The Early Read: Packers at 49ers Matchups

Bill Huber

Here are three of the defining matchups, one in each phase, as we begin our lookahead to Sunday night’s NFC showdown between the Green Bay Packers (8-2) and San Francisco 49ers (9-1).

Packers offense vs. 49ers defense

Green Bay’s offense has been humming. Since the Week 4 loss at Philadelphia, the Packers are scoring 27.5 points per game. Working hand in hand, the Packers are running the ball better (seventh-ranked 4.66 yards per carry) and throwing it more efficiently (sixth-ranked 7.13 yards per dropback). Other than being penalized too many times, the offensive line has done an excellent job in doing the dirty work for Aaron Rodgers and Aaron Jones.

That group will face one of its toughest challenges of the season against a formidable 49ers front. The Niners have an embarrassment of riches, with defensive ends Arik Armstead (8.0), Nick Bosa (7.0) and Dee Ford (6.5) and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (5.0) combining for 26.5 sacks. Bosa (the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft), Ford (who signed a five-year, $85 million contract in free agency after a monster season with Kansas City), Armstead, Buckner and Solomon Thomas are former first-round picks. D.J. Jones, Sheldon Day and Ronald Blair round out a group that has helped the Niners record a league-high 39 sacks, including at least three sacks in seven consecutive games.

“They’re as talented as anybody when you look at that defensive line and they can just roll fresh bodies at you play after play after play,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said.

In what could be at least a small break for the Packers, Ford suffered a hamstring injury on Sunday against Arizona and might not play.

49ers offense vs. Packers defense

Presumably, 49ers tight end George Kittle will be back in the lineup after missing the last two games with ankle and knee injuries. With Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, Kittle is arguably the best tight end in the league. He leads the Niners with 46 receptions for 541 yards. This year, he’s fourth in the league with 19 third-down receptions. Last year, he set an NFL record for most receiving yards by a tight end with 1,377.

Green Bay has performed miserably against tight ends for a large chunk of this season. It’s allowed the seventh-most receptions (57), sixth-most yards (634) and fifth-most touchdowns (five). In the final game before the bye, Carolina’s Greg Olsen caught eight passes for 98 yards. The week before that, the Chargers’ Hunter Henry caught seven passes for 84 yards. The week before that, the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce caught four passes for 63 yards and one touchdown. And the week before that, Darren Waller led a Raiders contingent that caught 11 passes for 172 yards and three touchdowns.

Keeping Kittle from getting the ball isn’t the only problem. Kittle has broken 11 tackles and averages 6.5 yards after the catch, according to Pro Football Focus. The Packers, on the other hand, have been one of the worst tackling teams in the league.

The kicking game

A clash of the titans this is not. Whether it’s veteran Robbie Gould (13-of-20) or rookie Chase McLaughlin (4-of-5), the 49ers have struggled to make field goals. And their kickoff unit makes Green Bay’s look positively explosive by comparison. On the other hand, the Packers are the only team in the bottom 10 in the league in kickoff returns, punt returns, kickoff coverage and punt coverage.

Will this be the week Green Bay actually gets positive yardage on punt returns? Don’t count on it. San Francisco’s Australian-born punter, Mitch Wishnowski, has punted 32 times but allowed 43 return yards.