The Green Bay Packers finally won a home playoff game, their first since 2008. They defeated the Minnesota Vikings and they’re now moving forward to the Divisional Round of the playoffs and will travel to San Francisco to face the 49ers.
That the Packers beat Minnesota should still be front of mind and reason to celebrate. I say “should” because while I believe in the “24 hour rule” (whereby you give yourself 24 hours to revel a win or wallow in a loss), for some reason I have already moved on and am thinking critically about next week’s game.
Since there is no NFC North Preview this week (and I am ecstatic about which team in the division is the only one left standing!), I’ll focus on an early look at the week ahead and what the win over Minnesota told us about what to expect.
One Big Positive
The Packers have found a running game. DuJuan Harris, who was claimed off waivers just a few weeks ago, has sparked the ground game and also added a valuable check down for Aaron Rodgers. Time and time again, Harris was not only a safety valve for Aaron Rodgers but the Packers got a ton of production from him in the passing game.
How scary is the thought that an already-potent Green Bay offense may also have a formidable screen game? Technically it’s part of the passing game but a well-timed screen can act just like a run. It draws in an active defense like San Francisco’s and can burn them if they over pursue.
Harris was arguably Green Bay’s MVP against the Vikings in the playoff game. He gets the tough yards after contact and has the ability to cut back and find holes in the run game. If head coach Mike McCarthy is going to go with the “hot hand” at running back, it’s Harris, hands down.
By the time a defense is worn down late in games, Ryan Grant is there to spell Harris. The run game is churning just as it did late in 2010, their last championship season. If San Francisco has to focus more on stopping the run, they may take their eye off the pass just long enough for Rodgers to make them pay for it.
Francisco gets very disciplined play from its front seven but a well-timed and executed screen or draw to Harris could neutralize the defensive penetration and even more importantly, the 49ers extremely potent pass rush.
One Big Concern
I was going to talk about the play calling but decided to go in a different direction.
As much as the offensive line has struggled in pass protection this season, Aaron Rodgers has also done himself no favors at times. He is too stagnant in the pocket while waiting for a play to develop and he ends up a sitting duck.
A few times against Minnesota in the playoff game, he appeared to duck in anticipation of a sack when the defender hadn’t yet gotten there. I’m glad he has the internal clock and awareness that the rush is likely coming, but make a decision, Aaron! Last week, his split second hesitation to run cost him a step and the Vikings forced a fumble when Rodgers was hit from behind. Against the 49ers, everything will have to be quick on offense to negate a very active defense.
Instead of trying to move around to at least make it that much more difficult for a defender to reach him, Rodgers seems to just stand there waiting to get crushed. I realize he can’t get out of every sack and that some pass rushers are just flat-out good. But what makes it more difficult to watch is that Rodgers is so good on the run and has shown a great ability to get yards with his feet. We know he can get mobile.
What’s even more baffling about the sacks that are faulted to Rodgers is that we’re talking about one of the best quarterbacks in the league in his fifth season as a starter. Much like Brett Favre was notorious for trying to squeeze throws into tight coverage, Rodgers’ Achilles heel is his occasional lack of pocket presence. Favre never really did correct his issue and we will probably always see Rodgers walk himself into a few takedowns every game.
Against the 49ers pass rush, Rodgers can’t give them any freebies. As is, San Francisco will likely pester Rodgers and the offensive line all day. They’ll force quick throws and will surely get their positive plays against the Packers. The key is to minimize those and make the 9ers earn every single one. Rodgers already has plenty of pressure on him to make plays when he does have time to throw. He can’t negate those with lost yards due to a sack on the very next play.
It Could Get Ugly If. . .
Dom Capers and the defense think they can stop the 49ers offense with any sort of “soft” zone. I am not going to wish for the impossible and that Capers might abandon the zone altogether. That’s just not going to happen. But I watched a Packers team that had Minnesota by the throat and weren’t able to put them away because they were playing prevent.
The old cliché is that the prevent defense only prevents wins. It didn’t in this past game, but Minnesota shouldn’t have ever been in position to get back into it. They were however, because the secondary fell asleep and allowed a ridiculous 50 yard touchdown to bring the Vikings within two scores.
San Francisco’s pass catchers are on an entirely different level than are Minnesota’s. It will likely take a Packer interception or two to earn a win in San Francisco. Those won’t come sitting back and waiting. Mistakes like a badly blown coverage or missed tackles will be too much to overcome as Green Bay faces the remaining playoff field.
I can’t compare Vikings quarterback Joe Webb to 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, but both are mobile. Green Bay had success containing Webb as the game went on. If they can do the same to Kaepernick, the Green Bay secondary may benefit from playing more press and man coverage. Disrupting the timing of the 9ers offense is what can lead to forced errors and turnovers. As I said, Green Bay is going to likely need a few to win this next game.
However Capers and the defense slice and dice it, they will have to be aggressive and take some chances. They can’t abandon who they are and play a completely different style, but this is the playoffs and they only get one chance to advance. Having Charles Woodson back could be the wild card the Green Bay defense needs.
The Week Ahead
Green Bay has one week to work through all of these aspects. Will they be favorites to win at San Francisco? No. Can they still win? Absolutely. If it sounds like I’m calling for near perfection from the Packers to get a win, it’s because I am. This is the postseason and these are today’s 49ers.
Throw out all of the history between these two teams. Green Bay’s dominance over San Francisco is a thing of the past and it won’t help them this week. The 49ers ended a long drought in the series and soundly beat the Packers in Green Bay in week one this season. The 9ers will be plenty confident that they can do so again in front of the home crowd.
I’m paging the Packers’ A-game and I hope they answer the call!——————
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: