49ers vs. Packers Preview; Will Shanahan Continue His Dominance Over His NFC Rival?
The undefeated San Francisco 49ers (2-0) make their trip from the East Coast back to Levi's for their home opener to play against their fellow NFC rival, Green Bay Packers (1-1) on primetime Sunday Night Football on NBC at 5:20pm PST.
The Packers have been flooded with drama since the end of last season with the surfacing of star-QB Aaron Rodgers' personal concerns with the business of the organization, the subtle, yet evident shared mindset of Devante Adams, and the tension between Packers head coach, Matt LeFleur, and his former co-worker, friend, and 49ers coach, Kyle Shanahan — due to the rumors about trade calls involving Aaron Rodgers.
Not only have the Packers faced recent drama within their own team, but they've also had apprehension regarding the 49ers the past couple years. In 2019, when the Niners made their historic Super Bowl run, Kyle Shanahan beat the Packers 37-8 in the regular season, and then blowing them out with a dominating 37-20 victory in the NFC championship game (shoutout Raheem Mostert). Although the Packers beat the Niners last season, not only was most of the 49ers team injured, but they were missing their top-3 receivers (Deebo, Kendrick Bourne, and Aiyuk) due to Covid-19 concerns. After having a rough start against the Saints in Week 1, the Packers look to get revenge from the past few matchups on the Niners on SNF tomorrow, with Shanahan leading the 49ers with a sense of reliability with his proven game plans against LeFleur.
Availability/ What to Look for
It sounds like a broken record with the obvious speed bumps from the last 49ers season, but Shanahan is, again, missing running backs — the core of his offensive play calling — in the backfield.
Raheem Mostert suffered a season-ending knee injury during the 49ers' Week 1 win against the Lions, JaMycal Hasty was just placed on the IR due to ankle injury, and, as we know, Jeff Wilson Jr. is out until at least Week 8, and Elijah Mitchell is officially listed as doubtful with an unfortunate shoulder injury suffered in last week's game against the Eagles.
This leaves rookie running back Trey Sermon as the likely bell-cow running back, with recently-claimed Jacques Patrick (off Bengals Practice Squad), and veterans Chris Thompson, and Kerryon Johnson to follow in the backfield as needed. Trey Sermon has lacked playing time on the 49ers thus far (was a healthy scratch during week 1 and injury concerns last week), but was a massive impact to Oklahoma's and Ohio State's offense as he placed top-ten in rushing yards the Big 12 in back-to-back years, as well as being the second-leading rusher in the Big 10 last year. Albeit those are impressive stats, it does unfortunately mean that Shanahan will have a backfield with a combined previous single (Sermon has 1) rushing attempt with the 49ers. Expect Shanahan to involve Deebo, Kittle, Juszczyk, and even Trey Lance into the running game to substitute for the loss of experience. The aspect of the game that Shanahan not only prides himself in, but also dominates against the Packers especially, is alarmingly lacking in reliability, availability, experience, and success.
Along with the losses in the backfield, the 49ers will have big question marks in the secondary. Starting cornerback, Jason Verrett, going down with a catastrophic season-ending injury in Week 1, is a big position to substitute (considering his impact on last year's defense and the one-year, $5.5 million contract he signed over the offseason). Although Emmanuel Moseley has been dealing with a lingering knee injury, he will be starting opposite Josh Norman, per NBC's Matt Maiocco's pregame report. Deommodore Lenoir, a rookie from Oregon, has played spectacularly — barring the 91-yard pass from Jalen Hurts last week — and has racked in a team-leading three passes defended, 8 tackles, and 0 passes allowed, on 12 targets through 2 weeks. He won't be starting, though, as Defensive Coordinator, Demeco Ryans, has emphasized the importance of a veteran presence in the secondary, which reveals the reasoning for matching Josh Norman with All-Pro wide receiver, Devante Adams, tonight. Moseley hasn't played this season yet (last game was 266 days ago), and Norman, who signed a 1-year, $1.5 million contract over the offseason, has played 1 game this year due to Verrett's injury and has only 2 tackles on the season and 2 pass-interference calls against him. Rodgers will look to carve apart the field with the help of Adams, Lazard, and Scantling against a lackluster 49ers secondary.
On the other side of the football, the Packers will have massive losses up front as left tackle, Elgton Jenkins, has been downgraded to out. With Jenkins absent, as well as star-guard David Bakhtiari being placed on the PUP list to open the season, the Packers will have their 3rd-string left tackle play against a dangerous 49ers front 7 led by Nick Bosa. Even with the Packers playing with the starting Left Tackle in 2019, that didn't bode will, either. Nick Bosa, in Week 2, demolished the Eagles front 5 with 2 sacks, a tackle for loss, 2 QB hits, and 3 overall tackles. Look for Bosa to have a field day against an injured Packers O-Line that gave up 3 sacks and 7 QB hits last week, bumping them down to a ranking of 24th in pass protection.
Additionally, the Packers will also be without cornerback Kevin King (illness/not COVID related) and will have to resort to rookie Eric Stokes from Georgia to make his first career start against the 49ers in the slot position. This might result in a not-so-surprising positive outcome because Kevin King was the reason the Packers lost the NFC Championship game last year, and the Packers spent a valuable first round pick on Stokes.
Along with a loss in the secondary, the Packers also are losing an impactful Za'Darius Smith on their D-Line. The 2-time All-Pro defensive end brought in the third-most QB pressures since 2019 and led the Packers to earn a top-5 D-Line entering the 2020 season, per PFF. This bodes extremely well for the 49ers as they are currently ranked 4th in pass protection among all offensive lines and have only gave up 1 sack this year. Also, Jimmy G was the most-blitzed QB in 2019, the last year he was fully healthy, and was top-ten in the interception leaderboard with a staggering 13 passes resulting in turnovers. Expect the 49ers to weaken the impact of the Packers D-Line immensly and for Shanahan to draw up intermediate to long-developing routes due to the extra time Jimmy G will be handed in the pocket.
The duel-threat running back, one who is invaluable to the pass and run game for Aaron Rodgers' team, presents a threat to the 49ers defense that struggled against ball carriers last week against the Eagles; Philadelphia had 29 carries, 151 yards, 5.2 YPC, and 1 touchdown. The 49ers seemed to have a soft spot in their defense for mobile runners, like Jalen Hurts and Miles Sanders. Although the Niners have a strong front 7, that can even rush 4 and drop 7 and still create pressure, the Packers have ranked in the top 3 for run blocking thus far, per football outsiders. Fred Warner, with the loss of Dre Greenlaw in the middle of the field, will have to help the front of the defense stop the run and mitigate dump offs to Aaron Jones.
The recent drama within the Packers organization, stemmed from disagreements from Rodgers himself, may have played a role in his subpar play the past couple weeks. In Week 1, he let many fantasy football managers in near depression with his jaw-dropping 3 points — 133 yards, 53% completion percentage, no touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. He bounced back against the Lions last week, though, throwing for 255 yards, on an 81% completion percentage, 4 touchdowns, with no interceptions. Although Rodgers may aim to connect with his trustee, Devante Adams, As outlined by The Athletic's, David Lombardi, Rodgers has never beaten a 49ers team with a winning record.
Arguably the most versatile, playmaking, and most important spark to the 49ers offense, Deebo Samuel, has surprisingly lead the NFL in reception yards through 2 weeks with 282. With the absence of important players in the backfield, Shanahan must incorporate Deebo into the running game, and emphasize his role into the pass game, since Jimmy will have to rely on his arm more so this game. Furthermore, the Packers have performed poorly in their pass defense aspect of the team, as they rank 26th in pass defense efficiency. Deebo is Jimmy's most proven and impactful playmaker thus far this year, so I fully expect him to make a game-deciding difference on primetime tonight, just like he did alongside Kittle in 2019.
Trey Lance/ Kittle
Again, with the loss of Raheem Mostert (knee), Elijah Mitchell (officially ruled inactive), and Hasty (ankle), Shanahan has to use his playmakers on the roster to make up for the loss of legs in the run game. This is the most ideal game to give Lance a mitigated amount of snaps, as he can add versatility, strength, and fresh legs to the offense, while also giving him a gradual entrance into the offense—rather than throwing him out there to throw 30+ passes due a mid-game QB injury. Although Shanahan has proven repeatedly that his ego has overrun his reasoning regarding personnel issues, he needs to utilize the playmakers on the team (especially one that they bargained the future of the franchise to and spent months studying over), which also applies to Kittle. He will provide an unparalleled aspect of the run and pass blocking game, but Shanahan, knowing that LeFleur is going to pressure Deebo from the get-go, needs to add diverse play calling and go back to Jimmy's bread-and-butter: Kittle in the pass game.
I think Shanahan will continue his dominance over the Packers, Jimmy will play well due to the lack of power up front from Green Bay paired with the excellent pass blocking from the Niners, SF fans will finally get to see Lance get some snaps and be integrated into the offense, and the Niners will finish their home-opener at Levi's with a 35-24 win over Green Bay.