The stage is set: Lambeau Field, 3:40 pm on Sunday afternoon is where the Green Bay Packers will play host to the San Francisco 49ers for a wild card round playoff. It seems a bit odd that a team that finished 8-7-1 and needed nearly every last second of their season to secure a playoff berth is hosting a team that finished 12-4.
Such is life in the NFL. We need only go back three years and to San Francisco’s very own NFC West to remember a 7-9 Seattle Seahawks team that hosted a wild card game. They beat the New Orleans Saints before losing to the Chicago Bears in the divisional round. That game was won on an incredible and long touchdown run by Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch.
I know this isn’t Seattle and it certainly isn’t 2010, but I always talk about the possibility of history repeating. The Packers happen to have a hard-nosed running back of their own in Eddie Lacy. So there’s that.
Last week, the Packers faced a tough must-win game in colder temperatures and found a way to get it done. The 49ers pose a much tougher challenge, at least on paper, than do the Bears. For the Packers, having a healthy Aaron Rodgers is great, but they will need a near all-pro performance out of most of their players to get to the next round.
So how do they get there? Let’s look at the keys to this week’s tilt between two old rivals.
Avoid Freezer Burn
The temperature is expected to be near zero degrees with a wind chill near -20, which could make this one of the coldest games on record at Lambeau Field. The coldest recorded game was the famous “Ice Bowl” in 1967 at -13 degrees.
Lambeau Field used to be a huge advantage for the Packers and that advantage was their opponents having to come into those frigid conditions to play whereas the Packers weren’t as affected by it. Thus was born the nickname “Frozen Tundra” to describe the venue. Lately, that has not always been the case.
It is interesting to note that the Packers have won only two of their top five coldest games on record, most of which have come in the last 24 years. Two of those losses came against teams who play indoors (Detroit Lions in 1990 and Houston Texans in 2008). While not on the “coldest” list, Green Bay also suffered their first-ever playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons, another dome team, on a snowy night in January, 2003.
Since that loss, the Packers are just 3-3 in the postseason at home. For a team that has done so well at home during the regular season, the Packers need to find a way to reclaim their edge in January. The good news for the Packers and their fans is that they did win their last home playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings last season.
The other bit of good news is that Rodgers is 12-4 in games played in freezing temperatures. Only New England’s Tom Brady is better at 25-5. It could get windy on Sunday, which makes the quarterback play all the more key. Rodgers didn’t fare too well, statistically, last week against the Bears, but he made the throws when he had to. Rodgers also throws a lower deep ball, which tends to stay true to the receiver more than would a ball lofted up higher.
Lastly and with regards to the weather, there is also a mental element to add to the obvious physical. In temperatures this cold, there is a danger of frost bite and it is harder to focus on the task at hand when one of your vital needs is in question: comfort. Some opined that in the 2007 NFC championship game, Packers quarterback Brett Favre was too rattled by the cold and wasn’t as sharp as he could have been. It’s a valid question, although I’m not certain that was the truth.
The Packers practiced outside both Thursday and Friday in preparation of this Sunday’s game. Hopefully the players and coaches retreated to Clay Matthews’ “Mom cave” locker afterwards to stay warm and healthy!
Packers Run Defense
In the first meeting this season, the Packers decided to take away the 49ers ground attack. They held San Francisco running back Frank Gore to just 44 yards on 21 carries and with his longest run being only eight yards. 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who gashed the Packers for 181 rushing yards in last year’s divisional playoff game, was held to just 22 yards on seven carries.
Since then, Green Bay’s rushing defense has declined and they rank 31st against the run over the past nine weeks, giving up an average of 157 yards per game. Against a very good 49ers rushing attack and weather aside, this matchup doesn’t bode well for the Packers, at least on paper.
Green Bay’s tackling problems have never really been fixed over the past three seasons and with added difficulty in gripping anything in the freezing cold, that could become a problem again this week. Gore is a big back who isn’t afraid to initiate contact and often doesn’t go down upon initial contact. Gore is averaging 92 yards per game against the Packers in the last three meetings.
In conditions like Sunday will bring, it’s irrational to think that either team is going to try and throw 40+ times. Both sides are going to try and establish the run and if working, stick with it until the wheels fall off. Gore is exactly the type of back that a team wants in weather like this. A big, reliable body who can pick up tough yards and sustain drives.
Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers has his hands full with the 49ers, once again. Stack the box to stop the run and contain Kaepernick and they leave one of Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree or Vernon Davis one-on-one or wide open. Try to take away the pass and Gore may rack up 200 yards on his own, not to mention open lanes for Kaepernick and the read option.
It’s very much a “pick your poison” proposition for Capers and the Packers, but the elements may dictate which route they take. I foresee a heavy emphasis on stopping the run.
Both teams have had their struggles in the secondary this season. If there is one area of weakness on the 49ers, it’s here. The Packers have experienced extremely subpar play from the safety position and saw their first regular season in which a safety did not record an interception since the 1950’s.
As I have mentioned, the passing game is going to be interesting as the conditions aren’t ideal for it with extreme cold and wind gusts over 10 miles per hour. Still, I have seen many teams play well in cold or come to Lambeau and play as if it’s a September afternoon. Hopefully that team is the Packers more so than the 49ers.
For most of this game either Boldin, Crabtree or Davis will get a favorable one-on-one matchup. That alone is a problem for the Packers secondary but there always seem to be communication and coverage breakdowns every week. That means it’s a matter of when, not if, a big play is there for the taking for the 9ers. I can’t realistically expect Morgan Burnett, M.D. Jennings or Sean Richardson to magically decide to be more sound in their play, but they all will need to elevate their game to keep San Francisco from chewing them up on Sunday.
In Boldin and Davis, you have two veterans who know how to find the soft spot in zone coverage. The Packers are surely going to run zone on Sunday. They have to, given the limitations of some of their corners and certainly the safeties in coverage. The other problem is the one-track mind that the defense seems to have in coverage. They set up and keep to their responsibilities, but are slow to react or anticipate what is happening and they aren’t making any plays. Play makers make plays even when one isn’t there. The Green Bay safeties don’t have that ability. This is where I see Davis especially being a problem.
The Packers tend to take a more conservative approach to playing the pass since the loss of ball-hawking veteran safeties Charles Woodson and Nick Collins. As a result, the number of takeaways has also dropped. I already mentioned the zero interceptions by the safeties but they have to take a few chances this week and try to get after the ball. Doing so could lead to disastrous results, but the turnover battle is going to be important in a game like this one and they have to do something other than let receivers blow by them and waltz into the end zone uncovered. Harsh, but true.
On the 49ers side, they may be without veteran slot cornerback Carlos Rodgers, who is dealing with a hamstring injury. This could open up some good things underneath and down the middle for Packers receivers Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and tight end Andrew Quarless.
At safety, San Francisco rookie Eric Reid had a good season with 77 tackles and four interceptions. He has played well beyond what is expected of a rookie, but he has had lapses in coverage. Reid is more of a threat over the middle with the receiver in front of him. He likes to make the big hit but in doing so, can lead to missed tackles and long gains. Packers receivers are some of the best at running after the catch and this could be an area that hurts the 49ers.
Packers Offensive Game Management
The Packers like to run the no-huddle but in this game, they are going to need to sustain drives and keep the 49ers offense off the field. Something has got to give. One other factor is that while these players may be well-conditioned, it is painful to breathe in freezing air. Those of you morning runners know what I mean. Sure, they can fight through it, but it will take its toll.
I put the management of the Green Bay offense on both head coach Mike McCarthy and Rodgers. Rodgers makes plenty of adjustments during a game and has the authority to do so, based on what he reads from the defense. Hopefully he and McCarthy are on the same page with how to work the offense down the field. Last week, McCarthy was ready to punt on 4th down when several players convinced him to go for a first down. In a game in which you have Rodgers, your offense is doing a decent job and your defense is playing marginally at best, it seems like the less-risky choice is to go for the first.
McCarthy surely knows that this is a playoff game and that next week is not guaranteed. That doesn’t mean to go for it on fourth and one deep in their own territory in the first quarter, but there’s every reason to think that this offense can pick up the needed yardage in a pinch. If he needs a reminder, I suggest a particular pass play late in last week’s game in which Rodgers completes a long pass to Cobb on fourth down. I’m not comparing San Francisco’s secondary to Chicago’s, but the same is possible with this quarterback and receivers in green and gold.
I’ll throw the Packers running game in here because they need to use it effectively within their plan. Lacy is expected to play despite a sprained ankle. Lacy actually practiced on Thursday for the first time in a long while, which is another good sign. If the Packers can eclipse the century mark in rushing yardage between Lacy, Starks and whoever might carry the ball, I like what that would potentially say about the offensive day they have.
One issue I do see with this tough front seven of San Francisco is the sweep and toss. It’s tough to get to the outside and the Packers love to try and get their ball carrier to the edge. It’s not going to happen this week with any regularity. Last week, we saw the Bears eat up Lacy on most attempts to get outside. One the touchdown run, everyone was playing a different style of run defense and Lacy was able to bounce it out for the score. That was against a poor run defense. In normal down and distance against the 9ers, I don’t see that play call being there and hopefully McCarthy realizes it if it doesn’t succeed early on.
Saved the best (and most obvious) for last. In a game against a big, physical team like the 49ers, the battle up front is going to tell a large portion of the tale. 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh formerly coached at Stanford and as an Arizona State Sun Devil, I can tell you that for as long as I can remember, Stanford has always been a big, physical team. Their opponents are often dwarfed in size, but as we saw in the Rose Bowl, that doesn’t always win the battle.
In the first game this season, Rodgers was sacked only once. Much has been said about the improvements that Packers rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari has made throughout the year. Still, Aldon and Justin Smith are a tough matchup on any day and for any tackle. Teams have had success in adding additional pressure on the edges where both Bahktiari and right tackle Don Barclay tend to get overwhelmed. Let’s hope full back John Kuhn has some more magical chop blocks left in him to keep Rodgers upright.
Defensively, the Packers have to hold serve in the run game, as mentioned, and somehow create pressure on Kaepernick without linebacker Clay Matthews. Nick Perry and Mike Neal on the outside will be key. Andy Mulumba had one sack last week but he has struggled a lot against stronger offensive lines.
Inside linebacker Brad Jones is expected to return to his starting spot. In terms of creating pressure, Jones is more productive than he is in pass coverage. A.J. Hawk has had a good regular season and that needs to continue into the second season.
We know that Capers’ 3-4 scheme calls for the defensive line to clear a path for the middle backers. That responsibility will fall largely on Ryan Pickett, Mike Daniels and B.J. Raji with a rotation of Josh Boyd and Datone Jones. That is a lot of youth against San Francisco’s veteran offensive line. May the force be with them.
Yes, he gets his own section. If Bowman doesn’t win Defensive Player of the Year, they need to revisit the criteria or voting process. 145 tackles, five sacks, four forced fumbles, two interceptions, one defensive touchdown. There’s more, but I think the general idea that the Packers need to be aware of where Bowman is at all times is pretty clear.
In last year’s first meeting, Bowman had a critical interception of Rodgers late in the game to help seal the win. The next play was a long Frank Gore run for a touchdown. Where Bowman goes, good things follow for the 49ers. I’m not certain that the Packers can avoid him all day, but they need to try. He all but wears a Superman cape. When another linebacker can make Patrick Willis second-rate, he’s pretty good, to say the least.
Bowman is good enough to cover receivers and tight ends. This is going to pose a challenge in the passing game, but if the Packers find success underneath and early on, it could move Bowman off the line and open things up for Lacy or Starks in the run game.
I don’t know why I am bothering trying to come up with ideas to outsmart the league’s best defender. The Packers just need to hope he can’t fly on Sunday.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: