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49ers vs. Packers: Breaking Down San Francisco's Game Plan

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49ers vs. Packers: Breaking Down San Francisco's Game Plan
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What do the 49ers need to do around Colin Kaepernick to help this team get a win?

Colin Kaepernick vs. Aaron Rodgers: Part III. “The Rumble in Wisconsin?” It looks that way as the No. 5-seeded San Francisco 49ers will take on the No. 4-seeded Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday.

In what was a last-minute finish to this most recent regular season, these two teams were officially slated to play one another in the 2013-14 NFC Wild Card Round, building on this recently rejuvenated rivalry. And what a way to kick off the playoffs than with these two locking horns. 

With a matchup of two familiar teams, and ones that are pretty evenly matched, there is a lot to consider here. It can really go anyone's way.  

The matchups in this one matter—even the ones most aren't considering. So while everyone flaps their gums, tiring out the read-option chatter and the wild theories about how to stop Aaron Rodgers, as if there is such a method, we’re going to take a look at perhaps the two most important things that matter on offense and defense for the 49ers.

 

Bottle Up Running Back Eddie Lacy

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Wait, the 49ers are going against 2011 NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, and the plan is to stop rookie running back Eddie Lacy?

Truth be told, even though it hasn’t been the banner headline, Lacy and veteran tailback James Starks will both be key factors in Green Bay’s game plan to stay on the field and set up deep shots for Rodgers.

At the end of the day, it's part of the Packers' remodeled plan to beat the 49ers and what differs most from their two losses during the 2012 league year.

Ideally, Green Bay wants to make it so the 49ers can’t sell out to stop the pass (using seven-eight men in coverage). That’s the plan they executed versus the Lacy-less Pack in the 2012 opener and in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. Coach Mike McCarthy and Co. became cognizant of it, drafted to fix it and schemed differently this year.

The 49ers should fully expect the Packers to build on this game plan and try to stop them from accomplishing it.

It's clear as day that they want to run and when. Including a play nullified by penalty, Lacy had nine first-down carries in the Week 1 matchup versus San Francisco (five in the first half). This was a consistent methodology by the Packers as they attempted to set up reasonable second- and third-down situations for Aaron Rodgers.

There was a healthy mix of Lacy, who earned 16 total looks, while Rodgers only threw 37 times, his lowest total to date versus the 49ers D.

That has been hard for the finesse teams to achieve. In fact, quarterbacks Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan have all failed to keep the attempts below the 40-mark (Brady and Brees have had highs of 65 and 63). They stop trying to run and become one-dimensional, and then ultimately, the mistakes come pouring out.

They’ve all lost painfully slow because of it.

But clearly, Green Bay is trying to veer from this condemning offensive philosophy, which speaks volumes about its coaching staff and dedication to winning. Here are some more Packers RB trends from Week 1:

  • They’ll run out of the shotgun, particularly on first down, which challenges the players and personnel groupings of San Francisco.
  • They’ll throw to the running backs, whether they’re dump downs or designed. In Week 1, Lacy caught a 31-yard screen to set up a Randall Cobb receiving touchdown.
  • Neither Eddie Lacy nor James Starks carried the ball once on third down.
  • The Packers staff seems to understand how important it is to get the backs going versus the 49ers defense, winning what is essentially a war of attrition. Their touchdown drives against San Francisco last time were set up by tailbacks and even included a two-yard goal-line pound by Lacy.

What did the 49ers do to stop this, and what will they try?

Well, San Francisco played an inordinate amount of base defense, regardless of the looks it was getting from Green Bay.

If it was a one-back shotgun look with three or so wide receivers, which is common in the Pack's spread offense, it didn’t matter. The big change S.F. made was pulling the nose tackle, kicking defensive tackle Ray McDonald a technique or two inside, while continuing to field its four All-Pro linebackers and putting an extra cornerback on.

via NFL Game Rewind

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was able to design and call assignments where the 49ers were able to contain the rushing attack just the same, but execution by the players also mattered. With their size and ability, Justin Smith and Ray McDonald operate with the size, strength and width of two-and-a-half men, giving them scheme flexibility.

Fangio is also counting on the two inside backers to crash down and account for that left side. He's also got his guys on the edge playing contain. 

But San Francisco's stout linebackers and D-linemen did have to be there to make the tackle because by nature the running lanes are bigger without that 300 extra pounds in the trenches. Fortunately, Lacy is a thicker back with so-so vision, and it’s not like he’s a threat to go the distance if he sees daylight.

Furthermore, this, without a doubt, frustrated the heck out of McCarthy and Lacy, who were hoping for lighter boxes on early downs. But again, this is just something the 49ers can afford to do with their personnel. On Sunday, the defense just has to continue to flood gaps and win on first down, and it does this better than anyone.

If the 49ers can successfully bottle up Eddie Lacy and James Starks with just a few of their All-Pros, they can dedicate the extra help on the back end, take away the kill shot and slow-play Aaron Rodgers until he makes a mistake.

 

Truck this Front Seven

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

No longer is the big story the return of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, which has already been cemented, but rather the Packers missing the heart and soul of their defense in outside linebacker Clay Matthews.

If there is one element that has the potential to end this game for Green Bay before it gets started, it’s his absence.

No. 52 rushes the passer, decapitates the run and rarely bites on the trickery the 49ers like to put in their opponent’s way.

In their past few matchups, whether they were getting burned for 180-plus on the ground by the quarterback or 400-plus in the air, Matthews was the one player who the defense could hang its hat on. He always made enough plays to keep Green Bay in the game, particularly when it came to providing momentum.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Is the Packers front seven exposed without Clay Matthews?

It’s hard to imagine where the Packers get that spark from now.

Now Green Bay is left with defensive players like tackle B.J. Raji, end Mike Daniels and linebacker A.J. Hawk, who have been viable players in the box, but will they be enough to get a stop when the Packers have to have it? Unlikely.

They’re very light in the box, which bodes well for San Francisco.

First-round pick Datone Jones has not quite lived up to his billing in 2013, picking up a mere 10 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 16 games. So, the Packers are lacking help they hoped they’d be getting when drafting the versatile hybrid defensive end from UCLA. This is a very vulnerable blue-collar front that can get knocked off the ball.

This power line should be able to tear through the Packers like tissue paper.

The big boy football they like to play with their power guards and bruising tight ends will work perfectly this week. Interior runs like wham blocks, powers, countersteps, G-leads and double-leads are perfect for this wild-card matchup. And the Niners are no strangers to deploying it versus Green Bay.

In their last couple matchups, the Niners favored the inverted wishbone, which featured multiple blockers and a branch of run options.

via Game Rewind

The Niners motioned to this look twice in a row even.

Tight end Vernon Davis comes in from the in-light spot, joining the opposite tight end/fullback in the backfield. This allows the 49ers to run power with tailback Frank Gore for four quarters.

They can jam it up between the tackles or run read-option off of this, allowing the quarterback to escape outside the numbers.  

Options for the run are great, even more so against an unproven front seven. 

On this particular run, Gore took the handoff behind Davis and left guard Mike Iupati for a gain of six yards. The Niners will take runs at six yards a pop all day. 

When it comes to the 49ers offense versus the Packers defense, there is no question that the outright talent favors San Francisco, but it’ll matter if offensive coordinator Greg Roman can get the best of defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Whoever triumphs in that strategic matchup could decide the game.

 

Miscellaneous

• Don’t Be Afraid to Blitz: The Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals were both said to have porous O-line units at the end of the season, which led many to believe that the 49ers would steamroll them. The Niners had a non-aggressive approach on that side of the ball, and it cost them at times, resulting in a couple of close games that really shouldn’t have been. It couldn’t hurt if Vic Fangio sent a few extra blitzes, particularly zone blitzes, which can wreak havoc on a quarterback’s blind spot. This is how 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman ended Aaron Rodgers’ consecutive passes without an interception streak.

 

• Target No. 85: If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that the Packers secondary can’t really handle these receivers either. Vernon Davis had the big catch in the divisional round. Michael Crabtree scored a pair of touchdowns. And in Week 1, Anquan Boldin went for over 200 yards. It wouldn’t be surprising if Quinton Patton crept up to kill this defensive backfield. But if there’s one matchup Green Bay is worried about, it is the one versus the team’s Pro Bowl tight end in Davis. It doesn’t look good on paper for the Packers, and on top of that, Davis has been having a career year in 2013. The wheel route, deep corner and crossing routes have been murderous. If the Niners can dial up one or two money shots to Vernon Davis, it could be the momentum-capturing play.

 

• Tackle Well: With Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson leading the receiving corps and running back Eddie Lacy firing out of the gate, the 49ers defense is going to have to pride itself on tackling. The threat that they can break an arm tackle and get loose for the big play should worry San Francisco. In regards to stopping the Green Bay playmakers, they’ll have to pride themselves on fundamentals.

 

• Watch Out for Holes in the Secondary: 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers has been known to get picked on by some of the more astute signal-callers out there, particularly those who excel at spreading the ball around. A third-down conversion here, a touchdown there, and it could mean the game. The over-the-top help has to be on it, and the corners may have to pick up the slack. 

 

Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless specified otherwise. Screen grabs provided by NFL.com Game Rewind (subscription required).  

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