49ers-Packers: Three Under the Radar Players who can Tilt the Balance
It’s Championship weekend in the NFL and the four remaining teams would not be here without their star players. What set the 49ers apart from the 28 teams that are not playing this weekend is the incredible depth they’ve built with their reserves and lesser-known starters.
They’ve overcome numerous injuries to their key players, which not only gave their backups great experience, it allowed role-players to flourish and become pivotal players.
Here are three under-the-radar players who can tilt the balance of today's game for the 49ers.
When mentioning impact players on the San Francisco defense, safety Jimmie Ward is often seventh in line. This is not due to poor play. Ward’s fame has fallen victim to a star-studded defense. Yet, Sunday is a perfect moment for him to make his name nationally known.
In the week 12 Sunday Night Football matchup, the 49ers ran the Packers out of the building. When looking at the score sheet, it’s easy to say the Packers never stood a chance.
Yet, right before halftime, Green Bay took a shot downfield that easily could have turned the tide. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers saw his big tight end Jimmy Graham streaking down the right sideline and unleashed a throw that would surely create a scoring-drive.
Fortunately for San Francisco, Ward read the play to perfection and closed in on Graham fast enough to break up the pass and force a punt. The 49ers would go on to score 10 more points to pretty much put the game on ice. Ward finished with two pass deflections and six tackles.
Since that win, Ward has taken on a lot more responsibility. Fellow starting safety Jaquiski Tartt was injured the next week and Ward was asked to replace him as the more physical, run-stopping safety.
With Tartt returning last week against Minnesota, Ward was allowed to transition back to his more comfortable role, and with him the art of delivering punishing blows on long passes.
Ward’s stellar play this season has really put his career on a 180-degree turn. Despite being overshadowed by some of the more flashier 49er defenders, he has become an irreplaceable part of this elite defense. As an upcoming free agent, Ward might be playing his last home game at Levi’s Stadium, but that should have no bearing on how far he’s come this season and how important he is this Sunday.
Although Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Nick Bosa receive most, if not all, the attention, this season’s production is not just on them. Ronald Blair III, D.J. Jones, Damontre Moore, Julian Taylor, Solomon Thomas and Sheldon Day have all made big plays to help win games.
Of that group, just Day and Thomas remain healthy. The rest are on Injured Reserve. This not only forced the starters to battle through injuries, but it has placed pressure on Day and Thomas to add more to their skill set. Day, who will start at nose tackle on Sunday, will be one to watch. Nose tackles are often overlooked due to their lack of tackles and sacks, but a solid nose tackle is arguably the key to a successful run defense.
In the first installment of Green Bay v San Francisco, Jones was still healthy and manning his spot in the middle of the 49er rush defense. He managed to record two tackles-for-loss (four total tackles). That might not seem like eye-popping numbers for the likes of Buckner or Armstead, but that is very strong production for a nose tackle whose primary job is to blow up run plays, not necessarily make the tackle.
That will be Day’s job on Sunday. The Packers rely heavily on running back Aaron Jones to open up their offense. If Day can repeat the energy he displayed last week against Minnesota (one TFL on two tackles), he will play just as big a part in the defense’s success as the four stars.
There aren’t many under the radar players when it comes to the San Francisco offense. Running backs Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida all rushed for at least 500 yards. Receivers outside of Deebo Samuel, Emmanuel Sanders and Kendrick Bourne are rarely involved in the passing game. George Kittle is one of, if not the best tight end in the NFL.
So who goes under the radar, but still is very involved in the offense? Fullbacks are always a great place to look, and the 49ers have the best one around.
Kyle Juszczyk played 70% of San Francisco’s offensive snaps last week, but ultimately did not record a reception or carry. What he did provide was his usual great blocking. That’s a normal day for most fullbacks, but Juszczyk is different. His 239 receiving yards were fifth on the team.
Juszczyk’s impact will be on full-display Sunday. The Packers were absolutely torched by Kittle in week 12 (six catches for 129 yards and a touchdown). They would be wise to not let him get that open this Sunday.
With all eyes on Kittle, Juszczyk would most likely draw the weakest pass-defender. Just the possibility of Juszczyk breaking loose on a wheel route can open up a lot in the run-game as well.
Whether it’s a run-blocking exhibition like last week or a seven catch performance like he had against Arizona, watch Juszczyk impose his presence all over this NFC Championship.