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How the 49ers defense shut down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers

It was a historic performance from the Niners defense considering the situation and the offense they played

NFC Divisional Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

It’s still somewhat surreal to think the 49ers limited a hall of fame quarterback who was the No. 1 seed with the best receiver in the world at home to one touchdown.

I can throw all of the numbers at you, but they won’t tell you how the Niners' defense shut down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. When you don’t score offensively, you better be dominant in the other two phases of the game. San Francisco was, and here’s how they were on defense.

Funneling through Fred

DeMeco Ryans came into this game with two ideas: Davante Adams isn’t going to beat me, and if you want to run the ball, you’re going to have to get by Fred Warner.

Ryans created 1-on-1’s for Warner in the running game and made the angles for the incoming offensive line difficult to get to Warner in time. PFF’s Seth Galina explains the different techniques from the defensive line below, which aided Warner:

One false step by an offensive lineman is all it takes for an athlete like Warner to make them pay. Time after time, Warner did just that:

When you have interior defensive linemen the caliber of D.J. Jones and Arik Armstead, you know they’re going to get enough of the person attempting to block them. Both players win so often that you’d be foolish to block them 1-on-1.

Ryans knew, especially once A.J. Dillion went out, Green Bay would run more zone than any downhill type of runs like “duo” or “power.” Warner was aggressive all night against the run, and the Packers had no chance of slowing him down.

Armstead was outstanding, but Warner was the best player on the field Saturday night.

Doubling Davante

Ryans didn’t tip his hand on the first drive. He let his guys guard Adams 1-on-1, and the star wideout made the 49ers pay. After one drive, Adams had seen enough. On obvious passing downs, the defense sent double teams Adams’ way.

I counted four “true” double teams, but there were a handful of other plays where whoever was guarding Adams had help. Here’s a look at those four plays:

On fourth down last week, Ryans was revered for an all-out blitz against the Cowboys. However, the final clip above, where Rodgers forces a ball deep into double coverage, is more ballsy, in my opinion.

Throughout the game, Rodgers showed that he didn’t trust anyone other than Adams. You can see that there are wideouts running open. Ryans rolled the dice that Rodgers would lock onto Adams, and he was correct.

Talanoa Hufanga was in for Dre Greenlaw on the play. He rotated from the depth of a linebacker out to double Adams. After seeing two safeties blitz, Rodgers assumes he has 1-on-1 coverage on the outside. As you can see, it was anything but.

That’s only a few plays, but they had Rodgers guessing wrong all game, and that’s a big reason why he was sacked five times and flustered on several other dropbacks.

Secondary steps up

During the past three games, the run support from the secondary has been incredible. The new wave of the NFL is to use your wide receivers as blockers in the box. The idea is that you can seal off a linebacker or safety in hopes of getting your ball-carrier 1-on-1 with a cornerback.

Since Emmanuel Moseley has returned to the lineup, the Niners run defense has gone from “great” to “as good as it gets.” Moseley is fearless and a force. Jaquiski Tartt beat several blocks to make tackles or allowed his teammates to make tackles near the line of scrimmage. Both he and Jimmie Ward continue to do the dirty work in the box.

I want to shout out Dontae Johnson, though. The first drive was ugly. Johnson gave up multiple receptions, missed a tackle, and it seemed as though he was in for a long night. He settled down after that. As he has during the past three weeks when called upon, Johnson has been phenomenal against the run.

It’s not going to be flashy or get you highlights, but the Packers were living in second and third and long situations. That allows the best position group on your team to tee off. That doesn’t happen without the support of the secondary in the running game.

Also, Johnson was alarmingly good in coverage as the game went on. There is no better example than this route below, where the Packers used max-protection trying to get Adams 1-on-1 on a “blaze” out route to the bottom of the screen:

Johnson wasn’t having it.

When your role players step up in big moments, you win. It happened with the Rams and their safety, and Johnson and Josh Norman came through for the 49ers' defense.

In the video below, I walk through some of the different techniques the 49ers used, how they doubled Adams, and how they kept the Packers out of the end zone after the first drive:

This was a historic performance considering the situation. That feels like a hyperbolic statement or being a prisoner of the moment, but there aren’t examples of quarterbacks of Rodgers’ caliber performing like this.

DeMeco Ryans was one step ahead after the first drive every step of the way. He made Rodgers look like a novice, which is why I say the Niners were historic on Saturday.