Preview and Analysis: Packers vs. 49ers, Round 2

By Kevin York

<The introduction to this preview was published on January 8, 2013. To read it, you can visit this link.>

Here it is. I said yesterday that I would break one of my own sports superstitions to write this analysis and I’ll keep my word. You’ll see that there actually isn’t much trash talk in this post, but as I mentioned, my superstition is even weirder since it includes any criticism of the opposing team as part of it. I’ve just always preferred to do my talking after the Packers win a game instead of during the lead up.

So without further discussion of my odd Packer support preferences, here’s my preview and analysis to this weekend’s Packers vs. 49ers divisional playoff game.

Packers offense
Overview: Green Bay has struggled with consistency all year on offense, partially due to injuries. They finally seem to have everyone healthy (Jordy Nelson has said he will play this weekend), which is very important for them. The offense is lethal with all its weapons and can be extremely difficult to defend.

— In week one, Green Bay seemed to go against its bread and butter, the passing game, in favor of establishing the run. In this second game, they shouldn’t even attempt to establish the run early on. This year has shown that the 49ers secondary is pretty suspect. That unit received a lot of credit last year and I said the entire year that it was overrated. People are finally listening to me now. Rodgers and company need to attack the secondary hard. Carlos Rogers isn’t capable of man coverage against speedy receivers like Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and James Jones. Green Bay needs to try and put him on an island. Conversely, the San Francisco corner opposite Rogers, Tarell Brown, isn’t any better. I was watching the Niners-Pats game with Ryan, a big time Niners fan. It was a Sunday Night NBC game so in introducing the defense they let the player introduce himself with the talking headshot. Ryan didn’t even know Brown, who was representing the Niners in classy fashion wearing a beanie pulled low over his eyes. “Who is that? Did they pick this guy up on the way to the game?”

Dashon Goldson, the San Francisco free safety, plays more like a hard hitting linebacker, not a guy capable of independent pass coverage against a spread look. Pure and simple, I think he’s a headhunter. The strong safety, Donte Whitner, was shunned by Buffalo before San Francisco picked him up. There’s probably a reason for that. In Buffalo you need to defend the high powered pass attack from Tom Brady and company to compete in that division. He didn’t help, so they let him walk. Last year, when Whitner got a lot of credit for his improved play, he was playing against weak quarterbacks in the NFC West. This year, he’s had to contend with Russell Wilson and a healthy Sam Bradford. What teams did San Francisco struggle with this year? That would be Seattle and St. Louis along with New England and the New York Giants (Eli Manning)… Spreading the field and forcing the Niners into man coverage against four, or even five, receivers will make for a difficult night for their secondary.

— Once the passing game is established, THEN Green Bay can use its newfound running attack. The pass will open up the run. I really like Green Bay’s new running back, DaJuan Harris. As Cris Collinsworth stated over and over and over in the playoff game against Minnesota, he likes the energy Harris brings. I do too, but more importantly, I like the decisiveness. Too many backs in the league want to dance left and right and even backwards indecisively waiting for a hole to open. It’s like watching a kid in a candy store not sure which one candy bar to pick. Harris makes a decision and proceeds with a full head of steam.

— Screen passes have worked well for Green Bay over the past few weeks and will be needed against a hard charging pass rushing team like San Francisco. Aldon Smith is a pass rushing specialist and this is a way to use that against him, especially with how well the Packer receivers have been blocking.

49ers Offense
Overview: San Francisco’s offense has evolved quite a bit this year, especially after making the move to Colin Kaepernick (a move that I think will still come back to haunt them…). He brings a different element to their offense. Everyone seems to think it’s downfield passing. [It’s not, it’s bad decisions, as he showed against Seattle. Ok, this isn’t really part of the analysis. Sorry, but I had to squeeze that in…] That’s certainly part of it, but I think the more appealing aspect (not for me, but for San Francisco fans) is his running ability, which can put a lot of stress on a defense.

— Green Bay showed against Minnesota that it can stop the run, but that was against a running back. I think they will contain Frank Gore on traditional run plays, but containing Kaepernick on read options and non-traditional run plays is another thing. A quarterback like Kaepernick or Robert Griffin III makes it difficult for a defense to contain the pocket. The read option play makes it even more difficult because you essentially need two defenders focused on containment – one on the quarterback and one on the running back. That takes away two pass rushers, so when San Francisco runs the option with a pass as one of the options, it sees success and also forces the defense to stay honest with the pass rush. Run some planned quarterback run plays so that Kaepernick can get comfortable. Don’t forget, he’s young and this is his first playoff game. Although it’s at home, it’s still a different feel and a different kind of pressure than he’s faced yet.

— San Francisco should move the pocket on Green Bay. Kaepernick has a lot of scrambling ability and Green Bay’s interior defensive lineman aren’t particularly fast. Moving the pocket away from Clay Matthews and forcing him to try and chase Kaepernick down from behind scares me.

Packers Defense
Overview: Green Bay shocked me by showing against Minnesota that defensive coordinator Dom Capers can actually develop a game plan to stop a team. He hasn’t shown it all season long. Of course it helped that Joe Webb was playing instead of Christian Ponder. I’m sure Mark never thought he’d be wishing Ponder was under center. The Packers looked good, but let’s remember that Minnesota was forced to be one dimensional on offense. Joe Webb looked astonishingly awful and the Vikings never even ran any plays that catered to his strengths after the first drive. They may have been better picking someone out of the stands to play quarterback.

— As with their defense of Peterson, they’ll need to be patient in defending Kaepernick and stick to the plan. I think using the same pocket containment they used against Peterson could work with San Francisco. Kaepernick likes to take off on outside runs, force him to stay inside and run into the beef of Green Bay’s defense – B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett. Try and move the pocket with San Francisco as it moves it (and Niners will definitely do that, they’ve done it all year). Kaepernick looked utterly confused when Seattle forced him into staying in the pocket more and he made some mistakes. Look at Seattle’s game plan and copy it. Kaepernick is young and inexperienced. He can be forced into mental mistakes.

— The Green Bay secondary is pretty good against the pass. Tramon Williams and Casey Hayward are solid in coverage, but the defensive front needs to apply enough ‘smart’ pressure to not put the secondary in situations where they’re stuck in coverage too long. I say smart pressure because Kaepernick wants to feel a pass rush because it makes it ok for him to leave the pocket and scramble. He wants a reason to run. The Packers will need to rush him differently than they do a Jay Cutler or Matt Stafford. Kaepernick has an ability to extend plays and that would put the Packers corners, good as they are, in a difficult situation.

49ers Defense
Overview: We saw some weaknesses from this defense this year. Everyone raved about them last year and I questioned their depth. This year we discovered they aren’t really that deep. They should be back to near full strength for this game, but even a healthy squad could have the deficits they’ve shown this year exploited by a powerful Green Bay offense.

— The key is Justin Smith. All the accolades went to Aldon Smith this year since he started the season hot and appeared on his way to breaking the single season sack record. He didn’t end up breaking the record, but still received plenty of talk about being a defensive player of the year candidate. I didn’t think it was warranted and he didn’t receive my vote. In fact, he didn’t even receive a second or third place vote from me. Why? Because he wasn’t even the best defender on his own team. In the last three games of the season, when Justin Smith was hurt, Aldon recorded exactly zero sacks. The key to his success is his teammate, Justin. Aldon is a pass rusher, that’s it. He’s not very astute against the run and it makes him an incomplete defensive player. Now that he has Justin back, he should be back to applying more pressure, which could give Green Bay issues. The Niners just need to hope that Justin is healthy enough to help.

Green Bay’s offensive line has gotten a lot of criticism for the sacks its given up, but I don’t think they’re as bad of a unit as people have painted them. Since benching Jeff Saturday at center in favor of Evan Dietrich-Smith, the unit has played at a much improved level. They did an adequate job against Minnesota, a solid defensive front, but the Vikings don’t have the same firepower as San Francisco. The Niners will have to test rookie tackle Don Barclay and his counterpart on the other side of the line, Marshall Newhouse. The outside rush will be key for them because it will force Green Bay to keep a running back, probably fullback John Kuhn, in the backfield to help block instead of using that position outside to line up as another receiver. The interior of the Packers line – Dietrich-Smith and guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton are pretty strong, so focus on the outside rush. The pass rush will help the Niner secondary that may struggle with Green Bay’s fast receivers.

— Given Green Bay’s passing strength, San Francisco will be forced to be timely and picky with when it blitzes inside linebackers Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman. Those two could be forced to stay home and help in pass defense. They’re much more needed there than helping with pass rushing by blitzing. Aaron Rodgers is very good at picking apart blitzes. Leaving Bowman and Willis home will also help the Niner secondary by allowing them to play zone pass coverage instead of leaving their corners and safeties on islands defending in man coverage. I think San Francisco would be better off playing zone coverage against the Packers. They did this in week one.

— San Francisco takes a lot of pride in stopping the run. I think they need to come in with a game plan to stop the pass against Green Bay though, even if it means allowing rushing yards. The Packers won’t beat the Niners by rushing the ball, but they could take them apart by throwing the ball. San Francisco loves to play one safety up, the other back, meaning one safety in the box to stop the run, the other back in pass coverage. I don’t think they can do that against the Green Bay receivers, they’ll need to leave both back, which is exactly what they did in week one. That worked then, but keep in mind that Aaron Rodgers was playing extremely stubborn in that first meeting, insisting on trying to beat the San Francisco coverage deep. He’s proven over the season that he’s not as headstrong in his approach by checking down to receivers and letting the long ball open up itself. Nonetheless, the best way to defend him is with that two back safety approach. You don’t want to get beat deep by Rodgers and his fast receivers.

Green Bay Special Teams
Green Bay is ok with returning punts and kicks, with Randall Cobb and Jeremy Ross performing well, but it’s been an adventure with Mason Crosby kicking field goals this season. He’s been better over the past three games, but they haven’t put him in a situation where he could fail very big. It’s a very “kid gloves” approach and they’ll have to continue this tentative strategy against San Francisco.

San Francisco Special Teams
If there’s a kicker that struggled more than Mason Crosby this year, it was San Francisco’s David Akers. He’s looked atrocious at times, so much so that the 49ers signed free agent kicker Billy Cundiff last week. Of course, Cundiff was cut by the Ravens in favor of a rookie, so is he going to be better? Who knows, but at this point it can’t hurt to look. San Francisco’s returners, namely Ted Ginn and Kyle Williams, have made some mental mistakes, at times extremely large ones, in the return game over the past two years. I think their best bet is using LaMichael James to return punts and kicks. They started doing this more and more toward the end of the year and the rookie showed he can handle the responsibility.

So, that’s my analysis. I don’t think I even included too much trash talk in there, although I was sure to fit in several slights (Colin Kaepernick, Aldon Smith, the entire San Francisco secondary). I just couldn’t help myself once I got going. I’m sure this week will include plenty of trash talk between me and San Francisco fans, especially here at The Couchletes. Poor Mark will feel all left out. Better luck next year, buddy.

Now that I’ve got this analysis published, and I broke my superstition of not trash talking or criticizing my friend’s teams before they play Green Bay, I can spend the rest of the week debating my other sports superstitions I mentioned yesterday, my ban on wearing Packer jerseys on big game days. Do I tempt fate? On Saturday night I actually didn’t even wear a Packers shirt while watching the Minnesota game. Laundry kind of piled up on us and I realized all eight of the non-jersey Packers shirts I own were dirty. So I wore a Packers ballcap and a regular, non-Packer sweater. My Packers shirts all got washed on Sunday, but so did that sweater. Maybe I just wear that and my Green Bay cap again…

By Kevin York
Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kevin_york