The San Francisco 49ers may have allowed over 300 yards to reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, but Vic Fangio's unit put on a clinic in stopping the Green Bay Packers quarterback Sunday.
While the 49ers have the talent on defense to make any quarterback look average, it was the way Fangio's assorted looks were disguised in the pre-snap period that was the most impressive. Rodgers, one of the best minds in the game at the quarterback position, was unable to decipher many of the defenses he saw before the snap.
The coverages and blitzes were mixed and hidden. To his credit, Rodgers made some improvisational plays to combat his struggles in reading the defenses in the pre-snap.
In the following film breakdown, I take a look at some of the negative decisions Rodgers made against the 49ers Sunday because his pre-snap read wasn't correct.
The first comes at as the first half is coming to a close. Down six, Rodgers and the Packers are attempting to get into field goal range. It's 3rd-and-8 with 39 seconds left. Both Green Bay and San Francisco have a timeout remaining.
Here's the pre-snap screengrab:
The 49ers are playing a three-man front with their linebackers back. It's a soft look, designed to ensure no big plays happen down the field that could get the Packers into field goal range. Rodgers just wants to get a first down to continue the drive, especially with one timeout left in his backpocket.
Rodgers probably thinks he's going to have an easy pitch-and-catch to either Jordy Nelson (running a 12-yard hitch route) or Greg Jennings, who has a simple 8-yard out in front of the coverage. The Packers just want a first down here. Yet the 49ers don't play soft coverage, and they are all over the underneath stuff to both Jennings and Nelson.
Rodgers buys time to his left—the only way he looked this entire play—but nothing is open. Jennings is bracketed and there's no window to get the football to Nelson beyond the sticks. Rodgers breaks contain of the pocket but flicks the ball out of bounds, stopping the clock with 34 ticks remaining.
The 49ers don't have to use a timeout, which ultimately helps them get David Akers into position for his 63-yard field goal. The unawareness of the defense obviously contributes to the field goal attempt (everyone in the stadium but the 11 Packers defenders knew Colin Kaepernick was running the football), but Rodgers' brain fart didn't help here. Part of confusion was the 49ers' coverage not being what Rodgers likely envisioned pre-snap.
The second example is a play that has been widely discussed. The situation is third-and-1 on the Packers first offensive possession of the second half, with Green Bay down 16-7.
Following a time out, the Packers come out in a double tight end, I-formation look. Nelson is split out wide to the right. The 49ers counter by bringing nine men into the box, including safety Donte Whitner, who is cheating up in the pre-snap read. Rodgers likely thinks he'll have a good shot at getting Nelson one-on-one with no safety help over the top.
The play call is a staple of the Packers offense, with a play-action fake to the back and a backside deep post off Rodgers' rollout. You'd need two hands to count how many times Rodgers has thrown a touchdown on this exact play.
But the single coverage here never happens. Dashon Goldson (circled in first screen grab), plays the single-high safety and brackets Nelson the entire way. Despite the double coverage, Rodgers winds up and heaves a prayer.
But let's take a look at his other options just before releasing the ball. Jermichel Finley appears to be breaking open in the middle of the field, although there is a defender spying in the area. It would have been a difficult throw, but one Rodgers could make. In the right flat, John Kuhn has some space and would likely have a first down underneath. Even the protection is very good, as the 49ers bring just three men. Rodgers could have attacked the first down marker to the right side to make the linebacker in charge of that zone choose whether he wanted to pursue Rodgers or cover Kuhn. Again, probably another first down as a result.
Yet Rodgers takes a shot at the big play, and the Packers are forced to punt when the ball falls harmlessly to the turf. While the team needed a spark down nine points, it also needed to stay on the field. The 49ers took over and marched down the field for another touchdown, extending their lead to 23-7. Maybe the Packers get some points on this drive if they convert the first down, maybe they don't. But this decision from Rodgers didn't give his team that chance. Part of that decision was likely not getting what Rodgers wanted in the 49ers' pre-snap look.
One final play in this breakdown, and it has to be Rodgers' back-breaking interception in the fourth quarter. The situation: Green Bay had just received a defensive stop after cutting the 49ers lead to eight points. The Packers' offense has 1st-and-10 from their own 25-yard line.
There's nothing fancy about either look, offense or defense. The Packers go I-formation with three receivers, and the 49ers counter with their base 3-4 defense. NaVorro Bowman, the inside linebacker who makes the interception, is circled here. To the left of the screen grab, outside linebacker Aldon Smith is lining up over Jennings in the left slot. This has zone written all over it.
Here's what Rodgers sees just moments after the snap. Bowman has attacked up, and it appears as if he's going to trail Kuhn into the flat. I'll bet that's exactly what Rodgers saw. Jennings then has a free release and easily works past Smith, who is completely flat-footed in this screen grab. Patrick Willis, the other inside linebacker to the right, hasn't yet cheated over and appears to be spying Cedric Benson, who is retreating out of the backfield. Even the safeties appear out of position to make a break. At this point, this play looks like it could be one of the easier pitch-and-catches between Rodgers and Jennings down the inside seam.
Rodgers is completely fooled into the decision. Bowman dumps off Kuhn to Smith, who is sitting in a soft zone. Bowman treats vertically, sitting directly between Rodgers and Jennings. The weakside safety has recognized the play in time and is making a run towards Jennings. Just as Rodgers is releasing the football, this has disaster written all over it.
The pending back-breaker is now in motion. Bowman has an easy interception coming his way. But even if Bowman can't get his hands on this football, one of two things is going to happen. Either the charging safety is going to get an interception here, or Jennings is going to absorb a big hit. The moving picture makes it appear as if the safety is winding up for a hit. But the real damage here is Bowman, who perfectly disguised his every move to Rodgers.
The result is one of the worst decisions we've seen from Rodgers in probably 25-30 games. As I've said before, it was an awful decision at the absolutely worst time. Instead of moving down for a tying score with time of the fourth-quarter clock, Rodgers got to watch on the sidelines as Frank Gore bowled his way into the end zone on the very next play to extend the lead back out to two scores. The Packers got their chances later on, but this was the game-changing play.
We haven't seen many defenses confused Rodgers for 60 minutes like the 49ers did Sunday. It was a clinic in defensive playcalling, disguise and execution. Fangio certainly made the God-like Rodgers look mortal in Week 1.
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org