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What to expect in tonight’s 49ers/Packers game: Will the pass rush come alive for the Niners?

Which version of Nick Mullens will we see?

NFC Championship - Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers are at home Thursday night against the 5-2 Green Bay Packers. On Sunday night, the 49ers were three-point underdogs. That was when the line first opened up. Then it was announced that starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and star tight end George Kittle would likely miss the remainder of the season. That probably moved this line more than anything. I’d guess around three points.

Then, Kendrick Bourne, Brandon Aiyuk, and Trent Williams were ruled out for Thursday night’s game. That left the Niners with a group of practice squad receivers, which is how we got to the Packers being 7-point favorites. That, and going from Williams to Justin Skule, is a steep drop-off. How competitive will the 49ers be against the Packers? It depends on which Nick Mullens we see.

If it’s the Mullens from Week 3 that was on the same page with Jordan Reed and getting rid of the ball in time, the 49ers will keep this game close. If it’s the Mullens from Week 4 that threw two of the worst interceptions imaginable and was flustered time and time again with pressure, this game could be ugly. The offensive line should play a significant part in what happens, especially considering Skule and Hroniss Grasu will start.

Key stats to know

The good news for San Francisco is that Green Bay ranks second to last in the NFL in pressure percentage and is third-worse in QB knockdown percentage. The Packers are seventh in adjusted sack rate, so when they do get pressure, they bring the quarterback down. How should we expect Kyle Shanahan to attack this defense? Well, it’s impossible to get a good feel, considering the starting roster will resemble a preseason team.

You don’t want to rely on the run too much and put your backup QB and replacement receivers in third and long situations. JaMycal Hasty is more of a change of pace runner, it appears, and Jerick McKinnon has 12 total carries in the past three games. Ideally, you could create easy throws for your quarterback on slants, curls, or screens. We saw how Shanahan’s “pinball screen” to Taylor worked out last week against Seattle. James Jr. is the lone wideout with NFL experience that you’d trust giving the ball to on a screen.

Needless to say, Kyle will have his work cut out for him.

Green Bay’s offense could be without their starting offensive tackle, and they don’t have a running back who will suit up that you’ve heard of. They do have that Aaron Rodgers guy and Devante Adams, who is arguably one of the best receivers in the NFL. That combo has been among the best in the league this season when they’ve been on the field together.

Rodgers is fourth in the NFL in EPA per play, seventh in success rate, and second in both QBR and DVOA. Rodgers is playing as well as his 20/2 TD/INT ratio would suggest. Adams has caught 74% of his passes for 502 yards and seven touchdowns. Green Bay does a nice job of moving him around, so it won’t be on one cornerback tonight to keep Adams in check. Kittle’s workout partner Robert Tonyan is first in DVOA among tight ends and has 418 yards and five touchdowns while catching 85% of his passes. The Niners must stop these two.

Rodgers has only been sacked nine times on the season. Green Bay is third in the NFL in adjusted sack rate. The Niners are not. The pass rush has been a struggle this season. San Francisco is 24th in adjusted sack rate. Surprisingly, the defense is sixth in pressure rate, but Russell Wilson showed how effective “pressures” are last week. It’s all about hitting the QB, and the 49ers haven’t done a good job of that this season. They’re 14th in QB knockdown percentage.

If this game is going to be close, it’s because Mullens kept the offense on schedule, and the pass rush rose from the grave.