The Green Bay Packers play the San Francisco 49ers today, in what should be a fun game and a close battle. The two teams are, in many ways, opposites of each other. On defense, the 49ers rank 2nd against the run and excel on tackling ballcarriers under their safety shell, where they rank 4th against pass-catching running backs, and 5th tight ends. While those are nice strengths, they’re terrible against outside receivers, and #1 receivers in particular, where they rank 31st. They are also 31st against deep passes.
The Packers, on the other hand, are awful against the run (28th), terrible against tight ends (28th) and pass-catching running backs (23rd), but very good against outside receivers, where they rank no worse than 7th. On offense, the story is much the same as the Packers rely heavily on Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams, while the 49ers rely on a diverse cast of pass-catchers to prop up their substandard quarterback. But, for a moment, let us stop to praise just how well they prop up that substandard quarterback.
Hiding your quarterback is hard. REALLY hard. Only a few NFL teams, the Packers among them, have the luxury of having a truly great quarterback, and it makes life so much easier for the team, as quarterback is vastly more important than any other position in sports. Every other team in the league spends an inordinate among of time trying to figure out how to win games with substandard quarterback, and almost no one ever manages to do so. Every quarterback flaw will be exploited by the defense, whether it’s a lack of arm talent (bigger cushions for DBs, more picks, fewer outside throws), struggles under pressure (more pressure), lack of speed through progressions (more pressure, anticipation of where the ball might go from the defense), lack of accuracy (still more pressure as gambling on extra rushers won’t be punished as much, more turnovers), lack of mobility (pressure), etc. As an offensive coordinator, any concession you make to your lackluster quarterback is an automatic advantage for the defense, compounded by the additional snaps where that quarterback will just fail on his own. Teams have been trying to hide their quarterbacks for 50 years and it never works.
But the 49ers seem to have pulled it off with Jimmy Garoppolo. First, let’s establish that Jimmy G, while not terrible, isn’t good. PFF, which attempts to grade players independent of their circumstances, has Jimmy tied for 18th tied with Jameis Winston. Sports Info Solutions, which tries to do the same thing, also has him 18th. Just using the eye test on Jimmy, 18th seems about right.
But if you look at Jimmy’s efficiency stats, the production the 49ers get from the passing game isn’t just good, it’s elite. The Packers are 2nd in pass DVOA with 36.4%, and the 49ers are just barely worse in 5th with 33.2%. Aaron is #1 in DVOA (remember that the Packers have had 1.5 games of Jordan Love) with 27.8%, but Jimmy is in the neighborhood at 5th with 17.9%. By EPA per play, Rodgers is again 1st, but Garoppolo is 4th, ahead of even Tom Brady. So, if no one else is able to hide their quarterback, how does San Francisco pull this off?
Part of it is indeed scheme, and Kyle Shanahan’s love of forcing defenses to go heavy by running out 12/21 personnel is important, but it’s more about having a that rare Deebo Samuel player, who can take an easy 4-yard throw and turn it into a 20 yard gain. Deebo’s YAC per play, compared to the next best receiver (Kansas City’s Mecole Hardman) is amazing, and it allows Jimmy to generate Rodgers-like production through Alex Smith-like throws.
So the secret to defeating San Francisco is more about finding Jimmy. Jimmy’s hiding behind his YAC monsters, and if you can get him to come out, it’s always a disaster for San Francisco. Doing so involves good tackling, disciplined defense, but more than anything, it involves your defensive coordinator not being a coward. A lot of defenses are based on the idea that, if you force an offense to take as many plays as possible to move down the field, they will eventually mess up. This is the essence of “bend, don’t break” and honestly, against most QBs, and especially Jimmy-level QBs, it’s not a bad idea. It also insulates defensive coordinators from highlight-reel 75-yard bombs, which is the “cowardice” part. Sometimes teams get stuck in “bend but don’t break” philosophies when they shouldn’t because it’s not as embarrassing to get carved up 8 yards at a time. Tom Brady’s entire career is, to some extent, built on the cowardice of opposing defensive coordinators, and the 49ers rely on it heavily as well.
Finding Jimmy is about daring Jimmy. It’s about making Jimmy look past his safe throw to some deep throw he’s utterly incapable of making. In cold weather, it’s an even better idea. The Packers need to be aggressive and risk a few bombs. If they do, they win.