One of the greatest advantages that the San Francisco 49ers defense has over many NFL teams is that it can apply pressure with a simple four-man rush. By rushing with four, it provides flexibility to become more aggressive and complex with its coverages because it has an additional defender. This luxury, along with the ability to play physical press-man coverage, is the recipe to slowing down modern day, spread quarterbacks like the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers.
In Week 1, the Packers hosted the 49ers and lost 30-22. It was a tough game for the Packers pass-catchers, as they were roughed up and held at times by the physical 49ers defensive backs and linebackers. Tight end Jermichael Finely noted this when he spoke to Journal Sentinel reporter Tyler Dunne.
"They'll get their hands on you," Finley said. "They're good at holding and not getting caught. So you could call that 'physical.' "
The physicality led to a consistent lack of rhythm for the offense, which only produced two touchdowns.
During the game, the 49ers were able to sit back in a two-deep safety shell and play various coverages, which were sometimes rotated to before or after the snap.
They played coverages such as Cover 2 Man, which is also known as Man Under, as well as Cover 4 or what's referred to as Quarters in coaching parlance. Both of these can look very similar before the snap, thus causing confusion for the signal-caller who is attempting to decipher the coverage with his given keys.
On one play, the defense showed a two-deep set to Aaron Rodgers, but one of the safeties, Dashon Goldson, wasn't lined up as deep as the other safety, Donte Whitner. Whitner was 17 to 18 yards deep while Goldson's cushion was roughly five yards shorter.
It can be difficult to decipher this pre-snap look because of that, and it doesn't help that the cornerbacks aren't giving the coverage away with their alignments. The depth of the boundary corners varied and while their inside shading suggested Man Under, the alignment of the deep safeties implied Quarters coverage.
After the snap, it ended up being Quarters coverage. In the Quarters concept, the cornerbacks man up on the outsides while the safeties read the No. 2 receivers (slots) and focus on them potentially working vertically. On this play, the nickel and dime cornerbacks were able to get their hands on the Packers receivers and disrupt their timing with Rodgers.
The disruption continued after the initial bump-and-run coverage, with boundary cornerback Tarrell Brown (bottom of image) also getting physical by hand fighting with the wide receiver, while the underneath defenders rerouted the tight end and slot receivers.
Meanwhile, the pocket surrounding Rodgers collapsed, and he was forced to get rid of the ball in a hurry, throwing an incomplete pass in the direction of receiver Greg Jennings.
Like the 49ers, the Giants have several outstanding pass-rushers that allow the defense flexibility with its coverages in the secondary. The Giants were able to play Cover 2 (five under, two deep zone), Cover 3 (four under, three deep zone) and the previously discussed Cover 2 Man (Man Under).
By being physical with the Packers receivers, the Giants were able to throw off their timing with Rodgers, which resulted in the latter holding on to the ball longer and taking sacks. Rodgers was sacked five times and had five third downs of 11 yards or longer to gain.
The only difference between the 49ers and Giants games was that the Giants played with their Big Nickel personnel (three safeties) and were more aggressive towards the Packers' pass-catchers. In this weekend's game, I would like to see the 49ers do the same, along with getting after Rodgers with their four-man rush.
The 49ers' four-man rush is very good because it has several players that are mobile, powerful and quick. They are able to line up their pass-rushers at different alignments, regardless of technique or stance, and get after the quarterback. Toward the end of the fourth quarter in the season opener, the 49ers were able to bring down Rodgers with a simple stunt.
Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks was lined up across the outside shoulder of left guard T.J. Lang before the snap. He was going to be stunting from the B-gap into the A-gap, the vacant space between Lang and center Jeff Saturday. Following Brooks was defensive tackle Ray McDonald, who would come across the center and replace Brooks' initial alignment.
When the ball snapped, Brooks exploded across the face of Lang and into the A-gap. Lang and Saturday were unable to match the quickness and intensity of Brooks and struggled to keep him out of their quarterback's face.
When McDonald maneuvered over to the B-gap, it caused further issues. Lang had to leave Saturday hanging out to dry in order to pick up McDonald. When he did that, Saturday was unable to slow down Brooks, who brought down Rodgers for the sack.
Sacking Rodgers should be the No. 1 goal of the 49ers' dynamic defense. As long as he is on the ground, he won't be able to make the eye-popping, coverage tearing throws that he's accustomed to.
The 49ers should have some success in bringing down the Packers quarterback, who was sacked a grand total of 54 times during the regular season. The Packers offensive line is very shaky and could have further issues blocking the stunts of the defense.
I also expect the 49ers to attempt to slow down the Rodgers and the Packers offense by continuing to use exotic looks with the front seven in order to cause further issues in pass-blocking assignments.
If the 49ers can be physical with the Packers and take down Aaron Rodgers, they should be able to put the brakes on the Packers' explosive offense.