The 49ers won't be seeing inside linebacker D.J. Smith on Saturday
Green Bay handily beat the Minnesota Vikings 24-10 in the Wild Card Game on Saturday night. It will now travel out west to Candlestick Park for another gridiron tussle with the 49ers.
San Francisco thumped the Packers in Week 1 at their hallowed Lambeau Field. The 30-22 final score did not do justice to the visiting team’s vice-like control over the home squad.
The 49ers were superior on both sides of the ball and won going away. If not for a dubious non-call on a block in the back during Randall Cobb’s punt-return touchdown, any sort of winning momentum resided solely with San Francisco.
But that was opening week; it’s now the divisional round of the 2012 NFL postseason.
Each team features a different look in some form or another on offense, defense and special teams. Injuries, personnel moves and season-long development have fostered both positive and negative changes.
For our purposes, let’s identify five new matchups the Packers will present to the 49ers in their second head-to-head encounter in 2012.
Despite what we all saw against the Vikings (hilarious), Walden is not an effective pass-rusher.
Green Bay started a rookie at a key defensive position in the opening matchup. Nick Perry, a converted defensive end from USC, manned left outside linebacker.
The 49ers were quite smitten with that development.
Frank Gore gashed him in the run game by rushing for a touchdown and more than half of his 112 yards to Perry’s side of the field. Perry also failed just as miserably in coverage by allowing completions on all four passes thrown his way, not to mention 30 yards after the catch.
The first-year linebacker, however, suffered a knee injury in October. Erik Walden assumed the starting role shortly thereafter.
Walden, for his part, was an improvement over his predecessor in one notable area.
He earned the third-highest rating among 3-4 outside backers for his work in pass coverage, according to the brains at Pro Football Focus (membership required). His two interceptions were second only to one player in that positional group.
Fortunately for the 49ers, Walden is a poor run defender and is even worse at getting after the quarterback. PFF graded him as the least productive pass-rushing OLB.
(If you need perspective, he earned a negative-25.5 while teammate Clay Matthews received a league-high 15.1.)
The 49ers must attack Walden with Alex Boone and Anthony Davis pushing Gore and LaMichael James to the second level. Walden’s inabilities as a pass-rusher will allow them to direct blocking personnel towards Matthews and Dezman Moses on passing downs.
Overall: Favorable Matchup
Here's a prime example of Brad Jones getting burned in coverage.
D.J. Smith was another Packers linebacker who facilitated the 49ers’ winning-efforts.
Gore and Kendall Hunter averaged nearly nine yards per carry when targeting Smith on the ground. He also missed two tackles and surrendered a lengthy 16-yard gain (per PFF).
Smith’s replacement Brad Jones was more proficient against the run in the Packers' remaining games. His 77 tackles and four tackles for loss ranked third and second, respectively, on the team. He held contain and wrapped up ball-carriers on a consistent basis.
Like Walden, though, Jones did not operate without weakness.
He gave up two touchdowns, a 68.4 completion percentage and a 106.6 efficiency rating to quarterbacks throwing in his coverage area (via PFF).
Tight end Vernon Davis needs to resurrect himself and exploit this mismatch with Jones. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman and head coach Jim Harbaugh must put him in position to do so.
And that means instructing Colin Kaepernick to get on the same page and throw Davis open.
Overall: Favorable Matchup
Unfortunately, Bush (No. 24) will not be there on Sunday to give up wide open running lanes to Crabtree.
In Week 1, Jarrett Bush started at right cornerback—his first and only start of the season.
49ers’ pass-catchers hauled in big gains of 11, 20 and 29 yards against Bush. Davis did the most damage at his expense with a third-quarter touchdown.
Sam Shields fell in behind Bush on the depth chart but now starts opposite Tramon Williams. However, Shields did play over 20 snaps in that game so the 49ers have already seen him.
Casey Hayward, on the other hand, played only three snaps, and Davon House didn’t see the field at all.
The rookie out of Vanderbilt has been an absolute revelation for the Packers. Hayward ranks second in the league with 21 pass breakups and boasts the fourth-highest interception total (six).
Quarterbacks are completing a paltry 44.6 percent of their passes with an even lower efficiency rating of 33.1 when throwing in Hayward’s coverage area. Those are good for No. 3 and 1, respectively among NFL cornerbacks (h/t PFF).
Oh, and he didn’t allow a single touchdown all year.
Luckily for the 49ers, House is not quite as accomplished. The Packers’ No. 4 corner has surrendered four touchdowns this season and an efficiency rating of 101.6
Concerning the divisional playoffs, Kaepernick should most definitely throw away from Hayward and towards House on multiple-receiver packages. Williams and safety M.D. Jennings are also favorable targets, as Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss had success against them the first time around.
Hayward, though, bolstered the Packers secondary to a huge degree.
Overall: Unfavorable Matchup
DuJuan Harris scored from nine yards out against the Vikings.
The 49ers suppressed any attempt the Packers made at running the ball the last time out.
Cedric Benson collected 18 yards on nine carries. Aaron Rodgers’ nine-yard scamper was the highlight of Green Bay’s 45 total rushing yards.
DuJuan Harris, to his credit, runs with a non-stop motor. He provides an elusive, high-energy dynamic to the Packers RB corps. Those qualities were on display during an eight-yard TD against the Vikings.
Harris’s five receptions for 53 yards on Saturday night testified to his abilities as a pass-catcher out of the backfield as well.
Whether it's Benson, Harris, Alex Green, Ryan Grant or even James Starks, don’t expect the Packers to find very many running lanes against the 49ers. They’ll try early on in an attempt to establish play-action and overall balance, but San Francisco will simply overpower them.
Matchup-wise, inside backer NaVorro Bowman must play disciplined, assignment football when Green Bay implements its three-receiver sets and Patrick Willis leaves the field. He just needs to ensure that Harris (or whichever back) does not break free on draw plays or check-downs.
Overall: Favorable Matchup
49er fans sure hope these two gentlemen feel the wrath of the San Francisco front seven.
*Note: Jeff Saturday did not play in the Wild Card Game and is uncertain for the divisional round.
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga contributed to the 49ers’ cause by committing two penalties and surrendering numerous QB pressures to Ahmad Brooks and Ray McDonald.
Veteran center Saturday held his own in pass protection versus San Francisco but missed the playoff game against the Vikings with shoulder and neck issues.
Like Bulaga, rookie Don Barclay gave up four sacks on the year. But those came in 250 fewer snaps, and he nearly matched his predecessor’s total number of penalties and QB pressures during that limited action (h/t PFF).
Furthermore, in over 600 fewer snaps, third-year man Evan Dietrich-Smith committed four more penalties and allowed as many QB pressures as Saturday when filling in at both guard positions (via PFF).
Against the Vikings, he did not gain consistent leverage in either run- or pass-blocking during his first start at center.
Brooks and McDonald need to bring extra pressure up the middle and off the left edge against the inexperienced linemen. They must continually exploit this glaring point of weakness on the Packers front line, thereby disrupting Rodgers and the passing game.
Overall: Favorable Matchup
Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16