Things could not have started off much worse on Saturday.
After a Colin Kaepernick interception on a very questionable throw was taken to the house by Green Bay defensive back, Sam Shields, the Packers followed that up two possessions later with a scoring drive that featured successful running up the gut, a deep pass connection (albeit, a lucky one), and an 18 yard touchdown run (also up the middle) that involved some missed tackles.
Aaron Rodgers and company would go into halftime with 21 points and it looked like we had a shootout on our hands.
But, really, only 14 of those points belong to the Green Bay offense. And, in the second half, garbage-time touchdown aside, they tacked on merely three more.
What might appear on the surface to be a bad defensive day, was really not too bad at all. In fact, it was really just one bad drive.
Other than that, the 49ers' secondary handled themselves superbly all day long against one of the better passing offenses in the league, and with a pass rush that was non-existent.
Yes, despite coming back, Justin Smith's injury may have kept him from being the full force he usually is, as he recorded his 4th worst game of the season according to Pro Football Focus. PFF grades out every player's performance for every snap and then gives cumulative game and season totals.
Smith, who played 55 defensive snaps at Candlestick Saturday, graded out his second-worst ranking of the season in pass rush (-1.8), recording only 1 hurry in 39 snaps.
After watching the game again, however, I came away with a similar opinion on that stat as Defensive Coordinator, Vic Fangio, who answered a question regarding Aldon Smith's sack "drought" the following way:
"I don't look at it as a drought. You guys were at the game last week. And the guy was throwing the ball extremely fast. How many plays in the game were there where you were saying, where's the pass rush? It's just they were throwing it fast. He came loose a few times and the ball's gone. I think he's rushing good. I think teams have respect for our rush. They throw it quick sometimes. And those guys are playing fine. It's not always stats. Don't look at that play-by-play after the game and make your conclusions. Watch the game."
In the passing game, Green Bay was able to utilize quicker strikes to negate a lot of the pass rush. Rodgers threw deep (15+ yards downfield) on just six attempts, while the rest of his 33 attempts were of the shorter sort. Counter that with Rodgers' game the week before against Minnesota where he went deep 11 times, despite throwing the ball 6 times less on whole.
Take all this is as good news, as guys like Tarell Brown stepped up in coverage when we needed them to. If the pass rush cannot get there in time because the quarterback throws short, our guys have been good defending those routes and preventing any YAC. This is something they will have to do again this weekend in Atlanta.
Thus, despite a less-than-mauling day pass rushing, it was in the running game that Cowboy had his usual presence felt, recording a +2.5, according to PFF, and doing his job well there.
Green Bay's running back, DuJuan Harris, had 53 yards on 11 rushes, good for about 5 yards a carry. 36 of those came on 5 carries during the aforementioned bad drive in the first quarter. The rest of the game, his 6 carries netted him 17 yards - or less than 3 per. His two rushes early in the second half acquired 6 total yards.
So, other than an explosive run or two on one drive, Harris was contained.
After Harris' two second half rushes led to a three-and-out, Green Bay switched to throwing entirely and had some success moving the ball: they were able to swap field position on one drive and score a field goal on another.
They abandoned the run for those two drives, but not without good cause. It just so happened that the 49ers' two possessions following those drives took us to the 4th quarter and put San Francisco up 38 - 24, at which point running was no longer an option.
Today, therefore, we take a look at a couple plays below via the coach's film to see what Justin Smith was doing during Green Bay's early running success on their first quarter scoring drive and why that success was happening.
Play #1 - The Cowboy strikes
Despite having two in the backfield, Green Bay also has three wide, and the potential to split out either of their backs. This, personnel-wise, forces San Francisco into its nickel package: five defensive backs, and six other defenders as a combo of linemen and linebackers (either 3 of each, or 2 and 4, respectively - on this play we have 2 linemen, 4 linebackers).
As seems usual with these sorts of pass heavy teams, the run scheme is nothing complex: get the guy in front of you and we'll gain a couple yards.
The lead blocker is circled yellow and Harris (black line) is going to follow him. What's interesting is, just before the snap, Patrick Willis (#52) taps Justin Smith (#94) on the right hip to get him to change gaps.
Goes to show the team working together to diagnose a play and get everyone aligned correctly. We have all heard stories of Cowboy barking orders to get people in the right spot; so it was pretty cool in my mind to see Willis helping Smith get lined up instead.
Smith moves over to where he is now pictured and explodes between the center and left guard, getting us this image:
Justin has destroyed the play. The lead blocker (yellow circle) actually has a lane to go through and would be close to executing a block on Bowman, but since #94 blasted so quickly into the backfield, Harris is forced to go away from his blocks.
Willis ends up making the tackle for a short two yard gain.
What was really odd is the linemen with the arrow at him (the center), failed to block anyone when he (theoretically) should have been double-teaming Smith. I think what happened was Willis helped Smith line up, and so Smith exploded into the correct gap so quickly that the center had no chance to do anything.
By the time he looks up, Smith is behind him, and now he's just sort of confused about what to do.
Play #2 - What you lookin' at, Willis?
Green Bay utilized no huddle on this drive in order to keep San Francisco in their nickel package and then run the ball against them. It worked pretty well early, but they had trouble running the ball later and then, of course, fell behind.
What it did allow them to do for at least this drive, however, was run against a 6 man front instead of the 49ers' all-powerful 7 man brick wall.
As you can see, the Packers have six blockers. So, once again, assuming everyone does decent enough one-on-one, they should be able to get some guys to the second level to block our All Pro linebackers.
This is a basic run up the gut with the offensive line again responsible for picking up whoever's in front of them.
However, Green Bay lucks out a bit because of one other advantage of no huddle: sometimes the defense is not ready for the play.
As you can see, Willis (#52), is looking off to the side and probably trying to get other people lined up - but the ball's already been snapped.
In this frame here, Willis has barely turned around to discover, not only has the ball been snapped, but there's a Green Bay linemen in his face - otherwise you have to believe Willis would have been downfield on this one much closer to the line of scrimmage.
The line also does a much better job on this play of containing their blocks one-on-one, as even Smith is successfully maintained.
Harris takes it untouched for 7 yards before being brought down by Bowman, who made the tackle while engaged in a block. If Harris had been more patient, he could have picked up some more yards, but he outran his blockers.
Play #3 - Double team works out better for GB
On this play, designed to go right up the middle rather than towards the guard, Green Bay gets Smith double-teamed. They also double team Ray McDonald.
This serves to let Willis and Bowman roam free, untouched; but as long as the blocks at the line are kept up, the play should at least net something positive.
Which gives us this. Willis and Bowman are both keeping an eye on where Harris might go, but, individually, Willis is responsible for anything popped outside and Bowman is in charge of the inside lane.
Harris sees Bowman and thus decides to take the run outside, where he is chased down by Willis and a recovering McDonald. Still, the run picks up five yards.
It leads to a 3rd and 5 which should have been a failed conversion for Green Bay, but ends up being a bobbled 44 yard completion to James Jones against good coverage.
Had that ball been incomplete, then we aren't talking about this drive at all. Instead, it led to a 1st and 10 from the SF 18, and produced the following...
Play #4 - A rushing touchdown (?)
After the 44 yard strike, Green Bay goes no huddle and is at the line of scrimmage fast for a quick up-the-gut run, probably hoping to catch San Francisco on their heels after the big play.
And that's what they do. A combination of good blocking, a clean lane, and some poor tackling gives Green Bay a touchdown to end the 1st quarter up 14 - 7.
Here we see Aldon Smith (#99) in the air, leaping over a defender that had levied a low block at his feet.
Justin Smith (#94) breaks into the backfield quick, but he was given just enough double-team attention for a split second at the line that he is unable to get to Harris in time.
The key block happens on the second level, where Bowman (#53) is taken care of.
Here's another still a moment later. Smith (#94) can't quite get to Harris. Aldon (#99) has landed his leap over the downed defender, but he is off balance because of it and unable to recover in time.
Much like the play above, we have Bowman and Willis on the second level. Individually, Bowman wants to get inside more to cover that 1 lane, while Willis will keep an eye on 1, but also needs to make sure nothing gets bounced outside to where I have placed a black circle.
Goldson (#38), too, is more concerned with lane 1 than anything, as lane 2 should not even exist. In my opinion, Goldson and Willis played this right, but good blocking on the opposite side and a nice cut by Harris (and later a missed tackle) doomed this play.
So Bowman is leveled by a good block, and Harris opts, instead of taking lane 1, to cut back inside to a new lane (lane 2) where Bowman has no help except the safety - and let's just say you don't want running backs getting to your safeties untouched like this.
Therefore Whitner is the only one with a real chance to make a tackle, but he whiffs and Harris gets into the endzone with barely a finger laid on him.
On the whole, the 49ers did fine against the run. This one drive was the exception, not the rule; and even the best defenses in the world are sometimes going to give up the occasional bad drive on the ground when playing nickel.
Cowboy played well enough, despite only having one arm. He was very good against the run, eating up his usual blocks; and though the stats won't bare it, he was fine enough in his pass rush given how quickly Rodgers was releasing the ball.
At the end of the day, against good pass teams, a pass rush is nice but you still need your DBs to handle their coverages and make plays. Our guys did that on Saturday against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers; and their performance, along with Justin Smith's seemingly unstoppable motor, bodes well for the NFC Championship Game in Atlanta.