After a disastrous first half, the second half couldn’t have possibly started out better for Matt LaFleur and his Green Bay Packers. A second-and-16 statement sack of San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo (split by Za’Darius and Preston Smith) highlighted a three-and-out from the defense. Then, the offense that was dominated by the 49er defense for the entire first half showed its first signs of life.
A 13-play, 65-yard 8:34 drive that included a conversion on fourth-and-four and two helpful San Francisco penalties resulted in a touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Davante Adams on a wide receiver screen. After the two-point conversion, the Packers had closed the San Francisco lead to 23-8 with still almost four minutes left in the third quarter.
And then – almost as quickly as hope was re-kindled – it was snuffed out again.
Less than a minute later, San Francisco was lining up with a first-and-ten on their own 39-yard line. They came out in a three tight end set, with George Kittle and Garrett Celek tight to the formation on the left, and Ross Dwelley tight to the right. Richie James – the lone wide receiver – was split to the right. Green Bay answered with a cover-3. Hurt through most of the first half when they tried to play man against the 49ers, Green Bay had switched to zone defenses with the intention of limiting big plays in the passing game.
The play began as a zone run right, as all eight 49ers close to the line began blocking the nearest Packer to their right, while Garoppolo turned to hand the ball to running back Raheem Mostert, also heading to the right. At the same time, though, wide receiver James came running, right to left, back behind the line of scrimmage, headed up the left sideline. Unblocked on the offensive left end of the line was Packer pass-rush specialist Preston Smith. He was hanging back, ready to play a possible cutback by Mostert.
The play, of course, was not a run. At about the same time that P Smith noticed James racing toward the left flank, he also noticed that Garoppolo did not hand the ball off, but was booting back around to his left – presumably to lob a short pass to the undefended James, who would be racing up the left sideline.
At this point Smith realized that he could not reach Smith in time to prevent the pass, so Preston transitioned into pass defender and began a hopeless pursuit of the fleet James as he turned the corner and headed up-field.
Elsewhere, all three tight ends were headed into the pattern. Kittle would run the deep post up the left sideline, while Celek would sustain the run action the longest before drifting over the short middle. But the most problematic route for Green Bay was Dwelley’s. Running from the right, Ross went about ten yards up-field before breaking back across the middle on a medium crossing route.
That route drew attention from safety Darnell Savage – who had responsibility for one of the intermediate zones. Critically, though, it also drew the attention of safety Adrian Amos, who saw Savage trailing the route and decided to jump it.
The problem here was that Amos had the deep middle in the cover-3 defense, and as he abandoned that responsibility, he left a gaping void in the middle of the defense.
Cornerback Kevin King, who had endured a frustrating first half in man coverage, was now in a dilly of a pickle. He was responsible for the deep left in the cover-3. But he also noticed that Amos was no longer in his deep third. As Kittle threatened his third of the field, King retreated to stay on top of George’s route. When he got within three yards of King, George took a step toward the sideline before he stemmed back to the middle – a step that turned King around. As Kevin was turning, he noticed James also racing up his sideline with Smith trailing well behind him. King decided to keep defending the left sideline against James, hoping someone else would be over the middle to pick up Kittle.
No one was.
In a play more reminiscent of the practice field than an actual game, Jimmy Garoppolo, standing all alone in the pocket without a pass rusher in the same area code, lobbed a pass to George Kittle, equally isolated, 35 yards downfield. King and corner Jaire Alexander made desperate attempts to catch him from behind. To no avail.
The 61-yard touchdown pass completed a two-play drive. After Green Bay had labored for almost nine minutes to regain the momentum and creep back into the game, San Francisco needed just 57 seconds to silence them.
Another six-minute Green Bay drive ended with a sack on fourth-and-eight, and San Francisco responded with a 10-play, 69-yard touchdown drive of their own that ate 6:31 of the clock and put a bow on their 37-8 victory (gamebook) (summary).
It was a day of answering critics for Garoppolo, who finished with 14 completions in 20 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns – good for a 145.8 passer rating.
But the night really belonged to the 49er defense, which made life uncommonly miserable for one of the great passers of this generation. Aaron Rodgers finished his night 20 of 33 for just 104 passing yards – an average of 3.15 yards per attempt and 5.2 yards per completion. Mix in the five sacks, and Green Bay finished averaging 1.9 yards per passing play.
In fact, of Aaron’s 20 completions, 12 of them were to receivers at or behind the line of scrimmage. The total yards that all of his completions traveled in the air (relative to the line of scrimmage) was an astonishing negative 5. I believe the furthest downfield he completed a pass was seven yards.
The 49ers, of course, already believe in themselves. But this was an important win for the rest of us who were a little uncertain about a defense that had given up some yards and some points over the last three weeks. This game helps me believe in them as a legitimate number one.
As to the Packers, the loss, of course, drops them into a tie in their division with Minnesota – with the remaining game between these teams to be played in Minnesota.
But, beyond that, it may be time to face some legitimate concerns about the Green Bay pass defense.
The Packers opened the season with victories over the Bears, Vikings and Broncos during which the pass defense was outstanding. Their first three opponents combined to complete 60 of 106 passes (56.6%) for just 671 yards, the one touchdown pass they allowed being offset by 4 interceptions. Green Bay also picked up 12 quarterback sacks in those games. Through three games, the passer rating against them was a minuscule 63.1.
Over the last nine games, the narrative has been much different. In these games, opposing passers have completed 172 of 261 passes (65.9%) for 2338 yards (a concerning 13.59 yards per completion). They have just 16 sacks over the last 9 games, while serving up 13 touchdown passes and recording just 5 interceptions – a passer rating against of 102.9.
For the season, Green Bay now allows 13.0 yards per completion – the third highest average in the NFL. After allowing 5 pass plays of more than 20 yards on Sunday night, Green Bay has now given up 43 such plays this year – 18.5% of all the completions they’ve allowed have gone for at least 20. That is the sixth highest percentage in the league. Worse than that, the two touchdown passes they allowed were both over 40 yards – the twelfth and thirteenth such passes they’ve given up, tying them with the New York Giants for most 40-yard pass plays allowed. They are the worst in the NFL as far as percentage of completed passes gaining at least 40 yards at 5.6%.
Against San Francisco they were taken advantage of in both man and zone coverages. And the one constant in all of the big plays struck against them was Jimmy Garoppolo with all the time in the world in the pocket.
Over the off season, Green Bay bolstered its pass rush with the addition of Preston (signed away from the Washington Redskins) and Za’Darius Smith (no relation, formerly with the Ravens). Their impact on the defense has been notable. The Smiths have combined for 10.5 sacks, 19 hurries, and 61 pressures.
Increasingly, though, the problem in Green Bay is that no one else is contributing much to the rush.
The entire rest of the defense has 7.5 sacks, 16 hurries and 43 pressures. Third on the sack list is Blake Martinez, who recorded his second of the season on Sunday night. After 34 pressures from Z Smith and 27 more from P Smith, the next closest Packers are Kenny Clark and Kyler Fackrell with 10 each.
With the reminder that to win the division, Green Bay must still go into Minnesota and beat a Viking team that has been shredding opposing pass defenses recently, this is not an encouraging development.
If the Packers are going to reclaim their division, the Smiths are going to need some help.