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49ers’ losses reveal ways Aaron Rodgers can attack while avoiding Richard Sherman

Opposing offenses have found success targeting the left side of the field specifically and staying away from Sherman’s island.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

For the better part of the past decade, Richard Sherman has been a nuisance on the boundary of the secondary for the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. He was even labeled the “kryptonite” of the Green Bay Packers earlier this week by the Washington Post, as Aaron Rodgers has faced the lockdown cornerback seven times and targeted him on less than 7% of his throws.

Many have suggested it. Aaron Rodgers has followed it. And perhaps NFL Next Gen Stats supports it.

Don’t throw at Richard Sherman.

As the 49ers’ starting left cornerback, Richard Sherman patrols the offense’s right side of the field. According to the same Washington Post article, opposing quarterbacks have thrown for a mere 236 yards when targeting Sherman during the entire 2019 regular season and playoffs, including just a single pass play of more than 25 yards.

Maybe it is no surprise then that in San Francisco’s three losses this season, the bulk of opponents’ successes in the passing game have involved throwing the ball toward the left boundary. Below are a few passing charts from the 49ers’ losses this season from NFL Next Gen Stats.

From these charts, a few themes developed.

While Matt Ryan and Russell Wilson did not avoid the right side of the field the majority of the time like Lamar Jackson did, they certainly recorded most of their completions on the left side and had strong completion percentages. Ryan finished 13-of-16 on passes left of the hashmarks, with Jackson going 10-for-14 and Wilson 15-for-21. Sherman’s successes this season have been documented, but it is fair to say that all three quarterbacks were able to take advantage of the corner’s counterparts on the opposite side of the field.

Noticeably, all three passers also worked the short to intermediate routes available to them. With a strong San Francisco pass rush, this makes sense with the desire to get the ball out quickly. In fact, only seven of the three quarterbacks’ combined 96 throws were of the 20 yards or more variety and there was very limited success taking deeper shots with just a single completion in those seven attempts. However, each team had some success throwing toward the boundaries within 15 yards, and even more within 10.

Although Ryan did use the middle of the field at times when Atlanta faced San Francisco in Week 15, that range of the field was virtually unused by opponents in the 49ers’ other two losses. Both Wilson and Jackson attempted just one throw each between the hashes. Wilson, however, found positive results like Ryan did when working in the slot just outside the right hashes but avoiding Sherman’s far sideline.

So how did Aaron Rodgers’ passing attack against the 49ers in Week 12 compare to these three victorious quarterbacks?

Well, it was undoubtedly Rodgers’ worst game of the season.

Rodgers, like Wilson and Jackson, sparingly used the middle of the field, and one of his two completions between the hashes was a simple forward toss to Davante Adams for a goal line touchdown. Yes, Rodgers also avoided Sherman for the most part, converting 12 of 17 throws to the left side of the field. But they made for a peculiar group of 17 throws.

The charts above showed plenty of short-to-intermediate attempts from other quarterbacks. Rodgers’ attempts were predominantly too short. A whopping 18 of his 33 passes were within five yards of the line of scrimmage and 12 were behind the line. And when he did air the ball out, Rodgers met similar results as his fellow passers. Five passes over 20 yards all fell incomplete.

So, judging from the charts above, here is a wrap up of some traits Rodgers can employ this time around to earn a win against the 49ers.

  • Use the middle of the field to keep defenses honest like Ryan did, though it has not been the most crucial area of the field to work against San Francisco. Because Rodgers has not been a strong middle of the field attacker in 2019, this should not be too much of an issue.
  • The ball must go forward. The lack of depth in Rodgers’ throws was crippling to Green Bay’s offense in Week 12 and other quarterbacks found reasonable success on pass plays within 15 yards.
  • Target the left side of the field predominantly and completions are likely to follow.
  • Continue to avoid Sherman and the right sideline most of the game. However, there can still be a certain level of success gained from passing into the right slot.
  • Do not take more than a few attempts over 20 yards. There will likely be front seven pressure by the time the routes develop and San Francisco does not give up many completions in that range regardless, even in losses.

San Francisco’s defensive unit ranked second in total defense and first in passing defense during the regular season. While they do not give up many splash plays, Rodgers and the Green Bay offense can still capitalize on some areas in which the 49ers give up moderate chunks of yardage one play at at time. Add Rodgers’ legs, an element Wilson and Jackson added in their wins over the 49ers, and the Packers stand as good a chance as any team would to knock off the NFC’s number one seed.