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Championship Sunday: Breaking Down the Key Matchups in the Packers-49ers NFC Title Bout

By: Stats Perform

The Green Bay Packers, coming off their sixth consecutive win last week against the Seattle Seahawks, will travel to the Bay Area to play the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in what should be an exciting NFC Championship game.

Aaron Rodgers is aiming for the chance to play in his second career Super Bowl and first since he led Green Bay to victory at the end of the 2010 season. If the Packers win, Matt LaFleur will have a chance to become the first rookie head coach to win a Super Bowl since Jan. 28, 1990, when George Seifert of the 49ers accomplished the rare feat. If the 49ers win, Kyle Shanahan will secure an opportunity to become the first San Francisco coach to win the title since Seifert on Jan. 29, 1995.

Green Bay has featured a run-first offense under LaFleur, relying heavily on running back Aaron Jones to move the ball and open up the passing game. The Packers have gained four or more yards on 49.6% of their rushing plays, second to only the Baltimore Ravens. Green Bay is 6-0 when a running back rushes for 100-plus yards and in each of their three losses, no Packer cracked 50 on the ground. One of the keys to the Packers’ run game is their offensive line, which is collectively 9.5% better than league average at preventing run disruptions.

San Francisco possesses the most stout defense of the remaining playoff teams, allowing 66.1 total yards per game less than the NFL average, but there is some hope for the Packers’ offense. The 49ers’ defense ranked 23rd in the league with 4.49 yards allowed per opponent rush attempt during the regular season, and gave up at least four yards on 49.4% of opponent’s rushing plays – the second-highest rate in the NFL.

San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa (97) sacks Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Santa Clara, Calif.

San Francisco will rely on its unparalleled pass rush to contain Rodgers. The 49ers generate pressure on an NFL-best 69.1% of pass rush opportunities, which are defined as pocket-passing play-types where the quarterback holds the ball for longer than 1.9 seconds. The Packers will have their hands full with Nick Bosa, who has been a nightmare for opposing QBs. He’s totaled 60 quarterback pressures in 261 opportunities – exceeding the expected amount for an edge rusher by 12%. When the 49ers and Packers faced off in Week 12, San Francisco sacked Rodgers five times and handed visiting Green Bay its most recent loss, 37-8.

The Packers will look to get top receiver Davante Adams involved after an outstanding 160-yard, two-TD performance last weekend. San Francisco’s secondary utilizes mostly zone coverage, specifically Cover 3, which it runs about 36% of the time. Therefore, there probably will not be many one-on-one matchups between Adams and All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman. The pair matched up one-on-one four separate times in Week 12, and Sherman did not allow Adams to get open in these instances. Rodgers was held to a season-low 3.15 yards per pass attempt and Adams only finished with 43 yards despite his 12 targets.

On the other side of the ball, San Francisco will look to continue to run its offense primarily through the effective halfback tandem of Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert. The 49ers led the league in rushing touchdowns with 23, were second in rushing yards per game with 144.1 and only the Ravens had more rushing plays of at least 10 yards this season.

Green Bay’s defense has struggled to stop the run, ranking 23rd in the NFL at 120.1 yards allowed per game on the ground. Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark and linebacker Za’Darius Smith, however, have been comparatively successful in containing opponents’ running games with a combined 26 tackles for loss.

Green Bay Packers’ Za’Darius Smith celebrates his sack against the Seattle Seahawks Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020, in Green Bay, Wis.

Like San Francisco, Green Bay boasts a prolific pass rush and solid secondary to make up for their inability to stop the run. The Packers generate pressure on 57.5% of pass rush opportunities, and Smith has pressured the quarterback 90 times in 358 opportunities – 14% more than the expected amount for an outside linebacker.

Jimmy Garoppolo will face a tall task in trying to dissect Green Bay’s defense through the air. The Packers have allowed just a 59.7% completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks, third-lowest in the NFL. Cornerback Jaire Alexander has been able to lock down receivers recently, getting beat only eight times in his last 52 one-on-one coverage opportunities.

It should also be interesting to see how Green Bay elects to cover Garoppolo’s most-targeted receiver in tight end George Kittle. In their Week 12 matchup, Green Bay used a combination of cornerbacks Chandon Sullivan, Tramon Williams and Adrian Amos to try to blanket the big-bodied Kittle. Still, Kittle finished with six catches for 129 yards and a touchdown in the rout.

Although the 49ers are sitting around a 7.5-point favorite, the game will likely be decided by whoever establishes the running game to open up opportunities through the air. If Garoppolo can exploit favorable matchups against Kittle, the 49ers could be nearly impossible to stop. However, it would be unwise to count Rodgers out of any big game, especially during a season in which the Packers’ offensive fate does not rely mainly on his arm.

Advanced analytics and data analysis provided by Stats Perform’s Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads