The Green Bay Packers are the higher seed, but they are the underdogs against the San Francisco 49ers, especially following last year’s Packers-49ers playoff game. Still, it’s a new year, and maybe the return of stars Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb from injury and incredibly cold temperatures at Lambeau can serve as catalysts for revenge against the 49ers. There are many people picking the Packers to upset the 49ers in this one, and there is no doubt that tomorrow afternoon’s game between these two teams will be a great one. Below are three keys to victory for the Packers in their quest to upend the 49ers.
1. Pressure and contain against Colin Kaepernick
Clay Matthews‘s aggravated thumb injury is going to cost him an indefinite amount of games, and he was ruled out without question for tomorrow’s Wild Card matchup. Matthews is easily the Packers best player on defense, and he’s also by far their best pass rusher. That puts the Packers at a severe disadvantage against the 49ers, especially since it hurts their ability to get after Kaepernick, who had that memorable performance against the Pack last year.
Kaepernick has been on fire ever since star wide receiver Michael Crabtree- Kaep’s favorite target- returned from his Achilles’ tear, but his rough first half against the Atlanta Falcons a couple of weeks ago showed one of his weaknesses. If you can put pressure on Kaep and fluster him, then you can severely limit his effectiveness. But it isn’t just about pressuring Kaepernick, it’s about containing the pocket, too. Because you can get pressure on Kaepernick through an undisciplined blitz, and he’ll break it off for a big gain if there is nobody there to contain a potent scramble.
The fact that Matthews isn’t available really hurts the Packers four-man rush, and it means that guys like Nick Perry will have to step up big-time. They have to get consistent pressure out of their pass rushers, but that’s something they haven’t been able to get. Honestly, only Matthews, Perry, and unsung hero Mike Daniels have been able to do this. Against the 49ers top-notch offensive line, pressure is tough to come by, but the Packers have to find a way to do it in order to give their well below-average secondary a chance. They also can’t break contain at LB, because I don’t know how the Packers can trust their secondary to stop Kaepernick if he breaks one. If I were the Packers, I would spy Kaep with A.J. Hawk for most of the game, and I would only every blitz with ILB Brad Jones.
2. Use the slot as much as possible, spread the field
The San Francisco 49ers defense is so good that they have very few weaknesses: they have solid CBs, Eric Reid and Donte Whitner form an excellent safety duo, Aldon Smith is one of the best edge rushers in the game, Ray McDonald and Justin Smith help form a dominant defensive line, and NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis are the best ILB duo in the NFL. But I think there is one weakness in the 49ers defense that the Green Bay Packers can exploit to a great deal of success, and that’s the slot.
Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are two of the best wide receivers around, and their potency is increased by two things. Firstly, Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the game, and the second thing that increases their effectiveness is their versatility. Defenses can have a difficult time accounting for the deep and talented Packers wide receiver corps, because their two most talented wide receivers can line up in the slot and have a great deal of success there.
Meanwhile, veteran slot corner Carlos Rogers isn’t expected to play, which would leave Eric Wright as the team’s slot CB. That’s a downgrade that the Packers can take advantage of, and a less-than-100% Rogers is still a significant weakness compared to Nelson and Cobb. Nelson tore up the Minnesota Vikings earlier this year in the slot, and he’s one of the best receivers in the game; aligning him in the slot and outside would greatly help the Packers. Cobb’s playmaking ability and explosiveness make him a huge weapon in the slot, and I think he could really do some damage.
What the Packers need to do is spread the field horizontally against the 49ers and try to spread them thin. The Packers wide receivers and star QB are the strength of the team, and it’s their best chance of having a storybook run to the Super Bowl. They need to use those guys and ride them all the way, and that starts by spreading things out against the Niners and trying to make this a shootout. You have the game’s best QB and he doesn’t give two craps about the cold; use him to your advantage and don’t be afraid to put both Cobb and Nelson in the left and right slots (and vice versa) at the same time.
The Green Bay Packers starting corners are going to be the most important players on the team tomorrow, because they are going against one of the league’s best wide receiver duos. Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree do an excellent job of playing off of each other, and Boldin is such a potent weapon as a No. 2 WR. He’s quietly been one of the best players in the league this year, and his physicality and size will cause major problems for the Packers D if Shields and Williams can’t match his physicality.
Crabtree is an even more concerning player to cover, because he’s just so good at running routes and cutting. It seems like Crabtree is almost always open when I watch the 49ers play, and he’s clearly someone Kaepernick trusts a great deal. Williams and Shields won’t see exclusive time with one 49ers receiver, though it seems like Williams will mostly face Boldin and Shields Crabtree, based on how these players have been aligned over the past few games.
Williams and Shields have been pretty good this season, but both players are streaky. If they are at their bests tomorrow, then that will swing things significantly for the Packers. The Packers CBs vs. the 49ers WRs is a pivotal matchup, because mitigating the effectiveness of Kaepernick’s wideouts is a huge key to stopping Kaep and the incredibly efficient 49ers offense.
Topics: A.J. Hawk, Aaron Rodgers, Anquan Boldin, Brad Jones, Carlos Rogers, Clay Matthews, Colin Kaepernick, Green Bay Packers, Jordy Nelson, Matchups, Michael Crabtree, Mike Daniels, Nick Perry, Randall Cobb, Sam Shields, Tramon Williams