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Why the 49ers-Packers game will be decided on the ground and not through the air

Breaking down what we can expect to see when each team runs the ball, from the personnel to what their strengths are

San Francisco 49ers v Washington Commanders Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

For as much Love as the Green Bay Packers quarterback has received during the second half of the season, it’s been running back Aaron Jones who completed that offense. Jones has rushed for at least 111 yards in the past four games.

The first thing San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks mentioned at the podium on Wednesday afternoon was Green Bay’s running game: “I think their run game is probably top-notch right now in how they’re performing, moving the ball down the field. The offensive line controlling the line of scrimmage in so many different ways. Jones and [AJ] Dillion, they’re running the ball at a high level.”

How do you take a quarterback out of rhythm? According to Wilks, it’s by making him one-dimensional:

“Well, I think the number one thing is we have to try to stop this run to try to make them one-dimensional. They’re very effective running a ball. I think it just opens up the play action. That’s where you see him being extremely effective in taking the shots down the field and finding an open receiver. So, that’s number one.”

The Packers have built their offensive line similar to the 49ers. They have two second-round starters but three players drafted on Day 3. ACME Packing Co.’s Justis Mosqueda and I only talked about the trenches when previewing this game, and he said right tackle Zach Tom is the one lineman on the Packers whom he has the most confidence in:

“Elgton Jenkins, the left guard, is probably the biggest name on the offensive line. But he’s been dealing with a knee injury this year. The guy who has had the best year this year is probably Zach Tom, the right tackle.

Tom just pitched a perfect game against the Dallas Cowboys. Micah Parsons had a five percent pressure rate, and his one pressure came on an unblocked pressure.

The Packers do a pretty good job of handling guys on the edges. They have a pretty good plan of having chip help, or having a running back stay in and block.”

Tom slipped in the NFL Draft because of measurables. Talent was never an issue, and the fourth-rounder in 2022 has proven that whenever he’s stepped on the field. Ask Dallas Cowboys All-Pro Micah Parsons, as Justis alluded to:

This ain’t that

Tom and the Packers’ line will go up against the No. 2 overall pick in 2019 and 2020, the No. 17th overall pick in 2015, and Javon Hargrave, who would have been closer to the 26th pick in the first round than the third round had he gone to South Carolina and not South Carolina State. Hargrave was at the Senior Bowl doing backflips in his pads at 300+ pounds.

Best of all, the 49ers enter this game rested. The last time the defensive line had rest coming into a contest was in Week 10 off the bye, and Nick Bosa, Hargrave, and Chase Young each had four pressures against the Jaguars.

Matt LaFleur will do everything in his power to keep the 49ers offense off the field. That means leaning on Jones and running into the strength of the Niners defense. The initial thought for an offense that’s been as effective as the Packers is that they play fast. But it’s the opposite for Green Bay.

During the regular season, only three teams took longer to snap the ball in between plays than the Packers in the first half. They were 21st all game. LaFleur is going to take the air out of the ball. Green Bay has possessed the ball the second-longest per possession during the second half of the season, thanks to an effective running game and a healthy Jones.

Justis highlighted something new the Packers did against the Cowboys:

“The Packers were under center 60 percent of the plays. That was the highest rate of any game in the NFL. The Packers game plan was definitely ball control, we want to give the threat of the run game every play.

I do think the Packers are going to want to do some ball control stuff. They’re going to want to keep that defensive line on the field. Try and wear them down. And definitely make it a little easier on their quarterback.”

San Francisco’s rush defense finished the season 15th in DVOA, but they sttruggled down the stretch without Armstead. The Niners were bottom-10 in rushing success rate and EPA per play allowed after their bye week.

If we point to the 49ers’ worst performances during the season on the ground, it can be attributed to missed tackles. The Browns and Bengals games came at the end of the first half when it was evident that the defense was out of gas. Week 15 against the Cardinals, the 49ers allowed 230 rushing yards. But this happened after sixth straight games against playoff hopeful teams.

Jones forced four missed tackles on 21 attempts last week, and had two rushes of at least 15 yards. Nine of his carries went for first downs. Wilks is spot on when he says you must make the Packers one-dimensional. We’ll get to what he really means in a bit.

Green Bay won’t have the luxury of going against a linebacker who weighs 200 pounds as they did a week ago. Dallas lived in a dime defense with extra defensive backs on the field, which aided the Packers ground game. Steve Wilks did not run a single snap of dime during the regular season.

LaFleur is from the Kyle Shanahan coaching tree, but he’s adapted and innovated his running game much like Kyle has through the years. Inside zone is the Packers staple run. They run it one out of every three plays. The Packers lead the NFL in adjusted line yards when running up the middle. Their line gets plenty of push for Jones.

If that’s their game plan for Saturday, the Packers are doing the 49ers a favor. The Niners are second among all remaining playoff teams in success rate against inside zone. They are at their best against runs between the tackles. Even without Arik Armstead, it was an area of strength in the second half.

It may be naive to assume the 49ers tackling issues will be fixed since they had time to get off their feet, but pair that with the talent and athleticism discrepancy upfront and Jones’ 100-yard streak should come to an end. There are ways to run the ball against the 49ers, but inside zone is not one of them.

The Packers finished 15th in rushing DVOA on the season. Everything has clicked during this four-game winning streak over the Panthers, Vikings, Bears, and Cowboys, but this is the first time Green Bay has seen a defense that has elite linebacker play, perhaps all season.

Against Dallas, 12 personnel gave Green Bay favorable matchups against the run, and that set up explosive passing plays. Passes against Fred Warner don’t happen over the middle of the field. The 49ers were 12 DVOA percentage points better than the second-placed Bills at defending passes over the middle.

Warner and Dre Greenlaw are former collegiate safeties, so their athleticism negates any perceived advantage a tight end would have over a linebacker. And both play with the necessary mentality needed to beat or slip blocks and stop the run. Per Sports Info Solutions, the 49ers have the third-highest success rate against 12 personnel, and the defense is in nickel.

Spamming outside zone

Since Week 10, the Packers ran 3 wide receiver sets 63 percent of the time. That’s where they want to live.

When Jones was the featured back during the final three games of the regular season, the LaFleur ran outside zone 47 percent of the time, which is about 21 percent higher than the league average. That number grew to 60 percent against the Cowboys in the Wild Card round.

Jones is a more shifty and explosive runner than Dillion, which explains why LaFleur tailors his play-calling to Jones’ strength. He may run outside zone 80 percent of the time against the 49ers.

Since Week 10, the Niners were dead last in success rate and EPA per play against outside zone. When Wilks’ says he wants to make the Packers one-dimensional, I interpret that as taking away their outside running game.

The 49ers could counter with more wide-9 looks. But a healthy, rejuvenated defense will be the deciding factor. In that Week 15 game, Javon Kinlaw and Kevin Givens played 40+ snaps when the Cardinals gashed the Niners. Chase Young, Randy Gregory, and Clelin Ferrell were north of 30 snaps. T.Y. McGill played 29 snaps.

The Jaguars game was a precursor of what’s to come instead of an outlier. When the combination of Bosa-Hargrave-Armstead-Young was on the field, their pressure rate was an otherworldly 60 percent. That’s the group who will play a majority of snaps Saturday night.

Health and playing time have skewed the 49ers' numbers. When they are fresh, they’re fast and ferocious. I’m more inclined to believe we see that version of the run defense Saturday night.

Making room for McCaffrey

We’ll stick with today's theme: stopping the run and running the ball. Let’s flip sides and dissect the 49ers rushing attack.

The Packers have had the same coaching staff under LaFleur since 2021. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry and the Packers faced Trey Sermon in 2021. During the other meeting, the Packers faced Elijah Mitchell.

Despite beating LaFleur a combined 50-30, Shanahan’s offenses haven’t gotten it going on the ground against the Packers in their last two games against each other due to numerous factors, including the weather — which has cleared up for the weekend after high probabilities of wind and rain were in the forecast earlier in the week.

When you listen to people talk about this game throughout the week, the Packer’s defense conveniently gets ignored when analysts are talking themselves into Green Bay. That’s because when you go down the list of meaningful stats, the Packers are 27th, 28th, 26th, etc.

The only team that had a higher rushing DVOA than the 49ers has Lamar Jackson under center. Since Week 10, 50 percent of the 49ers running plays were graded successful, four percent higher than second place.

The Niners’ running game was electric during the second half. They quadrupled the EPA of the second-place Arizona Cardinals since Week 10. This includes garbage time and Week 18 without the starters playing the full game.

Let’s call it a hunch that the third time will be a charm for Shanahan’s running game to pop, with Christian McCaffrey — the league leader since Week 10 with 11 carries of 15+ yards and 22 for 10+ yards — as the runner getting the bulk of the carries against a defense that played a bottom-ten schedule of defenses and finished bottom-five in efficiency.

Individually, the 49ers won’t wow you upfront outside of their soon-to-be Hall of Fame left tackle, who is returning next season. But they don’t rely on the skill set of one position. In most cases, the work is done before the ball is snapped.

Shanahan motions Deebo Samuel one way and Kyle Juszczyk the next, leaving defenders confused and chasing ghosts. It’s a headache to watch pre-snap on TV. Imagine if it was your job to defend the chaos known as the 49ers running game.

Edge defenders and off-ball linebackers overreact to the motion and are out of position as McCaffrey approaches the line of scrimage.

McCaffrey averaged 2.8 yards before contact this season. He had the 8th-most yards in the NFL before contact and pre-snap motion is the primary reason why. I’ll give him this: McCaffrey was decent after contact, too.

Give Barry credit, as the Packers have gotten better at eliminating chunk plays on the ground during the second half. Only two of their opponents since Week 10 are in the top ten rushing offenses.

Where Green Bay has struggled is tackling. They are the fourth-worst in yards after contact. So, a defense that cannot stop the run despite facing a below-average schedule of rush offenses and struggles to bring the ball carrier down at first contact.

Using DVOA’s metrics, San Francisco has the second-biggest gap in the playoffs when it comes to what they do well — running outside zone — and where Green Bay struggles — stopping outside zone. What’s the first? I’m glad you asked. It’s the 49ers running inside zone and the Packers stopping it.

Green Bay will also be without Kingsley Engabare, an edge rusher who sustained a serious knee injury against the Cowboys last week. He was a rotational player who played 40 snaps before his injury. Having to replace a key depth piece on a short week only handcuffs Green Bay more than they already are.

McCaffrey should run wild, putting Brock Purdy in advantageous situations to throw the ball. The question is how much, not if, the 49ers have success against the Packers run defense.