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Packers vs. 49ers: Breaking Down What Makes the San Francisco Defense Great

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Packers vs. 49ers: Breaking Down What Makes the San Francisco Defense Great

NFL fans will have a hard time finding a better matchup than the Green Bay Packers' offense against the San Francisco 49ers' defense to kick off the 2012 season. It's undeniable strength versus undeniable strength Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field.

A quick look at the numbers also shows two units that were among the very best in football a season ago.

Green Bay's offense scored a whopping 560 points—marking the second most in NFL history behind only the 589 points scored by 2007 New England Patriots—while the 49ers allowed under 15 points a game and stopped the run better then 99 percent of teams from the last generation.

San Francisco allowed just three rushing touchdowns in 2011, and only three teams were able to crack 100 total rushing yards in 18 games.

While most here have a pretty good idea how the Packers have remained dominant on the offensive side of the ball, the dominance of the 49ers defense may be a little harder to explain.

Considering how well our breakdowns here at CheeseheadTV have been received lately, I decided to take another extended look at the film—this time to figure out how the 2011 49ers were able to become such a tough unit to crack. Here's what I found.

2011 49ers Defense Breakdown 

It doesn't take more than one viewing of the 49ers defense to understand the physicality this front seven plays with. These guys like to fly to the football and hit whatever moves. But up front, everything starts and ends with Justin Smith and Aldon Smith.

Here we see the 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15 last season. What San Francisco does on this particular play is a staple of their attacking defense. 

Justin Smith moves a shade inside from the five-technique during this nickel look. Aldon Smith then lines up outside the left tackle. The Steelers counter with more than enough blockers (five offensive lineman, running back) to protect Ben Roethlisberger, no matter what 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio throws at him here.

As this play develops, the Steelers appear to have the 49ers' front-four walled off. But look at the top of the formation. Justin Smith has pushed upfield and a touch outside, driving the left guard into the pocket. Aldon Smith, on the other hand, has patiently waited for the guard to be driven back and the tackle to release. The 49ers' patented stunt with the two Smiths has been successfully put in motion.

Now look where Justin Smith is. He's clearly blocked, but it took both the guard and tackle to get it done. The running back, expecting pressure off the outside of the protection, is completely out of position to step up and block Aldon Smith, who has run clean via the perfectly-run stunt. Roethlisberger does have a dump off to the tight end in front of him, but his eyes may be on Smith, who is bearing down on him. Roethlisberger doesn't get the pass off and the Steelers go from 2nd-and-3 to 3rd-and-8 in a flash.

These stunts with the Smiths are something the 49ers did probably once every three passing downs with Aldon Smith in the game. Expect to see a high volume of them Sunday with Aldon Smith playing a more featured role. That reality puts the pressure on Marshall Newhouse and T.J. Lang to communicate during these stunts, because it's a completely blockable maneuver with the right communication involved. The Packers running backs will also have to be aware of what's in front of them. Even the highly mobile Aaron Rodgers won't be able to escape a defensive look if Aldon Smith is running free at the quarterback.

Before we get off Aldon Smith, let's take one last look at what he brings to the table. In this look below, the 49ers bring nothing more than four-man pressure. Smith is circled on top, facing New Orleans Saints Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod.

The Saints should have this easily blocked, as two linemen take up both middle rushers and Smith potentially getting chipped on the outside. The pocket initially looks to be a clean one. It's hard to tell in screen grabs, but Smith's violent hands and speed on the edge make this a nightmare matchup for Bushrod.

Smith's hand slap frees him of any extension coming from Bushrod. At that point, it's athleticism vs. athleticism, and Smith is going to win that battle against every offensive tackle in the game. He easily gets around the edge and meets Brees in the pocket just as he's delivering a checkdown.

If there's any one matchup that can turn Sunday's game on its head for Green Bay, it's Newhouse vs. Smith. He's such a polished pass-rusher at his age, and the 14.0 sacks he delivered in limited snaps last season is a clear indication of that. Without help on a majority of snaps, it's hard to envision Newhouse keeping Smith down for 60 minutes Sunday.

Enough of Aldon Smith, however. Let's move on to another reason why this defense is so good.

In the screen grab below, Eagles quarterback Michael Vick has escaped contain of the pocket and is racing towards the green ahead of him. Only linebacker Navarro Bowman stands in his way. It's every defender's worst nightmare, right?

Let's be clear right now: These are not your 2010 49ers, who let Donald Driver rumble through numerous arm tackles on his way to a 60-yard touchdown. When this defense gets its hands on a ball-carrier, consider him on the ground.

This Vick example is a perfect one to display just that, although there's a hundred other examples of the 49ers making a fine open-field tackle last season. Consider these guys the anti-2011 Packers, who couldn't tackle anyone.

Here's Bowman calmly making the stop:

Most defenders would cringe at the sight of seeing Vick race to the open field, but Bowman doesn't panic. He levels his shoulders in pursuit, forces Vick into just one option (outside) and then trusts his ability to bring down the runner. It's Tackling in the Open Field 101. What looked like a sure first down for Vick on 3rd-and-3 turns into a punting situation.

And while were at, let's take a second to recognize just how good Bowman is. If he switched his 53 jersey with Patrick Willis' 52, you wouldn't even be able to tell the difference. In fact, Bowman may be more athletic on plays like these. Willis and Bowman together inside is the best in football, and by a wide margin.

Let's now go to the coaches film to break down a factor Packers fans know all about: Getting turnovers. The 49ers actually tied Green Bay with 38 of them last season.

In this screen grab, the New Orleans Saints line up in a five-receiver set, with Jimmy Graham playing inside to the right and Darren Sproles inside to the left.

The 49ers counter this formation like most NFL defenses would, bringing in the dime look with four cornerbacks and just one linebacker. As the play unfolds, three receivers and Graham run four-verticals, with the hope that at least one option can slip down one of the seams for a big gain. Brees is a master of this throw. As insurance, Sproles runs an underneath route in case Brees feels early pressure or nothing is available down field.

Willis, the lone linebacker on the play, runs step-for-step with Graham down the middle of the field. The safety on the right half of the defensive side brackets the far receiver, who is also well covered. The other safety (Dashon Goldson, circled) hovers around the middle of the field, bracketing Graham but also making himself available to cover the other inside seam. At this point, Brees either thinks he has successfully manipulated Dashon Goldson into doubling Graham or he loses track of him. With a solid pocket around him, I bet Brees' eyes got wide as he sees a potential big throw.

It's not to be for Brees, and Goldson has an easy interception no matter where he goes with the football. Brees ends up picking the inside seam receiver instead of Graham, leaving Goldson a short area to read the throw and step in front. As you can see in the screen grab, Goldson is almost waiting on the throw to arrive.

From there, Goldson returns the interception inside the Saints' five-yard line. Three plays later, Alex Smith hits Michael Crabtree on a short slant, and the 49ers' lead suddenly swells from 7-0 to 14-0. The Packers must avoid these kind of mistakes, because they fuel what can be a sometimes stagnant offense. Like Green Bay, San Francisco became adept at turning interceptions and fumbles into points.

It's very clear to me that the 49ers represent the best defense the Packers have faced in some time, including the New York Giants (In fact, the Packers did not play a single team ranked in the top-11 of scoring defense a season ago). San Francisco can get to the quarterback with four rushers, they make every tackle and the game-changing plays are abundant.

The 49ers will make Green Bay work for every point it scores Sunday. Their film from a season ago proves that.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (34) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Fish . Crane's picture

Again, nice stuff. You almost had me scared for a moment. Then I thought I feel pretty good about games where the Packers have to worry about their offense.

Zach Kruse's picture

I don't know. Teams like the 49ers remind me a lot of the Chiefs and Giants. Ability to get pressure on 12 without blitzing is so important.

PackersRS's picture

This is great Zach.
Can you say what is their predominant coverage? I confess I didn't watch many of their games, but it's interesting to note what they do most of the time. Are they playing cover 2? 3? Are they mixing a lot like Capers? He was the DC when Capers was the HC at Carolina, but is his style similar?

Zach Kruse's picture

It looked to me like it was a lot of different coverages. The two safeties are both good at read and reacting in the backend, but both can be beat one-on-one. Carlos Rogers had a terrific year as the No. 1 CB. Both starting CBs are physical at the line, kind of like Flowers/Carr last year in Kansas City.

But they are able to keep guys in coverage because the front-four is so good at causing initial pressure. Hard not to admire what they can do.

CSS's picture

This is the type of game where James Jones has the skill set to shine. Nelson and Jennings get off press coverage because they're slippery, fluid. They can still get jammed. You can't jam Jones. He's too physical, too strong. He should get quite a few snaps if the Niners corners really press the line. It's his number one asset as a receiver.

PackersRS's picture

Thanks for the answer, Zach.

Will be the thoughest test for our offense, but they're at their best in base. I agree with CSS, Jones might have a pretty good game, if he can hold onto the ball.

dullgeek's picture

I enjoyed the analysis, but I'm a little concerned that it mismatches strength vs strength. Clearly the 49ers biggest strength is their run defense. But their pass defense last year was middle of the road - ranked #16 in yards/game. And the strength of the Packers' offense is obviously their passing game (ranked #3 last year in ypg).

I certainly agree that this is going to be a stern test for the Packers offense. But last year the Chargers pass defense was ranked better than the 49ers pass defense. And #12 was 21/26 for 247 yds and 4TDs vs the Chargers.

I think the Packers passing offense is going to win the battle against the 49ers pass defense. I suspect that Ced Benson will get a few token carries. But I think MM is going to try to exploit his advantage: his pass offense vs the 49ers pass defense.

Of course, take all of the above as mere speculation, or possibly hope. Do not get me confused with someone who knows what he's talking about.

Zach Kruse's picture

Really good point. But keep in mind that the Giants gave up the fourth most passing yards in the NFL last season, and they had their way with Green Bay's offense in the second game. It's more than just yards allowed. Only the Saints scored more than 30 on this team last year. Should be interesting.

Bohj's picture

I like the breakdown. I tend to like what dullgeek says about the matchups though. Zach's insight says that the pass rush is strong and the middle LBs are amazing tacklers. I agree. However, McCarthy is all about finding the mismatches in the secondary. I'll take our 4-5 receivers (incl Finley) over their DBacks all day long.

I know it sounds like we struggled against the Giants last year, but the delivery of our offensive gameplan was masterful and Rodgers hit his marks. However, execution was an issue and the receivers seemed to likes drops. If our receivers hold onto the ball, we win this one bigtime.

Zach Kruse's picture

I agree that McCarthy will find matchups he likes. I just wonder how the offensive line holds up when the Packers spread the field. I don't think Newhouse/Lang can keep Aldon/Justin Smith at bay without help. How the left side of the offensive line plays will dictate how McCarthy calls this game, IMO.

Spiderpack's picture

Zach, it (your work) just keeps getting better & better. Thank you.

What I remember about this game is Brees chewing these guys up in the passing game fairly easily; and then along with that? Sloppy, unfortunate, stupid, whatever-you-wanna-call-them turnovers by the Saints, killing themselves like the Packers did against the Giants. I also remember Brees taking way more chances throwing the ball than our guy Rodgers ever does-just "throwing it up there," albeit with somewhat successful results. I really think this game is doable, so long as we don't turn it over more than they do.

Zach Kruse's picture

Turnovers will be huge. Saints dug themselves a hole with turnovers and the 49ers converted them into points more often than not. It's an old cliche, but the "whoever wins the turnover battle will win" probably weighs a lot more heavily in this game than most.

Oppy's picture

Just wanted to say 'Congrats' on your getting in on the JSO reader-journalist gig. Bring your "A" game, and who knows? Maybe it will open a door for you in sports journalism for the J-S.

Out of curiosity, will the J-S be supplying proofreading/editing services, or will they simply be publishing your articles as-is?

Zach Kruse's picture

Thanks Oppy. I appreciate that.

Not sure on the editing part. I assume the guy I'm working with gives them a good reading through. I doubt JS would publish anything in the paper or online without a qualified set of eyes taking a looksy.

FITZCORE 1252'S EVO's picture

Once again Zach, you don't disappoint.

I'm gonna throw out an O/U # for the Pack on Sunday... Let's say @ 26.5.

I'll take the over, thinking 27 or 30... Anybody else care to go on record here?


packsmack25's picture

Over. 35 at least.

Bearmeat's picture

You're nuts packsmack.

If we score 30, that'll be a helluva accomplishment.

ARod won't throw picks like Brees did. Zach is right - Newhouse is huge. Also - what about Saturday? I hope he can still handle the heft this D brings.

If Benson doesn't fumble, and we limit their running game, we win comfortably. If not, it's gonna go down to the wire.

packsmack25's picture

We shall see. Rodgers has shredded the Steelers defense when it was actually a much more stout defense, historically speaking. I just don't think there's a defense on the planet that really even causes him pause.

Jamie's picture

Well done...just a minor typo in paragraph three. NE scored 589 in 2007.

Zach Kruse's picture

Thanks Jamie. Fixed now.

packsmack25's picture

Zach, this analysis is great. HOWEVAH!!!! I think that the Niner defense is quite a bit overrated. They are set up to stop the run, but this is no longer a running league.

Just a few numbers here: 345 yards to Romo, 416 yards to Vick, 293 yards to Stafford, 330 yards to Roethlisberger, 311 and 316 yards to Manning, and (holy crap!) 462 yards to Brees. Those are the six NFL caliber QBs they faced in their soft schedule, and they were torched by all of them. I think Rodgers just absolutely dismantles them.

Otto's picture

They gave up gobs of yardage, but they went 5-2 in those games (sounds like another defense we're all familiar with).

They didn't give up many points during the regular season other than to Dallas, 27. (last game of the season they gave up 27 to St. Louis. But that's an outlier, they must have been resting players). They were the no.2 scoring defense, but no.8 passing TD defense.

I like this a little better: no.1 pass scoring offense (51 passing TDs,seriously?) versus the no.8 pass scoring defense.

packsmack25's picture

If you look at the regular season records of the teams they beat in those games, it's no surprise they go 5-2. But their margin for error was still razor thin in all of those matchups(with the exception of the Steelers game, which like you mentioned above about the Rams game, is kind of an outlier).

Plain and simple, they are due for a regression, as teams that make big jumps due to winning close games via turnovers are almost never able to repeat the magic.

Zach Kruse's picture

With that last paragraph though packsmack, the Packers are probably due for a regression, too.

packsmack25's picture

I'd say that was correct if the Packers didn't average 35 PPG on offense. Even if they regress to 30 PPG, they're going to put teams in big holes and get turnovers pretty organically. The Niners don't have that luxury.

don's picture

I think this D and their decent enough offense will be enough to overtake the pack and pull an upset making it a great bet! I ewrote all about it right here on my site come by read and enjoy!

FITZCORE 1252'S EVO's picture

Nah, I'll pass.

jeremy's picture

Outstanding article!

Zach Kruse's picture

Thank you jeremy!

bigfog's picture

Zach, how much does the timeclock that McCarthy used in Training Camp help the Packers? Have to think that a pass rush will be hard pressed to get to Rodgers if he can get rid of a ball in 2.5 seconds or under.

Zach Kruse's picture

Guarantee MM had one eye on the Giants playoff game and another towards Sunday when he implemented that clock. Hopefully it makes a difference.

djbonney138's picture

I think how our defense plays will probably be the key to this game. We force Alex Smith to have a bad day and I think we are in good shape. Our offense is going to score (may be not a lot with that defense) but I think if we force turnovers we gave Aaron more chances.

Frank's picture

Ok ,, we lost to the giants last year due to a tragedy on our team ,,, our offensive coordinator lost his son , when I look back on that game we really didn't play at all as we did earlier in the season , almost looked like the ran the same offense as the week before ,, we will best the 49rs for sure ,

Pack88's picture

I enjoyed the analysis and no questions the 49ers have a very very good team, but a lot those guys had career years and as you learn in Stats 101 typically you revert to the mean. That being said even a lesser 49 defense could be too much if the 9er offense goes up and down the field against the Packer D. I believe the Packers win the game the same way the Saints should have, by forcing the 49ers to cover their big powerful receives JJones and Finley with linebackers. The five fat guys on offense will be key because if Rodgers gets time or if he frustrates the 9er rush early by getting loose Nelson will get a deep one.

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