This rematch of the 2019 NFC Championship Game has a much different feeling than it did in January. Even though the Packers and 49ers were able to keep the majority of their star players from last season, injuries are the biggest themes for both of these teams this season. For the Packers, stars Aaron Jones and Davante Adams have both missed time, while the 49ers have lost nearly every player that made significant contributions to last year’s Super Bowl run at some point this season, ranging from Nick Bosa to Jimmy Garoppolo to George Kittle. With both teams struggled in Week 8 … which will bounce back in a big way Thursday night? Here are the keys to the game for both teams:
Keys to the game for the Green Bay Packers
1. Establish another option in the passing game besides Davante Adams
One of the biggest reasons for Green Bay being unable to take advantage of the Vikings’ poor pass defense in Week 8 was due to the Packers’ overreliance on star wideout Davante Adams. In Week 8, Adams had seven catches for 53 yards and three touchdowns. Adams was targeted 12 times against the Vikings. There has only been one game this season that Adams has played in which he did not total 10 or more targets (Week 2 vs. the Lions, when Adams exited the game with an injury). With Adams potentially being shadowed by Jason Verrett, the Packers should look to get somebody else involved – perhaps TE Robert Tonyan or WR Allen Lazard, who may be returning this week, in order to keep the pressure off Adams and especially Aaron Rodgers.
2. Make Nick Mullens uncomfortable
With Jimmy Garoppolo exiting San Francisco’s Week 8 game against the Seattle Seahawks with an injury, it is once again up to backup QB Nick Mullens to do some damage control. The key for the Packers in this game is to get back to what they were so good at last season, which was rushing the passer. Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith were two of the better pass rushers in the league last season, yet they have not been nearly effective so far, mostly the latter. The 49ers have given up the eighth-most amount of sacks in the NFL this season with 22. Mullens has been sacked eight times through four games he’s played. In a Sunday night affair against the Eagles in Week 4, Mullens had his worst outing of the season because the Eagles did a really good job of forcing him to make errant passes. In that game alone, Mullens was sacked four times and was picked off twice. The Packers need to follow a similar formula in order to get back to what made them so successful last season.
3. Sell out for the run
The biggest weakness for the Packers dating back to last season has been run defense. Currently, the Packers rank 19th in rushing yards allowed per game (119), but the Packers have gotten up big in many of their games, which has prevented other teams from rushing the ball a lot. In Week 8, the Vikings relied heavily on Dalvin Cook, and the Packers were unable to contain him as he rushed for 163 yards on 30 carries. Ronald Jones and Alvin Kamara also had huge days against the Packers, so it seems reasonable that the 49ers may go to this formula as well, especially since they are starting their backup QB once again. The 49ers are also at their best when they are reliant on the rushing game, which was evident in their Week 7 win against the New England Patriots. Although Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson will be out for this matchup, JaMycal Hasty and Jerick McKinnon have been solid backs for San Francisco this season. The Packers need to figure out ways to not get exposed in the running game or else Rodgers will not have enough possessions to make things work for the offense. This was a lot of the reason why Green Bay struggled last week, and it should be an area of emphasis, especially against the shorthanded 49ers.
Keys to the game for the San Francisco 49ers
1. Establish the run early and often
It may seem redundant to bring up this point again, but the 49ers need to emphasize the running game early in this one with all of the injuries that they have on both sides of the ball. With how poorly Nick Mullens did against the pressure from Philadelphia’s defense, it seems reasonable to expect that Kyle Shanahan will lean heavily on a run game that helped the 49ers get two big victories over the Rams and Patriots. In those games, the 49ers rushed an average of 37 times for 159.5 yards. With the Packers giving up more than that in Week 8, it seems like this should be the go-to formula for the Niners to try to steal a win from Green Bay. Furthermore, with George Kittle being out, it also seems reasonable to expect that San Francisco will try to run jet sweeps, which were very effective against the Eagles in the last game Nick Mullens started. Brandon Aiyuk was running those jet sweeps — he’s out of this game due to Covid, so that’s another personnel issue for the 49ers.
2. Find a good replacement for Brandon Aiyuk
Despite all the injuries and inconsistencies of the 49ers this season, first-round pick Brandon Aiyuk has proven to be one of the bright spots on this offense. Whether it’s with the jet sweeps, the little touch passes off of the jet sweep or running longer routes like he did against Seattle in Week 8, Aiyuk has continually seen an uptick in his usage for the Niners, especially with the amount of injuries this team has sustained. In the last two games, Aiyuk has compiled an average of seven receptions for 103 yards. So the announcement this week that he’ll miss this game due to Covid is another big blow for San Francisco. Mullens will miss his versatility and ability to create some mismatches. If Shanahan is looking for another versatile weapon who might be able to do the things Aiyuk was doing, he might focus on Jerick McKinnon. Green Bay has one of the better secondaries in the league, allowing the 11th-most passing yards per game with 227.6. With McKinnon, the 49ers may be able to introduce some concepts that the Packers are not really used to seeing on a week-to-week basis, much like the 49ers did against the Patriots, another team with a good secondary.
3. Take advantage of the inexperience at running back for Green Bay
Coming into this game, the Packers are now facing some uncertainty at running back. Aaron Jones has been out the past few games, and now Jamaal Williams and A.J. Dillon are going to be out for this matchup. This means the Packers are now down to second-year running back Dexter Williams and fifth-year running back and return specialist Tyler Ervin. Neither of these players has taken extensive offensive snaps in their careers, and it may be a lot to ask them to have a big role in the offense. The 49ers rank 10th in rushing yards allowed per game (105.6). Nonetheless, the 49ers still need to make sure neither of these running backs is able to step up like Jamaal Williams was able to the past two games. Against Minnesota in Week 8, Williams had 102 total yards with many of those yards coming in the first half. Against Houston in Week 7, Williams had 114 total yards and was a big part of the offense the whole game. San Francisco was able to limit DeeJay Dallas’ effectiveness for Seattle in Week 8 outside of the red zone, but he did end up scoring two touchdowns. These were huge as both of them came when the 49ers were trying to keep pace with the Seahawks. With Mullens at quarterback, the 49ers need to make sure that they do not replicate this poor performance against two players that do not have a lot of experience on offense. The 49ers should play to their strengths and try to make the Packers go a little pass-heavy in this game in order to make sure they do not have a repeat of Week 8.
Sources: ESPN, Pro-Football-Reference