GREEN BAY – It was three trips to San Francisco ago, but it might be the most relevant as Sunday's night's game approaches.
When the Packers and 49ers met in the regular season in 2019, tight end George Kittle and receiver Deebo Samuel were the game-changers, and among plenty of concerns against a 2-0 San Francisco team this week, Green Bay can't let those two beat them again.
The last two visits to the Bay Area, Kittle and Samuel weren't in the headlines. In 2020, the 49ers were missing a litany of stars, including Kittle (injured) and Samuel (COVID-19 list), and weren't the same team. In the 2019 NFC title game, San Francisco's running attack controlled the game so thoroughly from the outset that 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo attempted only eight passes.
Another anomaly isn't likely, so it's worth revisiting the impact Kittle and Samuel made in that late November matchup 22 months ago.
Mostly due to an early Green Bay fumble and gift score, San Francisco led 10-0 midway through the second quarter when the 49ers started a drive with back-to-back completions to Kittle covering 18 and 22 yards, and kicked a field goal. 13-0.
After a Packers three-and-out, on the third snap of the 49ers' next drive, they faced second-and-6 from the Green Bay 42-yard line, and Samuel took a short crossing route the distance. 20-0.
After another three-and-out, less than 30 seconds before halftime, a 22-yard completion to Kittle on the first play led to another field goal. 23-0.
Following an early third-quarter Packers TD to provide some hope, it was squashed in just two snaps, the second an over-the-top 61-yard touchdown pass to Kittle. 30-8. Game, set, match in the 37-8 blowout.
The final totals were six catches on six targets for 129 yards for Kittle, two on two for 50 yards for Samuel, each with a long TD. They accounted for 179 of Garoppolo's 253 passing yards, and five of the six completions longer than 15 yards.
With the 49ers' backfield banged up heading into Sunday night, they won't abandon the run, but there's all the more reason to believe Garoppolo will be looking for Kittle and Samuel.
Through two games, Samuel already has 15 receptions for 282 yards, including a 79-yard TD. Kittle has a more modest eight catches for 95 yards, with a long of 35.
The difficulty in trying to limit their impact is not just within the obvious numbers game – the more defenders devoted to one opponent, the more other offensive avenues open up.
But Kittle and Samuel also are involved in the 49ers' offense in a multitude of ways.
Here's defensive coordinator Joe Barry on Kittle: "He's not a glorified wideout by any means. They put him in three-point stances and ask him to base block the best defensive end on the field. They'll put him in the backfield and ask him to chip and help tackles in protection. A lot of great tight ends won't do that because they want to catch the ball and make yards, which he does, but he does everything well."
Defensive backs coach Jerry Gray on Samuel: "Deebo is the most dynamic (of San Francisco's receivers) because they hand the ball off to him, they do reverses, they do all types of stuff with him."
So if the Packers are in a pick-your-poison situation, whom do they pick to focus more attention on?
Most of the time, an ultra-athletic tight end like Kittle is the tougher assignment, just based on body types, because he has a speed advantage on linebackers and a size edge on safeties.
Here's Barry again on the 6-4, 250-pound All-Pro, against whom he coached for four seasons in the NFC West: "The way he plays the game, it is full-speed nasty all the time. He does everything violent, he does everything physical, he does everything full speed. George is absolutely violent. He is looking to run through you, run over you."
Add to that the production opposing tight ends have registered through two games against the Packers – two TD catches by New Orleans' Juwan Johnson, eight catches for 66 yards and a TD by Detroit's T.J. Hockenson – and this matchup likely rises to the top of the list.
As usual, the plan for Kittle will include different coverages and personnel, because defenses generally prefer not to let a big-time target zero in on how he's being defended every snap.
The Packers might do the same with Samuel, because as tough a coverage as second-team All-Pro Jaire Alexander can provide, it hasn't been Green Bay's M.O. to have a cornerback travel with a receiver wherever he lines up.
Either way, the challenges are immense for Barry's defense, which struggled through the first six quarters of the season before settling down in the second half last Monday night.
Here's rookie cornerback Eric Stokes, whose role on defense continues to increase: "Once he gets the ball in his hand, you gotta treat him like a running back. No arm tackles, no, none of that stuff. He's not going down with just one person, really."
Was he talking about Kittle or Samuel? For the record, it was Samuel, but you know, take your pick.
This dynamic duo will get the ball and make plays. They just can't make the back-breakers they did back in November 2019.