Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
The 49ers were lucky to find themselves 9-1 on Monday morning. The Arizona Cardinals gave them all they could handle for the second time in three weeks, and heading into their toughest three-game stretch of the season, the team has some issues to clean up if they want to spoil Aaron Rodgers’ return to the Bay Area.
It’s cliché to say, but the best defense against a quarterback of Rodgers caliber is a good offense. Like Russell Wilson two weeks ago, Rodgers is at the top of the game when it comes to NFL quarterbacks, so the best thing the 49ers can to do limit his effectiveness is keep him off the field. The 49ers can boast the second-best rushing attacking in football, averaging 149 yards per game. But over the last three weeks it’s looked like anything but. Against Arizona twice and Seattle once, the 49ers have rushed for a paltry 74 yards per game, good for twenty-seventh in the NFL over that span. Not coincidentally these last two weeks have been the only games of the season where the 49ers lost the time of possession battle.
The missing piece of the running game is George Kittle. It sounds funny to say now, but as huge of a loss as Kittle was initially viewed, it paled in comparison to how invaluable he is to the team. Kittle’s necessity is expressed in the totality of his talents, he’s already arguably the best receiving tight end in football; teams are forced to account for him in the middle of the field, usually pulling defenders from both the second and third levels of the defense. But teams also have to account for Kittle exceptional ability as a blocker; his Pro Football Focus run-blocking grade is 71.3. He’s such a good blocker that he’s practically a sixth offensive lineman for Shanahan to use. Kittle has been held out of practice so far this week and is expected to be a game time decision. If he’s able to go Sunday against the Packers he’ll be a huge boost to both the passing and running game.
Even if Kittle is unable to go, the 49ers should be able to get their rushing game back on track against a Green Bay defense that ranks twenty-fifth against the rush, allowing 126.9 yards per game.
The 49ers’ secondary had some difficulty with Kyler Murray in the first half of Sunday’s game. Richard Sherman was penalized three times for pass interference and Ahkello Witherspoon played only six snaps in his first game back from injury. With Arizona playing an up-tempo offense, the defensive line initially had difficulty getting pressure on Murray and it manifested in some easy completions early on.
While Rodgers has elite arm talent, luckily for the front seven, he’s not as mobile as Murray. Football Outsiders still has the 49ers’ defensive line ranked as the most efficient in football with an adjusted sack rate of 11.8 percent, and the 49ers are also tied for first in the NFL with 39 sacks. The strength of the Packers’ offensive line is in their tackles, left tackle David Bakhtiari and right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who make up possibly the best tackle tandem in the league. While left guard Elgton Jenkins has yet to allow a sack this season, center Cory Linsley and right guard Billy Turner have allowed four each. DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead should be able to create havoc on the interior and make Rodgers uncomfortable with pressure directly in his face.
The 49ers enter a historically difficult stretch of games beginning on Sunday night. No team has faced three straight opponents with a .800 or better winning percentage this late in the season during the Super Bowl era. The game against Green Bay will go a long way in determining home field advantage for the playoffs and possibly set the 49ers up for a successful run through this three-week crucible
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