Tue, 22 Sep 2020

Take 5: Can Rodgers, Packers rebound vs. 49ers?

Field Level Media
17 Jan 2020, 09:56 GMT+10

An all-time great quarterback had perhaps the worst game of his career the last time the Green Bay Packers visited the San Francisco 49ers.

Can Aaron Rodgers turn it around in the rematch Sunday in the NFC Championship Game?

Rodgers averaged just 3.15 yards per attempt in Week 12, the lowest for any start in his career by 0.35 yards. As with any 37-8 loss, there were far more issues than just the quarterback, but he deserved plenty of blame, and he must play much better Sunday.

That's where we'll begin our conference championship preview.

1. No time for sandlot plays in Santa Clara

An elite pass rush can disrupt almost any quarterback, but the inverse is also true -- an elite quarterback can neutralize almost any pass rush with smarts, pre-snap awareness and snappy decision-making.

Rodgers is certainly capable of that, but he's also famously fond of sandlot playmaking, at times to a fault. Against this 49ers pass rush, he must fight that urge as much as he can.

While San Francisco's rush was very good in Week 12, Rodgers was complicit in several of the five sacks he took. He held the ball a beat too long despite having available outlets, including proper sight-adjusted routes against blitzes.

Timing was also an issue on plays where Rodgers wasn't pressured. He took unnecessary hitches in the pocket and allowed windows to close, including a would-be 36-yard touchdown to Marquez Valdes-Scantling thrown too late, winding up out the back of the end zone.

Rodgers' receivers did him few favors, dropping several passes and losing their footing at times (the turf at Levi's Stadium is notoriously slick). But catching a few more passes won't be enough in the rematch. Rodgers must distribute promptly and efficiently from the start, giving the pass rush fewer chances to get going.

2. Packers' O-line must be sharp inside

The majority of the 49ers' pressure in November came via the interior, not the edge, a season-long trend for Green Bay.

Left tackle David Bakhtiari is an elite protector, and right tackle Bryan Bulaga is near the same level when healthy. Bulaga left the first meeting with an injury, and swing tackle Alex Light struggled badly in his place, but Bakhtiari and Bulaga should be able to play Nick Bosa and Dee Ford (missed Week 12) to a draw.

The problem is inside, where several teams -- including the Niners -- have attacked the Packers with stunts, twists and blitzes. Right guard Billy Turner is the weakest link, but left guard Elgton Jenkins and center Corey Linsley have been susceptible as well. San Francisco defensive end Arik Armstead (two sacks, four QB hits) wreaked havoc as a looper in Week 12, and linebacker Fred Warner was extremely disruptive as a blitzer.

It's difficult to provide help inside, though the Packers could try to chip with a running back on the interior at times. Most important will be communication and chemistry while trying to pass off stunts.

San Francisco's pass rush is too good to stymie for 40-plus dropbacks, so Green Bay must find some success in the ground game, too. The 49ers' run defense was superb last week against the Minnesota Vikings, but it has been up and down much of the year.

3. Shanahan puts Pettine out of his comfort zone

Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan and Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine know each other well. Shanahan worked on Pettine's staff in Cleveland in 2014, and they've faced off twice in the last two years, with Shanahan winning the schematic battle handily both times.

Pettine prefers lighter personnel, namely nickel and dime packages, but Shanahan uses as much heavy personnel as any team in the league. In 2018, Pettine caved by using linebacker Oren Burks, but the then-rookie struggled badly.

Earlier this year, Pettine used thumper B.J. Goodson a little (27 percent of snaps) but stuck mostly with nickel and dime packages, putting safety Ibraheim Campbell in the box. That didn't work either. Shanahan's volume of run schemes -- on full display last week against Minnesota -- is a lot to process for any linebacker, let alone a safety who must hold up against a 315-pound guard.

Regardless of the personnel package, Goodson, Campbell and every-down linebacker Blake Martinez struggled against play-action in Week 12, diagnosing a beat late and struggling to find crossing routes behind them. When the Packers tried to get aggressive with their safeties against crossers, Shanahan unveiled a throwback corner-post to tight end George Kittle, exploiting the vacated deep middle for a 61-yard touchdown.

With no great answer regardless of personnel, an early lead would do wonders for the Packers. It's hard to see them slowing the run and play-action game all day long.

4. Chiefs have a decision to make vs. Henry

Derrick Henry (23 carries, 188 yards, two touchdowns) torched the Kansas City Chiefs in the Tennessee Titans' 35-32 upset in November at Nashville.

That started an absolute rampage from Henry, who has 203 carries for 1,273 yards and 11 scores in nine games dating to Week 10. He's riding the first streak in NFL history of three 180-plus-yard games.

So the Chiefs probably should sell out to stop Henry, right?

Well, the obvious conclusion might not be the correct one. For all of Henry's success, the Titans' offense managed just 14 points two weeks ago at New England. Of the 28 scored at Baltimore last week, 21 came on short fields (45 yards or less), and the lone long drive (81 yards) required a 66-yard run.

While improved, the Chiefs' run defense is below average, so stopping Henry would require aggressiveness with numbers. But that would mean more opportunities for the Titans to attack deep, which is likely the greater danger.

Tennessee has crushed teams with rookie wide receiver A.J. Brown off play-action. Coordinator Arthur Smith will also selectively use speedster Kalif Raymond, who caught a 52-yard bomb against Kansas City, a 40-yard TD in Indianapolis and 45-yard score last week.

Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo might be best served taking away the play-action passing game with split-safety looks, letting Henry churn out 5- and 6-yard gains and buckling up in the red zone, where the Titans' efficiency eventually must regress.

Of course, Spagnuolo has the luxury to choose this approach because he knows his team's offense will score... a lot.

5. Can the Titans slow Mahomes?

Patrick Mahomes eviscerated the Titans' defense in Week 10. In his first game back from a dislocated knee, he finished 36 of 50 for 446 yards and three touchdowns.

Tennessee defensive coordinator Dean Pees' disguises and zone rotations provided little resistance, and Mahomes' off-schedule playmaking was clicking on all cylinders, much as it was in last week's win over the Texans.

Houston went away from its foundation last week to play predominantly man coverage, the supposed "blueprint" against Mahomes, but the results were miserable. Defensive backs got too grabby, nobody could handle tight end Travis Kelce, and Mahomes repeatedly broke contain and found targets late in the down.

Pees likely won't likely go heavy on man coverage as Houston did, but he must change up from Week 10, perhaps mixing man in selectively. Adoree' Jackson has the speed to hang with Tyreek Hill with safety help, and star safety Kevin Byard can survive on Kelce at times. Pees could even put Logan Ryan on Kelce now and then.

Regardless of coverage preferences, the Titans should do as much possible to dare the Chiefs to run. Andy Reid has always been pass-heavy, even more so in high-leverage situations. That opens the door for Pees to get creative with his approach.

Could the Titans play their 3-2-6 dime package -- normally reserved for passing situations -- on first and second down? Would they break out a seven-DB package to match the Chiefs' speed and provide more capable double teams on Kelce? Don't be surprised if Tennessee plays long stretches with only one or two true defensive linemen.

--By David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media

Sign up for Baltimore News

a daily newsletter full of things to discuss over drinks.and the great thing is that it's on the house!