Matt LaFleur’s first season as head coach in 2019 was a triumphant ride for the Green Bay Packers – except within the confines of Levi’s Stadium.
The Pack cruised to a 14-2 record everywhere else, but the San Francisco 49ers obliterated them on both trips to Santa Clara, including in the NFC Championship game. In the playoff matchup, the Niners rushed for 285 yards, controlled the clock, and were unstoppable. Jimmy Garoppolo attempted only eight passes, and Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams could do nothing but watch Raheem Mostert coast through gigantic openings in Mike Pettine’s defense.
Mostert averaged 7.6 yards per carry, accumulated 109 of his 160 first-half yards before contact, and rushed for a 36-yard touchdown on third-and-eight. Pettine continued to run a lot of nickel and dime even as Kyle Shanahan rolled with jumbo packages. You could drive a truck through the paths they were creating. According to Next Gen Stats, Mostert faced a box of eight or more defenders on just 13.8% of his carries.
Two years later, the Niners and Packers will meet again in the divisional round, and both sides have made upgrades. Green Bay swapped out Pettine for former Los Angeles Rams assistant Joe Barry. They added breakouts Rasul Douglas and De’Vondre Campbell, who fills the void left by Blake Martinez. And they drafted Eric Stokes.
San Francisco acquired star offensive tackle Trent Williams in 2020 and signed him to a monster $138 million extension. They also drafted Arizona State standout Brandon Aiyuk to catch passes alongside Deebo Samuel.
Mostert, who accounted for a staggering 220 of their 285 rushing yards in the 2019 NFC Championship game, suffered a season-ending knee injury back in Week 1. However, with the NFL’s highest-paid tackle, fullback, tight end, and a six-time Pro Bowler at center, the Niners plow holes so big it hasn’t mattered who carries the ball.
Elijah Mitchell, a sixth-round rookie out of Louisiana-Lafayette, rushed for nearly 1,000 yards this season and added almost 100 last week in Dallas. Samuel has also spent quite a bit of time in the backfield. He added 365 yards on the ground to his 1,405 through the air.
The Packers have struggled with the middle of their defense for a few years now. Even with Martinez, they didn’t have a lot of guys inside playing smash-mouth football. They’ve made a pair of haphazard attempts to revive the position with 2018 third-round pick Oren Burks and offseason pickup Christian Kirksey, but they fizzled early on.
Gutekunst continued to neglect the ILB position in the draft and free agency but hit a home run with Campbell, whom he signed off the street for $2 million. Undrafted sophomore Krys Barnes starts alongside Campbell, and they’ve shown more flashes of physicality in the trenches. However, Barry needs to give them some help and stack the box against the likes of Alex Mack, Kyle Juszczyk, and George Kittle, irrespective of the number of good defensive backs he has.
In Week 3 of this season, Barry’s defense held the Niners to just 67 yards on the ground and forced Garoppolo to throw 40 times. The Packers led for most of the game and won, 30-28. Although those stats certainly don’t tell the whole story of that game, they are indicative of Green Bay’s winning formula.
On Sunday, the Niners upset the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. They jumped out to a 23-7 lead on the backs of Mitchell and Samuel but nearly surrendered it in the final seconds. Why? Dallas stopped letting them run it down their throats and forced Garoppolo to make plays. He responded by air-mailing a wide-open Aiyuk on third down and throwing an atrocious pick on the ensuing drive. Suddenly, it was 23-17 with plenty of time to go.
Not only is Jimmy G the weakness of the 49ers’ offense, but the Packers’ pass rush and secondary are their defensive strengths. When Garoppolo drops back, he’ll have Rashan Gary, Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, and Kenny Clark coming after him and Jaire Alexander, Darnell Savage, Adrian Amos, Stokes, and Douglas in coverage.
In the final weeks of the regular season, the 49ers oscillated between the team nobody wanted to play in the playoffs and the team who wouldn’t make the playoffs. But they are virtually the same group who dominated their way to the Super Bowl.
If they have their way at the line of scrimmage, they’re as dangerous as any team in the league. But if the Packers take away — or at least minimize — their ground game, the resulting Rodgers-Garoppolo duel shouldn’t be too much of a sweat for Green Bay.
For every reason imaginable, Barry must show up to the stadium with an answer for Shanahan’s physical rushing attack. It is clear that there’s one way the Packers can lose this game, and it’s not Ambry Thomas locking down Adams – it’s the way they lost it two years ago.
Shanahan and GM John Lynch made a huge splash last offseason when they traded three first-rounders to select Trey Lance. When he takes over, likely next season, his dual-threat ability and, ideally, superior accuracy will give the Niners a scary amount of paths of victory. For now, they only have one, and everyone in America knows what it is. The Packers just have to stop it this time.