Green Bay Packers: Preview of the NFC Championship Game vs. the San Francisco 49ers

Brett vs. 49ers in 1997 NFC Title game

When the 14-3 Green Bay Packers take on the 14-3 San Francisco 49ers in the 2019 NFC Championship game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara this Sunday, it will occur 22 years and eight days after the two teams also met in the 1997 NFC title game at 3Com Park, which was more commonly known as Candlestick Park.

In that game, both teams were also 14-3 going into the title game. The Packers were defending Super Bowl champions, plus had beaten the Niners in the postseason for two straight years heading into this game.

The Packers made it three years in a row, as quarterback Brett Favre, running back Dorsey Levens, wide receiver Antonio Freeman and the defense of Green Bay all came up big that day.

Favre threw for 222 yards and a touchdown and did not throw a pick. No. 4’s passer rating for the game was 98.1. Favre’s touchdown toss went to Freeman on a 27-yard pass play in the second quarter. For the day, Freeman had four catches for 107 yards and a score.

Because of the conditions in the game, with a rainy and muddy environment, the Packers relied on their strong running game behind Levens, who rushed for 114 yards on 27 carries. No. 25 scored a touchdown, plus caught four passes for 27 more yards.

The defense of the Packers was very good that day, as they held the 49ers to 33 rushing yards, while they also held down quarterback Steve Young, as they sacked him four times (including one by Reggie White). No. 8 did throw for 250 yards, but did not throw a touchdown pass, although he did throw a key interception to safety Eugene Robinson.

The bottom line is the defense did not allow a touchdown and the only one that the Niners scored was on a kickoff return late in the game.

Final score, Packers 23, 49ers 10.

It was a very interesting scenario that day, as head coach Mike Holmgren of the Packers was taking on one of his former assistant coaches in the game, as Steve Mariucci was now the head coach of the 49ers.

A similar connection will take place this Sunday when head coach Matt LaFleur of the Packers takes on head coach Kyle Shanahan of the 49ers. The two have had quite a history together.

LaFleur has worked under Shanahan in three different locations when the son of Mike Shanahan was an offensive coordinator. This occurred with the Houston Texans, Washington Redskins and the Atlanta Falcons.

When LaFleur was working under Shanahan in Atlanta as quarterback coach, his brother Mike was also on the staff. Today, Mike is the pass game coordinator for the 49ers.

LaFleur also has a history with defensive coordinator Robert Saleh of the Niners, as both were on the same coaching staffs at Central Michigan and with the Texans. Now they call themselves best friends.

I’m sure they weren’t talking to each other this week.

Especially after the 49ers whipped the Packers 37-8 at Levi’s Stadium in late November.

The good news is the Packers haven’t lost since. But it will be more than a mild upset if the Packers can turn the table on the 49ers this upcoming Sunday.

Never say never, especially when one looks back on the history between these two teams.

For the Packers to win this Sunday, one thing is for sure. They have to play well in the trenches on both sides of the ball.

The Packers should have their full offensive line available versus the Niners this Sunday. When they played in November, right tackle Bryan Bulaga left the game early with a knee injury, and his replacement Alex Light did not have a good night.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers of the Packers was sacked five times and pressured on several other occasions while attempting to pass. The result? Rodgers had one of the roughest games of his career, as he only threw for 104 yards and a touchdown.

Aaron getting sacked by the Niners

Fortunately for the Packers now, if Bulaga goes out again, they have a capable backup in Jared Veldheer, who played the entire game against the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round game last Sunday as Bulaga had the flu. Veldheer did a very nice job as well.

The Green Bay offensive line (LT David Bakhtiari, LG Elgton Jenkins, C Corey Linsley, RG Billy Turner and RT Bulaga) has to be ready to play their best game of the season against that very tough San Francisco front, which includes Arik Armstead, Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner and Dee Ford.

Ford didn’t play against the Packers in November either.

Behind that line is linebacker Fred Warner, who is having a great season this year. The secondary is also solid and it includes the ageless Richard Sherman, who is in his ninth season in the NFL.

This 49er defense was ranked second in the NFL in total defense and first in passing defense.

Pro Football Focus has the Green Bay offensive line ranked No. 6 in the NFL.  Here is what PFF says about the Packers offensive line.

The perception of the Packers’ offensive line doesn’t always meet reality. Aaron Rodgers consistently holds onto the football with one of the longest average time to throws in the NFL. As PFF Data Scientist Timo Riske explored with offensive line survival rates, that significantly increases the chance for quarterback pressure and sacks. Their 22nd-ranked pressure rate allowed isn’t all that impressive, but their average time to allow a  pressure of 2.62 seconds (best in the NFL) is much more so.

So what does that mean? Rodgers has to get the ball out quickly, but will still have time to look at his options briefly.

This where LaFleur has to game plan accordingly. Like he did against the Seahawks, he has to utilize running back Aaron Jones and wide receiver Davante Adams early and often in this game.

Davante Adams vs. 49ers

The 49ers can be run on. But you have to stick to it. San Francisco gave up an average of just over 112 yards per game on the ground.

That being said, the Niners held talented running back Dalvin Cook to just 18 yards when they beat the Minnesota Vikings in their divisional round game last Saturday.

Like Cook, Jones can hurt a team on the ground and through the air.

I’ll bet LaFleur called head coach Sean McVay of the Los Angles Rams this week Why? First off, LaFleur was the offensive coordinator under McVay with the Rams in 2017. The Packers and Rams run basically the same offense. Plus, McVay dialed up a great game plan against the Niners in their most recent matchup less than a month ago.

The Rams lost 34-31 in Santa Clara, but LA put up 395 total yards and quarterback Jared Goff threw for 323 yards and two touchdowns. Goff also was never sacked. Running back Todd Gurley chipped in 48 yards on the ground and scored two touchdowns.

That’s the type of production the Green Bay offense has to exhibit this Sunday to win. Hopefully LaFleur has studied the tape from that game and also gotten some pointers from McVay about how to attack the 49ers.

Now the Packers did rush for 117 yards in the game in November, so that’s a good sign. But Jones has to get a lot more than the 13 touches he had in that game. Those were all carries, which gained 38 yards. Jones needs 20-plus touches in this game, both on the ground and in the air.

Jamaal Williams also added 45 yards on the ground in that game on 11 carries, plus caught seven passes for 35 yards.

Adams caught seven passes for 43 yards and a score in that game, but he has to come up bigger than that in this game.

Plus, Adams needs some help from somebody else in the receiving corp. Tight end Jimmy Graham had a nice game against the Seahawks and the Packers need to utilize him again.

But at least one of the other receivers have to make some plays as well. It doesn’t matter who, but someone from the group that includes Geronimo Allison, Allen Lazard, Marques Valdes-Scantling and Jake Kumerow has to.

The defense of the Packers has to play much better this time around to even think about springing an upset.

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo picked the Packers apart, as he threw for 253 yards and two scores. That adds up to a robust 145.8 passer rating. The Packers did sack Garoppolo three times, including 1.5 by Za’Darius Smith and a half a sack by Preston Smith.

The “Smith Brothers” need to have a bigger presence in this game.

Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine put a new wrinkle in the defense for the Packers after that bad loss in Santa Clara and now puts out what is called the “Z Package” scheme.

Smith moves all over the place in that scheme (inside or outside) and has had great success, not only in sacking the quarterback, but also in stopping the run. The formation basically has a four-man front and a roving linebacker.

The scheme also allows the secondary to be in a dime look, or six defensive backs.

Za'Darius Smith vs. 49ers

I expect the Packers to utilize that look often in passing situations.

They have to do something, especially due to the way tight end George Kittle exploited the secondary in November. Kittle had six catches for 129 yards and a touchdown, which included a 61-yard post pattern score.

The problem with the Packers covering Kittle, is that covering tight ends has been a persistent issue for the Green Bay defense this year. Good or great tight ends have had substantial success against them.

Somehow, Pettine has to figure out a coverage scheme to at least limit the production of Kittle, who also is a great blocking tight end for the running game.

The secondary of the Packers will also need to beware of wide receivers like Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel. Green Bay held Sanders to just one catch for 15 yards, but Samuel had two receptions for 50 yards and a score.

Still, with all the threats at receiver, the calling card for the San Francisco offense is their running game. The Niners averaged 144 yards a game in the regular season.

The Packers did hold the 49ers to 112 yards rushing, but San Francisco averaged 5.5 yards per carry.

Green Bay has gotten much better in their run defense the past several weeks, but the three-man monster that the Niners use against their opponents can be lethal. Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida all have different styles and each rushed for at least 500 yards this season, with Mostert leading the team with 772 yards.

After the 49ers throttled the Green Bay defense in that game, the defense had a players-only meeting and discussed what the issues were. The big point that was brought up was a lack of communication in that game.

It seems that issue has been resolved a bit, as the Packers have only allowed 15.7 points per game in six games since.

Plus, there is the special teams importance in this game.

Kicker Mason Crosby of the Packers has had a fabulous year, as he made 22-of-24 field goals, which adds up to a field goal percentage of 91.7.

Kicker Robbie Gould of the 49ers on the other hand, has not been nearly as efficient, as he has made 23-of-31 field goals, which adds up to a field goal percentage of 74.2.

Punter JK Scott of the Packers has averaged 44 yards per punt, while Mitch Wishnowsky of the 49ers has averaged 44.9 per punt. The punting game looks very solid for both teams.

In the return game, the Niners will be facing someone that they didn’t see in the game in November. That someone is Tyler Ervin. The Packers brought Ervin on late in the season to invigorate their return game which had done basically nothing all year.

Ervin changed all that in the four games he played in the regular season, as he averaged 9.6 yards per punt return and 26.7 yards per kickoff return. Ervin has also seen some time on the offense, as the Packers have tried to utilize his great speed on jet sweeps.

Richie James is the main returner for the 49ers and has averaged 8 yards per punt return and 21.4 yards per kickoff return.

So, how do I see this game? Well, I believe that the Packers have a fighting chance to win this contest.

Aaron vs. 49ers

Yes, I was also on record as saying that the Packers would play much better than they did in the November game between these two teams, but some of the factors which I have mentioned earlier in this story lead me to believe the Packers will play much better this time around.

Bottom line, it is going to take a great effort by the Packers to win this game. Winning inside the trenches is the key. Even if you don’t win, at least make it a stalemate in that battering zone.

I also expect Rodgers to continue the great play he showed last week versus the Seahawks. In fact Rodgers now has a passer rating in the postseason of 100, which is fourth all time.

No. 12 passed Drew Brees on that list after his performance against the Seahawks.

If that happens and Green Bay plays smart and physical football, plus create a turnover or two, I like the chances of the Packers in this game.

Donald Driver Personified Hard Work as a Member of the Green Bay Packers

Donald Driver 2007 NFC title game

Donald Driver had a 14-year career with the Green Bay Packers and is currently the all-time leader for the team in terms of receptions (743) and receiving yardage (10,137).  Driver was also named to four Pro Bowl teams.

Driver had 61 TD receptions, which is the fourth-best mark in Green Bay history, only behind Don Hutson (99), Sterling Sharpe (65) and Jordy Nelson (63).

The 14 seasons that Driver spent with the Packers only puts him behind notable legends such as Bart Starr (16 seasons), Brett Favre (16 seasons) and Ray Nitschke (15 seasons). Forrest Gregg also spent 14 seasons with the Packers in his career.

That all led to Driver being inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame on Saturday.

But nothing came easy for Driver when he joined the Packers in 1999 as a seventh-round draft pick for the Pack out of Alcorn State when general manager Ron Wolf selected him.

As a rookie, Driver was way down on the pecking order at wide receiver, as Antonio Freeman (74 receptions for 1,054 yards and six TDs), Bill Schroeder (74 receptions for 1,051 yards and five TDs) and Corey Bradford (37 receptions for 637 yards and five TDs) were all above him on the depth chart catches passes from Favre, a three-time NFL MVP.

Driver only had three catches for 31 yards and one touchdown as a rookie.

But Driver kept working hard and he got more opportunities in 2000, as he had 21 receptions for 322 yards and one TD.

But in 2001, Driver took a step back and only had 13 catches for 167 and one TD.

The first three years of Driver’s career in Green Bay weren’t exactly eye-opening.

But that all changed in 2002, when No. 80 worked his way up the depth chart. Driver had 70 receptions for 1,064 yards and nine TDs that season.  Driver also was named to the Pro Bowl squad for the first time.

But then Driver took another step backwards in 2003, as he had only had 52 receptions for 621 yards and two touchdowns. In addition to that, Driver suffered a scary injury against the Minnesota Vikings. But no matter, Driver was both resilient and persistent in becoming a better player.

“I think everything in my career has been truly a blessing,” Driver said Saturday. “I made a way out of no way. I remember 2003, when I fell on my neck against Minnesota, I remember being on a stretcher going through that tunnel, my wife told me that my career was over. She wanted me to retire and put the cleats up. I told her, ‘I don’t think God’s done with us yet. If I can recover from this, let’s just see where God takes us.’ Eleven years later, he took us to places where we never thought we would go. It’s been truly amazing. I can look back and appreciate every opportunity that I’ve had.”

But all his continued hard work paid off, because from 2004 through 2009, Driver averaged 82 catches for 1,141 yards and six touchdowns per season. Driver was also named to two more Pro Bowls during that period.

The 2010 season would be a special one for Driver. Not so much for his production, as he had just 51 receptions for 565 yards and four touchdowns (and another Pro Bowl selection). No, it was because his team was able to win the Super Bowl.

In Super Bowl XLV, Driver was injured early in the game and only had two catches for 28 yards. But even with the disappointment of being injured, Driver cheered on his fellow receivers, as Nelson (nine catches for 140 yards and one TD), Greg Jennings (four catches for 64 yards and two TDs) and James Jones (five catches for 50 yards) put up some big numbers.

Donald Driver Super Bowl XLV

The Packers ended up beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in that game of all games 31-25, behind the MVP performance of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who threw for 304 yards and three TDs without a pick.

Speaking of the postseason, in his career, Driver had 49 catches for 675 yards and three TDs. One of those touchdowns was when he caught a 90-yard pass from Favre in the 2007 NFC title game against the New York Giants at frigid Lambeau Field.

In his last two seasons with the Packers in 2011 and 2012, Driver had just a combined 45 catches for 522 yards, but did have eight touchdowns.

But all in all, Driver had a tremendous career in Green Bay which eventually put him among the best of the best in Green Bay lore. But when did Driver ever imagine being enshrined in the Packers Hall of Fame?

“I don’t think it ever crossed my mind until the day that I was up for breaking Sterling’s record,” Driver said. “I think that’s when I said, ‘OK, maybe there’s an opportunity for me to be in the Packers Hall of Fame. I remember getting that phone call from Sterling. He said, ‘Listen, if you break my record, you better score a touchdown, because just a catch is not going to do it.’ I remember catching the ball against Detroit and made one move and I thought, ‘Oh, I scored. It’s easy.’ Seven guys hit me and I didn’t score on that play. At that point, I think that’s when I started to think about it. Then I knew I was only 3,000 yards away from breaking James Lofton’s record. At that point, that’s when I started thinking, ‘This could be possible.’

“To be the all-time Packers leading receiver in franchise history, that tells you that you’re among some of the greatest icons and legends that ever played in the Green and Gold. To surpass those individuals is something I’m going to cherish for a long time. The day will come when somebody will break mine. I hope they cherish it as much as I cherished it when I broke theirs.”

When Driver retired from the NFL, I happened to chat with Jerry Kramer, another member of the Packers Hall of Fame and someone who definitely should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, soon after that occasion. Kramer obviously was impressed with Driver as a person, both on and off the field.

“Donald is an exceptional human being, and obviously a sensational ball player, but he’s also just an awfully nice man,” Kramer said. “He’s well-grounded and he has some character about him, and also some class. Plus I think of grace. Grace off the field, and obviously grace on the field, with the beautiful moves, and the tippy-toes, the great hands and the intelligence to run the route, but there’s a grace, which is the only word I can use to describe his attitude off the field. That’s with the fans and with everyone. He treats everyone with dignity and class.”