The Green Bay Packers will host the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday night with a trip to the NFC Championship Game on the line. SI.com team beat writers, Bill Huber of Packer Central and Grant Cohn of All Niners, get you ready for the big game with this series examining the matchups.
Matt LaFleur and the Packers’ Coaches
Under Matt LaFleur, the Packers became the first team in NFL history with three consecutive seasons of 13-plus wins. His three-year total of 39 wins is the most ever by a coach in his first three seasons. He’s never lost back-to-back games.
LaFleur has had little interest in discussing those accomplishments, though. One, that’s not his nature. LaFleur is just as quick to deflect the praise as he is to take the blame. The credit for winning belongs to the players; the blame for losing falls on himself. It’s more than that, though. Green Bay is called “Titletown” for a reason. It’s not NFC North Titletown, either. With 13 NFL championship banners, the Packers’ only mission is to win the Super Bowl. So, while regular-season wins and division championships are great, LaFleur understands that nobody cares about 13 regular-season wins if he can’t get three wins in the postseason.
To be sure, the pressure is on. With the uncertain future of Aaron Rodgers, in particular, and the massive salary-cap problems that are going to impact the roster for next year, it’s hard to believe the Packers will be in such an advantageous position 12 months from now. Is it likely that Jordan Love will be Green Bay’s quarterback next year while Rodgers will be in Denver? Who knows. But it’s at least a possibility.
Moreover, there’s the pressure to beat his counterpart, Kyle Shanahan. Maybe they’re friends, maybe they’re enemies. Either way, LaFleur badly wants to win this game. And there’s the pressure to put behind him last year’s loss to Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship Game, an outcome stained by LaFleur’s decision to a kick a field goal in the final moments.
Incredibly for such a young coach, LaFleur built one hell of a coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett will be some team’s head coach next season. It helps to have Rodgers, obviously, but he’s also won with Blake Bortles. His personality is face-of-the-franchise worthy. Quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy is highly regarded, as well, and offensive line coach Adam Stenavich consistently cobbled together strong units despite knee injuries sidelining All-Pro David Bakhtiari for 16 games, Pro Bowler Elgton Jenkins for nine games, rookie Josh Myers for 11 games and steady Billy Turner for four games. That the Packers’ offense has been so productive with a bunch of backups playing on the offensive line is a feather in the cap of all involved.
The hiring of Joe Barry as defensive coordinator was widely criticized because of his track record at previous stops in Detroit and Washington, but his unit was a major reason why the Packers started 8-2 despite some spotty performances on offense.
LaFleur’s teams simply don’t beat themselves. They finished No. 1 in giveaways and No. 1 in penalties.
Until his team is No. 1 in the league in mid-February, though, everything he’s done will come with the obvious “yeah but” caveat.
Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers’ Coaches
Across the league, Kyle Shanahan is known for being perhaps the brightest offensive mind in football. Across the country, he’s known for blowing not one but two Super Bowls.
He had a 25-point lead in the third quarter and lost to the Patriots when he was the Falcons’ offensive coordinator, and he had a 10-point lead with 7 minutes left in the fourth quarter two years ago and lost by 11 to the Chiefs.
If Shanahan were coaching then the way he’s coaching now, his teams probably would have won both of those games.
In each Super Bowl collapse, Shanahan abandoned his run game when he should have leaned on it to ice the game. Now, Shanahan leans on his run game no matter the situation. Take Week 18. The 49ers were down 17-3 to the Rams in the third quarter. Instead of going bombs away, Shanahan called 10 runs in a row, which set up a touchdown pass from Deebo Samuel to Jauan Jennings. The 49ers’ quarterback never threw a pass during this season-saving drive. This was the definitive drive of their season, and it illustrated Shanahan’s growth.
The past few years, the only person who has been able to shut down Shanahan’s run game is Shanahan, and that’s when he decides he’d rather pass. This season, he’s letting opponents off the hook far less often, which is why the 49ers have won eight of their past 10 games after starting the season 3-5.
Give running backs coach Bobby Turner credit for Shanahan’s newfound commitment to the run game. Turner was Mike Shanahan’s running backs coach in Denver, and he developed Hall of Famer Terrell Davis. Turner’s latest project is Elijah Mitchell, who averaged 4.7 yards per carry this season, which is exactly what Davis averaged as a rookie. Turner also has helped Samuel become one of the most dangerous running backs in the NFL.
Turner is an elite position coach. As is 49ers defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. Practically every player he develops turns out good. Against Dallas last week, Nick Bosa left the game early with a concussion. His replacement, Charles Omenihu, whom the 49ers signed midseason, came off the bench and recorded 1.5 sacks. Call it the Kocurek Effect. He has created one of the deepest pass rushes in the NFL.
And then there’s rookie defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, who had to replace Robert Saleh when Saleh left to become the New York Jets’ coach. Saleh was one of the best defensive coordinators in the league. So far, Ryans has been at least as good as Saleh, with the Niners’ defense ranking No. 3 in yards allowed.
Ryans’ worst moment of the season came against the Packers, when he let Aaron Rodgers drive the field with no timeouts and just 37 seconds left and set up a game-winning field goal.
We’ll see if Ryans and Shanahan can redeem themselves on Saturday.