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49ers vs. Packers preview: Can the defense keep Rodgers out of the end zone

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Jason from Acme Packing joins us

San Francisco 49ers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Sunday night’s matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers has all the makings to be one of the games of the year. There will be plenty of analysis on this one before kickoff. We’ll start by previewing where this game will be won when Green Bay has the ball in 49ers territory. Jason from Acme Packing was kind enough to join us this week.

The Packers are one of the best offenses in the red zone. The 49ers are tops in the league at keeping opponents from scoring touchdowns in the red zone. This game will likely come down to who has more success in this part of the field. Who do you believe has a bigger advantage?

Jason:

If the Packers don’t abandon the run near the goal line, they should have a slight advantage here. Aaron Jones has become arguably the NFL’s premier red-zone back, leading the NFL with 11 touchdown runs inside the 20-yard line so far this season. Jones, balance, and ability to break tackles (0.24 missed tackles forced per attempt, the fourth-best mark among players with 100 carries) make him a terror to stop, even for a defense as talented as San Francisco’s.

Of course, the Packers haven’t always maximized Jones; abilities in the red zone. Against the Eagles, they virtually ignored him inside the 20, contributing to their stalled comeback drive at the end of the game. Head coach Matt LaFleur has done a better job utilizing his star running back in the games since, but that doesn’t remove the possibility that Green Bay trips up and repeats its earlier mistake this weekend.

KP: The Packers are the best team in the NFL at running in between the tackles. I agree that Jones is one of the better backs in the league, and the first defender bringing him down has proven to be difficult. One of the under the radar additions the 49ers will have back Sunday night is D.J. Jones, who returned to practice Thursday. The interior play dropped off dramatically with Jones out. He’s stout and does not budge against double teams, which allows the players behind Jones to flow freely and make plays.

Rodgers is still Rodgers(mostly), but he’s only completing 56% of his passes inside the 20 and 58% inside the ten-yard line. The 49ers feast off incompletions. They get offenses in second and third and long situations, and that leads to sacks and field goals. Stop Jones in the red zone, force incompletions on early downs, and win the game.

The Packers tend to get out to hot starts, and then the offense cools off. The 49ers defense has given up points on the opening drive the past month and really clamped down on defense after that. Do you expect the Packers to have consistent success against one of the top defenses in the NFL?

Jason: I wouldn’t expect any team to have “consistent success” against the 49ers defense. Even during their recent two-game slide against the Cardinals and Seahawks, San Francisco has found ways to clamp down defensively in the fourth quarter (10 combined points). The Packers have struggled against defenses that can generate pressure without blitzing, and the 49ers fit that description: 22.3 percent blitz rate (seventh-lowest entering Week 12), 29.2 percent pressure rate (10th highest). If Green Bay finds itself trailing by more than a score late in the game, Robert Saleh’s defense could have a field day.

Perhaps the absence of Dee Ford significantly impacts the 49ers’ ability to pressure Rodgers, allowing the Packers to avoid a late-game malaise. Still, if Saleh can dial-up pressure while dropping most of his defense into coverage, he can tilt the field toward San Francisco.

KP: Green Bay’s offense does not turn the ball over. The Packers are second in turnovers per drive and tenth in drive success rate. I’m not sure if they’ll be able to sustain success, but Rodgers should be able to move the ball coming off a bye. That said, if your plan coming into the game is throwing it all over San Francisco, you should find another plan. Jones has had success through the air, but the 49ers are first in DVOA at defending running backs. From a yardage standpoint, San Francisco is giving up 26.7 yards per game this season to running backs. That’s second in the NFL.

Open-field tackling has been the key to limiting big plays, getting after the quarterback has been the key to getting off the field. Before the trade deadline, Green Bay fans wanted a wide receiver more than 49ers fans did. The luxury of keeping seven players in coverage while disrupting the quarterback is one few teams have. I like the matchup for the 49ers, and believe the perception of each team will be different after Sunday night.