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What challenges do the 49ers’ run game present for the Packers' defense?

Breaking down the 49ers’ offense and the challenges the 49ers’ run game poses for the Packers on Saturday night.

NFC Championship - Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

As the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers get set to square off in the divisional round, these breakdowns of each team seek to provide insight into the other for fans of both teams. In the last article, we covered the 49ers' passing offense and the challenges it could pose for the Packers’ defense.

In this article, we’ll look at the challenges the 49ers run game poses for the Packers run defense. As Packers fans know all too well, the one area of major concern for the Packers' defense this season is their run defense. Four separate teams racked up 200+ yards rushing on them.

When the Packers play their nickel 2-4-5 defense, the opposing team tends to have a lot of success running the ball. In their base 3-4 defense, the Packers defend the run extremely well. Where and how the 49ers might take advantage of the run defense cannot be understood without knowing what the 49ers run game consists of.

49ers core run plays

The 49ers will run a variety of run concepts in the running game, from wide zone to power, counter, inside zone, and duo. Their base running play is still centered around the wide zone running scheme.

Here, the offense is running their “19 zorro” run-game play call where they motion Kittle over to create a 2-man blocking surface with him and Charlie Woernier (No. 89). Kyle Shanahan will call this against teams they think are setting hard edges and trying to prevent the offense from running outside zone.

The defense wants to compress the edge and force the run inside. By design, the run never hits the true perimeter outside the tight ends like it can in some wide zone runs. It always bends back inside the blockers where the inside tight end will block the first run support defender that flashes inside. Kittle and Woerner create a crease for McCaffrey to sneak through and it’s off to the races, setting up their first touchdown.

And if Deebo gets involved in the running game, this play might look familiar to Packers fans recently. It’s a play that Jayden Reed has run in addition to some of the other ways the Packers use Reed just like the 49ers use Deebo.

Shanahan’s counter reverse took the league by storm in 2019 and became an almost weekly thing in the NFL in 2020 with a half dozen teams running the play for explosive plays. It was made famous last season by the 49ers in 2019 when Deebo ran the play three times for 93 yards and one touchdown. The 49ers have used it very sparingly since then but used it twice in week 10 versus Jacksonville.

The play starts out looking like “36-37 Stutter,” a gap scheme counter GF or GY (guard/fullback or guard/tight end) running play in Shanahan’s offense. They actually call the play “Fake 36-37 Stutter Z Dope.”

Deebo, as the single receiver to the left, is the ball carrier after Purdy faked the counter run handoff from the shotgun to Mostert. On “counter GF”, the guard and fullback pull around to the play side to lead block for the running back. Juszczyk and Burford move in the direction of the counter to sell the motion to the left side of the formation as the defense crashes toward what appears to them to be the point of attack. The play only goes for four yards but they would come back to it later with a different wrinkle.

Packers run defense issues

In week two, the Packers surrendered 211 rushing yards to the Falcons, primarily through the use of their nickel 2-4-5 front defense. In that game, the defense played just 42% of their snaps in nickel per Sports Info Solutions and 55% of their snaps in 2-high coverage shells. In those 2-high coverage shells, they played 19 snaps versus the run.

That is a recipe for disaster for a team that had tackling and alignment issues. The Falcons had a 50% success rate in their run game, where one run every two snaps gained at least 60% of the required yards for a first down against the Packers' 2-4-5 front.

The Falcons overall had a 46.2% rushing success rate and the seventh-ranked overall rushing EPA per play for week two. Every time the Packers got into the 2-down linemen fronts, the Falcons were more than ready to gouge them in the running game.

In week 10, the Packers run defense also surrendered over 200 yards rushing in a 23-19 loss to the Steelers. The exact number was 205 yards. Excluding the quarterback scrambles, the defense gave up 190 rushing on 33 carries, 5.7 yards per carry.

Again, their nickel front was the culprit. The Steelers played the majority of the game in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) so the Packers stayed in their nickel package 2-4-5 defense for the majority of the game as well. Per Pro Football Focus, the defense had 10 missed tackles. They gave up seven explosive runs of 10 or more yards too.

Outlook

Joe Barry’s defense will have its work cut out for themselves in the divisional round. Lately, since the Panthers game the defense has played extremely well but as I wrote last week, while a lot of the defensive box scores look good overall, (10th in the NFL in points allowed), the Packers finished 25th overall in opponent scoring drives that end in a score (38.7% of opponent drives), 22nd in opponent points per drive (1.99), 26th in yards per drive (32.9), and 29th in average time per opponent drive (2:59).

The Packers do have the 10th lowest red zone scoring percent (touchdowns only) given up on defense. They’re allowing an opponent to score one touchdown every two red zone drives. That seems like a lot, but at least 10 other teams are allowing that to happen at a 60% clip or higher. In all likelihood, the person with the most pressure on him in this game, at least as far as Green Bay is concerned, is Joe Barry as this could likely determine his fate with the franchise.