Nothing like watching meaningful November football between two playoff-bound teams. There was a reason that the NFL and NBC decided to flex this game into the Sunday Night Football slot, and there are interesting storylines littered all over the field.
Beyond the bitter history between these two teams from their fierce games in the 1990s to Colin Kaepernick torching Green Bay in the playoffs, there’s nothing like a playoff-game between two NFC heavyweights.
Green Bay sits at 8-2, coming off of a bye week. San Francisco is fresh off of an exciting comeback win over the Cardinals, improving their record to 9-1 and owning the NFC’s best record.
When the Packers and 49ers take the field under Levi’s Stadium lights on Sunday, here are the four matchups that I believe will ultimately end up determining the outcome of the game.
1. 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan vs. Packers’ Mike Pettine
This is not just a face-off between San Francisco’s offensive play-caller and Green Bay’s defensive coordinator. Oh, no, no, no. This matchup goes back to the 2014 season in Cleveland when Pettine was Shanahan’s boss.
Everyone remembers the GIF, but the highlight of their shaky, one-year tenure was the moment when Shanahan and Pettine are both standing on the sideline, and the former Browns’ head coach says, “I say we run it” to Shanahan. He reacts like “seriously, man?”
This has been Shanahan’s revenge season, taking down the former co-worker Sean McVay and Rams, the former employer Redskins — so can he complete the trifecta and take down a former boss in Pettine?
Shanahan’s been spectacular as a play designer and caller this season, and I don’t expect that to slow down. The 49ers were in an offensive lull last week until Shanahan designed the misdirection screen to wideout Richie James that woke up the 49ers’ offense and fueled them to their comeback win over Arizona.
On the opposing sideline, Pettine will be calling plays for the NFL’s 18th-ranked defense, per DVOA. And the Packers have been not very good as of late, as they are ranked 22nd, per weighted DVOA — which values recent games more than early-season games. He’ll have his hands full trying to stop a 49ers’ offense that looks to have all their weapons back for the first time since Halloween.
2. 49ers’ run defense vs. Packers’ Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams
When fans hear that Green Bay is 8-2, the natural assumption to make is that Rodgers has been sensational and carrying this team through the air — but it’s actually been the running game that’s kept Green Bay’s inconsistent offense afloat.
Outside of a monster game against the Raiders, Rodgers has been pretty quiet, and the Packers have a balanced attack, featuring running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams. Per offensive DVOA, the Packers are the fifth-ranked offense overall and have the fourth-ranked passing and rushing offense.
Jones has been one of the more underrated players in the NFL, leading in all the major rushing categories for the Packers. He’s primarily been their workhorse back, with Williams filling in for passing downs. Between the two, the Packers have put up 13 touchdowns on the ground — which ranks fourth in the NFL.
On the flip-side, the 49ers have a stout defense overall, but a leaky run defense that’s been giving up a lot of yards on the ground as of late. San Francisco has been giving up 110.5 rushing yards per game, which ranks 20th in the NFL. Robert Saleh’s unit is also 26th in the NFL, giving up a whopping 4.7 yards per rushing attempt this season.
The disparity between the 49ers’ run defense and defense is vast, as San Francisco has given up 43.68% of the opponents’ total yardage on the ground — highest in the NFL. Despite struggles, there’s some good news on the way, as San Francisco will get back interior defender D.J. Jones, who’s credited with ten run stops on the season.
3. 49ers’ Tight Ends vs. Packers’ Linebackers
San Francisco fans can let out of a breath of relief, as it looks like tight end George Kittle will be returning to the lineup after missing the last two games with knee and ankle injuries. With that, comes more good news — San Francisco’s tight ends match up beautifully against the Packers’ linebackers.
I tweeted this out earlier on Friday morning, but here are the box scores of the tight ends that have played the Packers so far:
#Packers against TEs:— Akash Anavarathan (@akashanav) November 22, 2019
Hunter Henry: 7 rec, 84 yards
Travis Kelce: 4 rec, 63 yards, 1 TD
Darren Waller: 7 rec, 126 yards, 2 TDs
Zach Ertz: 7 rec, 65 yards
Greg Olsen: 8 rec, 98 yards#49ers’ George Kittle (if he plays) and Ross Dwelley should absolutely FEAST vs. GB.
I expect that the 49ers will attack former Stanford linebacker Blake Martinez time and time again on Sunday, as he’s given up 35 catches on 40 targets, with 193 of the 272 yards given up coming after the catch. When opposing quarterbacks target Martinez, they have a passer rating of 95.0.
San Francisco’s best offensive playmaker is their tight end — George Kittle — and I expect that he’s going to have a MONSTER game on Sunday.
4. Packers’ offensive tackles vs. 49ers’ pass rush
Green Bay’s long-time tackles, David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga, have been fantastic once again this season, protecting Green Bay’s most valued asset.
Per Pro Football Focus, Bakhtiari has only given up 24 pressures on 417 pass-blocking snaps, while Bulaga has only given up 17 pressures on 372 pass-blocking snaps. The two have been outstanding against opposing rushers — using their strength to their advantage. They’ve only given up five sacks between the two of them, and they’ll look to keep it that way on Sunday.
On the flip side, San Francisco’s brings the best front-four to the table in the NFL. However, they will be missing their designated pass-rusher Dee Ford on Sunday, who’s already been ruled OUT with a hamstring injury.
San Francisco has three players in this game with at least five sacks — rookie Nick Bosa and veterans Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner. San Francisco is tied for the league lead in sacks per game (3.9) and also leads the league in sack percentage (11.72 percent), while they don’t actually blitz at often. If the 49ers are going to have success disrupting Rodgers, it’s going to have to start upfront.