49ers Must Stop Davante Adams to Beat Packers
NFL Divisional - The San Francisco 49ers come into the divisional round having played three quarters of very good football this past weekend, with one quarter of bananas nonsense. The 49ers had a DVOA of 92.9% after 45 minutes of game time as an overwhelming defensive performance backed up an efficient rushing attack that had Cowboys defenders sprawling around the field. Then the fourth quarter happened, with interceptions, penalties, and terrible fourth-down decisions nearly undoing everything San Francisco had over the first three quarters. Fortunately for them, Dallas was busy making even more mistakes, and so San Francisco lives to fight another day.
Their reward? The Green Bay Packers, who played zero quarters of very good football this past weekend. They didn't have to—as the top team in the NFC by record, they earned the first-round bye and got to spend the last two weeks resting key starters and watching as a passel of injured stars work their way back for this matchup. The Packers' season-long DVOA isn't as high as their record would suggest, but they simply do not have off days. They have only had two games below a -3.0% DVOA—the Week 1 matchup against the Saints, a game which happened so long ago it may as well have featured Archie Manning and John Hadl for all it tells us about the current Packers squad, and the Week 18 game where they played the backups in the second half. If we look at weighted DVOA and remove the performances of backup quarterback Jordan Love, the Packers improve from ninth to fourth, moving ahead of the 49ers. They're rested and ready to dispel some recent playoff heartbreak in what should be a freezing cold night at Lambeau.
The two teams have met once this season already, in a game that appeared much closer than the underlying numbers would have you believe. Back in Week 3, the Packers won a thriller which required Aaron Rodgers to drive for a game-winning field goal with 37 seconds left and no timeouts to escape Santa Clara with a 30-28 victory. But by our numbers, the Packers significantly outplayed the 49ers. They had a 95% post-game win expectancy, with a 51.8% DVOA to San Francisco's -0.2%. Some terrible special teams play and untimely defensive penalties meant Green Bay nearly blew what should have been a comfortable win, requiring Rodgers to bail them out at the end.
Does that mean a rematch should see the Packers cruising if they can clean up some of their errors? Or does it mean that Green Bay barely survived an off day from a San Francisco team that has gotten much better since September? The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. The Packers are favored in this matchup, as befits the top seed coming off of a bye week, but the 49ers provide a tougher matchup for Green Bay specifically than the Rams or Buccaneers would. The Packers will have to exorcise some old demons if they don't want their Last Dance to end prematurely.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
|DVOA||19.5% (6)||11.5% (9)|
|WEI DVOA||27.6% (4)||15.1% (9)|
|49ers on Offense|
|SF OFF||GB DEF|
|DVOA||14.9% (5)||3.6% (22)|
|WEI DVOA||14.0% (7)||2.2% (22)|
|PASS||33.2% (5)||5.8% (15)|
|RUSH||6.6% (5)||-0.1% (28)|
|Packers on Offense|
|SF DEF||GB OFF|
|DVOA||-7.0% (7)||20.2% (2)|
|WEI DVOA||-16.3% (4)||22.4% (1)|
|PASS||5.8% (16)||36.4% (2)|
|RUSH||-24.8% (2)||3.5% (8)|
|DVOA||-2.4% (26)||-5.2% (32)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
As of press time, Jimmy Garoppolo's status for Saturday is still questionable. He was limited in practice after spraining his shoulder against the Cowboys—he fell on it awkwardly while attempting to avoid landing on his wrist, which has a torn ligament. Kyle Shanahan is being cagey about which quarterback will start against the Packers, but the best assumption is that's more a ploy to force the Packers to prepare for both Garoppolo and Trey Lance rather than a real chance Garoppolo won't start, though it's something to watch for.
Something not to watch? The Week 3 matchup. Both teams are so vastly different from where they were in September that you can throw that game plan out the window. The Packers were without Za'Darius Smith or Rasul Douglas, and Jaire Alexander went down early in the matchup. And as for the 49ers? Their leading rushers in that game were Trey Sermon and Kyle Juszczyk. Elijah Mitchell was out with a shoulder injury, and Deebo Samuel was still a wide receiver with an occasional gadget play and not a running back hybrid. In addition, Brandon Aiyuk was still in Kyle Shanahan's doghouse and the third wideout was Mohamed Sanu, not Jauan Jennings. Both from a personnel and schematic point of view, it's more useful to look at what each team has done over the past two months than it is to look at that game in September.
The first step when stopping the 49ers has to be to take away their run game, and that's a tall ask for the Packers. It's not just ranking 28th in rush defense, it's how the Packers got there—they are regularly beaten at the point of attack, as their run defense gets worse the closer to the line of scrimmage you get. They rank 31st in stuffed rate, 21st in second-level yards allowed, and third in open-field yards. And honestly, that open-field ranking might be a little misleading, as the Packers have allowed 54 running plays of 10 yards or longer this year. To put that another way, 13.4% of runs against the Packers have gone for 10 yards, fifth-most in the league and second-worst among playoff teams. They are outgunned and outmanned everywhere on the line, and the 49ers do a great job of getting to the second level and creating explosive plays for their backs. This is a massive problem for Green Bay.
The return of Smith, Alexander, and Whitney Mercilus will help against the passing attack, but they're not run defenders. Green Bay's top men in that category play on the second level—De'Vondre Campbell and Adrian Amos, most significantly. Campbell has been a huge addition to a Packers defense that has been missing inside linebacker play for years now—the three times the 49ers beat the Packers in the postseason last decade can be in large part chalked up to attacking the soft interior of Green Bay's defense. Campbell has done an excellent job clogging up rushing lanes, flowing downhill, and making tackles when they are available—he had just five broken or missed tackles all year, and his 3.3% broken tackle rate was best in the league among linebackers with at least 50 tackles per Sports Info Solutions. Campbell was second to only Micah Parsons in SIS' total points saved metric among linebackers, and Parsons got the lion's share of his value as a pass-rusher. You could make a strong argument that Campbell was the best off-ball linebacker in football this year, which is why he's your first-team All-Pro despite not making the Pro Bowl. If the Packers are going to avoid reliving the 2019 nightmare of allowing 285 rushing yards, Campbell is going to play a major reason why.
The 49ers use more pre-snap motion than any other team—74.5% of their snaps during the regular season. They especially love to use it on running plays, where they lead the league in attempts, yards, touchdowns—you name it, the 49ers' motion game is on top of the leaderboards. This is a massive stress-test for a defense, challenging players on the edge to not get drawn in by jet motion or sliding tight ends and abandoning their responsibilities. It's not a test the Packers have done very well against this year, either—59 of the 49ers' 69 rushing yards in Week 3 came off of motion, and the Packers were burned badly by motion in the running game against the Ravens and Browns in December.
Just a couple of weeks ago, we saw Kevin Stefanski's Browns attacking with motion and plenty of outside zone, going around the interior of the defense and attacking the cornerbacks directly. They rushed for 219 yards; that's a real danger for the Packers again this week against another team that likes to do that, only better. But back in Week 3, Green Bay countered this by doubling up edge defenders on a large number of snaps, giving extra help outside, and the 49ers couldn't counter that with more runs up the middle. Kenny Clark had a great day against the interior of the 49ers' line, preventing anything from getting going between the tackles. That may be the Packers' best hope once again—bringing those extra bodies towards the edge to try to contain the speed of Samuel and Mitchell to the outside, and hoping that Clark or Dean Lowry or someone steps up and plays better than they have for most of the year to help Campbell in the middle of the field. If they can't contain the 49ers around the edge, the Packers are going to have a long day on defense, and it's no fun playing defense in single-degree weather when your opponent is running the ball effectively.
We saw what happens when the 49ers' offense is ticking on the first drive against the Cowboys, with San Francisco averaging 10 yards per play. Every play fed off one another—the run game setting up the play-action passing attack; motion priming the defense to look for one thing, and then running the counter to that with the same pre-snap look later on; and so on and so forth. We also saw what happens when the 49ers' offense is not ticking with the fourth-quarter collapse. When the offense is flowing, Jimmy Garoppolo can process quickly, find Samuel or Kittle or Aiyuk in open space, and set up massive YAC opportunities. When those early reads are gone, however, that's when you start seeing the overthrows, the underthrows, and the ohnothrows. Jaire Alexander's interception back in Week 3 was on the patented Garoppolo arm punt as the 49ers tried to force Kittle deep. Garoppolo is not the type of quarterback to throw a guy open or make a great play with his arms and legs to turn a disaster into something positive. Garoppolo keeps the offense moving when it's on schedule but gets into trouble when he's forced to play hero ball. This is where the Packers can attack and get those crucial turnovers and third-down stops.
We'll have to see what Za'Darius Smith can do in his first action since Week 1. Last season, Smith was in the top 20 in quarterback knockdowns, hurries, and defeats, and that counted as a down year for him. A fully healthy Smith would be a boon for a Packers team that is in the middle of the pack in terms of pressure rate. The question is whether or not Smith is fully healthy, or fully back in game shape to play his usual workload. I'd expect him to play more of a situational role in his first game back, coming in on obvious passing downs to spare his stamina some. But even adding a partial Smith to Preston Smith and Rashan Gary is a win. And if Whitney Mercilus can join in the rotation too, so much the better. Garoppolo has not been pressured much this season; ESPN has him with 110 plays under pressure, last among starting quarterbacks. But when he has been pressured, it has not gone well—a QBR of 9.7 and a 51.9% completion rate. He does average over 6 yards per attempt, but that requires him to actually get the ball off; only Justin Fields, Carson Wentz, and Joe Burrow got hit more under pressure than Garoppolo did. He's already nursing a bad wrist and a gimpy shoulder; if the Packers can force the 49ers to lean on their passing attack, they can beat Garoppolo up. Make him feel those injuries; he won't want to come out, and an improbable number of his bad games (see: Tennessee, the fourth quarter against Dallas, 2020 Miami) have come when he has tried to gut through a mid-game injury.
Green Bay's coverage has been sharp all season long—seventh against both No. 1 and No. 2 wideouts, third against other wide receivers. Jaire Alexander returning should help boost that even further, though neither Rasul Douglas nor Eric Stokes seem ideal for playing in the slot upon Alexander's return. That falls into the category of good problems to have, and maybe it's Alexander in the middle this week against Samuel when he's lined up as a receiver, leaving Douglas and Stokes to take care of Aiyuk. Where the Packers' pass attack is weak, however, is against tight ends, where they rank 28th and allow 50.4 yards per game. Mark Andrews, T.J. Hockenson, Travis Kelce—against high-quality pass-catching tight ends, the Packers have struggled. That includes George Kittle in Week 3, when he caught seven passes for 92 yards. Kittle wasn't used much at all as a receiver against Dallas; that may change in this matchup.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
An offensive game plan can be considered a complicated flowchart, with checks, audibles, and progressions multiplying dramatically when you have a legend like Aaron Rodgers under center. This week's plan, crafted carefully in long hours by Matt LaFleur, goes as follows:
Step one: is Davante Adams single-covered? If so, throw him the football. If not, run whatever other play you were going to originally run.
Sometimes, it really is that simple. The 49ers get into trouble when their secondary has to hold up for any significant period of time against top players, and Adams is toppermost of the top. Back in Week 3, he had 12 receptions for 132 yards and a score. The 49ers do not have a cornerback who can match up against him. They don't really have a cornerback-safety duo who can bracket him and limit his numbers. They might be able to slow him down a little with zone coverages and flowing to him to prevent YAC, but Adams is going to get his. The 49ers secondary has improved since Week 3, with K'Waun Williams and Ambry Thomas replacing Deommodore Lenoir and Josh Norman, but that just means they have gone from unbelievably bad to, well, believably bad.
San Francisco has actually risen all the way to 10th in pass defense DVOA if you include the postseason, clocking in at a respectable 1.3%. However, that falls to 24.2% if you only look at passes that were actually thrown, which ranks 17th. And they fall all they way to 138.5% on deep passes, last in the league. Those ranks improve if you look just over the last 10 weeks, but only to sixth, 15th, and 30th. If you have time to throw against the 49ers, big plays are there. And if you have time to throw with the presumptive MVP quarterback and the first-team All-Pro receiver, you win the game. Rodgers-to-Adams isn't just the Packers' best offensive option; it's their best defensive option. Pile on enough points early, and the 49ers will have to go away from their running attack. If this game turns into a shootout, the Packers have the quarterback who's better off taking shots. Garoppolo can't go toe-to-toe with Rodgers.
The reason, of course, the 49ers jump into the top 10 in overall pass defense is their pass rush, which has been a real problem for any team to deal with over the last half of the season. The 49ers hit Matt Stafford and Dak Prescott 27 times over the past two weeks, and the Rams and Cowboys haven't exactly been sieves this season; they rank in the top 10 in adjusted sack rate, as do the Packers. We mentioned Garoppolo's poor numbers against pressure, but Rodgers hasn't been much better, with a QBR of 9.3 and just a 38.1% completion rate. Part of that is Rodgers wisely throwing the ball away rather than taking hits, but even the Packers' passing attack is vulnerable if pressured.
Health is going to play a huge factor in this one. Nick Bosa is the lynchpin of the San Francisco pass rush, but he's still in concussion protocol. The 49ers are optimistic he'll be cleared for the game, even on the short turnaround, but they don't have any control there. The 49ers aren't short of good pass-rushers—Arik Armstead has exploded since being moved inside and is on a tear with 4.0 sacks and 13 pressures in the last three weeks, and San Francisco has gotten more out of Arden Key and Charles Omenihu than they ever produced at previous stops, but Bosa is the guy you have to scheme specifically to protect yourself against. Without him, the Packers' job would get much easier.
Also helping the Packers out is the fact that they'll be near full-strength on the offensive line for the first time all year. David Bakhtiari and Josh Myers got a little work against Detroit to help them round back into shape after missing most of 2021, and it looks like Billy Turner will be back as well. Getting three starters back into the lineup is huge for Green Bay—it's not that Yosh Nijman or Dennis Kelly have been particularly bad this year, but they're not Bakhtiari or Turner. It also probably sends Royce Newman back to the bench and lets Lucas Patrick slide from center to his more natural guard position; the Packers would prefer Elgton Jenkins there, but Newman and Patrick were the two worst linemen the Packers had this season, so replacing one and letting the other play his more natural role is a win as well. I would expect San Francisco to continue to attack Patrick and Turner and the right side of the line in general, as that would still be the weak point against the pass rush, but if all of the Packers returnees are able to play up to their usual standards, Green Bay is in a much better situation than they were a month ago. That is a big "if," mind you, especially for Bakhtiari, who hasn't played a full game since December 2020 and is still limited in practice. Expect the 49ers to test him early, but if there's a tackle out there who can come in after a year and provide top-tier offensive play, it's Bakhtiari.
The Packers did two things to dampen the 49ers' pass rush in Week 3, both to some success. The first is simple: get the ball of out Rodgers' hands quickly, before the pass rush has time to get there. Rodgers' average time to throw against San Francisco was just 2.38 seconds, per Next Gen Stats. That's one of the 30 fastest games for any quarterback this year, and even for the usually decisive Rodgers, it was speedy—he only threw the ball quicker against the Cardinals and Browns this season. These weren't just quick dump-offs to get the pressure of his back, either. Rodgers averaged 12.9 air yards per throw against the 49ers, significantly above his average of 7.9 for the year. That's a combination of Rodgers' exceptional quick processing power, Adams' ability to burst off of the line, and the 49ers' inability to cover anybody deep. All of that should still be in place on Saturday.
The other way the Packers slowed the 49ers pass rush down was with a strong rushing attack from Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon. We mentioned the 49ers like to use motion in their running attack to catch aggressive defenses off balance? Well, Matt LaFleur learned the same lessons under Shanahan in Houston, Washington, and Atlanta, and the Packers run many of the same concepts to great success themselves. The 49ers know they have to get after Rodgers to have a chance in this one; the Packers' strong counter running game can catch them zigging one way and zag the other for significant gains. That worked like a charm in Week 3, but the 49ers have gotten sturdier up front since them. When Javon Kinlaw was ruled out and Arik Armstead moved to the inside after Week 8, the 49ers' rush defense DVOA jumped from -10.9% to a league-best -29.8%; it took a while to get everyone in the right place, but the results since midseason have been unparalleled. It's still worth the Packers' while to test that run defense—check how Fred Warner does coming back from his low-ankle sprain and see if you can't work in some hesitation from those San Francisco pass-rushers—but I would expect the sledding to be tougher for Green Bay this week than it was back in September.
The 49ers have the second-worst special teams unit in the NFC when you include the postseason. They had the worst kick-return unit in the league at -9.8 estimated points of field position below average. Their kickoff team was third-worst at -7.0, as well. And they just allowed a huge conversion on a fake punt against Dallas, when former starting cornerback Josh Norman decided that no, no one needed to cover the gunner, it was probably fine. They do, at least, have Mitch Wishnowsky and a punting unit that ranked fifth at +5.2 points.
The Green Bay Packers have the worst special teams unit in the NFC—and, indeed, in the league as a whole. Mason Crosby has led Green Bay to the worst field goal/extra point ranking in the league at -12.7 points. That's the worst the franchise has seen since 1988, when a rotating cast of kickers managed to make just 52% of their field goals. Crosby hasn't been that bad, but he's down at 73.5%, including just 81.2% from inside 40 yards, which should be automatic in this day and age. The Packers also rank 31st in kickoff returns, 30th in punt returns, and 25th in kickoffs, though they are at least 17th in punts.
Suffice it to say, neither of these teams want the game to be decided on special teams.
Our model favors the Packers, with the most confidence of the four games this week. They have the benefit of the bye, allowing them to rest and get healthy. They have home-field advantage, even if that's not as strong as it has been in the past. They haven't played a terrible game since Week 1. They have the better quarterback and the stronger passing attack, against a team which struggles against strong quarterbacks and strong passing attacks. They have the more experienced team from a postseason perspective. They have a coach who is unlikely to fritter away win probability with conservative fourth-down decisions. The Packers are the pick.
And yet, with all that being said, Green Bay would likely feel a bit more comfortable if they had gotten Arizona, Los Angeles, or Philadelphia, their other possible matchups for this week. If Green Bay has an Achilles' heel, it's the run defense, and Kyle Shanahan's 49ers have had a history of exploiting it. In their four matchups since Shanahan and LaFleur took over their respective teams, the 49ers are averaging a 37.2% DVOA to Green Bay's -4.8%, and that gap just gets wider if you exclude the 2020 Nick Mullens game. It's not 2019 anymore. The Packers were the better team when they played earlier this season. And yet, no one would blame Packers fans from being a little nervous about this one coming up.
The winner of this game will probably be the team with the defense that withstands the onslaught the best. If the Packers can stuff Samuel and Mitchell like they did Sermon back in Week 3, they should win. If the 49ers can knock Rodgers around like they did two years ago, they're in it with a great chance. At the end of the day, though, if this one is close coming down to the wire, you side with the team with the presumptive MVP and the coach willing to trust his offense on fourth downs.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.