On their first possession of the second half this past Sunday, the Chicago Bears found themselves at the Packers’ 30-yard line after a great punt return by Devin Hester.
Immediately, they pounded on Green Bay’s greatest weakness: its run defense.
On Play No. 1, Matt Forte ran up the middle for 15 yards. Next, it was Forte around left end for 3 yards. On Play No. 3, Forte went off right guard for 4 yards. Play No. 4 was a 3-yard gain around left end. And, on the fifth play of the drive, Forte crashed off left tackle for 5 yards and a touchdown. Five plays, five runs.
Though the Packers would go on to win the game, 33-28, Forte rushed for 110 yards and two touchdowns. It was just more of the same for Green Bay’s defense in a season in which the Pack has been almost powerless to stop opponents from running the ball – especially without star linebacker Clay Matthews, who’ll again miss this Sunday’s playoff game against the 49ers at Lambeau Field.
The Packers will be trying to stop a San Francisco offense that thrives on running the football. It will be strength (the 49ers’ third-best rushing attack) against weakness (the Packers’ 25th-ranked rushing defense).
As Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle noted, the Packers over their final nine regular-season games allowed opponents to rush for 157.2 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry. Seven opposing running backs over that span ran for 100 or more yards as Green Bay went 3-5-1 en route to an 8-7-1 record and the championship of the NFC North.
In last season’s postseason, the 49ers hammered the ball on the ground, with running back Frank Gore and quarterback Colin Kaepernick both gaining big chunks. Against the Packers in their playoff opener last season – with Matthews in the lineup – Gore rushed for 119 yards and Kaepernick 181 as the defense couldn’t stop the read option. Then in this year’s season opener, Green Bay concentrated on stopping the read-option and running game, only to have Kaepernick throw for 412 yards and three TDs in a 34-28 San Francisco win.
Right now, the 49ers have a potent, versatile offense. Though Green Bay should be able to score points, with quarterback Aaron Rodgers and running back Eddie Lacy, its defense may not be able to stop the 49ers.
But there’s no doubt the 49ers will try to run the ball and see if Green Bay can do anything to slow them down.
“We always go in with the mind-set, regardless of who we’re going against, that we feel we can rush the ball against anybody,” Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley told Branch. Staley noted, too, that when Arizona last weekend shut down the run, the Niners went to the air.
“We’re not a one-dimensional offense,” he said. “We can do a lot of things well.”
Vic Ketchman of the Packers website, in an online chat with Packers fans this week, said the Packers’ best hope for a victory is to stop the run and force Kaepernick to throw in the cold of Green Bay. The forecast for Sunday’s game is 12 degrees. The 49ers certainly haven’t played in that type of weather this season.
“Job No. 1 for the Packers defense this Sunday is to stop the run,” wrote Ketchman. “I’d load up against the run and rest my pass defense on two corners that are playing at the top of their games right now, and on weather conditions that might give the Packers pass defense an assist. This is run-the-ball, stop-the-run weather. I don’t believe you can beat the 49ers without stopping the run.”
Earlier this season, that strategy might have worked. But since wide receiver Michael Crabtree returned to the lineup, Kaepernick now has too many receiving options.
For Green Bay, it may be much easier to talk about stopping the run in the film room than executing that plan successfully on the field Sunday afternoon.