Playing back video of last season’s NFC Championship Game win was a sure-fire way to pick up the 49ers’ sagging spirits.
That 37-27 triumph over the Green Bay Packers is an evergreen highlight in the 49ers’ archives.
So coach Kyle Shanahan wisely broke it out ahead of today’s rematch at Levi’s Stadium, where the injury-ravaged 49ers (4-4) will look vastly different in this meeting with the Packers (5-2).
“Kyle showed it to us as a team, just the way we played and energy we played with,” rookie wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk said. “It was a fun game to watch.”
Fun is needed. The 49ers have had a distressing defense of their NFC crown.
They shut down their facility Wednesday with word of wide receiver Kendrick Bourne’s positive COVID-19 test. Aiyuk, wide receiver Deebo Samuel and left tackle Trent Williams were identified as close contacts and joined Bourne on the COVID-19 reserve list, ruling them out this game.
That bad news came after offensive stalwarts Jimmy Garoppolo (ankle) and George Kittle (foot) sustained potential season-ending injuries in Sunday’s loss at Seattle. Then, a day later, the 49ers’ brass emotionally rocked their locker room by trading their defense’s hype king, Kwon Alexander, to the New Orleans Saints.
Hye, but the 49ers still have, gulp, seven starters still available from the NFC Championship Game.
The Packers haven’t had the best of weeks, either. They’re coming off a home loss to NFC North rival Minnesota, and they’re also short on healthy running backs as two are stuck in COVID-19 quarantine.
Here are five ways the 49ers can notch an improbable win No. 5:
1. Score on the ground
The 49ers lead the NFL with 14 rushing touchdowns. They may face the right foe to keep up that pace.
Green Bay allowed Raheem Mostert four rushing touchdowns and a 49ers record 220 yards in last season’s NFC Championship Game. That feat is impossible to repeat. Mostert is on injured reserve with an ankle sprain until at last next week.
The Minnesota Vikings’ Dalvin Cook offered a friendly reminder of how porous the Packers’ run defense remains. He ran for 163 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries in a 28-22 upset at Lambeau Field.
If the 49ers can run on the Packers, that will alleviate pressure on Garoppolo’s replacement, Nick Mullens.
Careful, the Packers run defense is no push over statistically, and it ranks 15th while allowing 119 yards per game. But it’s yielded five rushing TDs in losing two of its past three games.
The 49ers are averaging 127 rushing yards, all while going five deep into their depth chart because of injuries to Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Jeff Wilson. They’ll again turn to Jerick McKinnon and JyMycal Hasty, while possibly summoning Aiyuk for jet sweeps and, if needed, practice-squad rookie Austin Walter.
2. Stop Rodgers-to-Adams
Week 1, the 49ers got roasted by the Arizona Cardinals’ DeAndre Hopkins. Sunday, it was Seattle’s second-year sensation D.K. Metcalf.
Now comes another of the NFL’s best receivers: Devante Adams, a Palo Alto High product who’s seven touchdown catches are tied for the league lead. Five of those scores came the past two games as he’s compiled 20 catches for 249 yards.
The 49ers’ strategy should be to keep Adams in front of them, not letting Aaron Rodgers strike for a deep pass, and perhaps frustrate Rodgers with another conservative passes that he gets overly aggressive. That would take the 49ers’ safeties, specifically Jimmie Ward, to actually make a play on a ball and arrive in time to help the cornerbacks, after failing to do so in Seattle and so often this season.
Adams had nine catches for 138 yards in the NFC Championship Game. That wasn’t nearly enough to offset the 49ers’ own offensive explosion. But he keyed a Packers win in a 2018 visit to Levi’s Stadium (10 catches, 132 yards, two touchdowns).
Jason Verrett should be the 49ers’ preferred matchup with Adams. It would allow Emmanuel Moseley to regain confidence after Metcalf’s torching, an act that got Ahkello Witherspoon benched last year but not Moseley this time.
3. Reprise Mullens magic
Mullens’ last Levi’s Stadium appearance saw him get mercifully benched after three turnovers doomed the 49ers to a 25-20 loss to Philadelphia on Oct. 4. Three touchdowns in three series of relief duty Sunday restocked Mullens’ credibility.
“The biggest thing is you can’t be a great leader if you’re not making plays,” Mullens said. “… We have a great group of guys in the locker room. They’re fun to be around, and I’m just going to bring energy, attitude and just a little bit of grit and ready to get after it and ready to play.”
Grit is essential in a showdown with Rodgers, who’ll forever have a chip on his shoulder for the 49ers bypassing him in the 2005 draft. Rodgers is 0-3 in the playoffs against the 49ers, but 4-3 in regular-season meetings where he’s totaled 14 touchdowns against two interceptions.
Mullens joined the 49ers as an undrafted rookie in 2017. Two years ago, he made his starting debut, a Thursday night rout of the Raiders that saw him pass for 262 yards and three touchdowns.
“It’s important that we just build a good game plan around him, all our guys play as well as they can and just let the game come to Nick,” Shanahan said.
What guys? They’re without Kittle, Aiyuk (COVID list) and Samuel (hamstring; COVID list). Dante Pettis got waived. Richie James (ankle) is questionable.
Slot receiver Trent Taylor will be joined by practice-squad reinforcements, likely Kevin White and River Cracraft. Ross Dwelley, Charlie Woerner and potential practice-squad callup Daniel Helm are the tight end options.
4. Rage against the run
The Packers’ running back corps is as thinned out as the 49ers. Aaron Jones is a game-day decision because of a calf injury. Two other rushers, A.J. Dillon and Jamal Williams, are in COVID-19 quarantine.
The 49ers still should not take lightly the Packers’ remaining, unheralded options: Tyler Ervin, a San Jose State product, and Dexter Williams, a practice squad player.
A week ago, the 49ers faced a Seattle team missing its top rushers, Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde. That didn’t stop DeeJay Dallas from scoring a rushing touchdown for Seattle’s final points.
The Packers won’t be relying on their run. Not with Adams. Not with emerging tight end Robert Tonyan, whose presence will merit attention from the 49ers’ linebacker corps that needs to play inspired rather than dwell on Alexander’s trade.
5. Coach ’em up
Kyle Shanahan had multiple calls flop last game, especially a third-down attempt out of the wildcat formation. That was unusual. So was the 49ers’ overall lack of fire and efficiency.
Now comes a reunion with Packers coach Matt LaFleur, whose brother, Mike, is the 49ers’ pass-game coordinator. LaFleur is also tight with 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, And LaFleur’s ties with Shanahan go back to their assistant days in Houston, Washington and Atlanta.
“It’s not the best of feelings when you go up against guys you’re close to, especially when you come out on the losing end,” Matt LaFleur said. “We are all very, very competitive and want to win. That’s why we do what we do.”
The 49ers scored 37 points in both of their wins over LaFleur’s Packers last year — a 37-8 decision on Saturday night, Nov. 24; and, the 37-20 NFC-title win in which the 49ers led 27-0 at halftime and 34-7 entering the fourth quarter.
Kittle, Salah and all assistants are having to coach their tails off this season. The 49ers have used 71 players, already five more than last year’s Super Bowl run.
It’s not just about devising crafty schemes and disguising how they look. It’s about inspiring the masses. It’s about avoiding the flatness that accompanied losses in their first three home games.
“You just keep it real with guys,” Shanahan said. “… Kind of what we’re going through now is a little unprecedented, just I think for us and probably for anybody, but I think our guys take it as a challenge.”
Garoppolo and Kittle will grow the 49ers’ injured reserve list to 20 players who’ve landed on it since camp.
“I can go through our entire roster on who’s not playing and you can get up and that could be depressing,” Shanahan added, “but then I can go through and mention a lot of people who are playing that give you a very good chance to win.”
Dan Carter was a reporter for nomad Labs, before becoming the lead editor. Dan has over forty bylines and has reported on countless stories concerning all things related to tech and science. Dan studied at CSUF.