Each year, Acme Packing Company’s writers vote for the Green Bay Packers’ top plays of the previous season. Our votes are based on the impact of the play, spectacular individual or team effort, or sheer amusement value we compile the votes to list out the top ten plays. Join us over a two-week span as we count down from 10 to 1 in the Packers’ Top Plays of 2021.
It’s Week 3, and the Packers are 1-1. It’s absolutely unclear as to whether they are serious contenders after getting trounced by the Saints in the opener, and managing a convincing, if not overly impressive win against the Lions. They’re on the road against a quality 49ers team, coming in at 2-0 with two road victories under their belt. It’s a daunting challenge, to be sure. Fortunately, Jaire Alexander made sure they were up to the task.
The Packers built a nice 10-point lead to open the game on the strength of a huge 54-yard field goal from Mason Crosby and a 1-yard touchdown from Davante Adams, but the 49ers aren’t out of this one by a longshot. After a 51-yard punt by Corey Bojorquez pinned them at their own 14, San Francisco decided to dial up a big one and get back into the game immediately. It almost worked too, as George Kittle appeared to be running wide open down the middle of the field, when all of a sudden…
Yup. That’s me.
You’re probably wondering how I got here. Especially considering the fact that 0.5 seconds before the ball came down, I was here.
Or maybe you’re not. Maybe you’re just thinking, “Oh, well, it’s just Jaire being Jaire, Pro Bowl corner, basically covers the entire field by himself, just doing Jaire things.” Well, let me tell you, getting from point A to point B isn’t as easy as it seems, even when you’re me. A lot of careful work, and careful study went into this pick, and it required a deep understanding of just how tricky Kyle Shanahan can be, diagnosing the trick immediately, and instantly transforming from Jaire, super cover corner, into Jaire, amazing rangy safety.
The whole thing began, as it often does, with pre-snap motion. With Jimmy Garoppolo in shotgun, flanked on his right by rookie running back Trey Sermon, Deebo Samuel goes in motion.
Deebo is their best player by far, but we tend to do a nice job keeping him buttoned up, and in this game, he only caught 5 of 10 targets for just 52 yards. This was before the 49ers started using him as more of a true running back/hybrid back, as they did in the second half of the season, which apparently has Deebo honked off.
You’ll notice that no one follows Deebo, as we are in zone here. You’ll also notice that this is a very normal for San Fran, but unusual for the league, personnel group. That’s Brandon Aiyuk on my side, but this is a heavy set with Deebo and Sermon in the backfield together at the snap, and George Kittle and Ross Dwelley on opposite sides of the line at tight end. We’re known for going light on defense, but not against Shanny, and this is a bit of a weird, heavy one for us. You’ve got Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry playing inside, flanked by Kingsley Keke inside Kittle, and Jonathan Garvin inside Dwelley. They’re flanked on the edge by De’Vondre Campbell over Dwelley and Chauncey Rivers on the edge over Kittle. Krys Barnes is playing middle linebacker. That leaves just 4 defensive backs. This is heavy stuff.
Jimmy takes the snap and runs play action to Trey Sermon, with Deebo crossing the opposite way to create additional confusion. Every football play is a mixture of incredibly precise execution, and absolutely bungled chaos, and this one more than most. Let’s start with the first big Packer error. Chauncey Rivers, who is a 260-pound DE, utterly fails to get any kind of a chip on George Kittle. This is not surprising, as Kittle is one of the greatest tight ends ever to play the game, and Chauncey is, well, a nice man who will be tearing his ACL fairly soon, but still. Kittle has a free release upfield, where he’s picked up by rookie Eric Stokes.
On the plus side, Rivers’ failure to chuck Kittle does put him in perfect position to pick up Sermon, who is trailing Kittle up the field, hoping to exploit the space he’s created. And Rivers was hardly the only person to make a mistake on this play. Over on my side of the field, the 49ers are putting on an absolute clown show.
Defensive football is a giant web of cause and effect, which is why defenses are so volatile from year to year. Sometimes a mistake means nothing, but occasionally one mistake spirals to another and another, ultimately leading to a huge catastrophe of a play. This can happen to the defense, but occasionally the web of cause and effect smashes headlong into the offense, as it did here.
Mistake one is Deebo Samuel, who you will remember as the motion man on this play, with plenty of eyes on him, just stopped running right in from of De’Vondre Campbell. De’Vondre does a nice job of simply sticking with Samuel while not conceding space behind him. If Jimmy checks it down, De’Vondre is going to make the tackle for no gain at worst.
I’ll confess that I had my eye on Deebo early, but once it was clear that Deebo wasn’t moving, and that Jonathan Garvin was going to get through to Jimmy, my eyes shifted elsewhere.
This leads us to mistake 2. How on earth did Jonathan Garvin get free to take a shot on Jimmy? Garvin was on the edge of the left side of the defensive line, and at the snap, he, Dean Lowry, and Kenny Clark got absolutely blasted off the line. The reason they were blasted off the line was mostly due to numerical disadvantage. Center Alex Mack does a nice job on Clark, leading him into the pile. Mike McGlinchey and Dan Brunskill double Lowry, and cause a massive pileup in the process. The successful double also leaves McGlinchey available to help on Garvin, who has been chipped by Dwelley on his way out into the center of the pattern. And on the very edge we have Laken Tomlinson doing…something.
Once Dwelley leaves, Garvin reestablishes himself, and accelerates into the space behind McGlinchey and Brunskill, who have blocked Lowry into next Tuesday. Garvin is free.
And here’s where those little cascades are important. Tomlinson had two responsibilities here. One was Krys Barnes. Barnes definitely isn’t rushing in, as he quickly realizes he’s left Dwelley all alone and scrambles to catch up.
The other was Campbell. Campbell is out there with Deebo, but if Barnes, or Darnell Savage, or I pick up Deebo, he’s free to pass rush, and Tomlinson stays outside as a result. If Deebo would have headed upfield, or even taken Campbell to the sidelines, Tomlinson almost certainly crashes back inside and picks up a free rushing Garvin.
Instead, Jimmy has to get rid of the ball. It’s first and ten, and it’s still early. The prudent move would probably have been to check it down to Dwelley, but I understand Jimmy, and I understand why he went for it. Kittle got that free release, he got upfield, and he had separation, in addition to that huge frame against Eric Stokes. But let’s get back to the 49ers making mistakes.
I wondered at first, if this was originally supposed to be a mesh route where Brandon Aiyuk, covered by Darnell Savage, would run through the middle in an attempt to screen off Stokes, while Stokes screened off Savage, but I don’t think so. You can see Kittle give Stokes a little shiver at the top of his route,
and at that point it looks like he’s committed to heading deep. The reason I originally thought it might be a mesh concept is, well, me. From my perspective, it made no sense for Aiyuk to bring me towards the play. I am, after all, Jaire Alexander. But forget about me for a second, and focus on what Aiyuk actually is doing. By cutting underneath Kittle’s route, he’s attracting the attention of Adrian Amos, camped in the deep middle, and seemingly the only thing between George Kittle and six points.
And it works! Adrian usually doesn’t bite, but the throw from a pressured Garoppolo is ambiguous, and it takes Adrian a second to judge the trajectory, and to pick up on Kittle, he’s turned far too much, and he’s toast.
Here’s where all of the mistakes hit home. On offense, you’re usually trying to use your best players as much as possible. Conversely, you’re trying to attack the opponents’ worst players, but incumbent in that idea is the requirement that in addition to targeting weakness, you need to give the best defenders something to do. I’m over here by myself. Deebo didn’t run a route. Darnell picked up Aiyuk. Sermon and Dwelley are way over on the other side. I’m in deep zone and was never coming in on a blitz. If Deebo becomes a threat, I’m probably coming down to get him. Instead, I’m bored. Bored and extremely fast.
Jimmy’s arm is pretty terrible by NFL standards, which is why the 49ers use the middle of the field so much, and when I saw his windup start, and Garvin’s pressure, I booked it, which led to Jimmy’s final mistake. This throw is terrible. I know Jimmy didn’t see me, but he definitely does see the space behind Kittle, and he needs to lead him up the field with a stronger throw. Instead, this is a lollipop post route, with Kittle getting to the ball at the hash.
I’ve been watching Jimmy’s eyes and I know where this thing is going well before George does, and I’m going to get there first. When Jimmy released the ball, I was standing on the Packer 35 yard line, and approximately 15 yards away from the far hash. I would catch the ball on the far hash at the San Francisco 45 yard line, having traveled approximately 25 yards while the ball was in the air.
And that’s that. If everyone would have tried a little harder on offense, I’m probably harmlessly crashing down on Deebo, but freelancing Jaire is the best Jaire, and when someone tells you “Jaire can cover the entire field” you’d better believe them.
After a 30-yard return, which would have been longer if Darnell Savage would have put himself in George Kittle’s way, Aaron Rodgers marched the offense down the field to the 49er three yard line, where Aaron was incomplete to Randall Cobb on 4th and 1, but all was not lost. The defense would force the 49ers to punt on the next drive and Davante Adams, and the running game, (and a PI penalty) would take it right back down the field, capped by a 3-yard Aaron Jones touchdown, giving Green Bay a 17-0 lead. The Packers would eventually fall behind with just 37 seconds left, but two big passes to Davante Adams and a 51-yard Mason Crosby field goal ensured the good guys would come out on top. Without Alexander’s pick, they probably don’t. The win moved the Packers to 2-1, and the team wouldn’t lose again until Week 9.