Welcome to the 2021 NFL season’s Divisional Round Weekend. Here at Buffalo Sports Page we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
One of the NFC’s divisional round games will take place at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin as the Green Bay Packers will face the San Francisco 49ers. Here’s what you should know:
PACKERS’ OFFENSE STILL DANGEROUS
After 13 years, four trips to the NFC Championship Game and a Super Bowl victory in 2010, longtime Packers coach Mike McCarthy was let go by Green Bay after 2018. A sense of staleness had grown around the franchise and general manager Brian Gutekunst sought to revive his team with new blood in the form of Matt LaFleur.
The third-year head coach was the Tennessee Titans’ play-caller that same year and prior to his time in the Music City, LaFleur ran Sean McVay’s offense for the Los Angeles Rams. McVay and LaFleur go back even further than that too, with both spending time working for Mike Shanahan in Washington and for his pupils – Gary Kubiak in Houston and Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta.
Like his former colleagues, LaFleur has used a playbook that emphasizes a running game built around zone-blocking (especially to the outside on “stretch” plays) and passes that are created off the threat of run-action. It’s a West Coast-style of offense that can create a lot of big plays down the field from craftily designed routes that work off one another, and the skill position players often line up in reduced splits to the line of scrimmage to become both extra blockers on runs and to have more room to run routes on the field. Additionally, unlike McCarthy’s matchup-based system, LaFleur’s playbook relies more on the design of his plays and the progressions of the quarterback – and it’s taken well to this roster.
The Packers’ offense continues to run through Aaron Rodgers. Still one of the league’s best at 38 years old, Rodgers is as strong-armed and accurate as he was earlier in his career, and his intelligence and athleticism continue to remain sharp. What’s interesting about Rodgers is that sometimes the favorite to be named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player won’t play “on schedule”, as coaches like to put it. Sometimes he will try to pull off sandlot football – meaning not looking at his first receiver and holding onto the ball too long to try and make a greater play than what the original call designed.
According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit: “Though he is capable of beating defenses with presnap reads and quick throws, Rodgers frequently passes up open receivers and leaves clean pockets, which would warrant a reprimand for most QBs. But he’s so exceptional that he often goes on to make a better play.
“The tricky part is that Rodgers’s approach is more conducive to spread formations and isolation routes which, when relied upon too heavily, can lead to dry spells in the passing game. The challenge is to find the proper mix.”
Rodgers’ targets include an extraordinary route runner in Davante Adams (who is especially adept on double moves and is a favorite target on third down), Marques Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb, and all can carry out Rodgers’ favorite routes. Slants, posts and back-shoulder fades are staples of the Packers’ offense, and not only do they excel at such pass-patterns but they also have a great feel for how to get open when plays break down – especially Adams, who can also play in the slot. Green Bay’s tight ends also occasionally get in on the action – notably within the red zone – and they’re a mix of young and old, featuring 16-year veteran Marcedes Lewis and Robert Tonyan (who had a career-high 11 touchdowns in 2020 but is out for the season with a knee injury).
Not only are the Packers a good passing team, but they can also run the ball with ease. Aaron Jones is Green Bay’s starter in the backfield and is adept both on the ground with two 1,000-yard rushing seasons under his belt and through the air, as evidenced by his setting career-highs in receptions (52) and receiving touchdowns (six) in 2021. His backups, the power-running A.J. Dillon, can also get the job done.
Executing blocks for Jones and company are veterans David Bakhtiari – one of the best left tackles at the professional level – and Billy Turner, 2020 Pro Bowler Elgton Jenkins (out with a knee ailment), Lucas Patrick and youngsters Jon Runyan and Josh Myers.
LaFleur has a tactic that he has used to defeat Cover Four, or “quarters” coverage, all season long and out of different personnel groupings and formations. He will ask two outside receivers to execute deep curl routes while an outlet receiver – either a tight end or running back – runs a flat route to the sideline and a slot receiver goes deep down the middle of the field on a post pattern. The slot wideout is the primary target and will split the two deep safeties while one overreacts to the curl patterns. Will this continue against one of San Francisco’s favored zones coverages?
GREEN BAY’S DEFENSE IS SOUND
New coordinator Joe Barry – a former defensive play caller in Detroit and Washington – was hired by LaFleur this past spring in hopes of bringing a different approach than Mike Pettine once did. While Pettine was a fan of overload blitzes, exotic pressure schemes and man-press coverage, Barry mainly incorporates four-man rushes and zone coverages with two deep safeties – mainly Cover Two and Four.
The results from the hire were good. The Packers’ defense finished the regular season 10th against the pass, 11th versus the run and tied for 13th in points allowed and fourth in interceptions – numbers that are nothing to sneeze at. The defensive backs that have been integral to those accomplishments are All-Pro Jaire Alexander (who has missed most of this season with a shoulder injury), rookie Eric Stokes, midseason pickup Rasul Douglas and Kevin King at cornerback and a pair of versatile safeties in Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos. These six defensive backs will be on the field most of the time on Sunday, as Green Bay loves to use dime personnel.
Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith are one of the best pass rush duos in the NFL when healthy. However, the former has played in just one game this year while recovering from back surgery, allowing the latter and backup Rashan Gary to pace the team in sacks with nine and 9.5 sacks, respectively. Joining them at linebacker are the speedy De’Vondre Campbell, veteran Whitney Mercilus and Krys Barnes.
Kenny Clark, who is very athletic for his 315-pound frame, and Dean Lowry are Green Bay’s best defensive linemen.
49ERS’ OFFENSE A DISTANT COUSIN OF GREEN BAY’S
The relationship between 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and LaFleur goes back a long way. The two of them worked together as assistant coaches to Gary Kubiak in Houston from 2008-09 (Shanahan as offensive coordinator and LaFleur as an offensive assistant) and were on the same staff under Kyle’s father, Mike Shanahan, in Washington for four years from 2010-13 (Kyle had the same role as he did in Houston while LaFleur was the team’s quarterbacks coach). Additionally, the pair were the brain trust behind the Atlanta Falcons’ explosive offense from 2015-16 (Shanahan as Dan Quinn’s play-caller while LaFleur oversaw Matt Ryan’s peak as an NFL quarterback). Their combined success led to a berth in Super Bowl LI.
Thus, it’s no surprise that both of their offenses are extremely similar. Like LaFleur and Kubiak (and his father before him), Shanahan relies on an offense that is West Coast-based in its passing game and is extremely creative in its ability to attack matchups. It also utilizes a lot of play-action passes, bootlegs and rollouts designed around the threat of outside-zone runs.
The 49ers’ offensive system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside-zone running plays while leaving cutback lanes for ballcarriers. Executing these blocks are All-Pro Trent Williams (one of the NFL’s most mobile left tackles who excels on screens), Laken Tomlinson, Alex Mack, Daniel Brunskill, Tom Compton (filling in for the injured Mike McGlinchey) and versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
While the outside/wide zone is the team’s foundational run, Shanahan will also use power plays, traps sweeps and counters as a changeup tactic and will throw in some misdirection concepts like end-arounds and reverses as well. These are usually carried out by veterans Raheem Mostert (who is out for the season with a knee injury), Elijah Mitchell and Jeff Wilson Jr. Countless tailbacks have had success in it over the years and most of San Francisco’s runs are executed out of “21” personnel (two backs, one tight end).
The reason why the 49ers like to have two running backs on the field most of the time is to give credibility to the belief that they will call a running play at any time, and it also takes advantage of smaller defenders who are used to being on the field to stop the pass and creates more vanilla coverages. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Shanahan plays with two backs more than any schemer, by a wide margin…. with two backs in, the Niners compel defenses to prepare for more run possibilities, which limits their options in coverages. Shanahan exploits the suddenly predictable coverages through route combinations or mismatch-making formation wrinkles.”
Handing the ball off to them has been quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. “Jimmy G”, as some like to call him, is a former backup to Tom Brady in New England and was acquired in 2017 for a second-round draft pick. When he’s been on the field and healthy, Garoppolo has shown to be intelligent, decisive and accurate (especially in the play-action game, which creates defined reads for him) and possesses a quick release, solid arm strength and good mobility. Yet he’s rarely healthy or consistent, prompting Shanahan to draft strong-armed rookie Trey Lance from North Dakota State in the spring.
San Francisco’s weapons in the passing game are dangerous. Two-time All-Pro tight end George Kittle has blossomed into one of the league’s best at his position and is dominant both in the receiving game and at the point of attack. Speedsters Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk are similar receivers – each are polished route runners, have good hands and are adept at picking up yards after the catch. They can also return punts in a pinch and are liberally used by Shanahan in jet and orbit motion to influence defenders’ responsibilities. Samuel has also emerged as a dangerous ballcarrier on reverses and end-arounds and will sometimes line up at running back.
Shanahan will have his skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages and will align wide receivers close to the offensive line to give them more space to operate and to block on running plays. His scheme makes excellent use of shifts and motions (especially to create false reads and favorable angles in the running game) and the receivers typically execute intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels.
San Francisco has had solid production in 2021, finishing the season 12th in passing and seventh in rushing.
SAN FRANCISCO’S DEFENSE A DESCENDANT OF SEATTLE’S
When Shanahan was hired by San Francisco, he brought in Robert Saleh, a longtime protégé of Gus Bradley, as his defensive coordinator. Bradley was one of the original architects (along with Pete Carroll) of the Seattle Seahawks’ fabled Cover Three defensive scheme (featuring deep zone coverage on the outside with a safety in the box and a deep safety patrolling centerfield), which they employed en route to back-to-back NFC championships and a Super Bowl title between 2013-14.
Saleh has since become the head coach of the New York Jets and his replacement was linebackers coach (and former player) DeMeco Ryans. Ryans has kept the 49ers’ system intact and they ended 2021 seventh against the run, sixth versus the pass and fifth in sacks. Their base coverage remains Cover Three, but they have added in more split safety zone coverages like Two, Four and Six to not get beaten by deep crossing patterns.
The prototype for Cover Three-style cornerbacks for years has been for them to have length and an ability to excel in press coverage – so much so that the 49ers made sure that three corners on their roster (former All-Pro Josh Norman, Dontae Johnson and Ambry Thomas) are at least 6’0”. K’Waun Williams, Emmanuel Moseley and Deommodore Lenoir are also important cogs on this unit (Jason Verrett is normally a part of this team too but he is once again out with a major injury). Safeties Jimmie Ward – who has found a home at free safety after changing positions a lot in his earlier years – and Jaquiski Tartt are the starters on the back end.
The 49ers have an excellent pair of linebackers for their nickel packages in underrated sideline-to-sideline playmaker Dre Greenlaw and one of the league’s best in Fred Warner (Azzez Al-Shaair is their third linebacker). In front of them is normally one of the NFL’s deepest defensive lines made up of Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, Javon Kinlaw, D.J. Jones and Samson Ebukam.
These players are adept at controlling one or two gaps when defending the run, and Ryans – like Saleh before him – uses one or two of his linemen to two-gap while the rest of the front seven will control just one, which eliminates the potential holes for opposing running backs to go through. Ryans will also have his linemen liberally execute stunts, twists and slants to open up one-on-one opportunities in pass rush situations. Unfortunately for San Francisco Ford has barely played over the last two years with neck/back issues and Kinlaw is out with a knee injury.