If the Packers are consistent, this is happening much less likely.
The 49ers aren’t an easy matchup for Green Bay but they go as Garoppolo goes. And right now Garoppolo is dealing with a thumb injury and now a shoulder injury that he sustained in the wildcard game versus Dallas. The Packers have the tools to limit them again but they cannot give up the third and long plays to the 49ers offense, the thing that kept the 49ers in the game in Week 3. Take care of that and move on to the NFC championship.