Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Déjà vu all over again: after knocking off the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round, the 49ers will host the Green Bay Packers, for the second time this season, in the NFC Championship game. What do the Niners need to go to secure their seventh appearance in the Super Bowl?
In the Week 12 victory over Green Bay, the 49ers were able to consistently pressure Aaron Rodgers in the pocket. According to Pro Football Focus, the 49ers’ top ranked pass defense generated 15 hurries with 7 sacks. Those numbers are especially impressive considering Green Bay has one of the better tackle tandems in the NFL with David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga. Those numbers were par for the course coming into their Sunday night match-up, but following that game the 49ers pass rush evaporated, with only four sacks over the final five weeks of the season. Saturday’s divisional game saw the return of pass rush specialist Dee Ford, and the results were immediate: Kirk Cousins was pressured 17 times on his 35 drop backs while being sacked six times. Cousins was never able to get comfortable in the pocket and Minnesota’s offense never got off the ground. Coach Kyle Shanahan said in his Tuesday press conference that the team escaped Saturday’s victory with no injuries, which means that we should see the same pass rush this Sunday. Green Bay wasn’t able to slow down the 49ers’ defensive front their first time and they didn’t have to deal with Ford that Sunday night. With a healthy front four it’s imperative that the 49ers make Rodgers uncomfortable and keep him that way if they want to play in two weeks.
Much like San Francisco’s pass rush, the running game awoke from a multi-week slumber Saturday, as much-maligned running back Tevin Coleman had his best game since his Week 8 breakout against the Carolina Panthers. After seeing his rushing attempts taken by Raheem Mostert, Coleman exploded Saturday with 22 carries for 105 yards and two touchdowns as the team totaled 186 yards on the ground. In their first match-up with Green Bay the 49ers amassed only 112 yards on the ground but were able to punch the ball in twice. Aside from a timely pass rush, the best defense against a quarterback of Aaron Rodgers’ talent is an effective running game. The 49ers had the third-best rushing attack in the NFL averaging 145.6 yards per game, that dominance on the ground also helped the Niners stay at the top of the NFL in time of possession, keeping the ball for an average of 31:51 per game. The offense was missing left tackle Joe Staley and running back Matt Breida that Sunday night, and it was also George Kittle’s first game back from an injury he suffered on Halloween against the Cardinals. With those three players back to full strength the 49ers should be able to find success on the ground against a Packers defense that ranked twenty-third in the NFL against the run, surrendering 120.1 yards per game.
To make their seventh trip to the Super Bowl, the 49ers’ defense has to pressure Aaron Rodgers; the more they can keep him uncomfortable and get him off of his spots the more success they’ll have. Conversely, the offense will have to take advantage of match-ups and establish themselves on the ground, the more they can keep the ball out of Rodgers’ hands the more likely they’ll be visiting Miami in February.
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