GREEN BAY – Going up against a defense as stout as San Francisco’s, the Packers will have to be on their p’s and q’s.
Well, mostly p’s.
Protection, of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the ball. Patience, because the 49ers take away the big play. And poise, as they’ll frustrate an offense to the point it gets out of character.
The 49ers present plenty of challenges with their offense, too, but a defense that ranks second in the league in both yards and points allowed, third in takeaways, first in sack percentage and second on third-down conversions … the list goes on … is what they’ve used to take control of most of their games in going 9-1 to sit atop the NFC heading into Sunday night’s showdown at Levi’s Stadium.
“The pass rush is real,” Head Coach Matt LaFleur said, starting at as good a place as any. “It’s an elite pass rush. Just consistent pressure. They can do it with four.”
Everyone in that starting front four has at least five sacks this season, as Arik Armstead has racked up eight, followed by rookie star Nick Bosa (seven), veteran Dee Ford (6½) and DeForest Buckner (five), though Ford is currently injured.
Rodgers pointed to the continuity on the Packers’ offensive line, which has been healthy and practicing together for several consecutive weeks now, as where it’ll start for the Packers against this unit.
The offense has been at its best so far when it has run through running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams first, and top receiver Davante Adams is closer to getting back to full strength after returning from his toe injury for two games and then resting over the bye week.
From there it’s anyone’s guess, though that’s turned into a blessing for the 8-2 Packers. Production from some regulars has been up and down, but that’s led to contributions coming from here, there and everywhere.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling has been playing through ankle and knee injuries and has just one catch for four yards since his 74-yard TD vs. Oakland in Week 7, but Allen Lazard has picked up some of the slack with 18 catches for 220 yards over the last five games.
Tight end Jimmy Graham hasn’t had a touchdown in the previous three games but turned in his biggest play of the season with a 48-yard catch and run in the last contest vs. Carolina. Adams, with double-digit touchdowns each of the last three years, has yet to find the end zone in 2019, while Williams, a running back, leads the team with five receiving TDs.
That list goes on as well.
“We’ve been finding a way to win, different ways,” Rodgers said. “I think great teams understand their roles and embrace them and make it more about the team.”
The task for all is to protect the ball from a San Francisco defense that has 22 takeaways through 10 games, not only third in the league but more than triple the 49ers’ paltry total of seven for all of last season.
Rodgers points directly to the pass rush for the change, with sacks causing plenty of fumbles and coverage players keeping vision to the ball and knowing it’s coming out quickly with the pressure the front is bringing.
To that end, patience and poise go hand in hand because offenses trying to push things too much have only dug themselves deeper holes.
“Games like this sometimes you just have to take what they give you in the beginning, and let those come,” Adams said of potential big plays. “The more you go chasing them, you’re just going to get frustrated, and you may waste downs even doing that, trying to beat them on certain ones they’re ready for. You gather information throughout the game, so hopefully we can do that early and find a way to hit them on one.”
Some of the game within the game will feature LaFleur calling plays against one of his best friends, 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, and Adams matching up a decent chunk of the time against three-time first-team All-Pro corner Richard Sherman.
Those are battles of wits and chess matches that’ll have plenty of impact, but if there’s one thing that’s almost certain to be required should Green Bay come out victorious, it’s a difference-maker becoming a storyline after the fact rather than right now.
Tight end Robert Tonyan could be back from a five-game injury absence. Marcedes Lewis has just one catch over the last four games. Fullback Danny Vitale hasn’t touched the ball over the last three games. Geronimo Allison hasn’t posted a 50-yard game nor a TD since Week 4. Jones has just one reception out of the backfield, for minus-1 yard, since his pass-catching breakout at Kansas City.
So whose turn will it be?
“I think the character, the identity of this team has been that every week it could be something different, someone different,” Rodgers said. “You have to play your role to the best of your abilities, and that’s why we’ve been winning.”
The Green Bay Packers held a mid-week practice inside the Don Hutson Center before Sunday night's game against the 49ers.