In a matchup of two squads currently heading in opposite directions, the conference rivals face off for the first time since their Wild Card Game two seasons ago. The Packers (3-0) are coming off consecutive victories over playoff-caliber teams in Weeks 2 and 3, while the 49ers (1-2) have lost their last two games.
Since 2012, the teams have played each other four times—and San Francisco has won all four contests. The Packers do own the advantage head-to-head, though, with a 34-30-1 record in the rivalry's history. Sunday marks the first time Green Bay will play in Levi's Stadium—the 49ers' new home stadium.
Let's take a look at the strategies the Packers could use on both sides of the ball in their Week 4 matchup with the 49ers.
Offensive Game Plan
After watching Aaron Rodgers throw for five touchdowns and post a 138.5 passer rating in a win over the Kansas City Chiefs last week, it's easy to say Green Bay should stick to the air going forward. When facing San Francisco's 27th-ranked pass defense, though, it's hard to argue otherwise.
Over the past two games, the Niners have allowed opposing quarterbacks to throw for at least 300 yards and two touchdowns in a pair of blowout losses. So far this season, they've given up 10 yards per pass attempt—a league high.
Pair those trends with a quarterback who's thrown for 10 touchdowns and no interceptions to start the year and we could see the scoreboard light up early and often Sunday.
It seems ironic to see a pass defense struggling this much just a year removed from conceding the second-lowest amount of passing yards in the NFC. To understand the difference between last season's results and a disastrous start to 2015, look no further than the personnel manning the secondary in San Francisco.
Aside from veterans Antoine Bethea and Tramaine Brock, the unit relies on a multitude of inexperienced defensive backs with an increased responsibility. Three of its four corners were drafted in 2014, while the starting free safety, Eric Reid, is a third-year player. The Niners are clearly suffering from the offseason departures of cornerbacks Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver, as evidenced by the stats.
As he did with Kansas City's poor secondary, expect Rodgers to attack the 49ers through the air by targeting the young defensive backs trying to cover James Jones and Randall Cobb.
As ESPN Stats & Info points out, Rodgers has made a living off the short-yardage pass this season:
In Week 3, Rodgers tossed his three touchdowns to Cobb all on quick outs much like this one, via Aaron Nagler of Cheesehead TV:
Great job by the rookie on the rub. https://t.co/w30HQ4FVkP— Aaron Nagler (@AaronNagler) September 30, 2015
In the play above, Rodgers targets Tyvon Branch, playing in place of a couple of injured Chiefs, as he covers Cobb in the slot. Branch, a veteran who's played his entire career in the AFC, hasn't had the benefit of facing Rodgers and the Packers throughout his career—much like the young corners in San Francisco.
Don't be surprised if Rodgers takes the short-yardage route to attack the Niners secondary often on Sunday—a tactic that could eventually open up the running game.
Defensive Game Plan
The key to stopping the 49ers offense ultimately comes down to holding their running game in check. Between Colin Kaepernick and Carlos Hyde, that's no easy task—yet Green Bay could have the tools to do it.
San Francisco is averaging a conference-best 148 rushing yards per game thanks to a combined effort from its quarterback and tailback. Coming into Week 4, Hyde ranks third in the league with 262 yards on the ground, while Kaepernick has the second-most yards among quarterbacks.
Despite Hyde's impressive numbers, he's struggled as of late. Nearly two-thirds of his production came in a 168-yard, two-touchdown Week 1 performance—since then, he's rushed for just 43 and 51 yards, respectively, with no scores.
Coincidentally, Green Bay's run defense has followed the same trend. In Week 1, it allowed Matt Forte to run wild for 141 yards, but it bounced back lately by limiting Marshawn Lynch and Jamaal Charles to 90 combined yards over the last two contests.
So the Packers might actually be able to stop Hyde from having a big day on the ground. But then there's Kaepernick, who's routinely made plays with his feet ever since he earned the starting job in San Francisco in 2012.
Green Bay fans may remember Kaepernick running the read-option to perfection in a pair of playoff wins not too long ago. Though that was a few years ago, it remains to be seen if defensive coordinator Dom Capers has figured out a solution to the dual-threat quarterback.
"Every team we’ve played has a little zone-read element," Capers said recently, via Packers.com. "When you go against Kaepernick, that’s just part of their scheme. The basis of what we do starts with stopping the run."
In every game this season, Kaepernick has run at least seven times for 40 yards. Green Bay knows it will be tested on Sunday—but the question remains: How much can the defense limit a player who's provided so many headaches in the past?
Players and Matchups to Watch
TE Richard Rodgers
With Andrew Quarless sidelined for at least the next two months, Richard Rodgers will see more and more action at tight end in Green Bay's offense. Against San Francisco's less-than-stellar defensive backs, he could have a huge day as a mismatch and secondary receiving option.
Rodgers may have already been the starter to begin the year, but Quarless saw his fair share of plays in each game—especially as a blocking tight end.
In the Packers' Week 3 win, Rodgers was on both ends of the spectrum as he took on defenders in the run game. He made a nice kick-out block on Tamba Hali that freed Cobb for a first-down, end-around run in the first quarter. Yet there's this effort, via Nagler:
Richard Rodgers. Still a work in progress in the run game. https://t.co/IQP6c3o0Qf— Aaron Nagler (@AaronNagler) September 30, 2015
Rodgers must take a step forward this week—both as a blocker and receiver—to become more trustworthy in an offense decimated by injuries.
Packers Front Seven vs. 49ers O-Line
This will be the matchup to watch on Sunday as San Francisco tries to establish its run game. If Hyde and Kaepernick are to have big days, it'll come down to the offensive line in front of them winning the battle in the trenches.
For the Packers, their front seven has gotten better with each game this season. Mike Daniels and B.J. Raji penetrated the backfield all night against Kansas City, while Clay Matthews caused trouble up the middle as a blitzing linebacker, tallying two sacks.
We may see Matthews more in a QB-spy role to limit the damage Kaepernick can do on the run, but who knows what Capers has up his sleeve. The defensive coordinator has gotten creative in how he's used his star defensive playmaker in each game this year.
In the passing game, the Packers defense comes in with 11 sacks on the year—third-most in the league—while San Francisco's offensive line allowed its quarterback to continually get hit in a Week 3 loss to Arizona as Kaepernick threw four interceptions.
The Packers will walk into Levi's Stadium hoping it won't be the last time they do so this season—Super Bowl 50 will be hosted by San Francisco in February.
If that motivation wasn't enough, there's a little added bitterness in Aaron Rodgers' mind as he faces the team that passed on him in the 2005 draft. This storyline sometimes gets overblown every time the Packers and 49ers meet, but it's something that can't be ignored.
Rodgers should have another big day through the air as he faces a secondary that might be worse than the one he tossed five touchdowns against a week ago. Although Eddie Lacy is expected to play, Green Bay's run game won't do much against a Niners defense that's allowed fewer than 100 rushing yards per game.
The early goings of this matchup could be close as the Packers try to find their rhythm on offense and the 49ers put up some first-quarter points.
Sooner or later, though, Rodgers will find his groove and lead some time-killing drives late to give Green Bay a comfortable lead. This will force Kaepernick and Co. to go to the air—something that hasn't gone well for them this season.
The away team will win easily in the end, though the score will be close for at least the first half.
Final Prediction: Packers 33, 49ers 17
Dan will be covering the Packers all season long for B/R. Feel free to follow him on Twitter and talk sports at any hour of the day.