The magical season of the Green Bay Packers has run into a familiar roadblock: Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers. To advance to the NFC Championship Game, Jordan Love’s Packers must snap what is now a four-game postseason losing streak to the 49ers on Saturday in the NFC Divisional Round.
To help preview Packers-49ers, we asked six questions of Kyle Madson, the managing editor of Niners Wire. Here’s the Q&A:
1. What has slowed the 49ers offense this season? Any one thing?
Niners Wire: There are two proven ways to slow down the 49ers’ offense. One of the ways requires absences of players like Deebo Samuel and Trent Williams. San Francisco’s three-game losing skid came when Samuel and Williams were hurt and not available, and even then their offense was still super efficient, it just wasn’t as effective on the ground which dramatically impacted the versatility that makes them so hard to stop. The other way is by getting ahead. San Francisco hasn’t won a game all year when it’s trailed at halftime. Pushing them toward being one-dimensional exposes some of the problems in their dropback game. Schematically it isn’t awesome, their offensive line doesn’t thrive when going backward, and Brock Purdy still has some physical limitations that adversely affect his ability to impact games in a straight up dropback scenario where he has to throw the team back into it. If I’m the Packers this week, I’m stacking the box and committing to stopping the run to see if I can’t get the 49ers in a negative game script early where Purdy is forced to beat me. That may not even work, but it’s probably the best chance to limit a fully healthy version of this group.
2. Aaron Jones has 4-straight 100-yard rushing games. Have the 49ers handled the run this year?
Niners Wire: Stopping the run has been a little bit of a problem for San Francisco, particularly when defensive tackle Arik Armstead was out. He’s on track to return vs. Green Bay after missing five games, so that should help the 49ers stiffen up some against the run. They’ve done an okay job against opposing rushing attacks all year, but the reality is they’re able to eliminate teams’ run games by pushing them into negative game scripts where they have to scrap the run to try and get back into the game. I’m expecting Matt LaFleur to have some creative run stuff in his bag this week to generate some explosives, particularly via interior runs where the 49ers are a little more susceptible. Outside runs are a little tougher because defensive end Nick Bosa is so good at setting the edge, and their linebackers are athletic enough to get to the sidelines before RBs can turn a corner. I think getting behind Jones will be key, but turning him loose may require a ton of pre-snap motion that gets a fast 49ers defense looking in the wrong place or hesitating for even half a step. If a runner can get into the second level, watch out. That’s where missed tackles become a problem for San Francisco, and it may be what keeps the Packers in Sunday’s game. Unrelated! I thought of this after I finished and this seems like a good place to mention it: the 49ers are terrible at defending screens. Jones could kill them there. I think Green Bay generates at least two explosive plays via screens.
3. The 49ers led the NFL in interceptions. What’s been the key to the takeaways?
Niners Wire: Great question. I think it’s partly due to their pass rush forcing QBs to mistime or misfire throws. But it also comes back to the whole ‘one-dimensional’ thing we talked about with the run game stuff. It’s a lot easier to generate INTs when a defensive back knows a QB is going to throw it. On the other hand, to credit the players, cornerbacks Ambry Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir have both developed nicely in their third seasons. Lenoir plays in the slot while Thomas lines up opposite Charvarius Ward, who turned his pass breakups into INTs this year and became a Second-Team All-Pro. On top of that, strong safety Talanoa Hufanga spends a ton of time around the ball. He tore his ACL in Week 11 though, and rookie third-round pick Ji’Ayir Brown took over. Brown has the same ball-hawking instincts as Hufanga and generated a couple turnovers in his brief stint as a starter as well. Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks specializes in secondary play, so it’s not a huge surprise the 49ers saw a sizable improvement and a ton of development there.
4. The Cowboys couldn’t handle the pressure of the moment last week. Is there “pressure” on the 49ers this week?
Niners Wire: I guess so, insofar as there’s pressure on a playoff team favored by double-digits (or 9.5 or whatever it is now). This is a group that has been together for at least the last two playoff runs where they’ve won four games and gone to two NFC title games. A large portion of their core was also on the team in 2019 when they went to the Super Bowl. Playoff games and the size/gravity of the moment aren’t going to suddenly cause them to wilt. Their veterans and coaching staff know how to prepare for these spots. The bigger issue for me is whether they’re already looking past the divisional round. San Francisco has made it clear since they lost last year’s NFC title game that they wanted a Super Bowl this season. They know the window is closing for some of their veterans. My concern more than the 49ers succumbing to the pressure of a divisional playoff game is that they overlook Green Bay because of their hyper-focus on getting to Las Vegas. The Packers are too good to overlook, and we already know how San Francisco responds when they get punched in the mouth early and have to come back in a game (it goes poorly for them, FYI).
5. What’s the path to victory for the 49ers? What must they do, what must they avoid?
Niners Wire: Getting an early lead will be crucial. The longer Green Bay can hang around, run the ball and utilize play action, the longer they stay an exceedingly dangerous club. If San Francisco finds success in the run game and tackles on defense, they should be able to get out with a win. As good as Green Bay is, the 49ers are more seasoned and have a better roster. It would take some kind of mistake (or mistakes) from the 49ers for the Packers to swing an upset. As long as they don’t turn it over and don’t give up explosive plays they should be alright.
6. You’re picking the 49ers to win, right?
Niners Wire: Yeah. I waffled a bit after watching the Packers’ last couple games. Jordan Love is so dang good, and Aaron Jones doesn’t get named often enough in discussions of the NFL’s best running backs. Throw in the slew of pass-catching playmakers and a brilliant head coach, and that’s a recipe for a stellar offense. On the other hand, Dallas stinks. Mike McCarthy is consistently unprepared in big spots, and their inability to ever get a run game going this season killed them in the postseason. I don’t think the Packers will have as easy of a time stopping the 49ers’ run game and forcing them into a much easier to defend, one-dimensional version of their offense. HOWEVER, I think the 9.5 or 10-point spread is insane. I think Green Bay covers, but the 49ers mostly control the game in a 30-24 win.