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2013 NFL playoffs: Chris Culliver is the defensive X-factor in 49ers-Packers

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With the 49ers and Packers set to face off in tomorrow night's wild card round, we discuss who San Francisco's X-factor is on defense.

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This week, we released an article on how LaMichael James would be the X-factor for the San Francisco offense on Saturday, courtesy of Fooch. In a follow up to that, I’ve declared a defensive X-factor for this weekend’s divisional round in Chris Culliver.

In his second year, the 49ers cornerback is one of the best-kept secrets in the NFL. The 6’0" d-back has 4.4 speed, making him the most physically gifted player in San Francisco’s secondary.

Though slated as the No. 3 corner, Culliver has taken on a great deal of responsibility. He has performed well when asked to step up, and his performance has been essential against the Niners’ brutal 2012 schedule, where they visited Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady.

And against those pass-heavy teams, Carlos Rogers tends to work out of the nickel. Against Green Bay this year, he was blitzing from the nickel – sacking Rodgers on one occasion – and the coverage responsibility fell on Culliver’s shoulders.

Culliver can often be found on the perimeter, where he has played very well this season. As a big physical specimen, Culliver gives his receiver little room on the sideline, either taking away that option for the QB or forcing the WR to make a very difficult catch.

He has shown off his great speed and endurance, running stride-for-stride with some of the league’s best receivers in his two-year career. Whether it’s Hakeem Nicks, Calvin Johnson or Jordy Nelson, Culliver is not the least bit intimidated.

Going into Foxboro (Week 15), Pro Football Focus had this on Culliver:

On the outside, cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver are having strong years with coverage grades of +8.8 and +8.9 respectively. Culliver plays exclusively in sub packages and he’s leading the league with only 0.66 Yards/Cover Snap, and he’s also at the top with only 42.9% of passes being completed his way.

As a cerebral quarterbacks, Rodgers will be looking for match-ups and will take shots at Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox.

Culliver will likely be pitted against Jordy Nelson again this time. In Week 1, Culliver’s main responsibility was taking away No. 87. Nelson is arguably the team’s best vertical threat and Culliver will be asked to silence him.

This is an arduous task for a second-year player, but Cully didn’t fare to poorly the first time around. In Week 1, Nelson finished with 5 catches on 7 targets for 64 yards and no scores. Culliver also made a tremendous game-sealing pass-breakup on Nelson late in the 4th quarter.

Going into this Saturday’s game, Nelson will not be 100-percent. He has been hurt and is nursing an ankle injury. Nelson was limited in practice this week and only played 19 snaps in the wild card round. He did however participate fully in Friday's practice and was officially listed as probable.

Nelson is going to be active and cannot be underestimated. Culliver should also get his chances to line up against James Jones as well. They had a couple battles in the first match, but Jones’ role has since grown. He is the team’s most dominant scoring threat, so Culliver will have to play him tight when he gets his chances.

The 49ers cornerback will have his opportunities to make a play, and there is a decent chance that he does. He can lock up and take away Rodgers’ options downfield, forcing coverage sacks. And when Rodgers does pull the trigger, Culliver is great at timing the pass and using his athleticism to break on it.

Chris Culliver is San Francisco’s ace in the hole.

Follow @DeSimone80