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Why there’s no reason to worry about the 49ers defense

It seemed like the Packers had plenty of chances to score, but it was more of the Niners stepping on their own foot than it was Green Bay making plays

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

After watching the San Francisco 49ers need a missed field goal and then a late touchdown to hold off the Green Bay Packers on Saturday night, the common perception was that the Packers outplayed the Niners.

It’s never a good sign when Sam Darnold and Kirk Cousins are trending. The panic button broke in half this past weekend. Let’s get into a few overreactions from the Divisional round, but only make it about the defense.

The 49ers defense will be the reason they don’t win the Super Bowl

If you don’t count the kneel-down at the end of the first half, the Packers had nine drives. Six of their drives went inside the 49ers 25-yard line. Six!

Your memory is spot on if all you can recall from Saturday night was the Packers possessing the ball with a chance to score. But when you go play-by-play, it was the Niners beating themselves more than anything:

  • 1st drive - Ambry Thomas commits a defensive pass interference on 3rd & 6
  • 2nd drive - Tashaun Gipson gets flagged for defensive pass interference on 2nd & 10. Charvarius Ward slips when guarding Romeo Doubs en route to a 38-yard completion
  • 3rd drive - Coverage bust on the first play leaves Jayden Reed wide open for a 27-yard gain
  • On the fourth drive, Thomas commits a 41-yard defensive pass interference penalty on 3rd & 15. Tashaun Gipson slips on the next play, allowing a 19-yard touchdown.
  • Fifth drive - Starts at the 20 after the kickoff unit allowed a 73-yard return
  • Sixth drive - Nothing wonky happens, and Dre Greenlaw intercepts Jordan Love on 3rd & 11
  • Seventh drive - The 49ers play sound defense and force a punt
  • Eighth drive - Aaron Jones makes Logan Ryan miss 1-on-1 and races for a 53-yard run
  • Ninth drive - Greenlaw seals the game with an interception

The 49ers spent most of the game defensively, gifting the Packers free yards. When it was time to come up with a stop, they did. Green Bay only converted two of their red zone trips into touchdowns.

Next Gen Stats credited Love with a higher turnover-worthy throw percentage than Brock Purdy by 1.1 percent. Statistically, it was Love’s lowest passing yardage, quarterback rating, and completion percentage since Week 10.

Jones averaged 3.2 yards per carry on his other 17 attempts. Half of the Packers’ explosive passing plays happened because the 49ers secondary slipped at home.

That’s not to say the Detroit Lions won’t get shut out, but if your takeaway from this game is that the Niners’ defense is suspect, that’s inaccurate. Love’s 42 percent passing success rate was eight percentage points lower than what it was from Weeks 10 to 18. On a down-to-down basis, they struggled to throw the ball early and run it late. That’s a recipe for success if you’re San Francisco.

Penalties, untimely missed tackles, and defenders falling are all outliers that you can’t count on happening against the Lions.

The defense can’t keep relying on turnovers and miscues

The 49ers received a fortunate spot on 4th & 1, leading to the Packers turning the ball over on downs inside the red zone. That can’t go unnoticed. They also benefited from a missed field goal that should have been a chip shot.

It’s natural to watch what unfolded Saturday night and think the 49ers can’t keep relying on turnovers. This was the 18th game of the season for the 49ers. They had two interceptions on top of the plays from above. They do that every game. Only the Buffalo Bills generated more turnovers per drive this season than the Niners, who led the NFL in interceptions per drive.

You can move the ball on this unit. Steve Wilks’ crew allowed the fifth-most plays per drive during the season, but they get stingy in the red zone and hold you to three points.

Love had more interceptions on Saturday night than he did since Week 11. Are we supposed to pretend that Jared Goff outdoors after playing two relatively clean games in a row isn’t due to a mistake?

Love was under pressure on 40 percent of his dropbacks despite the Niners only blitzing twice. We’ll get into the matchup more later in the week, but Love’s mobility and arm talent were a significant reason why Green Bay converted a few of those throws.

That won’t be the case next week, as there’s a dichotomy between Goff’s indoor play and when he has to play outside. Nine of Goff’s 12 interceptions came on the road this season. He’s prone to make mistakes in the face of pressure.

It’s plausible to expect the 49ers’ defense to continue to get off the field by way of the turnover, as it’s been their calling card all season.