How the 49ers can beat the Packers: The Niners hold the biggest mismatch in the game

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How the 49ers can beat the Packers: The Niners hold the biggest mismatch in the game
© Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Akash did an excellent job outlining what’s changed between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers since these two teams met back in Week 3. That was nearly four months ago. To say that these two teams are drastically different would be an understatement.

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It goes without saying that there are more ways for the Packers to come out of this game victorious than there are the Niners. First, they are at home, with a Hall of Fame quarterback that doesn’t turn the ball over with a ridiculous record against winning teams in one-possession games (20-1 when the spread is -4 to -8).

The Niners’ recent playoff success against the Packers provides more than enough hope. If we’re talking about San Francisco playing in another NFC Championship, below will be the reasons why.

Mitchell’s presence matters

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The Elijah Mitchell you’ll see Sunday wasn’t born yet in the Niners offense back in September. Deebo Samuel had two carries in that game. It’s a surprise if he goes a half without two carries.

Trey Sermon, the leading rusher for the 49ers that game, will likely be inactive Sunday. Mohamed Sanu, who had six targets in Week 3, will also be inactive. So, you’re subbing in Mitchell and replacing the veteran Sanu with a player in Jauan Jennings, who has become Jimmy Garoppolo’s security blanket on third downs.

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The last time these two teams played, Packers’ defensive coordinator Joe Barry did a better job than any other team I’ve seen against the Niners running game. Barry had his outside linebackers, and often an extra defender, right where the Niners wanted to hit their go-to outside zone play:

How the 49ers can beat the Packers: The Niners hold the biggest mismatch in the game
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You’ll often hear people say, “run to the bubble.” Above, the “bubble” is in between right tackle Mike McGlinchey and tight end Charlier Woerner. As you can see, Green Bay loaded up its defense to prevent the Niners from getting outside.

In turn, they forced center Alex Mack and right guard Daniel Brunskill to win their 1-on-1 blocks and generate movement. That didn’t happen, which is why San Francisco averaged 3.2 yards per carry on 21 attempts.

If you dig a little deeper, the 49ers averaged a measly 2.9 yards per carry on 14 first down runs. Tentative play-calling because you don’t trust your running back is no longer an issue for Kyle Shanahan.

The 49ers will have a different right tackle this time around. If I told you in August that Tom Compton would start ten games at tackle and the 49ers would reach the Divisional playoff round, you would’ve never visited this site again.

Compton has been reliable, which is necessary for your offensive line if you plan on sustaining success. Compton has played 100% of the snaps since he became the full-time starter in Week 12.

If Shanahan didn’t trust Compton, he wouldn’t run the ball to the right side as often as he does. According to Football Outsiders, the 49ers run the ball off the right end, the fourth-most in the NFL at 13% — 1% higher than to the left end, behind their All-Pro left tackle.

The Niners aren’t asking Compton to morph into McGlinchey 2.0. So long as Compton isn’t a liability, the offense is talented enough elsewhere to mask some of his deficiencies. It’s not a net negative when the 49ers run it to the right. That’s a positive in the grand scheme of the offense.

A balanced running attack allows offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel, who Shanahan said does a lot of the scheme work for the running game this week, to use all of his crazy motions and pre-snap shifts to get the defense out of whack and out of position.

When you can threaten both sides of the defense, Samuel and Mitchell become even more effective and dangerous than usual. Since Week 11, San Francisco ranks sixth in rushing EPA per play and tenth in rushing success rate. Those numbers tell you they’re generating big plays at a high clip while managing to move the ball consistently. Those two don’t always go hand in hand.

Opposing defenses’ No. 1 priority when facing a 49er offense is to stop the run. And it’s not as if the 49ers played the Falcons or Vikings every week. Aside from the Texans, five of the last eight teams San Francisco faced finished 14th or better in defensive rushing DVOA, with three defenses finishing in the top-7.

This brings us to the Packers.

Not Packing much of a punch on the ground

Green Bay has fewer weaknesses than any other team in the conference. That’s why they are the top seed in the NFC. Of course, it helps when you have the best quarterback in the sport that never turns the ball over and, oh, by the way, has the best wide receiver to throw it to.

The Packers’ one blemish happens to be the most significant mismatch of the game. I mentioned how Barry had a fantastic game-plan to stifle the 49ers rushing attack to the edges. Defensive tackle Kenny Clark dominated inside, and San Francisco had no room to run.

We’re doing a disservice when using season-long metrics. Comparing the differences between these two teams in four months is a prime example of why. But Green Bay hasn’t stopped the run all year long.

They finished 28th in defensive rushing DVOA for the season. Since Week 11, the Packers are 27th in rushing EPA per play and 27th in defensive rushing success rate. For the season, they’re actually worse, finishing 30th in both of the latter statistics.

Here’s why Green Bay struggles to stop the run. They haven’t had Za’Darius Smith since Week 1, and Whitney Mercilus hasn’t played since Week 10. That’s led to backups playing significant snaps and lighter bodies in the box. Even if Smith plays, he’s not expected to play a major role after missing so much time. The 49ers have to take advantage of the backup edge players on the Packers when they are in the game.

Green Bay’s edge rusher Tipa Galeai is listed at 229 pounds. Galeai and another undrafted free agent in Jonathan Garvin, 257 pounds, have combined for three tackles for loss this season. They’ve been moved off their spot by average rushing attacks. The better ground games did what they wanted to against Galeai. I could describe George Kittle and Trent Williams with a lot of words, but average would not be one.

The Browns had success getting to the edge against Galeai, who is No. 40 off to the right:

The tight end “flexed” a couple of yards from the formation, forcing Galeai to widen out with him. Now, the run bubble we talked about above is wider, with two fewer defenders. 85, the tight end cracks down and blocks the linebacker.

Since Galeai doesn’t have enough sand in his pants to take on the oncoming pulling block, he tries to go low and create a pile. That didn’t work and allowed the second puller a free run at a defensive back.

That’s how you get Nick Chubb untouched running down the sideline. The Niners have no choice to impose their will in this game. There has to be a physical tone set out of the gate, similarly to last week.

Shaky schedule down the stretch

The Packers’ schedule down the stretch has left plenty to be desired. Here are the quarterbacks they’ve played:

Justin Fields

Tyler Huntley

Baker Mayfield, who was not at 100%

Sean Mannion/Kellen Mond

The results tell you Green Bay has had a smooth sail to the top seed. The process says otherwise.

The MVP was down six at halftime against the Bears in primetime at home. That’s against the same team that couldn’t wait to fire its coach.

Green Bay was a two-point conversion away, on a play where there was a receiver open in the end zone, from losing to Huntley and the Ravens.

Cleveland lost. The Packers didn’t win. The Browns lost by two in Lambeau Field and were -4 in turnover differential. Mayfield couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat during this game.

The Vikings scored 34 points during the first matchup against Green Bay when they had Kirk Cousins under center. Cousins threw for 341 yards and three scores while Dalvin Cook carried the ball 22 times. The Packers put all of their resources toward stopping Cook, who ran for 13 yards in the second game.

Also, they were trying to beat the Lions in the first half of Week 18 and were down to Jared Goff 17-13 at halftime. Yes, Detroit scored on a trick play that was 75 yards. But, that ignores Detroit stopping Green Bay on 4th down, then marching 57 yards for a touchdown. The Lions also would score a field goal in a two-minute situation before the half.

Live by the zone, hope for a mistake

Since Week 11, the 49ers are comfortably in the lead in rushing EPA per play allowed and second in success rate defensively on the ground. They’ve forced offenses to become one-dimensional. Their run defense has been as good as you can ask for in today’s NFL.

The duo of D.J. Jones and Arik Armstead eat up interior blocks while Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair pave the way for Fred Warner to make a tackle at the line of scrimmage if they didn’t make the tackle already themselves.

This is strength on strength as Green Bay is third in rushing EPA per play and first in rushing success rate since Week 11. The Packers are far and away the best offense in the NFL on early downs. They make it look easy, and Aaron Rodgers is a big reason why.

As the season has gone along, defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans has relied on more “spot dropping” from his back-7, which has prevented linebackers from getting stuck in coverage on wide receivers down the field with each defender having their eyes on the quarterback.

The 49ers were spot dropping during K’Waun Williams’ interception last week:

Each defender is dropping to a specific spot on the field with their eyes on the quarterback as they relate to the receiver in their zone. This is far from new in the NFL. But as more offenses trend towards running deeper routes down the field, you put less stress on your second-level defenders.

Williams can feel the receiver he’s guarding throttle down. Since he has his eyes on the quarterback, he can see the ball released since Dak Prescott is at the top of his drop. This allows Williams to jump the route and come up with the interception.

Ryans has been a wizard at mixing up his coverages from spot dropping to man-matching to Cover 0. There are plays where you guess wrong, and K’Waun is caught in the worst possible situation where he’s 1-on-1 in the slot against Amari Cooper.

Against Rodgers, I expect the Niners to make him live underneath. If you want to complete five and six-yard throws all game, then so be it. Rodgers has completed 75% of his passes this season against zone coverage with a success rate that’s 7% higher than in man coverage.

That’s not the worst thing in the world, all things considered. Offense is impossible if you have to win consistently with 10+ play drives. You’re bound to make a mistake. It’s as simple as a penalty, a dropped pass, or one of the Niners’ defensive linemen wins 1-on-1, and all of a sudden, it’s 2nd & 12.

I’d be terrified of playing man coverage against the Packers for long stretches in this game. Rodgers’ EPA per play is higher, his yards per attempt go up by 2.6, and his TD/INT ratio against man coverage is 22-to-1 compared to 8-to-3 when Rodgers faces zone coverage. In addition, his passer rating drops 17 points against zone coverage.

If whatever a Josiah Deguara is, or Allen Lazard are the reason we’re talking about the season in review next week, then you’ll sleep easier than the alternative. This cannot be a game where Rodgers feels comfortable throwing it to Davante Adams.

If you have to go full Wink Martindale from the Ravens and double team or bracket Adams on obvious passing downs, I’d rather do that than any scenario that involves Adams 1-on-1. Why? Because of history. Since 2018, Adams has had 48 catches on 69 targets against the 49ers. He’s averaging 9 yards per target with five touchdowns.

If I’m Ryans, I’m betting on my pass rush continuing to be better than the opposition. It’s unlikely you force Rodgers into a turnover, but an incomplete pass leading to a punt gets him off the field. Leaving whoever is guarding Adams isolated is a recipe for disaster.

Health is the big question mark for the 49ers. How effective will Nick Bosa and Garoppolo be? Will Ambry Thomas play? If either is less than 100%, the Niners’ chances decrease dramatically.

As you read above, there are enough paths to a victory for the 49ers. Whether they can take advantage of them without getting in their own way remains to be seen.

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