The Green Bay Packers head to the west coast to face the intra-conference rival San Francisco 49ers on Sunday Night Football. Trips to San Francisco have been unpleasant in recent years, with Green Bay losing by a combined 74-31 in two disastrous games during the 2019 season. The Packers played an incredibly depleted Niners squad in 2020 and smacked them 34-17 in a game that was never even that close. The Niners are pretty banged up yet again, so how do the teams line up this time?
The Elephant in the Room
If there was one constant in the 2010s for the Green Bay Packers, it was getting steamrolled by the San Francisco 49ers’ running game. Whether it was in 2012-13 and Colin Kaepernick or the 2019 NFC Championship Game, the Packers routinely struggled to handle the rushing attack. As for the early returns on the 2021 Packers, oh boy, are they not great. While Green Bay’s rushing defense looks relatively solid (13th) by EPA-per-rush, there are some big outliers impacting the numbers there. Jared Goff’s small hands letting a snap slip through his fingers was worth -5.2 EPA all by itself. If you limit it to only rushes by running backs, Green Bay’s EPA-per-rush falls into the much more typical range you’d expect from Green Bay’s rush defense at 24th. This is also reflected in rush defense DVOA where Green Bay ranks 25th. As our own Justis Mosqueda noted on our review podcast, the Packers do not have a single tackle for loss this season. Green Bay’s defensive front ranks 30th in adjusted line yards and have stuffed (zero or fewer yards) just 2% of all carries, dead last in the NFL. It’s not like Green Bay is just sitting in dime a la 2018-2020 either. Green Bay is playing a much higher rate of traditional 3-4 looks and still getting pushed around.
A saving grace for the Packers is that the Niners running back room is really beat up and has been about league average running the ball this season. Their offensive line has been slightly above average, which is about all you need to push the Packers front around these days. The passing game has been the key to San Francisco’s success so far as they rank fourth in EPA-per-dropback. Despite this, Jimmy Garoppolo appears to be more of a passenger in this than initiator once again.
Jimmy Garoppolo continues to be highly efficient with mediocre grades— Kevin Cole (@KevinColePFF) September 21, 2021
PFF Grade: 21st
EPA per play: 4th
Why they traded up for Trey Lance but likely won't start him soon in two numbers
In the absence or banishment or whatever is going on with Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel has had a very strong start to the season and has been the primary driver of San Francisco’s offensive efficiency. I would expect Shanahan to move Samuel around so Jaire Alexander can’t follow him. Especially with Green Bay using Kevin King in the slot so much in week two, he will likely be the target of not only Samuel routes, but forcing King to make tackles in run fits. Unless Green Bay can stuff up the run this week, I do not feel great about the defense’s chances to stop San Francisco.
Can Green Bay sustain week two improvements?
Ah, that’s better. Unfortunately, San Francisco’s defense is much better than Detroit’s barebones unit. They will be dealing with a big loss, however, as Jason Verrett was placed on IR. Defensive linemen Arik Armstead, Kevin Givens, and Javon Kinlaw are all on the injury report this week as well. But so long as Nick Bosa is healthy, that front is still going to be dangerous. Green Bay faces their own injury issues as Elgton Jenkins is dealing with an ankle injury that has left his status for Sunday’s game uncertain.
Overall, the 49ers defense has been a bit above average so far, ranking 14th in EPA-per-play. It’s important to contextualize this a little bit, though. When either team had at least a 10% chance of winning the game, the 49ers defense rises to fourth in the league. This is because most of the Lions production came during garbage time in week one. One important caveat to these numbers is that the two offenses they’ve played so far (Detroit and Philadelphia) are likely to be bottom ten units in the league.
The scariest part of San Francisco’s defense is their front, but that unit has been closer to average in most metrics so far. They are 12th in rushes stopped for zero or fewer yards, 27th in run-stop win rate, and 17th in pass-rush win rate. That group matches up with a Packers offensive line that ranks fifth in pass-block win rate and 11th in run-block win rate. Elgton Jenkins health is incredibly important for this matchup with what San Francisco has on the edges. If it’s Billy Turner and Dennis Kelly, that is a much worse matchup for the EDGE duo of Nick Bosa and Dee Ford.
DeMeco Ryans took over the reigns of the defense after Robert Saleh left to take the Jets head job, but the basic principles of the unit largely remain. Over the past few years, the 49ers have been a high-usage cover-4 team that sprinkles in some cover-3 looks. Expect plenty of cover-4, especially on early downs, as San Francisco tries to make Green Bay dink-and-dunk their way down the field. With this, San Francisco will rely on their front to create enough pressure to force the occasional negative play and put Green Bay well behind the sticks. With Aaron Rodgers’ pocket awareness being a little questionable early on, how he handles pressure with four will be a big x-factor in this game.
The matchup and schematic issues the 49ers present are loud and clear. This is an important game for Green Bay, not only in the normal “win a game for playoff purposes” way but also to show they can beat a capable opponent that can press advantages against Green Bay’s weaknesses. The biggest issue in recent years has been Green Bay struggling to adapt or overcome particularly bad matchups for them. If they can do it here and come away with a road win in San Francisco, that will do a lot to assuage the early season concerns.