20 Jan Can the Niners’ Run Game Thaw the Frozen Tundra of Lambeau?
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The San Francisco 49ers travel to Lambeau Field to face the Green Bay Packers this Saturday evening in one of two NFC Divisional Round Playoff games this weekend. In their last meeting (in week 3), the Packers beat the Niners with a final score of 30-28, on a last-second 50-yard FG by Mason Crosby.
Both teams have gotten better since then. Let’s take a look at how they matchup now.
GREEN BAY PACKERS:
It looks as if the Packers will be getting LT David Bahktiari, CB, Jaire Alexander, & DE, Zadarius Smith back for this matchup. Bahktiari is arguably a top-3 LT in all of football. However, he has been out most of the season. Nevertheless, his return would be huge for their offensive line. Alexander, arguably one the best CBs, picked off Jimmy Garoppolo in week 3 (before he was injured). Smith is top DE, and proved it by terrorizing Justin Skule in week 12 of 2019, in week 9 of 2020 (Niners won 37-8), and when the Packers won 34-17 (many Injuries & several covid absences for the Niners). Hopefully, this equates to a rusty performance in the first game after an extended time away from the gridiron.
If this sounds like trouble, then I don’t blame you. The good news is that the 49ers have gotten much, much, better since losing to the Packers in week 3. Rookie sensation, RB1, Elijah Mitchell, did not play. Neither did the Niners’ RB2, Jeff Wilson Jr. Deebo Samuel was not yet the league’s best RB, and didn’t have a single rushing yard that game. In fact, rookie Trey Sermon was the leading rusher for the 49ers in that game, and he finished with only 31 yards and 1 TD on 10 carries. George Kittle was playing with a calf strain. Brandon Aiyuk was in a slump (or whatever the deal with him was to start the season). Jauan Jennings hadn’t broken out as a clutch performer ready to move the chains or haul in TDs yet. Mike McGlinchey was still playing RT. As it stands now, RT, Tom Compton, is the 2nd-best run blocking OT this season. While the 49ers’ pass-blocking may have been worse with him at first, I no longer believe that to be the case. Back then, C Alex Mack & RT Daniel Brunskill were still struggling in pass-protection. Wow, how the times have changed.
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Arik Armstead didn’t move to DT until after their bye week in week 6. Since then, the 49ers’ defense has been #1 vs the run. Arden Key’s move to NASCAR DT has been transformative. He has 6.5 sacks since week 9! DE Samson Ebukam, DT Kentavius Street & DT Kevin Givens have all been playing much better recently. LB Dre Greenlaw (groin) & DT Mo Hurst (calf) are back off of IR. Greenlaw has been a beast at the Rams & at the Cowboys. The Niners traded a late sixth-rounder for DE Charles Omenihu, who had a career day at the Cowboys (2 sacks, 5 total pressures). The defensive line also got DE Jordan Willis back from suspension. Willis appears to have a high ankle sprain, but he still practiced on Wednesday so we’re hoping he can give it a go on Saturday. The biggest change will probably be in the secondary. In week 3, we saw CBs Josh Norman, Demmodore Lenoir & Dontae Johnson out there vs Davante Adams & Co. They all had rough days to say the least. On Saturday, it should be: Emmanuel Moseley, K’Waun Williams & rookie phenom Ambry Thomas. Thomas was limited on Wednesday with a bone bruise in his knee. Hopefully, it’s not serious, as he has made himself indispensable to the Niners’ defensive backfield, along with SS Jaquiski Tartt & FS Jimmie Ward. Other big question marks include all world DE Nick Bosa (concussion) & 2020 All-Pro LB Fred Warner (low ankle sprain). Once again, there will be high drama surrounding Thursday’s & Friday’s injury reports. While I never root for injuries, stud TE Robert Tonyan being out for the season is another difference for the Niners’ defense since week 3.
The Packers are a very good matchup for the Niners. They have a weak run defense (28th DVOA). It’s forecast to be very cold (23 degrees & 50% chance of snow, as of now). Cold weather favors tougher, more physical teams who like to run the ball (sound familiar?) If the Niners can run the ball well, then they should win (Like they did 37-20 in the 2019 NFCCG), unless Jimmy Garoppolo has 2 (or more) turnovers. This is assuming that Nick Bosa, Fred Warner & Ambry Thomas can all play. If they can’t, then the 49ers may need rookie QB Trey Lance. He probably can’t engineer the big comebacks that Jimmy Garoppolo can, but he probably wouldn’t make the mistakes that would necessitate a comeback.
The Packers’ run defense was weak all season, except vs the Niners, who were held to a season low 2.2 yards per carry. Green Bay’s defense stacked the box vs Garoppolo, because they knew that he wouldn’t throw deep, or outside the numbers. That clogged the running lanes & made blitzing LBs difficult to identify, which hurt both the Niners’ running & passing game. If the Niners can’t run the ball, then this is a terrible matchup for them. Green Bay’s defense is ranked #4 DVOA vs the pass, and that was without stud DE Zadarius Smith & stud CB Jaire Alexander for extended periods this season. Garoppolo will not be able to beat the Packers with his arm. Especially, if he really has a sprained thumb & sprained shoulder. Lance’s ability to run, throw deep & outside the numbers would add a dynamic to the 49ers’ offense that Garoppolo simply can’t. As of now, since Bosa, Warner & Ambry haven’t been cleared & Jimmy G seems likely to start, I’m saying that the Niners’ run game won’t thaw the frozen tundra of Lambeau = I’m picking the Packers to win.
As always, I will do official prediction about an hour before game time once we know exactly who will play & who won’t. Follow me on Twitter so you don’t miss it!