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49ers-Packers: Behind Enemy Lines, Part 2

Packers passing defense vs. 49ers passing offense.

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 2: The Packers passing defense vs. the 49ers passing offense.

THE PACKERS PASSING DEFENSE 

HUBER: Green Bay finished in the top 10 in passing defense, yards per attempt, interception percentage and opponent passer rating.

It’s been an incredibly interesting path to those impressive marks. Cornerback Jaire Alexander, an All-Pro last season, suffered a shoulder injury in Week 4 and hasn’t played since. Shortly after Alexander was injured, the Patriots put All-Pro Stephon Gilmore on the trade block. The Packers were interested but the Panthers made the deal. So, Green Bay wound up signing journeyman veteran Rasul Douglas off Arizona’s practice squad. Incredibly, Douglas has been a savior. He’s among the league leaders with five interceptions, including game-savers against Arizona and Cleveland and a couple pick-sixes.

With Douglas being the best bargain signing in the NFL this season and first-round rookie Eric Stokes generally playing winning football, Green Bay’s got its best tandem of corners in years.

Meanwhile, Pro Bowl outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, who had 26 sacks the past two seasons, missed all but one practice in training camp with a back injury. He gave it a go in Week 1, was shut down and had surgery. The Packers bolstered the group by signing veteran Whitney Mercilus. He provided a solid rush before suffering a torn bicep.

So, that left Rashan Gary and Preston Smith to carry the load as the edge rushers. And they did. Gary had 9.5 sacks and finished second in the league in pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. Preston Smith had nine sacks and finished in the top 20 in pressures. Defensive tackle Kenny Clark had a Pro Bowl season to provide the interior pressure.

Alexander, Za’Darius Smith and Mercilus are practicing. All three could play – Alexander perhaps starting in the slot – to potentially give a good defense a real lift for the biggest games of the season.

There are a lot of questions, though. Alexander’s always been a physical player for his size. Is the shoulder healthy enough/will he trust the health of the shoulder enough to play to that style? Can Za’Darius Smith provide any impact at all given the long layoff and two completely underwhelming NFC Championship Games under his belt? Facing the ultimate big-game pressure, will Douglas keep playing at a high level and will Stokes overcome any rookie nerves? Can safety Darnell Savage rise to the occasion with a breakout postseason?

This will be a pivotal moment in the career of defensive coordinator Joe Barry, too. He guided one of the league’s best defenses through the first 10 games, only to see his unit fade late. Sometimes it was run defense. Sometimes it was pass defense. Sometimes it was trick plays. The 49ers’ offense will test all of those areas.

THE 49ERS PASSING OFFENSE

COHN: It's a walking contradiction. The 49ers passing offense ranks No. 1 in net yards per attempt, and also ranks 29th out of 32 teams in passing attempts, which means the 49ers don't trust the most efficient passing game in the NFL.

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There's a reason for that.

First, here's why the 49ers rank No. 1 in net yards per attempt: They're loaded with weapons. They have Deebo Samuel, an All Pro, who averaged 18.2 yards per catch this season -- tops in the NFL. Every time he catches a pass, he's a threat to score no matter where he is on the field.

The 49ers also have Brandon Aiyuk, who generated a 118.5 quarterback rating when targeted this season. He essentially became the 49ers' No. 1 wide receiver the second half of the season as Samuel evolved into a wide-receiver-running-back hybrid.

And the 49ers still have George Kittle, who has been a top 3 tight end in the since 2018. This season, he had 71 catches, 910 yards and six touchdowns -- a down season for him, a bonanza of a season for any other tight end in the NFL.

Which means the 49ers arguably have the best trio of offensive weapons in the NFL.

And they also have No. 3 wide receiver Jauan Jennings, who caught 5 touchdown passes this season. Plus they have fullback Kyle Juszczyk, the best receiving full back in the NFL.

And yet, the 49ers would rather run the ball 40 times every game and throw as infrequently as possible.

Why?

Because of their quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo.

The 49ers cannot trust his decision making nor his ability to stay calm in big moments. He choked in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl two years ago, and has thrown five interceptions in his past three games. Plus his interception percentage consistently is worse than the league average. Plus only one of his offensive lineman excels in pass protection, and that's All Pro left tackle Trent Williams. The other four offensive linemen are run-blocking specialists. 

So the 49ers lean on their run game, which is elite, and try to prevent Garoppolo from losing games.

The past two weeks, the opposing quarterbacks have thrown just as many interceptions as Garoppolo, and so the 49ers have squeaked out wins. This week, the 49ers will face Aaron Rodgers, who protects the football better than any quarterback in NFL history. One Garoppolo interception could sink the 49ers' season.

Expect to see Garoppolo mostly hand off this Saturday.