The Green Bay Packers got off to a rough start this season, beginning with a 30-22 loss to the 49ers in Game 1.
Then they lost two of their next four games and were sitting at 2-3 in early October. What was wrong with the Packers?
As it turned out, nothing.
The Pack has been on a roll ever since, losing just two regular-season games, winning the NFC North and squashing the Minnesota Vikings last weekend, 24-10, to advance to Saturday night’s NFC Divisional playoff game against the 49ers at Candlestick Park.
The reason for Green Bay’s resurgence, of course, is simple: quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The former Cal standout has been red hot, and enters Saturday’s matchup against San Francisco with 11 TD passes and no interceptions over his past four games.
For the 49ers, beating the Packers Saturday will have to start and end with stopping Rodgers.
In the season opener, the 49ers were able to do it by stopping Green Bay’s running game with six defenders up near the line of scrimmage, while also pressuring Rodgers with a strong pass rush. That allowed the 49ers to keep five defenders in the secondary.
If the 49ers can’t put pressure on Rodgers Saturday and stop the run with a front six, they could be in trouble.
“If you have to add another guy in the box, he’ll kill you all day,” Niners safety Donte Whitner told the San Francisco Chronicle. “If we can’t stop the run with six in the box, we can’t play double coverage. We can’t play two guys over the slot (receiver), or two guys over (their No. 1 wide receiver). We can’t do it.”
Whitner said what has made San Francisco an elite defense is its ability to stop the run and rush the passer with its base personnel.
“We’re unique because we can stop the run with six in the box,” Whitner said. “We’ve been doing it all year. And that’s key to going out there and being able to beat the Green Bay Packers.”
Whether the 49ers can be successful with their plan will likely depend on how effective right defensive end Justin Smith can be. The Pro Bowler hasn’t played since injuring his triceps against the Patriots in the season’s 14th game, and the 49ers defense hasn’t been the same. Smith says, however, that he’ll play. If he can be close to 100 percent, the 49ers will have a chance.
Oddsmakers have made the 49ers 2½-point favorites. The winner will advance to the NFC Championship Game next week against either the No. 1 seeded Falcons or the Seahawks.
For the 49ers to beat Green Bay and continue their postseason quest, these things will need to happen:
- The Niners will need to put the heat on Rodgers. According to ESPN, in the Packers’ five losses, Rodgers has been sacked 26 times; in the team’s 11 wins, Rodgers has been sacked just 25 times.
- Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick will need to make some big plays early with his arm to extend the Packers’ defense, while making some equally big plays with his feet to pick up first downs and extend drives.
- Running back Frank Gore can’t be a forgotten man. Since Kaepernick became the starting quarterback, Gore has yet to have a 100-yard rushing game. In the season opener, Gore had a big day, rushing for 112 yards and averaging 7 yards per carry.
- Kicker David Akers, after winning a competition this past week to keep his job, will need to find his consistency from 40 yards and out. In a game that’s likely to be tight and high-scoring, Akers’ ability to convert field goals could turn out to be the difference in the game.
- Justin Smith will need to be effective. If he can help plug the Packers’ running game and tie up blockers, Aldon Smith and other pass rushers may be able to get to Rodgers.
This game, too, will be a testing point for 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh’s bold move in November to replace Alex Smith at quarterback with Kaepernick. Harbaugh made the move with Kaepernick’s higher upside in mind. His arm strength is greater, and so is his ability to run. With Smith, the 49ers beat Green Bay in September. Now, in January, San Francisco tries to beat a much hotter Green Bay team with a second-year quarterback in his first playoff game. At times, Kaepernick has been brilliant. At others – such as the Sunday night game in Seattle – he’s been shaky.
In his seven starts, he’s completed 62.4 percent of his passes for 1,814 yards, 10 TDs and three interceptions, while also running for 415 yards and five TDs.
Former 49ers quarterback Steve Young, now an ESPN analyst, said it was a gamble for Harbaugh to make the switch. Now he’ll be judged by what Kaepernick does against the Packers.
“It’s a high-risk situation,” Young told the Los Angeles Times. “And where there’s high risk, there’s high reward.”