49ers' rushing offense, defense key to victory vs. Packers

49ers' rushing offense, defense key to victory vs. Packers originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

SANTA CLARA -- Old-school, hard-nosed football games are played and won in the trenches, and perhaps the two franchises that historically have exemplified that style of play the most are set to face off in the NFC divisional playoff round on Saturday at Levi's Stadium.

The 49ers, fresh off a first-round bye as the NFC's No. 1 playoff seed, will welcome the seventh-seeded Green Bay Packers to town for a matchup that, on paper, heavily favors San Francisco. However, after what Green Bay did to the Dallas Cowboys in a stunning 48-32 wild-card rout last weekend, it's best to wad that piece of paper up and throw it in the trash.

For San Francisco, both sides of the ball will focus on the run game -- starting and stopping it. For defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, his primary focus this week is game planning for an explosive Green Bay offense that is predicated on a bludgeoning rushing attack led by running back Aaron Jones.

"The number one thing is, we have to try and stop this run, to try and make them one-dimensional," Wilks shared after practice on Wednesday. "When they're very effective running the ball, I think it just opens up the play-action and that's when you see [Packers QB Jordan Love] being really effective in taking his shots down the field and finding an open receiver."

Jones had a monster game against the Cowboys last weekend, totaling 21 carries for 118 rushing yards (5.6 average) and three touchdowns on the ground.

The 49ers' defensive line will receive a big boost when tackle Arik Armstead returns to the field on Saturday after missing San Francisco's final five regular-season games due to foot and knee injuries. The nine-year veteran has faced off against Jones numerous times over the years, including a few times in the playoffs, and knows what challenge the 29-year-old running back presents.

"Aaron Jones is a great running back I've played against a lot," Armstead said Wednesday. "He's really a unique running back with his slashing ability; he finds a hole and is able to crease and slash and get yards. He's not a real big guy, but he runs tough so we're going to have a huge challenge going against him."

Perhaps the biggest mismatch in this game will be the 49ers' rushing attack, led by All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey, and the leaky Green Bay rushing defense.

The Packers surrendered the fifth-most rushing yards (2,181) and the eighth-most rushing first downs (120) to opposing offenses this season, including four games where opposing teams rushed for 200 or more yards.

San Francisco's offensive line/run game coordinator Chris Foerster doesn't put much stock into those eye-popping numbers.

"Every team can have its day on offense or on defense," Foerster said. "I think what happens is it takes a couple of big runs, you pop a big run or two and that can happen. That's what ends up happening. A couple years ago we ran for a lot of yards against the Vikings in the first round of the playoffs, but we didn't have a run over seven yards. It was hard to get a big number.

"Whenever you have a big day running the football, there's going to be some explosive runs in there somewhere."

Fortunately for the 49ers, they have the NFL's 2023 rushing champ in McCaffrey, who finished second behind Tennessee Titans back Derrick Henry (280) for the most 10-plus yard runs (272) in the league and first in rushing first downs (83).

The last 49ers running back to face off against the Packers at Levi's Stadium in the playoffs was Raheem Mostert, who totaled 29 carries for an impressive 220 rushing yards and four touchdowns in the NFC Championship Game four years ago.

While McCaffrey is set up for a big game on Saturday, it will be hard to top Mostert's historic performance against a Packers defense that has undergone plenty of changes over the years.

"Raheem had a great one," McCaffrey shared. "I definitely had seen that one, but that was five years ago, so a lot of things change in [four] years."

The 49ers will punch their ticket to a third consecutive NFC Championship Game if they can execute their game plan on both sides of the ball.

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