NFC Championship: Packers Offense vs. 49ers Defense

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The San Francisco 49ers delivered a knockout of the Green Bay Packers in Round 1.

On Nov. 24, in a heavyweight showdown between the top teams in the NFC, the 49ers staggered the Packers from the opening bell. If it were a boxing match, it would have been stopped long before the final minutes mercifully ticked off the clock.

The final score was 37-8. The statistics were just as lopsided.

– Green Bay gained 198 yards and went 1-of-15 on third down – including 0-for-14 before backup quarterback Tim Boyle moved the chains in garbage time. Its 6.7 percent success rate was the third-worst for any team in any game this season and the worst by the Packers in any game since 2000. On the initial third-down of the game, Aaron Rodgers was sacked and stripped to gift-wrap the opening touchdown.

– Rodgers was 20-of-33 for 104 yards. With 38 lost yards on five sacks, his 38 dropbacks netted 1.74 yards per play.

– Aaron Jones averaged 2.9 yards per carry and didn’t catch a pass.

– Davante Adams averaged 3.58 yards per target, the longest of his seven receptions gaining just 14 yards.

– The Packers had only one play of longer than 15 yards – a 21-yard end-around by Allen Lazard.

RELATED: Green Bay defense vs. San Francisco offense

Interestingly, the Green Bay game was the outlier for San Francisco over the second half of the season. In the final nine games, the 49ers allowed at least 20 points in eight games and at least 25 in six games. They finished eighth in the league in scoring with 19.3 points per game – hardly better than Green Bay’s ninth-ranked 19.4 points per game.

However, they finished second in total defense in terms of yards per game (281.8) and per play (4.66) and first against the pass overall (169.2 yards per game) and per play (5.22). They wound up third in sack percentage and second on third down, and they gave up a league-low 43 plays of 20-plus yards.

Like it was with Green Bay in November, it was total destruction vs. Minnesota in Saturday’s divisional playoff game. After allowing a first-quarter touchdown, San Francisco held the Vikings to 8 yards on their next seven possessions. The Packers will have to do what they didn’t do in Week 12 and what the Vikings couldn’t do last week. In those games, neither team could protect the quarterback (Kirk Cousins was sacked six times) and neither team got its running back going (Dalvin Cook had nine carries for 18 yards and six receptions for 8 yards). 

On both parts, a healthy right tackle Bryan Bulaga should help; he missed most of the first game with an injured finger. Left tackle David Bakhtiari gave up six pressures in the first game but a combined five during the six-game winning streak. Obviously, the offensive line will need to turn in its best performance.

The starting point for the Niners is a defensive line that features not one, not two, not three, not four but five first-round picks. And each of those first-rounders had a sack against Minnesota.

Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa are the ends, Sheldon Day and DeForest Buckner are the tackles, and Dee Ford and Solomon Thomas are the top backups. Of those six, only Day was not selected in the first round. Armstead had a team-high 10 sacks, including two against Green Bay. Bosa, the second pick of this year’s draft, had nine sacks and a team-high 25 quarterback hits in the regular season and two sacks vs. Minnesota in the divisional game. Buckner had 7.5 sacks. Ford, who had 13 sacks and seven forced fumbles for the Chiefs last year, had 6.5 sacks in 11 games this season. He missed Round 1 against Green Bay with hamstring and thigh injuries but returned for the playoff rout of Minnesota and had a sack.

With all of that firepower up front, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh had the sixth-lowest blitz rate in the league.

The linebackers are underrated. Kwon Alexander, who was signed away from Tampa Bay in the offseason, was on IR for the first matchup and returned to the lineup last week. Fred Warner led the team with 118 tackles and added three sacks, three forced fumbles and nine passes defensed. If not for rookie Dre Greenlaw’s goal-line tackle against Seattle, the Packers would have been the No. 1 seed. He had 87 tackles. Warner (11) and Greenlaw (eight) combined for 19 tackles in the first game.

Cornerback Richard Sherman leads the secondary. In November 2017, he suffered a torn Achilles – an injury that has ruined countless careers. The 31-year-old Sherman, however, remains elite. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed a league-best 0.44 yards per coverage snap. Cousins threw three passes at Sherman for 4 yards and one interception. With Sherman playing lockdown defense at his customary spot at left cornerback, Saleh can tilt his defense to help everyone else.

The other cornerback spot is a question mark. Ahkello Witherspoon was benched after giving up a first-quarter touchdown last week. Emmanuel Moseley replaced him and probably will start. According to PFF, Witherspoon gave up six touchdowns and a 109.3 rating vs. two touchdowns and an 86.6 rating for Moseley. K’Waun Williams, who leads the team with four forced fumbles, mans the slot. The safeties are Jaquiski Tartt and versatile Jimmie Ward, who broke up eight passes.