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49ers-Packers: Behind Enemy Lines, Part 3

The Packers rushing offense vs. the 49ers rushing 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 3: The Packers rushing offense vs. the 49ers rushing defense.


HUBER: Sometimes, numbers tell a story. And sometimes, they don’t.

Take Green Bay’s running game, for instance. It ended the regular season ranked 18th with 111.8 yards per game and, more importantly, 20th with 4.26 yards per attempt. The average ranked fifth out of seven NFC playoff teams and fifth of the remaining eight NFL playoff teams. So, slightly below average.

But this isn’t an average running game. With Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon, the Packers have one of the better one-two punches in the NFL. The whole “thunder and lightning” thing is so cliché but the quick, shifty and surprisingly powerful Jones and the mammoth and surprisingly shifty Dillon have given the Packers a reliable running game.

Entering this season, Jones ranked sixth in NFL history among backs with at least 600 career carries with a 5.17-yard average. He averaged only 4.67 this season but that rose to 6.18 for his final four games. After getting Week 18 off to rest a knee injury suffered in Week 11, he is as fresh as he was to start to the season.

Dillon is a workhorse who generally will require multiple defenders to get to the turf. The Packers drafted him for a cold night in January. While he averaged only 4.29 yards per carry, he finished No. 1 in running back success rate at Football Outsiders. (A successful first-and-10 run gets at least 4, a successful second-down run gets at least half the required yardage and a successful third-down run gets a first down.) He is a big reason why the Packers had the best third-and-1 offense in the NFL.

Of 50 running backs with at least 100 carries, Jones and Dillon tied for 12th with 3.18 yards after contact per carry, according to Pro Football Focus.

The offensive line is the question mark. Left tackle David Bakhtiari missed the first 16 games with a torn ACL, played 27 snaps in the finale and has been limited at practice. He’ll start. Rookie center Josh Myers essentially missed 12 consecutive games with a knee injury before he played against Detroit. He’ll probably start. Right tackle Billy Turner missed the last four games with a knee injury. He’ll probably start. Can Green Bay’s new-look offensive line block a high-quality defense? That might be the defining question of the game.

Just about every successful run will include blocks by ageless tight end Marcedes Lewis and “goon” receiver Allen Lazard. Tight end Josiah Deguara was drafted with San Francisco fullback Kyle Juszczyk in mind. He’s not nearly that good but he has become a quality blocker.

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COHN: It was no good when the 49ers and Packers faced each other Week 3.

From Weeks 1 to 9, the 49ers defense allowed a whopping 131.6 rushing yards per game. And when the 49ers faced the Packers, San Francisco allowed 100 rushing yards and 1 rushing touchdown on 25 carries -- not terrible, but not great. 

Something unexplainable happened Week 10. Because since then, the 49ers have allowed just 71.1 rushing yards per game, and the players haven't changed.

Perhaps rookie defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans settled into his new job and got a better feel for how to use his personnel. Or maybe getting blown out by the Arizona Cardinals backups during Week 9 caused the 49ers to wake up and play to their potential.

Because when you look at their personnel, it's easy to see why they've been so success against the run the past two months. 

The 49ers are extremely strong up the middle. On the defensive line, they have Arik Armstead and D.J. Jones, who combined to record 108 tackles and 17 tackles for loss during the regular season. Those two consistently push the interior of the opposing offensive line into the backfield on run plays.

Then the are the linebackers, Fred Warner and Azeez Al-Shaair, who combined to record 239 tackles this season. Al-Shaair emerged this season when Dre Greenlaw injured his groin Week 1 and proved to be an upgrade. Now all three play, but Al-Shaair (knee), Warner (ankle), and Greenlaw (groin) will be less than 100-percent healthy on Saturday. 

And then the are the safeties, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt, who combined to record 143 tackls. They're a solid safety duo that played together in high school and have been teammates on the 49ers since 2015.

By far the longest run the 49ers have allowed the past two months was a 73-yard fake punt against the Seattle Seahawks. And that was a mistake by the special teams, not the defense.

The defense does a great job of eliminating long runs and making teams earn every yard they get. Still, they should be prepared for the Packers to run the ball heavily anyway, because the 49ers will, and they usually win if they dominante the time of possession.