Green Bay Packers take on San Francisco 49ers: 5 things to watch
LeRoy Butler’s Prediction for the Packers-49ers Division Playoffs
Find out who LeRoy thinks will win the Packers-49ers game and who he thinks will play next.
Bill Schulz, Packers News
Tom Silverstein highlights five keys to the Green Bay Packers Saturday night playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers:
1. What impact can Za’Darius Smith and Whitney Mercilus have?
The Packers have no shortage of pass rush, but their 17th-ranking sack percentage indicates they can do better. There’s no indication they’ll rain pressure on San Francisco’s excellent offensive line, but the only thing that could change is if outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Whitney Mercilus play. It’s debatable what they can deliver after such long layoffs, but they’re also veterans with top-flight rushing ability. “You can never have too many passing throwers, man, and the more weapons we have on defense the better the result, the better we can help the result for us as a team and as a unit,” said defensive coordinator Joe Barry. “These guys bring a lot of ability. But you know, whatever happens, happens. “Whoever we have to play, we’re going to play with these guys and we’re going to play at a high level, and everyone knows the expectations.”
2. The Packers offense will find the middle of the 49ers defense difficult to break through
Two years ago, when the 49ers beat the Packers in the NFC Championship, their defensive front was as good as any in the NFL and their penetration down the middle destroyed Green Bay. The 49ers are out of DeForest Buckner, and their 2020 first-round pick Javon Kinlaw is out for the season with a knee injury, but they’ve stayed strong in the middle by moving winger Arik Armstead inside and finding an efficient rotation with DJ Jones, Kevin Givens and rue Kentavius. In the wild card round, Dallas running backs are averaging 2.8 yards per carry. “I think, overall, our defense is much better,” 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said this week. “You see in the running game, I think we are much better. Just DJ and Arik inside they did an amazing job. All around, when I watch that Game 1 movie and watch our Dallas game or the LA game, it looks like two completely different defenses.
3. Is the Matt LaFleur vs. Kyle Shanahan battle of wits overrated?
Since Matt LaFleur took over as Packers coach, he’s faced his longtime mentor and friend, Kyle Shanahan, four times. The 49ers won the first two and the Packers won the last two. The most one-sided game was the 2019 NFC Championship Game which the 49ers won, 37-20. The most recent win was a much more even game in which the Packers beat the 49ers, 353-298, but needed a last-minute practice to win. Just like in 2019, the teams are meeting for the second time and the first meeting is just a rough draft of how they will come up with game plans. It may depend on who fits better in the game. “You never want to say, ‘Hey, it was like that this time, so it’s going to be like that now,'” Shanahan said this week. “If I wasn’t a coach I would be watching this game and talking about it all week based on this game, but it really doesn’t matter here. Once this game starts, it’s all about that first game. And when it’s over, it’s the second play and that’s really all that matters. So you just have to keep your guys focused on that, prepare for that.
4. There’s nothing special about either team’s special teams, but Green Bay’s are worse
The 49ers’ special teams have been under pressure for their recent performance, including giving up a successful fake punt in the Dallas game. But as bad as they’ve been, they can’t match Green Bay’s No. 32 ranking in Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings. It’s the fourth time since 2006 that the Packers have finished last and Maurice Drayton joins Ron Zook, Shawn Slocum and Mike Stock as coordinators who finished there. The 49ers have the advantage in their kicking game led by Robbie Gould, who has scored 20 of 23 field goals and 39 of 40 extra points and has plenty of cold weather experience after playing 11 seasons with the Chicago Bears. The Packers have made progress on special teams, but their true selves will be revealed in the playoffs. “Over the past three weeks, we definitely have an uptrend,” Drayton said. “I think I mentioned before that our practices were on point, and the guys are now transferring what they do to practice on the playing field. So we feel very encouraged. Can’t wait to see what they’ll do here Saturday night.
5. Packers tied pads twice to prepare for physical 49ers
Most teams don’t do much in their playoff bye weeks, but LaFleur practiced all three days and he even put on the pads once. Then he returned with a regular training week with padded practice on Wednesday. Part of the reason the pads were to help players such as Smith, Mercilus, tackle Billy Turner and cornerback Jaire Alexander get as many snaps as possible. But a bigger reason might have been to prepare for a tough 49ers team that is the toughest in the trenches. “We know who we’re going to play against and the level of intensity they’re playing with in all three phases, that’s obvious,” LaFleur said. “It’s all over the tape, you can see it. We’ve played against them and we’ve experienced it. So it’s one of those games where you have to be prepared not only physically, but also mentally.