After a restful bye, the Green Bay Packers resume its Super Bowl push this week against the inner-conference rival San Francisco 49ers. Talent-riddled squads and electric playoff matchups in the 2010s coupled with heartbreaking endings and icy post-game handshakes in the 2020s have moulded this rivalry over the last decade, leaving fans with a highly anticipated divisional-round matchup this Saturday night. The Packers faced the Niners back in Week 3, shocking them 30-28 after Mason Crosby drilled a walk-off field goal into the Santa Clara night. Let’s see how each team has evolved more than four months later.
In the Week 3 bout, the Packers entered the game already without All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari and edge rusher Za’Darius Smith. Robert Tonyan played in his usual TE1 role, Billy Turner was cemented at right tackle, and rookie running back Kylin Hill returned kickoffs.
Now in Week 20, Bakhtiari will re-assume his place at Aaron Rodgers’ blindside, setting up a “great on great” matchup with the Niners Nick Bosa. Smith is also back — along with in-season acquisition Whitney Mercilus — forming a quartet of feared pass-rushers with Rashan Gary and Preston Smith for the Niners offensive line to deal with this time around.
Tonyan and Hill have since been lost for the season, and the Packers have had different experiences replacing them. Hill’s fellow rookie Amari Rodgers has returned kicks this season but has struggled mightily for the most part — Maurice Drayton may have to consider alternative options entering a do-or-die situation.
Tonyan’s void on the other hand, although not the same, has been filled admirably by an emerging tight end tandem in Josiah Deguara and Tyler Davis.
Turner’s status is still up in the air, as of writing this piece. He’s at risk of missing Saturday’s game — his fifth straight — due to a knee injury. Long-time veteran Dennis Kelly, who has fared well, for the most part, will continue to fill in for Turner should he have to miss.
The Niners will look fairly similar from a personnel standpoint this week with the exception of the running back.
In Week 3, the Niners leaned on rookie third-round pick Trey Sermon due to a slew of injuries at the position.
This time around, the Niners have options — dangerous ones at that. Sensational rookie Elijah Mitchell will handle the bulk of the carries while the Niners could incorporate Sermon, Jeff Wilson, Kyle Juszczyk, and possibly its most electrifying option, breakout wide receiver Deebo Samuel.
Joe Barry and the Packers’ defense will have to prepare for a variety of sets that include both Mitchell and Samuel in the backfield. It would also be ignorant for Barry to dismiss the possibility of Trey Lance getting in the game. Those three lined up in the backfield is a tall task for defenses to navigate.
The Packers’ usage four months ago was different than what fans have seen recently. Aaron Jones led the way with 19 carries and 21 touches for nearly 100 scrimmage yards, nearly tripling AJ Dillion’s 8 touches on the day. Fans can expect Dillion to maintain the role he’s carved out in this offense and garner at least 10 touches on the day.
Allen Lazard was relied upon for his excellent blocking skills in the first half of the season, garnering six targets just once in the first 10 games. Since Week 12, Lazard has seen no fewer than four targets in a game and six or more in four of those games.
Rookie Eric Stokes has solidified himself in the starting lineup now and should continue to draw a matchup versus one of the outside receivers. The Packers also have a new face fielding punts that the Niners will have to prepare for — David Moore.
From the Niners, Samuel and George Kittle were the primary beneficiaries of the passing game in Week 3 while veteran Mohamad Sanu filled in as WR3. While Samuel and Kittle are still the focal points of the passing game and Sanu has sinced moved on from the team, viable tertiary and quarternary options have emerged in Jauan Jennings and Brandon Aiyuk.
Jennings aligns outside for the most part and carries notable speed — he and Stokes could be an underrated matchup in this game. Brandon Aiyuk, a second-round pick last year, was in Shannahan’s dog house in Week 3 but has since escaped and showcased his talents as a solid depth option.
It’s no secret what both head coaches want to do on offense — run the ball, and run it well. But when talking about two of the great offensive minds and play-callers in the game, any imaginable wrinkle can be throw at an opposing defense.
These two teams are very familiar with one another and it should make for one of the great battles of the season, in the most high-stakes game of the year.——————
Joshua Frey-Sam is a journalism student and aspiring sportscaster hailing from Winnipeg, Canada. A Packers fan since 2005, Josh has worked to master the financial and scouting aspect of the NFL over the past few years. Josh remains a firm believer that Dez did not, in fact, catch the ball. You can follow him on twitter at @jfreysam.