Did the 49ers catch a break by drawing the 2010 Super Bowl champions for next week’s NFC divisional-round playoff game at Candlestick Park?
With the uncertainty surrounding Justin Smith’s health, some are suggesting that the 49ers are actually better suited to take on the high-flying Green Bay Packers than the ground-gashing Seattle Seahawks. Here’s the argument in a nutshell: Vic Fangio’s run defense is vulnerable with a one-armed Cowboy on the line; thus, Marshawn Lynch’s legs pose a greater threat than Aaron Rodgers’ one-dimensional Packers.
It’s nice fodder for discussion, but let’s not outsmart ourselves here: the Packers are former champs, Rodgers is as accurate as any quarterback in the NFL and his team is firing on all cylinders right now.
If you accept the premise that the defense will be hampered by Smith’s injury, you should be more concerned about the Packers. Why?
This is a quarterback league. Teams that win Super Bowls tend to have guys with names such as Manning, Brady, Brees and, yes, Rodgers, under center. When Rodgers is on, he can dissect almost any defense that is thrown at him, and right now he’s on fire. In the last two weeks, he completed 51-of-73 passes for 639 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions.
The antidote for a quarterback like Rodgers is a filthy pass rush. Defenses need to be in his face within four seconds or he’ll carve you up like a Thanksgiving turkey. The team that’s had the most success against the Packers recently is the New York Giants; they sacked Rodgers five times in a 38-10 win Nov. 25, and four times in their divisional round upset at Lambeau Field last year.
Now, lets get back to Smith. As much as the run defense is hurting in his absence, the pass rush has been almost nonexistent. Smith seems to tie up two blockers on almost every passing down, creating havoc for his teammates (see Aldon Smith) to pick up sacks even if he doesn’t reach the backfield himself. The 49ers averaged 2½ sacks a game in the first 14 weeks of the season, but picked up only three against the Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals in the past two games.
If you need a portrait of what a proficient quarterback can do against a Cowboy-less defense, re-watch the second half of the 49ers’ game against the New England Patriots when Tom Brady erased a 28-point deficit in less than a quarter.
Sure, the Packers’ offense is one-dimensional; they’ve played 44 straight games without registering a 100-yard rusher. But they can still hurt the 49ers on the ground if Smith is hindered. If the Cardinals’ William Powell can carry the ball for 10 yards up the middle, shouldn’t DeJuan Harris, Ryan Grant and John Kuhn be just as effective when the Packers decide to sneak a run play into the mix?
Of course, there is another way to beat the Packers: pile up the points. If the 49ers are headed back to the NFC Championship Game, Colin Kaepernick will need to replicate his performance against Patriots three weeks ago. He outgunned Brady. Is Rodgers next?
Paul Gackle is a regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner and also writes at www.gacklereport.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.