Breaking Down How Green Bay Packers Can Beat the San Francisco 49ers' Defense
The two face off Sunday at Lambeau Field to start the 2012 NFL season.
The Packers' offense was historically good a season ago, scoring more points than all but one team in the history of the NFL. Only the the 2007 New England Patriots (589) scored more than Green Bay's 560 from 2011.
Led by NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers (45 touchdowns, six interceptions, 122.5 passer rating), nine of the 11 starters from Green Bay's final game of 2011 return. Center Scott Wells and running back Ryan Grant were lost, but one could argue that Jeff Saturday and Cedric Benson—who the Packers called on to replace the two—represent a better duo of players for the 2012 season.
One of the NFL's best defensive units will be on the other sideline Sunday.
The 49ers' defense, who returns all 11 of its starters from 2011, gave up less than half of Green Bay's offensive total last season. San Francisco's second-best scoring defense allowed just 229 points and 14.3 a game in 2011.
With Pro Bowlers at each level, the 49ers are a good bet to stay in the top-5 of total and scoring defense this season.
It's also safe to say that the Packers didn't face a defense as good as the 49ers in 2011. In fact, Green Bay didn't play one defense that finished in the top-11 of scoring defense a season ago.
The Kansas City Chiefs, who finished 12th in scoring defense, were the top statistical team the Packers played. Kansas City upset Green Bay in Week 15.
All these numbers set up a fantastic start to the 2012 season for a football junkie.
Below, we break down how the Packers can attack San Francisco's rock-solid defense in the season opener.
Must, Must, Must Protect Rodgers
The defenses that have contained Rodgers over the last 24 months were the ones that could generate pressure without having to bring extra blitzers. There isn't a better passer against an extra man or two blitz than Rodgers, so the Packers have to force 49ers' defensive coordinator Vic Fangio into resorting to blitz packages.
Of course, that all starts up front for Green Bay. The 49ers have one of the best front sevens in football, with Justin Smith anchoring the defensive line and 2011 first-rounder Aldon Smith providing the punch on the edge.
One way the the 49ers consistently generate pressure without blitzing is stunting Aldon Smith off Justin Smith. Strong as an ox, Justin Smith can push two offensive lineman into the backfield while Aldon Smith uses his athleticism to squeeze inside.
Left tackle Marshall Newhouse and left guard T.J. Lang will have their hands full containing those stunts Sunday.
Even without the stunts, both Smiths have proven capable of winning one-on-one matchups. Justin Smith is arguably the top 3-4 defensive end in football and Aldon Smith was a half-sack away from Jevan Kearse's rookie record of 14.5 sacks.
If the 49ers are getting home to Rodgers without Fangio bringing extra pressure, the Packers could be in trouble Sunday. But if Fangio starts bringing heat on Rodgers, one should assume Green Bay will hit some big plays down field.
Establish a Rushing Presence
It would be easy for Packers head coach and playcaller Mike McCarthy to look at the 49ers' run defense and gameplan to throw it 50 times Sunday afternoon. San Francisco ranked first in the NFL in rushing yards allowed (1,236) , rushing touchdowns allowed (three) and rushing average (3.5/carry).
McCarthy still might plan on throwing it more than usual Sunday. No one would blame him. But getting Benson a look or two early will keep the aggressive pass-rushers honest.
If I was McCarthy, I'd especially want to see if Aldon Smith can hold up the edge on running plays. At the very least, running at the young pass-rusher would deplete some energy and keep him guessing.
McCarthy obviously shouldn't run the football 40 times against this defense. The Packers probably wouldn't score a point. But the run game can't be non-existant. This defense will pin its ears back and get after Rodgers without it.
Passing Game Has to be Productive
Obviously, this is a no-brainer. The Packers have lived and died by the pass over the last couple of seasons.
But the 49ers' defense has shown cracks against good passing teams.
The Dallas Cowboys threw for 427 yards in a 27-24 overtime win in Week 2. The Philadelphia Eagles went for 405 yards passing but lost a commanding lead late and lost. The New Orleans Saints threw for 435 yards and nearly beat the 49ers on the road in the NFC Divisional Round.
In fact, the only teams that scored 20 or more points against the 49ers a season ago threw for 265 yards or more.
The two games Green Bay lost last season—on the road in Kansas City and at home against the Giants—saw the Packers' passing offense go for less that 250 yards. The Packers were 13-0 when throwing for over 260 yards in 2011.
Of course, these are arbitrary numbers that don't directly decide a football game. But they do provide a context for what the Packers' passing offense needs to accomplish Sunday.
The 49ers' secondary is a solid unit, but it's not a special one. Physical, hard-hitting and smart, San Francisco feasted on opportunities where it could sit back in zone and read a quarterback under pressure.
However, this unit wasn't nearly as good when Fangio asked the secondary to cover people one-on-one. The Packers need to isolate and take advantage of those chances Sunday.
Carlos Rogers and Chris Culliver are good players, but both can be beat, especially by Green Bay's very talented receiving corps. Safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner fly around and hit people, but each looked shaky when asked to cover a talented tight end or third or fourth receiver a year ago.
Can the Packers get Jermichael Finley in those one-on-ones, much like the Saints did with Jimmy Graham in the playoffs last season?
Finley is so important Sunday. If he's a ghost, the 49ers likely were able to bracket him with zone underneath. If not, the Packers tight end could shred San Francisco's safeties. Keep a close eye on No. 88 Sunday.
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