by Andy Benoit
Week 1 gives us what could be a preview of the NFC Championship: Niners at Packers. This game is ripe with storylines, features the NFC’s premier defense against its premier offense, and presents a chess match between two of the best coaching staffs in the league. Let’s break it down.
1. The 2005 Draft revisited
Everyone agrees the Niners got it wrong. Hindsight being 20/20, they should have used the No. 1 overall pick on Cal’s Aaron Rodgers, not Utah’s Alex Smith. Only the rare 49ers homer would play the "smartest guy in the room" card and argue that the gap between the two signal-callers isn’t really that wide.
Smith has grown past some of his limitations, but he still has others. Rodgers has a much stronger arm, far better accuracy, and more dynamic mobility in and out of the pocket. He's a better decision-maker under duress and reads the field well prior to the snap. But the gap between these players is best exhibited by how each player’s team uses him. The Packers win working through Rodgers; the Niners, generally, win working around Smith.
This is most blatantly exhibited in the types of formations the teams use. Green Bay spends a lot of time in spread sets, asking Rodgers to be a field general. They do nothing to camouflage the fact that they’re putting the game entirely in their quarterback’s hands. When you play like this, you invite the defense to bring its full gauntlet of attacks, as most blitzes and defensive tricks come from nickel and dime packages.
San Francisco mostly sticks to base formations. That keeps the defense more vanilla. This, in turn, makes them somewhat vanilla. There are fewer wide receivers running routes for them and, by the nature of the condensed formations, there are more play-action concepts and either-or reads for Smith. This is how the Niners take the game out of their quarterback’s hands. Even when they seemingly put the game in Smith’s hands by taking a shot at the end zone on first-and-10 from the opponents 40-yard-line (something the Niners do often in that part of the field, by the way), they’re really not banking on Smith. Shot plays are single-read throws. Aside from accuracy being harder at long distance, there’s really nothing about them that’s difficult for a pro quarterback.
Credit both Rodgers and Smith for responding well to their assignments. And credit both coaching staffs for giving their quarterbacks the proper assignments. But if Rodgers and Smith post similar numbers this Sunday, don’t think for a second that this means they’re on the same plane. Rodgers’s assignments are drastically more demanding than Smith’s. Those numbers are coming from different assignments. If one student gets an A on a remedial math quiz and another student gets an A on an advanced calculus quiz, are both students on the same plane?
2. The Hot Matchup: San Francisco’s inside linebackers against Green Bay’s tight end
What makes the Niners’ defense and Packers’ offense so great is versatility. The Niners can operate sub-package concepts out of their base personnel. The Packers can execute spread passing plays out of their base personnel. The reason? Both have insanely athletic weapons in the middle.
Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are by far the best inside linebacking duo in the league -– and perhaps the two best inside linebackers in football. Pushing them to the top of the highest echelon is the fact that they’re smart and fluid in coverage.
Jermichael Finley is arguably the most sinewy receiving tight end in the league. He has an uncommon ability to adjust to passes without compromising his size and speed. With his body control, Finley would be borderline unstoppable if his hands were just a little more reliable.
Most defenses have to make a tough decision about how they’re going to defend Finley. Do they use a nickel corner against him and hope that Green Bay doesn’t attach him to the formation and run? Or, do they stay in base defense and hope that their linebackers don’t get stuck on an island against the monster?
The Niners don’t have this dilemma. They believe Bowman or Willis can hold their own against any tight end, which means the decision shifts to the Packers. Do they add any wrinkles to their usual sets so as to try and force the type of mismatch they’re used to? Or, do they take their chances and trust that their star can beat the defense’s stars?
3. Stunt Devils
If you had to identify a weakness on the Packers offense, you’d probably say left tackle. Veteran Chad Clifton is gone. His heir, 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod, is still recovering from a horrific broken leg. So protecting Rodgers’s blind side this Sunday will be third-year pro Marshall Newhouse, a former fifth-round pick who doesn’t have the quickest feet. That’s not a big deal –- Rodgers knows Newhouse doesn’t have the quickest feet and he can adjust his approach accordingly, as he did down the stretch last season.
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Besides trying to rebuff a pass-rusher’s sheer speed off the edge, what gives players like Newhouse the biggest fits is having to make adjustments on the fly. Stunts force an offensive tackle to do this –- both mentally and physically. With a 3-4 front, most stunts involve a defensive end attacking the B-gap (between the guard and tackle), so as to eat up both blockers. This creates an inside lane for the outside linebacker to sweep into and, hopefully, a clear path at the quarterback.
The Niners execute stunts better than any defense in the NFL. Even when the offense knows it’s coming, it can’t always stop it. San Francisco’s secret? Holding. They have a pair of top-tier defensive ends in Justin Smith, arguably the best 3-4 lineman in the league right now, and Ray McDonald, one of the game’s most underrated players. Those guys are taught to grab the left outside of the offensive guard’s jersey or the right inside of the tackle’s jersey. The umpire and referee, who are tasked with holding on the interior line, often can’t see this –- there is too much congestion in the middle of that action. They are standing in the backfield, and can’t see through the offensive linemen to get a look at the defensive end’s hands. The grabbing prevents the blockers from getting over quickly enough to pick up the stunting blitzer.
Stunts can take place on a stretched basis, too. Take a look at how the Niners set up this Aldon Smith sack against the Browns last year.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
4. Niners offensive line vs. Packers pass rush
San Francisco was pathetic in blitz pickup last season. Even traditional pass-blocking was a problem for this line most of the time. Right tackle Anthony Davis must improve his body control, guards Mike Iupati and Alex Boone need to hone their mechanics and improve their vision against pass-rushers coming from an angle or delay. Center Jonathan Goodwin could stand to get quicker laterally.
The Packers pass-rush tailed off in 2011, but that was most likely an aberration. It should be better this season. Clay Matthews is healthy. First-round rookie Nick Perry is expected to be an upgrade over Erik Walden. B.J. Raji is built more like a run-stopper, but his suddenness off the snap can collapse a pocket and break down protection concepts. That’s what most of pass-rushing is: breaking down protection concepts. The Packers do this extremely well. Charles Woodson is a fantastic blitzer from the nickel slot. He doesn’t aim to get sacks so much as he aims to move the quarterback off his spot. That movement ruins the timing of passing plays and creates sack opportunities for other defenders.
Another thing the Packers do well is fire-X blitzes. This is where one inside linebacker attacks the A-gap opposite him, while the other inside linebacker waits a beat and then attacks the A-gap opposite him. Desmond Bishop, with his downhill burst and physical strength when on the move, is one of the best fire-X blitzers in the NFL. However, he’s out for the season with a torn hamstring. The Packers are hoping last year’s athletic sixth-round pick, D.J. Smith, can fill Bishop’s shoes.
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Whoever is on the field, you can bet Dom Capers will be dialing up plenty of layered, staggered, pass-rushes given how much he and his staff must have salivated when watching the Niners’ offensive line film from last year.
5. Randy Moss
Won’t it be interesting to see just how rejuvenated the 35-year-old really is? If Moss has his old straight-line speed back, we’ll get to see a great individual matchup Sunday, as starter Tramon Williams and frequently used backup corner Sam Shields are both outstanding downfield man-to-man defenders.
The problem with Moss is that his game consists only of straight-line downfield speed. That’s what pushed him into retirement last season. It wasn’t because he no longer loved the sport. It wasn’t because no team in the league wanted to put up with his distractions. It was because he couldn’t athletically change directions or control his stop/start prowess. Father Time had caught up to him. The Niners are hoping that Father Rest has done Moss some favors. We’ll start to find out for sure this Sunday.