Back on Nov. 24 in a primetime game, the San Francisco 49ers throttled the Green Bay Packers 37-8, holding a good offense scoreless until the third quarter. It served as a notice of sorts for the rest of the league, as the 49ers had traversed a relatively soft schedule to that point (the 11th-best schedule going into the season, but adjustments for injury and unforeseen decline turned out to be quite fortuitous with matchups against the Bengals, the Ben Roethlisberger-less Steelers, the imploding Browns, Washington, a Cam Newton-less Panthers team and the Arizona Cardinals). They had lost to the Seahawks in overtime two weeks prior—their first loss of the season—which, at that point, was their best opponent by a mile.
But that game changed things. Their defense went from excellent to world-beating. Their running game went from effective to perplexing. Richard Sherman went from “the media is stupid and wrong about me and us” to … doing it more frequently? That said, it set the table for the remainder of the season to come.
So, what can we expect in the rematch, which takes place at 6:40 p.m. ET amid a scattered landscape of vampiric tech company campuses in lovely Santa Clara, Calif.?
Here is what we’re looking for….
1. Can Aaron Rodgers deliver a vintage performance against an absolutely stellar passing defense?
Here’s something that really surprised me, via the NFL’s in-house research team: Packers teams with Rodgers at quarterback have gone 1-4 against teams who finished the regular season as the No. 1 pass defense.
To be clear, just so this piece of pregame reading material is not used as some type of motivational club for those who love Rodgers and cannot stomach a bad word about him to wield: I agree with you on most fronts. He is one of the best players in the NFL and in league history. That said, I think against teams with a cerebral set of cornerbacks and a devastating pass rush, he is sometimes unable to display the talents that make him great.
Sherman, as an example, has been a part of teams that have capitalized on those strengths to down Rodgers in the postseason before. It’s entirely fair to wonder if they could do it again, even if Rodgers is operating a different offense this time around.
On the flip side of that argument, the Packers had their worst statistical game of the season against the 49ers and a lot of things would have to break in a particular fashion for that to happen again. There is less of a chance this game is entirely one-sided.
2. How difficult is it for a protégé (of sorts) to beat his mentor?
If Kyle Shanahan was 55 years old this would be an entirely different question. Maybe in a different world, Matt LaFleur rises to head coach first and Shanahan gets plucked off his staff. Both of them had their rise at similar times.
I think the question is relevant here, though, because Shanahan poses mountains of film for Green Bay to contend with in the days leading up to this game. He runs the same looks in 90 different ways. He blocks creatively. He tweaks routes creatively. There probably isn’t an opportunity for the Packers’ defensive staff to get its arms around the enormity of possibilities in the way that Robert Saleh and his staff can probably grasp what is going to happen against them.
The task for LaFleur offensively is herculean. In their initial matchup, he did a great job early on matching up his best wide receivers against linebackers (which, when you’re dealing with San Francisco is not as advantageous but is still a good thing to do). It was only when the enormity of a few quick early scores destroyed his game plan did the team look totally pedestrian.
Another thing I worry about with Rodgers and, consequently, LaFleur: He likes to throw the ball deep. He likes to throw the ball to one receiver in particular. Juxtapose those things against the fact that the 49ers were one of three teams to hold Rodgers without a 20-plus yard passing play this year. How might his inability to stretch the field against a defense that can play in condensed space better than any other in football go?
3. What are we getting out of Jimmy Garoppolo?
There were pivotal throws early in the 49ers’ divisional-round win over the Vikings that I think Garoppolo would admit he got lucky on. That said, if the Vikings' defense didn’t make him pay for, say, throwing behind a receiver on a slant in traffic, what defense remaining in the playoffs will?
The interesting thing about the 49ers’ offense is that it does tend to create open wide receivers at a fairly high rate. Next Gen Stats measures the average amount of cushion a receiver has, in yardage, from the nearest defender at the time of a throw. The NFL’s leader, coached by Sunday’s rival Matt LaFleur, is Jimmy Graham at 3.9 yards. Both the Packers and the 49ers have three such receivers within a yard of that league-leading total, meaning that on a decent amount of Garoppolo’s throws, he is looking at a receiver that has some degree of separation.
Both Garoppolo and Rodgers have attempted aggressive throws (throws where a defender is within a yard of the wideout) at a similar, middle-of-the-road rate this season, but the difference has been the regularity with which those throws hit home. Garoppolo’s completion percentage is higher than his expected completion percentage, which normally indicates a bit of good fortune in that category while Rodgers’ completion percentage is actually lower.
Do the football gods even Garoppolo out this weekend, or are we simply seeing the early stages of a truly great quarterback who, like his original mentor, can take care of the ball exceptionally well but still maintain a competitive aggressiveness?
4. Which team comes out and plays a more physical game?
While some of his quotes are a bit of old man posturing, I do think there is something to be said about Bill Belichick’s thoughts on the importance of tackling. It is less like slamming your banal light beer down on the bar counter and screaming We Need To Establish The Run, and more like a sensible thought amid an era where creating speed mismatches are thought of in higher regard. Hey, if we don’t bring the person down, none of this matters.
That’s why it caught my attention when Pro Football Focus posted its broken tackle leaders among pass catchers this season, and No. 1 and No. 2 both happened to be 49ers. The 49ers draft with this in mind and, in addition, are already better than most teams at creating routes that have built-in yards after the catch (meaning, the guys who are already good at breaking tackles get to build up a head of steam).
Green Bay has prized winning games ugly this season, but there is no more absolute proof of their commitment to doing this than to see them drag down George Kittle snap after snap without letting him break one.
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