The 49ers survived their Super Wild Card scare by the Dallas Cowboys, and now they are preparing for the #1 seeded Green Bay Packers. Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan is gearing up for his fifth matchup against his former assistant and Packers head coach Matt LaFleur.
Let's look at four reasons San Francisco can beat the Packers at Lambeau Field Saturday.
I have been extremely harsh on Shanahan, but it stems from former 49er head coach Jim Harbaugh's success. Harbaugh was able to win immediately and always seemed a step away from the Super Bowl. Shanahan hasn't had the easiest route to winning during his 49er tenure, but he is to blame for some of it.
1. Shanahan’s play-calling > LaFleur’s
On the other hand, LaFleur was gifted with a generational quarterback, top-five wide receiver, dynamic running back, and solid offensive line. But LaFleur deserves credit—he has gotten to the NFC Championship in the first two seasons as Green Bay’s coach and has won 13 games there years in a row.
LaFleur and Shanahan are tied for the same amount of regular-season wins with 39 despite LaFleur coaching 32 fewer games. The reports of tension between LaFleur and Shanahan due to the 49ers’ offseason interest in Aaron Rodgers were buried by Shanahan in Tuesday’s press conference.
This game is personal for Shanahan and the 49ers. San Francisco is 0-2 against the Packers after sweeping them in 2019. I’d expect the offense to look much sharper with better play from Jimmy Garoppolo. When the run is established, the 49ers cannot be stopped by anyone, and Garoppolo is making the necessary throws.
2. Kittle is due for a monster game
George Kittle is undoubtedly important to San Francisco’s rushing attack, but he is a dynamic pass catcher. Garoppolo oddly doesn't get him involved enough on offense, and they seem to be pretty close off the field. Kittle broke history when he became the first tight end to record back-to-back games of at least 150 receiving yards and a touchdown in Weeks 13 and 14.
Quirky 49ers stat: After another quiet receiving day from George Kittle, the 49ers have now gone four consecutive games without a tight end recording at least 30 yards receiving for the first time since Weeks 3-6 in 2015, when Vernon Davis missed two games with an injury.— Marc Delucchi (@maddelucchi) January 17, 2022
Marc beat me to saying Kittle was due for a big game, and he’s right. Kittle is too great of a talent not to be consistently involved in the passing offense. I expect Kittle to have at least 75 receiving yards to help this 49er offense secure a win. I’m tired of arguing why Kittle is better than Mark Andrews—throw him the ball and let him work.
3. The defense is in a different phase from Week 3
I’ve been clamoring that DeMeco Ryans has continued to get everything he can out of this defense, but he continues to get more. Ryans’ defense limited Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott to 31 rushing yards on 12 targets. The defense has been playing at an elite level since Week 10.
San Francisco’s defense is anchored by D.J. Jones and Arik Armstead, who are both top-three in Run Stop Win Rate as a defensive tackle. Green Bay has 90+ rushing yards in all but two games this season, and neither of those includes the Week 3 matchup.
The 49ers are 8-0 when they have held opponents to 86 rushing yards or less.
I’d say it’s pretty important to stop Green Bay’s rushing attack to better their chances of winning.
The 49ers held Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott to negative EPA per play (-0.24), total EPA (-13.2), and Completion percentage over expectation (-9.5). Most importantly, Ryans’ defense stood tall on passes of 15+ yards. Prescott went 3/10 on passes of 15+ yards which was great as the 49ers ranked last in DVOA of passes of 16+ air yards entering last week's matchup.
Limiting Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers won’t be easy but keeping his explosive plays to a minimum is a must. His connection with Davantae Adams has been off the charts dating back to 2016. The secondary’s progress of defending the deep ball can take a dramatic increase if they limit Adams.
4. San Francisco’s offense should dominate in the trenches
Shanahan’s rushing attack worried me early in the season as he turned to rookie Elijah Mitchell and made him the lone workhorse back. I’m used to Shanahan having a committee of running backs, but Deebo Samuel has provided an extra spunk when he has been handed the ball.
Tom Compton has the highest Run Block Win Rate as a tackle, and Trent Williams is top ten in Pass Block Win Rate as a Tackle. San Francisco did not allow a sack last week, and keeping Garoppolo clean again will help him keep his composure.
The Niners were unable to get the run going in Week 3’s matchup, but they've been hard to stop on the ground as of late. I think Shanahan’s rushing attack will be the difference-maker in Saturday’s game. Mitchell and Samuel have been running behind an offensive line that means business, and Green Bay should watch out.