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Is the 49ers’ evolution since Week 3 enough to beat the Packers?

Can the 49ers dethrone the No. 1 seed in Green Bay this weekend?

Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Sitting at 2-0, the 49ers hosted the Packers in their first home game with fans since the 2019 NFC Championship game. The 49ers paid homage to the 1994 team by donning the red throwback uniforms for the first time. It was a nationally televised game on Sunday Night Football.

The table was set for the 49ers, but they came out flat, fell behind 17-0, and their comeback fell short, as Aaron Rodgers and the Packers drove the field for a game-winning field goal in 37 seconds.

If you’re a Packers fan, your natural inclination is to use that Packers’ win as evidence for why they will repeat that performance on Saturday. If you’re a 49ers fan, you’re hoping the outcome will be different during this weekend’s NFC Divisional battle.

But how much have the 49ers evolved since that Week 3 loss, and are those differences between the teams enough for San Francisco to advance to the NFC Championship game?

The development of the 49ers’ pass rush and their improved run defense

In Week 3, the 49ers generated seven pressures against Aaron Rodgers and only sacked the Packers’ signal-caller once. In the last two weeks, San Francisco’s defense has generated 27 pressures and sacked the opposing quarterback 10 times.

Arden Key played three snaps as an edge rusher in that first matchup, whereas now Key is rushing from the inside as an extremely valuable piece on this defensive line.

Samson Ebukam has really developed into a capable rusher off the edge, which simply wasn’t the case early in the season as he was still adapting to the role. Arik Armstead played 27 snaps at defensive end in Week 3. Since Week 9, he’s exclusively moved inside as a 3T and been dominating. He finished with a season-high six pressures last week vs. Cowboys.

San Francisco’s run defense hasn’t been emphasized enough, but since Week 10, they have been the best in the NFL. Their rushing defense is No. 1 in the following categories: DVOA, EPA per play, Success Rate, and Explosive Runs allowed.

They’ll face a strong rushing attack, as the Packers are No. 1 in rushing success rate on offense. Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon will be a load to tackle in the freezing temperatures of Wisconsin, but the 49ers’ improved defense should be up to the task.

Kyle Shanahan’s mid-season discovery of 49ers’ offensive identity

The 49ers were a highly-efficient offense all season long, but they really discovered their offensive identity mid-season in Chicago. Early in the year, it felt like Shanahan was struggling to find a rhythm as a play-caller, balancing Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance.

Halfway through 2021, Shanahan punted the Trey Lance package into the sun, moved Deebo Samuel into his “wide-back” position, emphasized a run-heavy attack with Elijah Mitchell at the forefront.

Since Week 10, the 49ers’ offense has taken off to a whole another level. Their offense is second in passing DVOA and sixth in rushing DVOA. The 49ers’ offense also has the highest rate of explosive passing plays during this span as well. Shanahan’s bunch is also fourth in EPA per play and sixth in success rate. All of the advanced metrics show that the 49ers have assembled a Top-5 offense (based on efficiency) ahead of the Packers’ matchup.

Samuel has come into his own as a true running back, Jauan Jennings has developed into a legitimate third-down threat, and Brandon Aiyuk has become the 49ers’ best route runner. Not to mention George Kittle’s duality as a receiving or blocking tight end depending on the matchup.

Green Bay’s abysmal run defense

It doesn’t make sense given their personnel, but all the advanced numbers show that the Packers’ run defense is one of the worst units in football.

Since Week 10, the Packers’ rushing defense is 27th in DVOA, 27th in EPA per play, 32nd in Success Rate, and 32nd in Explosive Run Plays allowed. They get gashed between every gap and haven’t been able to contain opposing running backs.

The Browns provided the blueprint for how to attack this Packers’ rushing defense, gashing them for 219 yards on 25 carries (8.8 yards per attempt). That’s similar to Raheem Mostert’s box score from the 2019 NFC Title game.

It’s clear how the 49ers are going to attack; it’s just a matter of winning in the trenches and dominating the blocks up front for San Francisco. If they can control the line of scrimmage, they’ll have success running the ball against this Green Bay front.

San Francisco’s dominance in the Red Zone

It was pretty clear early on in the season that the 49ers’ red-zone offense was dramatically improved this season. It’s been an area of struggle the last few seasons under Kyle Shanahan for whatever reason. Between George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and the emergence of Jauan Jennings, the 49ers have some legitimate red-zone threats that should keep defensive coordinators awake at night.

Shanahan’s red-zone offense ranks No. 1 in the NFL this season at 67 percent, while the Packers’ red-zone defense ranks No. 28. I think it’s a significant advantage because every time the 49ers get into the red area, they’ll look to punch it in for six. They’ve had success all year long doing it, and it seems like the Packers’ defense has struggled to stop opponents.

Will this be a George Kittle game?

There was a three-week stretch where George Kittle reminded everyone in the National Football League who the most dominant tight end was. He had back-to-back games of at least 150 receiving yards, with three touchdowns, followed up by a 93-yard performance.

Kittle’s dominance in the run game as a blocker is widely known, but he’s been a force as a receiving threat whenever the 49ers have needed it — especially on the road.

The Packers have struggled to cover tight ends all season long. They’re 28th in DVOA when covering opposing tight ends. Kittle caught seven passes for 93 yards in the first meeting this season and has generally had a ton of success against the Packers.

I’d expect Kittle to be a major factor over the middle in this game, especially as a big, easy target for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

Prediction: Green Bay 31, San Francisco 27

I think the 49ers are the toughest matchup for anyone in the NFL right now. They play a brand of football that travels anywhere and is uncommon in this day and age. San Francisco’s physical rushing defense and pass rush should wreak more havoc than it did in Week 3. Their rushing attack should have success against the Packers’ front and be able to control this game.

The biggest questions to me heading into a game are the same as always:

  1. Can Jimmy Garoppolo protect the ball and not turn it over? The 49ers are 7-0 when he doesn’t throw an interception this season.
  2. Can the 49ers’ special teams avoid a disaster? They allowed a fake punt, had a costly roughing the punter penalty, and also allowed a long kickoff return that sparked a Cowboys’ touchdown drive.
  3. Can San Francisco’s secondary limit explosive passing plays?

It’s been the same questions with this team all year long. They’ve generally been able to manage it in wins, and when they have lost, it’s typically been because of one of these three things.

I think they match up very well with the Packers, and I can see them winning this game and advancing to the NFC Championship game. However, at the same time, I don’t trust the 49ers’ offense (especially their quarterback) to put together four quarters of high-level football on the road, and that’s the difference in this game.