Let’s be real; nobody wanted to face Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship game. Although the Packers are undoubtedly the better team top to bottom, there’s something about the timeless Niners & Seahawks rivalry that lends itself to the unexpected. Rest easier knowing that Wilson, Lynch, and co. will be watching from their recliners come Sunday afternoon, and there will be no third matchup for a trip to Super Bowl 54.
The Packers present another type of challenge, but they’re a familiar foe. The 49ers demolished the Packers at Levi’s Stadium less than two months ago by a margin of 29 points. Per David Lombardi, the 49ers held Aaron Rodgers to 1.7 net yards per dropback during that game, the lowest total of his entire career. He also averaged -0.7 completed air yards per attempt, not a typo. The bottom line: he was abysmal.
Changes to both trenches
What’s different this time around? For starters, both teams are entering this matchup a bit healthier. The Packers will have offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga back from an injury that caused him to miss most of the prior contest, assuming he can fully recover from the illness that caused him to be limited against the Seahawks. Bulaga finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked tackle, allowing 26 total pressures. He is solid, but no match for the 49ers top-ranked pass rush.
Speaking of the big men upfront, the Niners will have edge rusher, Dee Ford, back in the fold as he missed the first meeting between the two teams. The Niners will also unveil linebacker Kwon Alexander, running back Matt Breida, kicker Robbie Gould, and tackle Joe Staley against Green Bay for the first time this year. Talk about a lineup of hard-nosed, blue-chip players (looking at you Robbie). Joking aside, adding more firepower to the already loaded 49ers roster for this rematch will bolster their chances substantially. Add in the fact that Kyle Shanahan had no new injuries to report from Saturday’s matchup against Minnesota, and the Niners are now entering this game healthier than they’ve been since the start of this season.
Of the new faces that Green Bay will have to worry about, Dee Ford has to be giving Packers’ head coach Matt LaFleur and QB Aaron Rodgers the most trouble. From weeks 1-11 before he got hurt, Ford finished with PFF’s 13th best pass-rushing grade. During that same span, Nick Bosa finished 7th in the same ranking. The duo combined for 15 sacks over that time.
From weeks 12-17, without Dee Ford flanking him, Nick Bosa ranked 45th in the same metric and only tallied up two sacks. And wouldn’t you know, Dee Ford’s return against Minnesota for the Divisional Round matchup this past Saturday saw the pendulum swing back in the pair’s favor. In a dominant performance, Nick Bosa finished with a 91.6 elite defensive grade and an 89.7 pass-rush grade, both highs across all players from the weekend. He also added two sacks and four QB hurries. Dee Ford didn’t necessarily shine in his return to action, but his impact is monumental to this pass-rush, especially for the presumptive Defensive Rookie of the Year.
On the other side of the ball, Joe Staley, who missed weeks 3-9 & 11-13, will be starting once again at left tackle. His return will be key, as the Packers present their own terrorizing duo on the defensive line: Za’Darius & Preston Smith. They had two sacks apiece this past Sunday and tallied up 25.5 sacks during the regular season, 2nd most by any duo across the league.
During their last matchup, the 49ers gave up three sacks to the Smith’s while starting the tackle pair of Justin Skule and Mike McGlinchey. Skule was benched during the game for Daniel Brunskill, but neither will be a factor as Staley comes in to solidify the left side. Since Week 14, Staley has only given up four QB pressures. He’ll have his hands full come Sunday, but the playoff veteran will be up to the task.
The 49ers were able to rout Green Bay earlier this year without being at full strength in the trenches on both sides of the ball. The additions of Ford & Staley this time around will give the Niners the edge once again.