The 49ers lost a tough one on Sunday night in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter when Aaron Rodgers completed two passes down the middle to get the Packers in position to let Mason Crosby kick the game-winning field goal.
It was a microcosm of the entire night, a night that featured two head coaches seemingly in tension with one another as the story unfolded over the weekend before the game about the awkwardness surrounding a Rodgers trade rumor that would’ve sent him to San Francisco.
The national broadcast never mentioned the details of this controversy, but the body language of the two coaches, or at least Matt LaFleur, suggested otherwise. The storyline of the tension between the once former colleagues overshadowed the stellar performance of the Packers defense led by defensive coordinator Joe Barry.
LaFleur’s offense can be expected to go into any game with Aaron Rodgers and steal the show due to the high-powered explosive nature of the talent it possesses. But Barry’s defensive unit was its offense’s equal and limited the 49ers to less than 70 yards of rushing offense. The 49ers have not looked that inefficient running the ball in quite some time.
Packers gap-and-a-half defensive line technique
Barry employs similar tactics that he picked up from coaching under Brandon Staley with the Rams in 2020. Staley is off the Vic Fangio tree and uses a more 3-4 cover-2 style defense is something that Barry has been installing since the spring.
The technique employed by the defensive front, known as “gap-and-a-half,” allows the defense in the second and third level to overlap in run fit assignments and 2-high coverage shells and use corners and safeties to fit the run from depth and limit gains.
In the first quarter, we see two good examples of the blocking surface and the overlap that Staley’s influence on Barry’s defense creates.
First play, 1st quarter, 8:59, 1st and ten at SF 37
After moving the ball for a first down on their first drive, the 49ers come out in 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end) and run a wide zone toss (Toss 18 Force) to the right. The Packers defense is aligned in a 2-high cover-6 shell with quarters into the boundary and cover-2 to the field.
The defensive front is in a 3-0-3 bear front, taking away the inside run with linebackers expanded to the edges, and the secondary walked back. This front has traditionally given the 49ers trouble in the past against Staley and Fangio-based schemes and forces the offense to move laterally until there is no space.
Preston Smith (#91) is the edge defender playing the gap and a half technique on receiver Deebo Samuel (No. 19). Behind him is corner Jaire Alexander (No. 23), the force defender outside of Smith should any run get to the near edge. Therefore, Smith can play the gap and a half on Deebo in the scenario.
You can see Smith press Deebo’s outside shoulder while his head is inside the D gap while moving laterally with the play. He sheds Deebo and works inside the D gap, defeating Deebo’s fullback Kyle Juszczyk’s block to make the tackle. Behind Smith, Alexander, and safety Adrian Amos are there to fit the run in case the running back is spilled.
Smith’s technique is meant to keep some defenders clean. In this case, on an outside run, the corner and safety are there to clean up.
Second play, 1st quarter, 3:19, 1st and 10 at SF 25
The 49ers come out in the same personnel grouping as above, 21 personnel, and run a sweep to the right with Deebo out of their “Deadpool” package. “Deadpool” is a series of runs and push passes in the 49ers offense designed specifically for Deebo to take on a sweep or fly while the rest of the offense blocks the play like “18/19 Zorro” (on “Zorro,” the fullback blocks the first defender inside the tight end, on “Force,” the fullback blocks the first force defender outside the tight end).
The Packers are aligned in quarters coverage this time, but it does not really change the responsibility of the edge defenders. Smith is still the edge setter with Alexander behind him. They’re in the same 3-0-3 front as the play above, with the linebackers, walked out again.
At the snap, Smith engages tight end George Kittle and the fullback Juszczyk as he moves laterally with the ball carrier. The rest of the defensive front is moving laterally and not penetrating so as not to create any cutback lanes for the ball carrier. Smith again plays gap and a half and controls Kittles outside shoulder with his outside arm.
Smith then gets his head inside the blockers and flashes in the gap, getting Deebo to bounce outside. This time, Krys Barnes (No. 51) and Alexander are there to make the stop since they were able to replace Smith on the edge.
The Packers continued to give the 49ers running game fits while basing out of 2-high coverage shells due in large part to the defensive line, a worthy performance for a unit missing Za’Darius Smith.
Kenny Clark, Preston Smith, and Rashan Gary were in the backfield all night, making life difficult for the 49ers’ offensive line.
Packers red zone offense takes advantage of thin 49ers secondary
In the first quarter, the Packers called a spot-flat run-pass option concept where receiver Davante Adams motions in then reverses course back out to the flat.
Rodgers executes a play fake that draws the defenders up as Adams cuts out to the goal line. He catches the pass for six. The 49ers are man coverage with Josh Norman (No. 26) over Adams and Deommodore Lenoir (No. 38) over Alan Lazard (No. 13) in the slot.
Adams’s motion in forces Norman to bounce over Lazard and Lenoir to travel with Adams. Lenoir keeps running with the motion at the snap while Adams breaks back out underneath the natural pick that Lazard’s spot route creates.
Another red zone touchdown in the fourth quarter was set up in a week two Packers game versus the Lions that I covered at length for Packers SB Nation blog Acme Packing Company.
In that play, Rodgers found Robert Tonyan for a touchdown down the seam when the safety shaded too far to the boundary. Normally, Tonyan would break outside on the corner route, but he correctly read the safety’s leverage and traveled up the seam with Rodgers on the same page.
On Sunday night, they came right back to the play, but this time Marquez Valdes-Scantling (No. 83) ran the corner route from the #3 slot instead of the tight end. Again, the play call has the #1 and #2 receivers running underneath shallow routes.
The #2 receiver in the formation will break off and angle up toward the end zone. Last week against the Lions, the #2, Lazard, was also open on this route. The #3, Valdes-Scantling, runs the corner with the safety closing off the middle of the field.
The 49ers are in cover-3 inside the red zone, a risky defensive play call in compressed space. Lenoir is the corner over the #1 receiver in trips, and as soon as Tonyan breaks inside, Lenoir should be zoning off and gaining depth in the end zone and looking for a receiver with no threat from #1.
Lenoir got caught looking inside and didn’t sink back under the corner route in time. Rodgers placed a perfect pass over Lenoir’s outstretched arm for six.
49ers interior struggles against Packers interior defenders
Packers Kenny Clark (No. 97) has no sacks through three games for the Packers, but he didn’t need to record any. Instead, he gave Alex Mack and Daniel Brunskill all they could handle for four quarters, and it was enough to force Garoppolo into sacks and hurried throws. Clark recorded six on Sunday night per Pro Football Focus. The Packers recorded their first five sacks of the season against the 49ers.
He and the rest of the defensive line were equally effective in run defense as well, spilling the ball carrier out to the edges of the defense.
The 49ers’ lack of a running game cannot be blamed on a lack of running back depth. Instead, the running lanes simply were not there due to the inability of the 49ers interior to deal with the Packers' defensive fronts.
Rodgers makes 49ers coverage defense pay with quick well placed throws
Demeco Ryans received a lot of criticism for being unable to slow down Aaron Rodgers, and the Packers offense, a criticism that I think is misplaced and underserved, especially against future hall of fame quarterback who made adjustments to beat the 49ers pass rush with quick timing and precise throws.
Depending on whose charting you look at, Rodgers’ average time to throw was anywhere between 2.09 (Pro Football Focus) and 2.38 seconds (NFL NextGenStats).
The Packers have a somewhat unique vertical game, not the concepts themselves, but where they like to line up their personnel. For example, one of their favorite concepts is the “double go (middle read)” or “989” concept where the receivers on the outside run go routes and the slot or tight end inside runs a post or dig route where he “reads” the coverage in front of him and runs a post against 2-high safeties or a dig against single-high safety.
The Packers are running double go but from the slot receivers out of a 3x2 empty formation on their first third down. Adams is lined up on the two receiver side with Tartt in press coverage and rookie safety Talonoa Hufanga shaded to that side.
The three-receiver side has Tonyan as the inside slot (No. 85) and Alan Lazard as the number two middle slot. The number one receivers on both sides are running quick hitches, Adams and Lazard are running slot fades, and Tonyan is running the middle read route.
Rodgers sees in the pre-snap assessment that Hufanga and Tartt have removed Adams from the play. Rodgers drops back and throws in about 1.8 seconds from snap to throw deep down the field to the slot fade to Lazard being covered by K’Waun Williams.
Also, notice Nick Bosa? He wins inside on this rep inside but is rendered ineffective as soon as Rodgers releases the pass.
Rodgers hit two more of these quick fade passes down the sideline to Adams later in the game, and the coverage was near perfect. On the first pass with Lenoir in coverage, he maybe could’ve been tried to recover closer to Adams and used the sideline to force a tougher throw, though that completion is as tough as it gets, and not many quarterbacks make it.
On the second throw, Dontae Johnson was in a better position than Lenoir to play the pass, but that also didn’t matter as Rodgers threw Adams open on the sideline away from Johnson. There isn’t much the defender can do in that case.
I timed both throws from snap to throw in about 1.7 seconds in the two clips above, and I was about a half-second behind the release of the ball in stopping the clock, so it was probably faster than 1.7, more like 1.5. That’s not enough time to affect anything. He’s that good.
Garoppolo, Lance, and quarterback watch 2020
The calls are starting to grow louder for Shanahan to make a quarterback decision on making Trey Lance the starter. However, I thought Garoppolo played well despite some misfires and missed reads.
He certainly didn’t play as bad as the weekly online chorus suggested. He struggled in the first half with some bad throws and an interception that would’ve likely landed incomplete as an overthrow had Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander not raced from right field to center field to intercept it as the ball hung in the air.
This is the defense you call when you want to stop the triple option and there's no threat of pass. pic.twitter.com/Jhaca0Mmov— Rich (@richjmadrid) September 27, 2021
While there were issues with the offensive line in the run game, the Packers defense was also aligning their safeties 10 yards from the line of scrimmage as is generally the case in quarters defense so the safeties can fit the run. As a result, the 49ers' offense did not score their first points until the first half's final play.
On that drive, Garoppolo and the offense marched downfield to score but spent six plays inside the six-yard line trying to do so. I said last week that he could not continue to miss reads and have misfires. He had an open touchdown to Aiyuk on a pass in this series that was both a misfire and missed read.
The play call is “Lookie Squirrel” with Aiyuk in the left slot running the “slant til you can’t” lookie slant route, meaning he should cross the face of the defender if at all possible unless the defender jumps too far inside.
The Packers defender has shaded outside leverage over Aiyuk. Garoppolo should know Aiyuk is going to cut inside, but he never recognizes the leverage and throws it like Aiyuk is going to cut outside. Two plays later, Aiyuk dropped a nicely placed pass that was in his hands over the defender from Garoppolo.
On the half’s final play, Shanahan sent Lance into the game to run a quarterback sweep to the short side of the field for the 49ers’ first touchdown.
Later in the game, we see our first receiver caught on camera showing visible signs of frustration that he was not thrown the ball but was wide open on another missed read by Garoppolo.
On play-action dagger, Deebo is the outside receiver in the two-receiver stack running the dagger route. As he breaks inside, he comes open around the hook/seam defender as Garoppolo stares him down.
Garoppolo has about four seconds to process this but ultimately decides to check it down. He would’ve needed to throw with some anticipation, and that is not something he is not comfortable with.
Overall, Garoppolo bounced back in the second half with some nice throws to lead the offense down the field to score points, including some third-down conversion throws and one that went for a touchdown.
This was a crucial NFC loss for the 49ers and one that will likely have playoff implications for both teams as the 49ers ended up on the wrong side of the final result. The team as a whole lost a close one that really took the air out of their sails and a 2-0 start to the season. The questions will only continue to grow as the 49ers struggle to find adequate coverage and enough offense to carry the defense.
Seattle comes to town this weekend and is looking to avoid a 1-3 start. The 49ers with Garoppolo have also never lost back-to-back games. Unfortunately, he isn’t playing well enough to carry the team through a rough patch even with adequate play. Hopefully, we’re going to learn a lot about this team before the bye week, more positive than negative.