NFC Championship: Packers Defense vs. 49ers Offense

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The San Francisco 49ers don’t have an MVP quarterback, a dominant running back or a stud receiver.

What they do have is an accurate passer, the best tight end in the NFL and one of the deepest groups of skill players in the NFL. With coach Kyle Shanahan calling the shots, the 49ers’ underrated cast of offensive characters scored the second-most points in the NFL and will create all sorts of problems for the Green Bay Packers in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo ranked third in yards per attempt (8.36), fifth in completion percentage (69.1) and eighth in passer rating (102.0). In some ways, he’s been vulnerable. He was intercepted 13 times; his 2.6 interception percentage was the worst among the playoff quarterbacks. He threw five touchdowns and five interceptions when under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus. On the other hand, he’s been impervious to a different type of pressure. When the 49ers needed him, he had tremendous games against the Packers in Week 12, Saints in Week 14 and Seahawks in Week 17. In fact, he threw eight touchdowns and one interception in those games. Then, his red-hot start got the 49ers rolling last week in the divisional game against Minnesota.

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The effectiveness of the running game has translated into some easier opportunities. With Raheem Mostert (772), Matt Breida (623) and Tevin Coleman (544), the 49ers were one of three teams with three players with at least 500-plus rushing yards; they were the only team with three running backs to reach that threshold. Behind that trio, the Niners ranked second in rushing per game (144.1) and ninth per carry (4.63). Mostert averaged 5.6 and Breida averaged 5.1. It was Coleman who had the 100-yard day in wearing down the vaunted Vikings.

The power of that running game keys one of the NFL’s top play-action attacks. According to Pro Football Focus, Garoppolo finished second in play-action passing with 1,667 yards; the Rams’ Jared Goff beat him by 50 yards but needed 48 more play-action passes to do so.

All-Pro tight end George Kittle is one of the most dominating players in the league, regardless of position. In 14 games, he caught 85 passes for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns. After missing two games with an ankle injury, he came back and buried the Packers with six receptions for 129 yards, including a 61-yard touchdown. He led NFL tight ends with 27 receptions on third down and 599 yards after the catch. His 2,945 receiving yards are the most by any tight end in NFL history in his first three seasons. He is the total package – a dominating blocker with speed to get open deep, excellent hands (one drop) and toughness to run over defenders (7.3 YAC per catch). He’ll face a defense that was torched by tight ends Darren Waller, Travis Kelce, Hunter Henry, Greg Olsen and Kittle in a span of five consecutive games to the tune of 32 receptions for 500 yards and four touchdowns. Green Bay’s performed much better against tight ends down the stretch but it hasn’t faced anyone of Kittle’s caliber.

It’s not just Kittle that the Packers have to be concerned about. Everyone, seemingly, can catch the ball, with six players posting at least 20 receptions. Rookie Deebo Samuel caught 57 passes for 802 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown against Green Bay. Samuel’s also a threat as a runner with 14 carries for 159 yards and three scores. Emmanuel Sanders had 36 catches for 502 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games after being acquired from Denver, though he was limited to just three catches for 25 yards in two games against Green Bay. In 17 games, he caught 66 passes and had just one drop. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk is a legitimate threat with 20 receptions for 239 yards.

Thirteen players caught at least one touchdown, a league record. According to Pro Football Reference, the 49ers averaged a league-best 6.7 yards after the catch per catch. Samuel dropped 10 passes, according to Pro Football Focus, and the 49ers had the fourth-highest drop percentage, according to Pro Football Reference.

The 49ers are healthier than they were in the November matchup. Left tackle Joe Staley is back to protect Garoppolo’s blind side. According to STATS, he allowed one sack in seven games; his backup allowed four in eight starts. The other change is at center, with Ben Garland starting the past four weeks for injured Weston Richburg. He didn’t allow any sacks in those starts. With the combination of scheme, backfield talent and blocking, the 49ers averaged 3.0 yards before contact per rushing play, fourth-best in the league, according to Pro Football Reference.