This Saturday's NFC divisional round matchup pitting the San Francisco 49ers against the Green Bay Packers is the best, most-evenly matched game of the NFL playoffs thus far. Both teams have flaws, both have strengths. San Francisco has been reeling a little bit recently after suffering a demoralizing defeat at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks and a less-than convincing victory over the lowly Arizona Cardinals at home.
Their best defensive player in Justin Smith is playing with a torn triceps, an injury that has kept lesser players out for months at a time. Kicker David Akers has been consistently poor the last month or so and might give way to equally scatter-legged Billy Cundiff. Colin Kaepernick is making just his eighth career start and his first in the postseason. The heartbeat of the 49ers offense, Frank Gore, could use a defibrillator as he's shown signs of slowing down the last few weeks and the receiving corps has been decimated by injury. However, the game is in majestic Candlestick Park where the 49ers have played well in the postseason and can enter the game knowing they beat the Packers once already this season in Green Bay.
The Packers are not without their own issues. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been playing lights out but the team has little to no running game and their offensive line has struggled to pass protect at times. The defense is poor against the run and the front seven has shown a tendency to get manhandled by big, physical offensive lines. Their own kicker, Mason Crosby, actually had a worse field goal percentage than Akers this year (63.6 to 69.0). Not only have they not faced Kaepernick's unique skill set before, they have not faced a team that runs the read option all season.
Despite the issues each team has, they both have their strengths. There are three areas in particular that the 49ers will look to exploit their decided advantage over the Packers. Whether or not the 49ers can capitalize on these advantages may well determine the outcome of the game.
In their matchup against the Vikings in last weekend's wildcard round the Packers finally shut down All Day Peterson to the tune of 99 yards on the ground, most of which came after the game was already firmly in hand for Green Bay.
But they face a tough task against the biggest, most physical run blockers in the NFC this weekend in San Francisco. As well as Green Bay performed against Minnesota, they consistently put eight and nine men in the box with the knowledge that backup quarterback Joe Webb simply could not make them pay on the back end with his arm. Colin Kaepernick will make Green Bay think twice about such heavy commitment to the line of scrimmage.
Furthermore, the 49ers are simply bigger, stronger and more physical along the line of scrimmage than anything the Packers can counter with. Tackle B.J. Raji is a force in the middle, but so is Pro Bowler Mike Iupati. Combine that with arguably the best run-blocking left tackle in the NFL in Joe Staley, a solid veteran at center in Jonathan Goodwin, massive right guard Alex Boone, one of the nastiest right tackles in the NFC in Anthony Davis and the wham-blocking abilities of TE Delanie Walker (just ask Ndamukong Suh) and the 49ers have a plethora of ways to shut down the only serious threat to the run game that the Packers feature.
The best player along the Packer front seven, Clay Matthews, Jr., is great in pass rushing situations but will get tossed around like an Afghan goat carcass in a friendly game of Buzkashi if the 49ers linemen get to the second level and bear down on him.
Justin Smith is going to be playing this weekend against Green Bay and the hope is that he can perform close to the level we have all expected and seen from him the last several years. But unless Smith proves to be a complete liability, the 49ers still have a very significant advantage in this department.
Even if Smith cannot finish the game, the Packers simply lack the talent at the running back position and the skill along the line of scrimmage to run the ball effectively against the San Francisco front seven. Perennial Pro Bowlers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman will be prowling the field unless Green Bay goes with four receivers, in which case one of the two will come off the field in favor of fourth cornerback Perrish Cox. In that case, Green Bay won't be running anyways.
San Francisco was 10-1 this season when holding opponents under 100 yards on the ground. Green Bay simply doesn't have the personnel to run effectively out of a spread formation and the 49ers are too good against the run in their base personnel for Green Bay to run well enough to the point where San Francisco has to respect the play-action game from Rodgers.
Put simply, Green Bay is going to have to play one-dimensional offense against a defense that has proven once already in Lambeau Field that it can limit Aaron Rodgers enough to win the game.
The Packers haven't faced a team that uses the read option all season. When they faced Seattle earlier this year the Seahawks had not made the transition to it yet. It is a tough offense to prepare for and even tougher to play against the first time a team sees it on the field.
The pistol formation, as seen in the accompanying photo, is also a new wrinkle that the Packers haven't seen very much of at all, and no one in the NFL is more familiar with it than Colin Kaepernick.
I've been having trouble finding statistics on how often the 49ers use the read option and the pistol formation, but from my own observations it seems that the 49ers haven't actually used them all that much, certainly not as often as Seattle or the Washington Redskins.
There is a good chance that the 49ers have been holding something back in this department. If so, there is that much less tape for the Packers to study, but it also might be because Frank Gore is not the best back suited for this sort of offense. He struggled at times when the 49ers, under offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, went to the spread offense a couple years ago and he was forced to run out of the shotgun formation.
However, running back LaMichael James is another player well-versed in this new style of offense and he has looked better and better each of the last three weeks as he's gained more playing time. As Gore seems to be winding down a bit, James is heating up. This new approach on offense is going to be an unfamiliar one for the Packers defense and the 49ers have two of the best players in the league to carry out this approach.
If Jim Harbaugh has been holding back a little bit—both to become more familiar with the approach in non-game situations and to sandbag teams looking to study them on film—and they end up using it much more often than in any previous game, they could very well catch Green Bay completely off-guard.
There are only three slides to this article because, well, let's face it: the 49ers don't really hold that many significant advantages over the Packers. This game will be close throughout, no matter who wins. For uninvested football fans, this is a good thing. The first week of playoff football was boring, uninspiring and less than thrilling. That won't be the case this weekend at Candlestick Park, the crown jewel of San Francisco's Bayview-Hunter's Point District.
The clear advantage that the 49ers have in this game is along the line of scrimmage. Even with an injured Justin Smith presumably playing at less than full-strength the defensive line and linebacking corps can hold their own in passing situations, get pressure on Rodgers (even if it means blitzing more than usual) and should force Green Bay to completely abandon the running game. The added week of rest will help rejuvenate a front seven that was showing signs of fatigue the last month of the season.
On offense, the San Francisco line has been mauling people all year long and against an undersized Packers front seven that trend will continue. With the talent and the personnel to sustain long, time-consuming drives the 49ers can keep Aaron Rodgers off the field for extended stretches and begin to wear down the Packers defense.
As any good football fan knows, winning the battle in the trenches gives a team a huge advantage. Unfortunately, the Packers have a quarterback in Aaron Rodgers who is good enough to negate any advantage a team may have over his.
But the 49ers do have a big advantage in one of the game's most important areas, on both sides of the ball. They seem to have gotten away from the physical, smash-mouth style that got them to the NFC Championship Game last year and off to a great start this year, but this weekend look for the 49ers to get back to their blue-collar ways and impose their will on the Green Bay Packers.