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Packers Film Study: Looking at defense’s red-hot start vs 49ers

Saturday may have resulted in heartbreak for Packers fans, but the defense had an outstanding game.

NFC Divisional Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Saturday’s loss to the San Francisco 49ers will go down as one of the most heartbreaking in Green Bay Packers history. Despite that, the Green Bay defense had one of its most dominant playoff performances in the Aaron Rodgers era.

The 49ers scored just six points on offense in the 13-10 victory, failing to find the end zone on any of their drives. Jimmy Garoppolo completed just 11 of 19 passes for 131 yards and an interception while being sacked four times. The running game eclipsed 100 rushing yards, but averaged just 3.7 yards per carry.

Defensively, the Packers couldn’t have gotten off to a better start. The 49ers went backward 15 yards on their first four drives and were completely shut out in the first half thanks to a red zone interception from Adrian Amos shortly before halftime. Garoppolo was consistently under pressure in the pocket, and it seemed that the 49ers would have no answer for Green Bay’s defense.

The defense took a relative step back in the second half, but their performance kept the Packers in the game despite an inefficient offense and multiple special teams blunders. Instead of focusing on the bad in this season’s final film study, we’re going to take a look at how the Packers defense was able to get off to a red-hot start on Saturday.

Maintaining gap integrity and setting the edge was going to be two key factors to slowing down the 49ers and their run game on Saturday. From the first defensive snap, the Packers looked focused on doing exactly that.

Preston Smith has been terrific at setting the edge this year. Constricting rushing lanes by stacking blockers while keeping his outside shoulder free to prevent ball carriers from bouncing outside was a huge boost to Joe Barry’s defensive scheme all year long. This play on Saturday was a great example of that, with Smith setting the edge before cutting inside once the ball carrier committed to cutting upfield.

Given the team’s many personnel and salary cap questions this offseason, it’s unclear if Preston will be back in 2022. However, even if the stat sheet didn’t always show the “Smith bro” as a game-changer, his impact on the defense will be sorely missed if (or when) he’s gone.

Linebacker Krys Barnes was a solid contributor against the run as well, finding rushing lanes and attacking downhill to meet the ball carrier. One of my favorite traits with Barnes is how physical he is at the point of contact, stopping ball carriers in their tracks. Watch how he prevents any yards after contact from the running back once he meets them in the hole.

As an exclusive rights free agent, Barnes is a likely candidate to come back in 2022. His cap hit would be almost negligible, and the Packers will need inside linebacker help with All-Pro De’Vondre Campbell expected to receive a big payday in free agency after a dominant season.

Along with neutralizing the run game, the Packers had a solid plan of attack for getting pressure on Garoppolo. The return of Za’Darius Smith and Whitney Mercilus helped, but the Packers also had Rashan Gary playing one of the best games of his young career.

Za’Darius had his presence felt almost immediately, recording a sack on his first play back on the field since Week 1 against the New Orleans Saints. It was an unbelievable effort play to get Garoppolo down while falling to the ground, but it’s also worth noting that the film showed San Francisco’s left guard tripping over himself after getting his feet tangled with Trent Williams.

With so many players on defense coming back from injury, Barry dialed up some interesting pressure looks throughout the game. The one shown below features all kinds of interesting alignments, from Kevin King in the A-gap to Kenny Clark playing out wide.

This play resulted in Amos getting pressure on the quarterback, forcing Garoppolo to get the ball out sooner than he would have liked. His receiver wasn’t prepared for the ball so soon, making the turn on his route as the ball was coming, resulting in an incompletion.

The player of the game was unquestionably Rashan Gary, who was a one-man wrecking crew as a pass rusher. Despite losing containment in the run game on several occasions (I counted twice), his impact was felt throughout the game, coming up with two sacks and a crucial fourth-down stop in the second half.

Matched up against right tackle Tom Compton, Gary destroyed his matchup with athleticism and strength. He transitioned from speed to power on multiple occasions, using a nasty long arm move to drive Compton into the pocket before getting a sack. Both of Gary’s sacks can be seen below.

Ultimately, the Packers came up short. However, despite the loss, the defense could not have looked more dominant. That should give Packers fans hope in the coming years, because whether or not Aaron Rodgers returns in 2022, the defense has several key players that they can build around for the unit to continue playing at a high level.