The San Francisco 49ers (10-7) survived their playoff-opener at Dallas, moving on to a Division Round matchup with the NFC’s No. 1 seed, the Green Bay Packers (13-4).
Although the Packers downed the 49ers on a last-second field goal in Week 3, it’s hard to use that game to preview Saturday.
Wide receiver Deebo Samuel had yet to be unleashed, rookie running back Elijah Mitchell was injured and receiver Brandon Aiyuk was still in the doghouse, while Green Bay’s best pass protector and rusher, left tackle David Bakhtiari and linebacker Za’Darius Smith, were also out.
Here are Five Players to Watch in Saturday’s freezing Lambeau Field classic:
Billy Turner, Right Tackle, #77 — Green Bay Packers
San Francisco’s road to the NFC Championship hinges on its ability to run the ball and pressure the quarterback.
The 49ers totaled two hurries, one knockdown, one sack and four pressures in Week 3. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers picked them apart as a result.
San Francisco’s defensive line is much improved thanks to the emergence of Arden Key, D.J. Jones and Samson Ebukam, the acquisition of Charles Omenihu, and the continued impressive play from Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa.
Despite many moving parts, the Packers’ offensive line has kept Rodgers upright (sacked just 30 times) and not committed many penalties. They also return two of their best three protectors in Bakhtiari and right tackle Billy Turner (knee).
Turner (66.2 PFF grade) must shake off the rust rather quickly as he tries to keep Bosa, who has 4.5 sacks in four playoff games, out of Rodgers’ face.
Krys Barnes, Linebacker, #51 — Green Bay Packers
He has missed 11 percent of his tackle attempts and allowed a 110.6 pass rating and 410 yards in coverage.
It’s no secret quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo loves middle-of-the-field passes, especially on key third-down conversions.
The Packers play a lot of dime and leave Campbell alone in the middle. If Barnes struggles, it would mean more dime coverage, which would force undersized defensive backs to stop the ultraphysical 49ers.
Will defensive coordinator Joe Barry sacrifice physicality and size in order to have better coverage in the middle? Or will he leave Barnes on the field to help stop the run and possibly get burned in play-action?
Jauan Jennings, Wide Receiver, #15 — San Francisco 49ers
When looking at the Packers’ last test, Week 16 vs Cleveland, they were gashed on the outside by Nick Chubb, allowing 126 yards and a touchdown with eight of Chubb’s outside rushes going for at least five yards (per NextGen Stats).
Mitchell was mostly employed as the between-the-tackles runner against Dallas, with Samuel handling the change-of-pace outside duties.
As stated above, the Packers play a lot of dime due to their linebacker struggles (sans Campbell). This creates a major size advantage for both tight end George Kittle (6’4) and wide receiver Jauan Jennings (6’3) as both route runners and run blockers.
Similarly to Green Bay’s Allen Lazard, Jennings is an extremely physical receiver and blocker, with Lazard possibly being the league’s best blocking wideout.
Jennings has size on both corners that could play in the slot, nickel Chandon Sullivan (5’11) as well as versatile Pro Bowl corner Jaire Alexander (5’10), who is returning from a shoulder injury.
Mitchell and Samuel should have huge days. Don’t be shocked when you see No. 15 making a seal block to free up a big gain.
Ambry Thomas, Cornerback, #20 — San Francisco 49ers
The Packers will win if Davante Adams cannot be stopped.
One starting corner, Emmanuel Moseley, held Rodgers to just 33 yards and a 69.3 pass rating when targeted in Week 3 (Pro Football Reference). As a result, Rodgers picked on the other defensive backs.
Adams totaled 12 catches on 18 targets for 132 yards and a touchdown, mostly with safety Jaquiski Tartt and cornerbacks Deommodore Lenoir, Josh Norman and Dontae Johnson in coverage.
Given that the Packers mostly avoided Moseley last time, it looks as if that means a fun battle between Adams and rookie Ambry Thomas.
After back-to-back rough outings, Thomas has since surrendered just eight completions in four games, including only 30 yards on three catches last week.
Adams should get the better of Thomas a few times, but the rookie has shown the mental toughness to bounce back and battle for an entire game.
K’Waun Williams, Nickel, #24 — San Francisco 49ers
If Thomas proves up for the task, Green Bay head coach Matt LaFleur could utilize Adams in the slot in an effort to exploit nickel K’Waun Williams.
Williams is an excellent blitzer and run-defender but has been exposed in man coverage.
Although he did have an interception last week, Williams also was burned for 74 yards and a touchdown on five completions. Prior to exiting early with injury Week 3, Lazard beat Williams one on one for 42 yards.
Rodgers will find the 49ers’ weak point, which given Dallas tight end Dalton Schultz’s big game, looks to be the middle. That would mean a heavy dosage of Adams, Lazard and Randall Cobb in the slot.
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