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49ers vs. Packers preview: How can Colin Kaepernick & Co. keep pace with Aaron Rodgers?

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The San Francisco 49ers are struggling, but there are specific ways they can potentially hang with the Green Bay Packers. It will require a pretty significant effort, but there are weaknesses on this Packers team.

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You don’t need me to tell you that Aaron Rodgers is good at football. When the Green Bay Packers roll into Levi’s Stadium on Sunday, Rodgers and the league’s best offense will almost certainly have their way with a San Francisco 49ers defense that’s allowed 76 points and 899 yards of offense over the past two weeks.

We’ve covered the 49ers’ porous defense at length this week — first looking back at some of the reasons we should have expected them to struggle, and later, breaking down the film that highlighted those issues coming to fruition — so there’s no need to relive that nightmare. Let’s just bank on the Packers putting points on the board and move on, shall we?

If the 49ers have hopes of pulling off a miraculous upset, or more realistically just keeping this thing competitive, Colin Kaepernick & Co. must find a way to keep pace with an explosive Packers offense. Given what we’ve seen from the 49ers through three weeks, we can reasonably assume Geep Chryst’s plan is going to involve a sizable number of carries for Carlos Hyde with the hope of containing Rodgers by keeping him on the sideline. And if the 49ers can avoid the soul-crushing mistakes early that have led to large deficits in each of their last two contests, they just might be able to have some success with that approach.

Green Bay’s run defense has been the worst in football so far, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA. While a closer look at the tape reveals a run defense that’s not quite as bad as the numbers suggest, the 49ers can hope to regain some semblance of incredibly efficient rushing attack we saw in Week 1 if they’re willing to change up their approach a bit. For Chryst, that means a departure from the tight end-heavy formations we’ve seen so often to this point.

A lot of Hyde carries have started out with something resembling the formation you see above, sometimes adding fullback Bruce Miller or a third tight end to the mix in the backfield. Defenses, of course, respond with their base personnel and often toss a safety into the box for good measure. This is important because the Packers run defense has been noticeably better out of their base 3-4 than when in their sub-packages:

Personnel Carries Yards YPC
Base 18 68 3.77
Sub-packages 58 315 5.43

(Numbers courtesy of Jeff Deeney from Pro Football Focus.)

We’re still dealing with some small sample sizes this early in the season, but the key to running the ball effectively against the Packers starts by spreading them out and getting them into their sub-packages. When operating out of base, Green Bay’s three-man defensive line of B.J. Raji, Mike Daniels, and Mike Pennel has been stout against the run, keeping blockers off the linebackers behind them while still making their share of plays at the line of scrimmage.

Pennel single-handedly takes care of the right side of the Bears offensive line on the play above, sending former first-round pick Kyle Long to the ground with one hand and holding off guard Vladimir Ducasse with the other. Along with an excellent play from outside linebacker Mike Neal, this allows Clay Matthews to run free and meet Matt Forte in the backfield for a loss.

If you can control the likes of Pennel and Raji and Daniels on the inside, you have an opportunity to rip off some big gains on the ground. The Packers’ linebackers have been lackluster against the run when their run-stuffing trio up front isn’t doing the bulk of the work for them. Green Bay ranks 30th in second-level yards and 24th in open-field yards, per Football Outsiders, indicating once you bank the first five yards, the next five and beyond are much easier to come by. In fact, only the Saints and Steelers have given up more runs of 10 yards or more this season than the 13 such runs allowed by the Packers.

Getting those big runs starts with sending one of Green Bay’s defensive lineman to the sideline by putting a third receiver on the field. From there, the goal is simple: control Raji and Daniels (or whichever duo happens to be on the field) and rushing yardage shall be yours.

Of course, it’s not always that simple. Raji and Daniels are capable of taking matters into their own hands and making plays themselves.

This puts much of the pressure on the interior of San Francisco’s offensive line to perform well, something that hasn’t really been a thing through three games. Seattle’s middle three struggled and Marshawn Lynch managed just 41 yards on 15 carries (2.7 YPC). Chicago and Kansas City’s interior lineman had better luck, and Forte and Jamaal Charles averaged 5.9 and 4.5 yards a pop, respectively. It’s imperative that the 49ers not allow things to, in the words of Ron Burgandy, escalate quickly. The Bears kept things close and Forte was able to get 24 carries; the Chiefs did not and could only give Charles 11 carries.

If the game situation forces the 49ers to put the ball in the air, it’s not likely to go well. Green Bay boasts the sixth-best pass defense through three weeks on the shoulders of a pass rush that ranks fourth in adjusted sack rate. You might have heard some scuttlebutt around the ol’ water cooler that the 49ers offensive line is, um, subpar in pass protection. Unfortunately, I can confirm the rumors are indeed true. San Francisco’s offensive line has allowed 400 40 pressures on 111 drop backs, per Pro Football Focus, giving them the third-worst pass blocking efficiency in football.

That doesn’t bode well for slowing down a Packers’ pass rush that can bring pressure from anywhere along their front four, and happens to be coming off a seven-sack performance against the Chiefs in which they blitzed just 14.8 percent of the time, per Pro Football Focus. Out of their sub-packages and in clear passing situations, Green Bay can kick Clay Matthews back outside and bookend him with Julius Peppers off the edge. Interior pressure is even more problematic for passing games to deal with, and the combination of Daniels and Raji have been a handful for opposing guards.

Should the 49ers somehow stave off that potent Packers pass rush, Kaepernick will want to set his sights on the middle of the field. With Casey Hayward and first-rounder Damarious Randall splitting snaps at the left cornerback spot (Hayward serves as the team’s primary slot cornerback in sub-packages), that side of the field has been a dead zone for opposing offenses. Green Bay has the league’s second-best DVOA on throws to the right side, trailing only the Broncos and their superb pair of cornerbacks. But throws to the middle have been a different story.

The Packers are 22nd in DVOA on passes between the numbers, well below their performance on throws to the outside. That discrepancy is largely due to linebackers and safeties who struggle in coverage.

Geep Chryst has used a good amount of boot action off the 49ers’ zone run looks so far this season, and on the play above you can see the Seahawks use that concept to take advantage of some Packers linebackers who are a little overeager to come up to defend the run. The key for the 49ers will be keeping someone in to block the back-side edge defender, at least on a delayed release, to prevent immediate pressure in Kaepernick’s face after the play fake.

Outside of trying to get Green Bay’s linebackers out of position with play action, the 49ers should look to get Anquan Boldin involved from the slot, particularly if they get him matched up on Micah Hyde. Hyde is the other Packers defensive back who spends significant time in the slot, but he’s far less effective than Hayward. Through three weeks, he’s been targeted six times while in the slot, allowing five receptions for 53 yards, per Pro Football Focus. Seattle went after Hyde on back-to-back plays in the third quarter, the latter of which resulted in a Doug Baldwin touchdown.

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San Francisco needs a very specific game script in order to keep this one close. More early mistakes that lead to a double-digit deficit will play right into the Packers’ strengths and make this game impossible to win. If they can avoid that, however, you can see a scenario in which the 49ers can move the ball downfield in a similar manner to their Week 1 victory: Rely heavily on Hyde and the running game while mixing in play action to get some easy throws to the middle of the field, all the while keeping Rodgers on the sideline.

It’s a long shot, but if Jim Tomsula’s squad wants to avoid a third-straight embarrassing loss, that’s the blueprint. Whether the 49ers have the builders to carry out that plan is another story entirely.

PREDICTION: Packers (-8.5) over 49ERS

ON THE SEASON: 2-1

Spread comes from the consensus line at VegasInsider.com.