Jason from Acme Packing will be our guest this week as the San Francisco 49ers host the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship. Today we’re talking about Green Bay’s biggest advantage against the Niners, and where they had improved the most since Week 12 when the 49ers blew out the Packers at home.
Where has Green Bay improved the most since Week 12?
Jason: The 49ers caught the Packers during their defensive nadir. The unit almost literally couldn’t stop the run and struggled to generate turnovers to negate that deficiency. Over the final quarter of the season, the run defense has improved to mediocre, while the pass rush has recently reclaimed its peak form. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has essentially made Za’Darius Smith a rover, allowing him to attack the weak points of the opposing team’s pass protection with ease. That adjustment helped Smith and the Packers take over during their Week 16 victory over the Vikings and in the two wins since.
KP: I don’t know if playing through him is the correct way to frame it, but the Packers leaning on Aaron Jones has really helped this team from what I can see. Jones had 21 carries for 62 yards against the Seahawks, but Jones ran hard and was breaking tackles. He gets the “tough” yards, and if there is the slightest crease, he is going to get a first down. It also seems like when he’s involved through the air; Green Bay is dangerous as well. Jones is a dangerous player that the 49ers need to be limit. Jones is averaging 4.9 yards per carry since the last time these teams faced. He has the ninth-most rushes that went for ten or more yards and sixth-most yards after contact. Jones is averaging 3.5 yards after contact. He’s good.
Who is the one player that can take over for the Packers and change the outcome of this game?
Jason: This question only has one reasonable answer: Aaron Rodgers. While Rodgers didn’t dominate this season as he has in the past and probably can no longer do so consistently, he remains capable of taking over games against high-level opponents like the 49ers. As he demonstrated during last week’s victory over the Seahawks, Rodgers can make backbreaking players within and outside of structure, something the Packers need in order to pull off the upset on in the NFC Championship Game. If the contest devolves into a quarterback duel — an unlikely but possible outcome — Green Bay holds the advantage.
KP: I’ll go with Za’Darius Smith, who is PFF’s highest-graded pass rusher among all edge rushers since Week 12. Smith has seven sacks, ten quarterback hits, and 19 pressures in six games. He also has 17 stops. As Jason said, moving him around to create mismatches is a genius idea, and that has allowed Smith to flourish even more than he already was. The weak spot on the line is probably right guard Mike Person, but the 49ers have done a nice job as a unit helping, chipping, and protecting Jimmy Garoppolo for the most part. Pass rushers that can get home scare me because the good ones—like Smith—go after the ball and create turnovers.
What is the Packer’s biggest matchup advantage?
Jason: In terms of actual head-to-head matchups, the Packers’ pass rush holds a slight advantage over the 49ers’ offensive line. According to ESPN, San Francisco finished the season 26th in pass-block win rate (55%) while Green Bay ranked ninth in pass-rush win rate (47%). While I don’t expect the Packers defense to take over the game, the ability to take down Garoppolo should result in some short possessions.
KP: Having a quarterback that knows what he is doing. Kirk Cousins didn’t have a prayer against San Francisco. Any quarterback that folds under pressure or can’t see the field doesn’t. That’s not Rodgers. He’s patient, calm, and won’t make the backbreaking mistake. Rodgers relies heavily on Davante Adams, but that’s a compliment. In the most critical situations, throw the ball to your best player. That’s what Rodgers does.