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The 49ers have a lot of, if not more, advantages in this game than they did last week and in Week 12

Previewing what we can expect to see from the 49ers defense against Aaron Rodgers

NFL: NOV 24 Packers at 49ers Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers trotted out a healthy defense against the Minnesota Vikings and undressed that offense essentially wire-to-wire, minus one blunder in the first quarter. Minnesota didn’t reach 150 yards, went 2-14 on third and fourth down, and never couldn’t sustain back-to-back drives. At Lambeau Field, the Green Bay Packers jumped out to a 21-3 lead over the Seattle Seahawks, before holding off a late comeback from Seattle. That has been the story for both units, when healthy, this season.

Fast starts

The Packers offense was third in the NFL in first-quarter points this season. Plenty of occasions this season, Green Bay has raced out to a lead. Matt LaFleur puts together top-notch opening scripts, and Aaron Rodgers and company execute that plan and turn drives into touchdowns. Rodgers has taken care of the ball at a historic rate. It’s naive to assume he’ll fumble on the opening drive as he did in Week 12, and the game will spiral out of control. Green Bay isn’t going to put up 2.8 yards per play again.

A big part of San Francisco’s early success was because defensive tackle D.J. Jones played like the hulk. Jones finished with three run stops, but on two of his tackles for loss, Jones blew up multiple blockers. If you look at the box score, you think the Packers had success on the ground because they ran for 117 yards on 25 carries. If you take out a 21-yard reverse to wide receiver Allen Lazard, the Packers ran the ball 11 times for 34 yards in the first half. The score was 23-0 at halftime, so the 49ers weren’t concerned with Rodgers handing it off at that point.

This time around, Jones is out, as is Damontre Moore, who finished Week 12 with four pressures and a quarterback hit. You replace those two with Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander. The Packers didn’t have much success in the last matchup, but they took advantage of Azeez Al-Shaair on a couple of occasions. That’s not happening to Alexander and a Niners linebacker group that didn’t fall for the Viking’s tricks.

Perception isn’t reality

Just about any metric or stat you look at; the Vikings were a better team than the Packers. Because Green Bay matched up well against the Vikings, that didn’t matter for the division. That helped shift the perception that Green Bay is superior because they had a better win/loss record and beat Minnesota head-to-head. Pro Football Reference has a simple rating system stat—which is essentially schedule-adjusted margin of victory—The Vikings are at 5.4, the Packers at 3.2, the 49ers are 11.0, and the Seahawks are 2.7. I mention Seattle because both they and Green Bay were thought of as the biggest “frauds” in the playoffs with how they won. Point-differential is another key number. The Vikings were +104, the Packers were +63, and the 49ers were +169.

You can go on and on. I think we’ve harped enough about how this game won’t look like the last game. Saying the 49ers won’t win by 29 points isn’t a slight to San Francisco. The game will naturally be closer because it’ll be difficult for the Packers to play worse. Saying that doesn’t mean they’re going to win. I think it’s very important to distinguish this. The 49ers have a lot of, if not more, advantages in this game than they did last week and in Week 12.

Deja vu

Like Kirk Cousins, the way to beat Aaron Rodgers is to get after him with four rushers. Rodgers is probably better than Cousins against the blitz. Most elite quarterbacks thrive against the blitz because they can process what you’re doing and where you’re coming from in a split second, and get the ball out on time and accurate to their best wideout.

Rodgers against the blitz: 148 attempts, 8.3 yards per attempt, 9 touchdowns, 0 INT

Rodgers no blitz: 448 attempts, 6.7 yards per attempt, 19 touchdowns, 4 INT

The way to neutralize Rodgers is getting after him with four rushers and forcing him to throw the ball away. I mentioned he’s not going to put the ball in harm’s way, but you can force him to throw it away quickly. You’ll take second and third and long every time against Rodgers. That explains his lower yardage per attempt.

The 49ers were one of the only teams in the NFL to accomplish rushing with four defenders and a successful rate. The defense got pressure 28.7% of the time, which was the second-highest rate in the NFL while blitzing the fourth-lowest rate at just under 21%. That pressure number was roughly 10% higher with Dee Ford on the field, which we saw last week. Cousins was under pressure on 48% of his dropbacks. San Francisco blitzed six times.

Which is why the 49ers lead the league in net yards per attempt. Seven guys in coverage is a tough code to crack. In the first matchup, Devante Adams was targeted 12 times for 43 yards. Adams had 44 yards after the catch. Yes, you read that correctly. That tells you that the Packers’ way of manufacturing touches for Adams was to throw him the ball right away because it wasn’t working past the line of scrimmage. On the season Adams’ average reception was right around 7.5 yards down the field. The Seahawks, for whatever reason, left Adams open and didn’t have much of a plan to stop him. He had about 66% of the receiving yards last week. Neutralize Rodgers by getting pressure with four players, take away Adams, who is a top-10 receiver and a big-time talent, and it’s easier said than done, and that’s the ballgame.

Short on ammo

Aaron Jones is dangerous at running back, and arguably one of the five best in the league this season, but Green Bay couldn’t get the ground game going against Seattle. Jones had a 23-yard run on the first play from scrimmage against Seattle. He finished the game with 62 yards on 21 carries. Jones doesn’t possess the speed of Cook, but he’s more agile and has better contact balance, which is a deadlier combo that pure speed. Wrapping him up and bringing Jones down has proven to be difficult for every team. The numbers say this is an advantage for Green Bay on the ground. Their offensive line is sixth in adjusted line yards—a stat that calculates how many yards the line creates for the running back on average—with 4.63. San Francisco is near the bottom of the league in the rushing success rate, allowing 49% of runs to be successful.

This was a similar story leading up to the Vikings game. While Kyle Shanahan exposes your weakness, Robert Saleh does a fantastic job of minimizing his with slight adjustments to the defensive front, depending on what the offense wants to do. One play Sheldon Day would be head up on the center, which keeps Fred Warner clean at linebacker and ensures DeForest Buckner is 1-on-1. Other times you’d see both tackles in the A-gap, and the entire line would slant a direction. The other reason the 49ers shut down Dalvin Cook? They have really good players. You name him, he won. There were a handful of plays that look like the one below:

The “pass rush specialist” Ford beats the tight end and forces a cutback. Day beats his man, and, in turn, forces the fullback to block him instead of Greenlaw. Kwon Alexander and Nick Bosa trigger from the backside of the formation and meet Cook at the line of scrimmage for a gain of nothing. This play sums up the Vikings game. Domination. I’m telling you this as a guy who loves numbers; these stats don’t do justice to paint the picture of how vital Ford and Alexander are to this defense. No team in the NFL can sub out a stud edge rusher for another stud edge rusher. Speed, depth, smarts, and skill make this a uniquely effective defense.

The top play-caller add to their playbook as the season goes on. That’s what LaFleur did last week. RPO’s and Tyler Ervin helped Green Bay. Ervin is a shifty ball-carrier. They use him on reverses, jet sweeps, and I’d put good money that the Packers will use him in some sort of screen scenario. If we’re talking about the pecking order of threats, Ervin is third, in my opinion. The 49ers need to know when 32 is on the field and in the slot to be alert, especially for something coming back to the other side of the field.

The Packers don’t have a consistent threat outside of Devante Adams on the perimeter. Adams said the Packers would have a better way to attack the 49ers this time. What is he supposed to say? “We liked our game-plan last time despite barely reaching 100 yards passing, and we’re going to stick with it and expect different results.” The touchdown Adams scored against Seattle was a fantastic design to manipulate man coverage. That could be a preview of what we see Sunday.

X marks the spot

San Francisco had a few wrinkles of their own on defense in Week 12. We saw more “dime” looks than we have all season. Tarvarius Moore played dime linebacker occasionally, and deep safety other times. The 49ers played man coverage on third down and dared the Packers to win 1-on-1. Jimmie Ward matched up against Jimmy Graham, Moore, against Jones out of the backfield, which left Warner free to roam the middle. On the outside, Emmanuel Moseley was superb. The Packers tested him deep on Adams to no avail. Moseley finished the game giving up 20 yards on five targets. You’ve probably read that the Packers may test Richard Sherman deep with their speedy wideout Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Just because you have a speed advantage does not mean you can run by somebody. Green Bay tried it once in Week 12, Sherman locked MVS down, and the Packers never came back to it. Targeting Sherman is generally a bad idea. It sounds great in theory, but he uses the sideline as well as anyone in the league. Deep routes aren’t how you attack this team.

On third downs, the 49ers did play Cover-1 but disguised it beautifully. On the play below, Rodgers likely thinks he has what’s called “two-man coverage,” meaning the five players underneath are in man, with two deep safeties over the top. At the snap, Ward rotates down to “rob” any in-breaking routes. It’s smart to have the “robber” drift towards Adams.

We saw this technique against the Rams early in the season, with Ward flying down in the box and disrupting routes. “Cover 1 jump,” where the deep safety comes down and jumps on any crossing route. It’s a nice counter to a team that thinks they’ll have the advantage on short crossers in man coverage. What looked like an easy first down conversion turned into 4th & inches, where Jones and Buckner both made a stop to force a turnover on downs.

If linebacker Blake Martinez and cornerback Kevin King for Green Bay will be the marks for Shanahan, right guard Billy Turner is the same on the other side of the ball. ESPN rolled out a pass-block win rate stat earlier this season. The Packers were first as a team, winning 72% of the time. For a while, Turner was a leader individually. That tells you all you need to know about the stat if you’re familiar with players in the league. If you’re not, they also have a pass-rush win rate stat. There wasn’t a single 49ers player in the top-10 for edge rushers or defensive tackles, and as a team, they finished 13th. So San Francisco finished second in pressure rate, but 13th in pass rush win rate? Sure. It’s defined as a lineman that holds their block for 2.5 seconds is calculated as a win. It ignores the important aspects of hand placement, and, most importantly, stunts. That’s where Turner struggles, and that’s been the case all season. Watch 77 below:

If you told Turner a looper was coming, he still may not be able to pick him up. That was on display again last weekend.

If you never make contact with who you’re responsible for, it shows up as a win. You can watch five plays of Green Bay’s offense and see who is accountable for Rodgers continually having to flee from the pocket. This Sunday, that’s Armstead, Bosa, Buckner, and Ford. The offensive tackles are quite good. The guards are not.

Good luck.