Welcome to Conference Championship Weekend. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and teams, and what each squad might do to emerge victorious.
This season’s NFC Championship Game will take place at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara as the San Francisco 49ers will host the Green Bay Packers. Here’s what to watch for:
PACKERS’ OFFENSE STILL DANGEROUS, JUST IN A DIFFERENT WAY
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 last season. A sense of staleness had grown around the franchise and general manager Brian Gutekunst sought to revive his team with new blood.
First-year coach Matt LaFleur was the Titans’ play-caller last season 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.
Green Bay’s offensive system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside zone stretch plays while leaving cutback lanes for running backs. Executing these blocks are longtime stalwarts David Bakhtiari, Bryan Bulaga and Corey Linsley, rookie Elgton Jenkins and free agent acquisition Billy Turner. Countless tailbacks have had success in it – including third-year ball carrier Aaron Jones, who went over the 1,000 yard rushing mark and recorded a career-high 16 touchdowns – and most of the runs are executed out of “11” personnel (one tight end, one back). The idea behind this is to spread defenses out and create more room to run against nickel and dime defenses.
Passing-wise, the Packers are aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams from sideline to sideline rather than vertically, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket, especially on bootlegs, rollouts and play-action. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages, and also aligns wide receivers close to the offensive line in order to give them more space to operate and to block on running plays. Their passing game makes excellent use of shifts and motions, 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.
This offense continues to run through Aaron Rodgers. Still one of the league’s best at 35 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. The interesting thing about Rodgers though is that sometimes he won’t play “on schedule”, as coaches like to put it. Sometimes he will play sandlot football – meaning not looking at his first receiver and holding onto the ball too long but making 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 two-time Pro Bowler Davante Adams (who is especially adept on double moves and is a favorite target on third down), Geronimo Allison, Marques Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard and Jimmy Graham and all are adept at running Rodgers’ favorite routes. Slants, posts and back-shoulder fades are staples of the Packers’ offense, and not only do they excel at such routes, they also have a great feel for how to get open when plays break down – especially Adams, who can also play in the slot.
These two teams met in Week 12 – a 37-8 49ers victory – and the Packers’ offense, normally excellent on third down, struggled, converting just once on 15 chances. Lately San Francisco has struggled in stopping the run out of their nickel defense, will Green Bay try to run the ball more with Jones on third downs and out of 11 personnel?
A CHANGING OF THE GUARD ON THE PACKERS’ DEFENSE
Mike Pettine, former Browns head coach and defensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills and New Yok Jets, took over as the defensive play caller in Green Bay last year, replacing Dom Capers. While Capers was a fan of the fabled zone-blitz, Pettine favors a Rex Ryan-style system that leans on overload blitzes, man-press coverage and matchup zones. It’s also notable for having exotic blitz packages with just one down lineman and other linemen and linebackers walking around until the opposition tipped its hand – and then those front seven players would decide who rushed from where.
Sometimes the complexity of this defense, what with its emphasis on disguise and communication, can sometimes lead to communication breakdowns. But if executed well enough, the results can be outstanding.
While the Packers’ defense has been in the middle of the pack in many categories this year, they did finish the regular season third in interceptions and ninth in points allowed – numbers that are sure to make any defensive coordinator smile. The defensive backs that have been integral to those accomplishments are the tall and lanky Kevin King, second-year men Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, veteran Tramon Williams and versatile safeties Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos.
Clay Matthews III and Nick Perry, the longtime pass rushing duo for the Packers, were replaced this past offseason by former Raven Za’Darius Smith and former Redskin Preston Smith. Each have responded with career-best statistics, as they have racked up 13.5 and 12 sacks this year, respectively. Joining them at linebacker are Blake Martinez, B.J. Goodson and rookie Rashan Gary.
Green Bay’s defensive line is unique in that they aren’t taught to control one or two gaps. Unlike other coaches, Pettine asks his defensive tackles and ends to beat their blocker first and worry about their gaps later. Pulling off these tasks are Kenny Clark, who is very athletic for his 315-pound frame, Tyler Lancaster and Dean Lowry.
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 also 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 Redskins’ 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 route combinations and 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 like to have two running backs on the field most of the time in order to give credibility to the belief that they will call a running play at any time. According to 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.”
Nearly two years ago San Francisco brought in former Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon to be an important cog in the Niners’ running game, but he has dealt with a knee injury that has kept him off the field throughout that timeframe. Nevertheless, other backs like Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida each recorded 500 or more rushing yards in his absence and combined for 1,939 yards on the ground – second in the NFL only to Baltimore.
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. The investment in him has been worth it – when he’s been on the field (he missed most of last season with a knee injury), Garoppolo has been decisive and accurate (especially in the play-action game, which creates defined reads for him), is intelligent and possesses a quick release, solid arm strength and good mobility. His one bugaboo this year has been ball security – he’s fumbled 10 times and lost five of them.
Garoppolo’s weapons in the passing game have been stellar. 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. Midseason pickup Emmanuel Sanders is still a crafty route runner and has fit into Shanahan’s system like a glove due to his playing for Kubiak and Dennison in Denver. His knowledge of the system has been valuable for youngsters like speedster Deebo Samuel and Dante Pettis, who has taken on burner Marquise Goodwin’s duties in the wake of Goodwin’s season-ending knee injury.
Perhaps the most under-appreciated players on the Niners’ offense have been the ones who have been blocking for the skill players. Those duties have fallen to versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk and an offensive line consisting of former All-Pro Joe Staley, Laken Tomlinson, Ben Garland (who has done an admirable job filling in for injured center Weston Richburg), Mike Person and former first-round pick Mike McGlinchey.
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, of course, was one of the original architects (along with Pete Carroll) of the Seattle Seahawks’ fabled Cover Three defensive scheme (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 is passing on wisdom of the scheme to his charges along with former Seahawk Richard Sherman. The signing of Sherman last season has done wonders for the rest of the 49ers’ defensive backs and Sherman’s leadership, intelligence and ability to still perform at a high level at the age of 31 has made him an important contributor to this defense.
Sherman’s length and ability to excel in press coverage has made him the prototype for Cover Three-style cornerbacks for years – so much so that the 49ers made sure that two other corners on their roster (Ahkello Witherspoon and Dontae Johnson) are also at least 6’2”. K’Waun Williams, Emmanuel Moseley and D.J. Reed Jr. are behind them on the depth chart, and 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 Kwon Alexander (who will return from a torn pectoral suffered on October 31st) and the rising Fred Warner. In front of them is one of the NFL’s deepest defensive lines, made up of rookie Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, Sheldon Day and Earl Mitchell.
The ability of the 49ers’ defensive line to come at other teams in waves (and their impressive depth) has led to the team being able to consistently utilize fresh bodies and wear opposing offenses down. That and Saleh’s propensity for having his front four use stunts, twists and slants to open up one-on-one opportunities has resulted in San Francisco finishing the regular season first in passing yards allowed and tying for fifth in sacks.
Recently the 49ers have been eschewing zone coverages on third down and have upped their usage of man coverage – mostly Cover One and two-man under. Will this trend continue on Sunday?