Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
When it comes to the NFL playoffs, it doesn’t really matter what happened last week, or the week before, and it sure as heck doesn’t matter what happened in the regular season between two teams. At least it doesn’t matter much. Everyone knows the absolute thrashing the San Francisco 49ers gave the Green Bay Packers the first time they played each other this regular season. Unfortunately for 49ers fans, that game’s outcome has nothing to do with the outcome of this Sunday’s NFC Championship game. The only thing that will matter for that game is the players on the field playing it.
The first time around, the 49ers’ defense steamrolled Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense, making the game no longer competitive by the third quarter and the Niners didn’t even have Dee Ford or Kwon Alexander. In all honesty, Packers wide receiver Davante Adams was also not putting on the show that he has put on the past few weeks. Sunday’s game will all come down to the matchups and whose stud player or players outperform their opponents by enough.
There are a few key matchups that the 49ers defenders need to take care of.
The Secondary vs. Davante Adams
Adams has been an incredible spark plug and performer for the Packers down the stretch and into the playoffs. The 49ers’ cornerbacks don’t “travel,” meaning that they stay on their sides of the field, regardless of who lines up against them, so we won’t see Richard Sherman completely lock down Adams all game. Instead, the CBs and safeties will need to share that role. Everyone expects Emmanuel Moseley to start opposite of Sherman, and one would expect the Packers to keep Adams away from Sherman as much as possible, meaning it will come down to Moseley and nickelback K’Waun Williams to slow down the Packers’ primary target. Williams has been playing absolutely lights-out nickelback, while Moseley and fellow CB Ahkello Witherspoon have been responsible for most of the passing yards the team has given up lately. It will be interesting to see if defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will roll some help that way with a safety.
Stopping Adams in the passing game is the number one priority for this defense.
The Linebackers vs. Aaron Jones
Look, I know it’s cheating to name a whole position group as a matchup target twice in the same article, but I’m doing it anyways.
Jones has also been on a tear this season, leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns. Honestly, it’s been more Jones and Adams than Rodgers who have caused the Packers’ late-season winning streak. It will take all three starting linebackers (Fred Warner Jr., Kwon Alexander, and Dre Greenlaw) to be on their game in order for the defense to completely shut Jones down. This is a matchup they should definitely win. Although their passing defense is tops in the NFL while the run defense in middle of the pack, the 49ers’ defense overall has done a fantastic job of limiting the top RBs they have faced this season. After limiting Dalvin Cook to 18 yards on 9 carries, they should be up to holding Jones to under 100 yards rushing. The goal should really be holding him under 50, because that means the Packers’ offense is either forced into throwing the ball in a comeback attempt or otherwise unable to milk the clock with the lead.
Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, and Arik Armstead vs. Elgton Jenkins and Bryan Bulaga
This is where the magic happens for the 49ers defense: Bosa, Ford and Armstead beating the two Packers tackles off the edge early and often is key if the team wants to go to its seventh Super Bowl.
Rodgers doesn’t escape the pocket much; he is more comfortable stepping up and delivering a throw rather than running around directing traffic. This is why the 49ers’ pass rush was so effective the first time these teams met. Rodgers doesn’t try to slip out the other side or underneath the rusher and to the outside. If the DE tandems can find their way to the back of the pocket, then they will force Rodgers to step up into DeForest Buckner’s arms. This will be the team’s path to getting as many three-and-outs as possible.
Putting it all Together
Really, this all goes together. If the LB group is doing their job of stopping Jones, then the DEs can focus on reaching Rodgers as fast as possible. With the DEs doing their job and forcing Rodgers to throw before he wants to, it will make the CBs’ job of limiting Adams even easier, not giving him enough time to finish his routes and possibly giving safeties Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward the opportunity to jump on some timing routes and maybe cause some turnovers.
With the 49ers’ defense winning these matchups, there isn’t even a possibility for the Packers to win this game.
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