Tunnel-Vision Approach Needed on Defense to Beat 49ers
GREEN BAY, Wis. – This past offseason, general manager Brian Gutekunst directed an incredible overhaul of the Green Bay Packers’ defense.
In free agency, he spent lavishly on outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith and safety Adrian Amos, and he used his first-round picks on outside linebacker Rashan Gary and safety Darnell Savage. With those five players replacing the overpaid and underperforming tandem of Clay Matthews and Nick Perry at outside linebacker and the mishmash of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Kentrell Brice and Jermaine Whitehead at safety, the Packers rocketed from 25th to ninth in points allowed and from six wins to 13.
None of it mattered in the biggest game of the season. The San Francisco 49ers ran roughshod over the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. They won 37-20 by rushing for preposterous 285 yards and scoring on six consecutive drives.
For years, NFL offenses have trended toward the college game of spreading the field, throwing the ball and creating perimeter mismatches. As a counter, NFL defenses put a higher premium on pass rushers and fast guys capable of existing in today’s speed-based game.
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“A wise coach told me a long time ago you can fly to Miami a lot faster than you can walk there,” Pettine said in September about prioritizing pass defense over run defense. “You’re going to get beat through the air. That’s the bottom line.”
As offenses evolved and defenses adapted, I started to wonder what would happen if an offense went into throwback mode and featured a power running game as its primary mode of attack.
That takes us to what happened on Sunday night in Santa Clara, Calif. Of San Francisco’s 51 offensive snaps, 42 were runs. The Packers never got close to stopping that running attack.
The defense built by Gutekunst thrived because it rushed the passer and it covered receivers. Including playoffs, the Smiths piled up an astounding 29.5 sacks. As a unit, Green Bay finished sixth in the league in opponent passer rating. It was a defense tailored for today’s game. In the last five drafts, the Packers selected 12 defensive players in the first three rounds. Throw in the Smiths and Amos, and that’s 15 “key” defensive additions the past five years. The position totals were five cornerbacks, four outside linebackers, three safeties, two defensive linemen and one inside linebacker.
Where did the Packers fall short on Sunday? The pass rush and coverage elements that had been the personnel focus were irrelevant because the 49ers never had to pass the ball. What they did was run it, and Green Bay was ill-equipped to handle it. To be sure, it wasn’t quite what I had envisioned for years – a power-based running game just pounding the ball downhill again and again and again at an undersized defense. But the impact was the same. Green Bay’s defensive line was pushed around and the inside linebackers couldn’t cope. Not coincidentally, those were the two positions with the fewest “key” additions the past five years.
Football is about matchups. Green Bay’s defense is capable of matching up against just about every offense in the NFL. But it’s not capable of matching up against the 49ers. The teams could meet again tomorrow, next week or next month and there’s absolutely zero reason to believe the results would be different.
Two misses on third-round picks who might have changed the equation, defensive tackle Montravius Adams in 2017 and inside linebacker Oren Burks in 2018, didn’t help. At No. 12 in 2019, Gutekunst selected Gary, who did next to nothing during his rookie season, while Pittsburgh traded up from No. 20 to No. 10 to get new-age linebacker Devin Bush. Bush, who was picked for the all-rookie team, has what Blake Martinez lacks and every defense craves – a three-down skill-set with the speed to cut off someone like Raheem Mostert, who sprinted through alleys to rush for 220 yards and four touchdowns.
As Gutekunst looks ahead to 2020, he needs to have tunnel-vision focus on San Francisco. He’s assembled a team capable of beating everyone else in the league. Now, it’s about getting Pettine the players necessary to beat the 49ers. That’s a legit sidekick to Clark on the line and a legit three-down linebacker. Accomplishing that will take care of everything else, including providing the necessary belief that the Packers can win with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line in 12 months.