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Silverstein: 49ers knew how to attack Packers' defensive scheme and ran with it

Tom Silverstein   | Packers News

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Throughout the Green Bay Packers’ late season run to the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and all the excitement of what was possible, there was a hidden fault waiting to be exposed when it became time to win or go home.

There were flashes of it even after the Packers seemingly put behind them their 37-8 regular season loss to the San Francisco 49ers Nov. 24.

But they kept winning, five straight to end the regular season, and then advanced to the NFC championship game with a 28-23 victory over Seattle, so no one talked about how Washington’s Adrian Peterson and Darrius Guice combined for 118 rushing yards on 25 carries or how Detroit’s Kerryon Johnson and Ty Johnson combined for 119 yards on 14 carries against them.

No one around Green Bay was paying attention, but 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan was.

He saw it as clear as day and decided he was going to run it down coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense all the way to South Beach. He was so effective doing it that his quarterback only threw the ball eight times en route to a 37-20 victory Sunday in front of 72,211 at Levi’s Stadium.

The 49ers ran the ball a whopping 42 times for 285 yards and four touchdowns. It was the second most rushing yards in a postseason game since the Colin Kaepernick-led 49ers ran for 323 in a 45-31 divisional playoff victory on January 12, 2013.

“It seemed like they were running it at will,” safety Adrian Amos said. “They wanted to run. It was one of those days. We couldn’t stop them. They executed. They were the better team. I wish I could say if we got another shot at them it would go better.”

It wouldn’t.

The numbers:

Box score | NFL scoreboard | Standings

The Packers couldn’t stop the run because Pettine’s system is designed to take away long passing plays and performs better when it has five or six defensive backs on the field. In his two years as defensive coordinator, one under Mike McCarthy, the Packers have ranked 23rd (’19) and 22nd (’18) in the NFL against the run.

LaFleur kept Pettine on staff after accepting the Packers head job and receiving a strong recommendation from the front office. He may want to hire his own guy after watching the defense fall apart against a team it was playing for the second time.

It will undoubtedly be something he evaluates in the coming week or so and a change wouldn’t be a shock.

He had no explanation for how things could have gone so poorly on defense Sunday.

“They definitely did some things schematically to us, caught us in man coverage a couple times and hit us with, a reverse, an end around,” LaFleur said after the game. “But for the most part, it seemed like we were playing a good bit of single safety defense and when you’re in single-high, you shouldn’t be able to run the ball like that.”

Shanahan served one year as Pettine’s offensive coordinator when the latter was the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, and if he learned anything during that time it was that passing the ball against that defense is a lot harder than running it.

Noting that the Packers like to use a third safety in their nickel defense to help them cover tight ends and three wide receivers, Shanahan used standard two-back, two receiver sets most of the game. He has two of the most versatile big men in the game in tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk and he used them in a multitude of formations and alignments against Pettine.

The result was that Pettine had to counter with his base defense, which features Blake Martinez and B.J. Goodson at inside linebacker and Tyler Lancaster and Dean Lowry at defensive end. Shanahan viewed Martinez and Goodson hugely mismatched against Kittle and Juszczyk and Lancaster and Lowry hugely mismatched against tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey.

The week prior Shanahan had gained all the confidence he needed running the ball successfully against Minnesota’s 13th-ranked run defense, at one point running it all eight plays of a 44-yard touchdown drive in the 49ers’ 27-10 divisional playoff victory here.

So, he gave the ball to running back Raheem Mostert, who ran so many times untouched through the Packers’ front line that he must have felt he was playing flag football. He carried 29 times for 220 yards and all four of the 49ers’ touchdowns, averaging a whopping 7.6 yards per carry.

“I think I looked up one time and saw that Mostert had 20 carries for 200 yards and that is not going to get it done, not in this league, especially when you know that they’re going to try to run the football coming into this game,” LaFleur said.

Mostert ran it outside, he ran it inside, he ran it with receivers motioning, he ran it with Kittle and Juszczyk running misdirection. There was absolutely no question that he was getting the ball and yet the Packers couldn’t stop him.

“It was just poor execution,” Lowry said. “We knew they were going to run it and we couldn’t stop it. They were breaking tendencies, mixing it up. In the first half they would run it one way out of a certain formation and in the second half they would run it another way out of the same formation.

“That’s when you have to be strong fundamentally, and we weren’t.”

The Packers appeared as though they were getting better against the run after giving up 112 yards rushing and two touchdowns in the Nov. 24 loss. They stressed more vocal communication and made a few tweaks to help take pressure off nose tackle Kenny Clark.

But if you look at the teams who had trouble running the ball against the Packers, most of them were flawed.

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley was still gimpy from a high ankle sprain he had suffered earlier in the season and wasn’t close to being himself. Chicago had no running game to speak of all season long (27th ranked) and Minnesota was missing its top two running backs, Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison, because of injury.

When the Lions rushed 25 times for 171 yards and a touchdown, sirens should have started going off. Even if they had, it’s likely they would have been ignored because the Packers were coming off an emotional Monday night victory over the Vikings and had a short week to get their bodies ready for the Lions.

Most of all, the poor play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the late rally to beat the Lions made everyone forget how badly the run defense had performed.

But Shanahan didn’t forget.

He took the ball out of young quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s hands and put it in Mostert’s against a defense whose strength is rushing the passer. Pettine was forced to play more base defense than he had in any game this season and it was clear the team was out of sorts having to defend plays he had typically played with nickel and dime personnel.

“I think they had a great plan,” Martinez said. “For us, it was just small errors all across the board from everyone — players and coaches. We just never got a grasp on it. We never got a complete understanding of what they were trying to do throughout the game.”

Those are not the words you want to hear following an NFC championship game appearance.

There were many things that went wrong, some of which LaFleur must take responsibility. But general manager Brian Gutekunst sunk a lot of money and draft picks into this defense and the result was abysmal.

Maybe it shouldn’t have been that surprising.

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