Friday, January 11, 2013
So, about this game tomorrow
An Opportunity to Get Even
While San Francisco remains a formidable foe, Green Bay has reason to believe it can avenge its loss to the 49ers four months ago. The Packers are almost certainly an improved team from the one that opened the season 2-3. Injuries have certainly taken a toll, for sure. But at the same time, rookies like Casey Hayward have stepped up. Veterans like BJ Raji and Sam Shields have gotten back to form. And new acquisitions like DuJuan Harris and Jeremy Ross have provided a spark.
The Packers seem to have found their identity, winning 10 of their last dozen games. Gone are the days of Jarrett Bush starting at corner back or an aging Jeff Saturday struggling to anchor the offensive line. Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers seems to have a much clearer view of their squad's strengths and weaknesses and have developed better game plans as a result. As a case in point, Capers called plenty of zone defense in week one--which the 49ers proceeded to shred. You might have noticed a lot more man-to-man as both Shields and Tramon Williams have rebounded from poor 2011 campaigns.
Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown
It's not much fun to be the home team in the NFL playoffs any more--especially in the divisional round. Almost every year there's at least one big upset. Last year it was the Packers getting knocked out early by the Giants. It might very well be that teams coming off a first-round bye come out rusty as Green Bay certainly did last year. But I think there's another factor at play too.
The home team in the divisional round has obviously been successful to secure a first-round bye. And so it sticks with the game plan that got it there--a game plan for which exists 16 games worth of film that the underdogs can study. While the home team's strategy is same-old, same-old, the visitors have nothing to lose and more flexibility for devising a creative attack to which the opponent will be especially vulnerable.
This is what felled the Packers last year. Everybody knew Aaron Rodgers was going to feast on deep balls, back shoulder passes and big plays. This attack led the Packers to a 15-1 regular season record so why change it up in the playoffs?
But that one loss to the Kansas City Chiefs provided a blueprint. The Giants figured out that if they could drop two deep safeties while leaving linebackers and defensive backs in coverage rather than blitzing, they could take away the big play. And that's exactly what they did.
The Chiefs, Giants and several teams early this year seemed to have Rodgers and McCarthy figured out. But a funny thing happened: the Green Bay offense evolved, focusing on the short passing game and running game. This, of course, opens up the deep ball once again, and Greg Jennings, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and James Jones are still among the league's best weapons for going long.
Packer fans should feel reassured that McCarthy has tailored a game plan aimed at neutralizing San Francisco's strengths and exploiting its weaknesses. In fact, under McCarthy, the Packers have traditionally overperformed as underdogs. At the same time, San Francisco is less likely to know what the Packers have cooked up. Will it be the traditional big play passing game? The suddenly resurgent running game? Or a series of short passes from a spread offense? If the Packers can land an early blow or two, the 49ers might crack under the pressure.
Winning the Matchup Battles
A sixteen game season is typically a large enough sample that the best teams make the playoffs. Talent rises to the top and quirks like luck, officiating and matchups even out as little more than statistical noise over the course of a grueling 16 game season.
But in the playoffs, any one of those factors can become the difference between moving on or going home. You can't predict luck or officiating, but you can take a good look at matchups.
The first key matchup to look at is 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick facing the Green Bay defense. Bill Barnwell wrote an excellent piece at Grantland.com analyzing how the 49ers switch to quarterback Kaepernick from Alex Smith might benefit the Packers, who rely heavily on forcing turnovers to win. Barnwell argues that Kapernick's interception rate has been unsustainably low and that his propensity to fumble hasn't hurt the 49ers who have recovered those fumbles at a statistically unsustainable rate. If there is regression to the mean for one or both of those factors, it would be a big advantage for the Packers.
While the possibility of San Francisco turning the ball over gives me hope as a Packer fan, I am rather worried about a number of the other matchups at play here.
San Francisco's offense under Kaepernick is heavy on read option plays, where the quarterback determines whether to run or handoff after observing what the outside linebacker is doing once a play begins. (For a fantastic explanation of the read option offense, check out Acme Packing Company.)
Not only has Green Bay faced the fewest read option plays in the NFL this season, it's also struggled against them. As inept as the Vikings offense was last weekend, the majority of read option plays beat the Packers defense. Fortunately, Minnesota QB Joe Webb's complete inability to pass the ball more than compensated for the Packers' inability to stop the read option.
That won't be the case against San Francisco. Because the read option is targeted at the outside linebackers, Clay Matthews and Erik Walden will have to be ready to go after both the running back and the quarterback each and every play. Walden has, for nearly three years now, demonstrated a complete inability to seal off the edge. Matthews is much better at doing so, but the cost might be a decrease in explosiveness in his pass rush--something the Packers won't want to sacrifice. Defending the read option often involves bringing more defenders up to the line of scrimmage. But while I generally trust the Packers defensive backs to play man-to-man, Kaepernick was the league's most accurate deep passer this year (h/t: Acme Packing Company).
The read option isn't the scariest matchup of the day, however. That distinction belongs to the 49ers front seven (notably pass rushing specialist Aldon Smith) going up against the Packers offensive line.
It's no secret the Packers have been vulnerable to defenses that get to the quarterback without blitzing. It's even less of a secret that the Packers' offensive line is held together by duct tape and positive thinking. LT Marshall Newhouse struggles against elite linemen and would require help in the form of double teams and running back/tight end help--except for the fact that RT Don Barclay is even worse. When you add the fact that Aaron Rodgers seems to be holding onto the ball longer than ever, it could be a recipe for disaster.
So after luring you in with reasons the Packers might pull it off and then crushing souls by exploring the matchup problems the 49ers pose, what do I think will happen?
I feel like this game is a tossup, and there's not a single outcome that would shock me. In the first half of this post, I nearly talked myself into predicting the Packers. But I'm not interested in wish-casting here, and the 49ers front seven going against Newhouse and Barclay is terrifying. San Francisco is the pick, 27-17.
Let's hope I'm wrong. Go Pack!
Labels: Green Bay Packers