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49ers-Packers: Behind Enemy Lines, Part 1

Packers passing offense vs. 49ers passing defense.

This week, Bill Huber of Sports Illustrated's PackerCentral and I will do a six-part series breaking down the playoff matchup between the 49ers and the Packers.

Here's Part 1: The Packers passing offense vs. the 49ers passing defense.

THE PACKERS PASSING OFFENSE

HUBER: Aaron Rodgers is on one of those Aaron Rodgers-style rolls. He’s on a streak of seven consecutive games with two-plus touchdown passes and zero interceptions, second-best in NFL history. During that span, he threw 20 touchdowns vs. zero interceptions. He’s recorded back-to-back seasons in which he ranked No. 1 in the NFL in passer rating, touchdown percentage and interception percentage, a feat that’s been done only three other times in the Super Bowl era. He’s just so accurate, which is why he’s among the biggest beneficiaries in yards after the catch.

Davante Adams, as everyone knows, is the No. 1 target. He is a sublime route-runner and capable of winning short, deep and in between. There were some snaps in a late-season game at Baltimore in which the Ravens triple-teamed him. It was absurd. Rodgers and Adams have played so long together that it’s like they’re of one mind. In both games against Chicago, they needed only a split-second of eye contact to unearth Mike McCarthy-era adjustments at the line of scrimmage.

While Adams is the focal point of the passing attack, there are enough complementary pieces. The past six games, Adams is No. 1 with six touchdown catches but Allen Lazard is only one behind. Veteran Randall Cobb returned to Green Bay at Rodgers’ urging and has provided a reliable slot threat. Plus, speed receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling doesn’t catch many passes but, when he does, it tends to produce a big play. Cobb is coming off core-muscle surgery and is expected to play; Valdes-Scantling missed Wednesday’s practice with a back injury.Running back Aaron Jones can run most of the route tree, and fellow running back AJ Dillon is a 247-pound menace on checkdowns and screens. With George Kittle’s good friend, Robert Tonyan, out with a torn ACL, the tight ends are little more than a nuisance.

The unsung heroes have been the guys on the offensive line. And that’s where the mystery lies for Saturday. Remember that Week 3 game? With All-Pro David Bakhtiari and Pro Bowler Elgton Jenkins out, Yosh Nijman made his first NFL start at left tackle, survived a dreadful start and generally battled to a draw against Nick Bosa. At times, the Packers have been down four-fifths of their starting line. On Saturday, the Packers could go with Bakhtiari at left tackle, Jon Runyan at left guard, Josh Myers at center, Lucas Patrick at right guard and Billy Turner at right tackle. Bakhtiari missed the entire season with a torn ACL before playing 27 snaps in the finale against Detroit. Myers missed about a dozen games with a knee injury before returning for the finale. With the return of Myers, Patrick slid to right guard. And Turner has missed the last four games with a knee injury. The best lines are the lines that have played together. This group has not played together.

THE 49ERS PASSING DEFENSE

COHN: This has improved tremendously since the 49ers lost 30-28 to the Packers earlier this season.

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In that game, the 49ers pass rush was one person -- Nick Bosa -- and the Packers neutralized him with simple, basic chips. So Aaron Rodgers was completely at ease in the pocket.

Now, Bosa is slowing down while the rest of the defensive line is stepping up. Bosa has recorded just one sack the past four games, plus he suffered a concussion last week against Dallas and did not return. It's unclear if he will play against Green Bay.

But the 49ers pass rush didn't miss a beat without Bosa in Dallas. That's because his replacement, Charles Omenihu, finished the game with 1.5 sacks. Plus the 49ers have Arik Arsmtead, who has 4 sacks in the past 3 games, plus Arden Key, who has 6.5 sacks since Week 9. Week 3 against the Packers, he played only 11 defensive snaps.

Now, the 49ers pass rush is ferocious, and even deeper than it was in 2019 when it overhwelmed Rodgers and the 49ers won easily. 

And the pass rush has greatly improved the secondary.

The 49ers have had a solid safety duo for years -- Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt. When they're healthy, the 49ers rarely give up big plays, and they're healthy. 

But the 49ers cornerbacks have been their Achilles' heel. The 49ers lead the league in defensive pass interference penalties. When the 49ers played the Packers Week 3, Josh Norman started at cornerback, and he's a pass interference penalty waiting to happen. He left that game with an injury, and the 49ers replaced him with rookie Deommodore Lenoir, who gave up the catch that put the Packers in field-goal range on the final drive of the game.

Neither Norman nor Lenoir play anymore. Now, rookie Ambry Thomas is a starter, and he has played quite well the past month. In fact, the 49ers three starting cornerbacks -- Thomas, Emmanuel Moseley and K'Waun Williams -- each have intercepted a pass in the past two games.

Still, the biggest liability in coverage is Williams, the nickelback, who gave up a touchdown catch last week in Dallas and got burned Week 3 and left that game early with an injury. Look for the Packers to challenge him all night.

And look for them to challenge middle linebacker Fred Warner, who has an ankle injury and will not move as well in coverage as he typically does.