Before the season started, this likely looked like one of the marquee matchups of the year. The Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers on Monday night, featuring Aaron Rodgers and Jimmy Garoppolo, would have been quite the show.
Of course, Garoppolo’s torn ACL ruined all that. And the Packers’ own up-and-down start has taken at least some of the shine off them as an inner-circle NFC contender. So now we have a flawed, spiraling 1-4 team starting its backup quarterback and No. 3 running back and also featuring a porous defense (49ers) taking on a flawed, but still dangerous 2-2-1 team playing with a gimpy star quarterback, missing two of its top three receivers, and looking iffy on defense (Packers).
Still, one can’t help but hope for some fireworks when Rodgers plays in primetime, and especially when two old-school NFC rivals get together. Can Green Bay use this week as a springboard to propel them through the rest of the season, or will the 49ers send them to their second consecutive loss?
We’ll find out Monday night.
When the Packers have the ball
If you just looked at the overall numbers of the major players involved, you might come away with the idea that Green Bay’s offense has been fantastic this season. Aaron Rodgers has completed 63 percent of his passes at 7.6 yards per attempt, his highest yards per attempt figure since the 2014 season. He has thrown 10 touchdowns against just one interception, yielding a passer rating of 100.1 — a figure which is not the best of his career but is better than where he’s been in two of the past three years. Rodgers is also averaging a career-best 314.4 passing yards per game.
Rodgers’ No. 1 wideout Davante Adams is off to a terrific start. Adams has caught at least five passes in all five of Green Bay’s games and has scored a touchdown in four of five. After breaking out with a monster nine-catch, 140-yard performance last week, Adams has a season-long line of 37 catches for 425 yards and four scores, and he’s caught a career-best 67 percent of the passes thrown his way.
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Even the Green Bay running game looks pretty damn good. The Packers as a whole are averaging 4.6 yards per carry, the ninth-best figure in the league. And that’s despite the fact that Green Bay’s leading ball-carrier, Jamaal Williams, has averaged just 3.7 yards a pop while toting the rock more than twice as often as the next guy in line, Aaron Jones.
But while the Packers are racking up yards, they are not exactly racking up scores. Their offense has produced exactly as many field goals as touchdowns so far this season, and has bogged down repeatedly in the red zone. So even though the Packers are rarely going three-and-out (14 percent of drives, third-lowest in the league), rarely punting (31 percent, fourth-lowest), and gaining a lot of yards (34 per drive, eighth-best in the league), they rank just 19th in the NFL in points per game and 20th in points per drive.
Some of that low scoring output is due to the bad luck of Mason Crosby missing four field goals and an extra point last week against the Lions. Add in those 13 points and suddenly Green Bay ranks a much more respectable 12th in points per game and 10th in points per drive. The Packers can’t expect Crosby to be perfect going forward but something closer to what he had done through the first four weeks of the season (10 of 11 on field goal attempts and 8 of 9 on extra points) is reasonable.
On Monday, Green Bay should have a chance to rebound from last week’s shoddy effort. The 49ers have one of the NFL’s worst defenses, and one that has been particularly bad in the red zone. The Niners have allowed 5.21 points per red zone opportunity, per Football Outsiders, which ranks 22nd in the NFL. They’ve also allowed touchdowns on 63 percent of their opponents’ red zone trips, which ranks 21st in the league. San Francisco has particularly struggled against the pass, so Rodgers should be able to freely move the ball downfield even on his injured knee and even while likely working without two of his two three wideouts. (Geronimo Allison and Randall Cobb are widely expected to miss the game, and be replaced by Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown.) Even with Richard Sherman on the 49ers, San Francisco’s defensive backs are eminently beatable.
And if the Packers can move the ball well and put some points on the board, we might finally see Mike McCarthy and company turn the running game over to the explosive Aaron Jones, who appears to be the team’s best back but for some reason is behind Williams and sometimes Ty Montgomery in the pecking order.
When the 49ers have the ball
This game would likely be much more exciting if the 49ers weren’t missing Jimmy Garoppolo and Jerick McKinnon. The San Francisco offense this season has not looked at all like what we expected it to coming into the year, as McKinnon tore his ACL in camp, Garoppolo tore his in Week 3, Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis have been in and out of the lineup with injuries, and even McKinnon’s backup, Matt Breida, has been banged up.
The entire offense essentially runs through tight end George Kittle and wideout Pierre Garcon due to the various injuries to many of the principal players involved. Kittle has been one of the NFL’s best tight ends this season, as he has 23 catches for 399 yards and a score. He should really have even more than that, as he dropped a wide-open touchdown from Garoppolo in Week 1, saw Garoppolo miss him on a play where he was wide open later on, and has had several big plays stopped short of the end zone. The Green Bay pass defense has been pretty good against tight ends so far this season, with players at the position totaling 22 catches for 238 yards in five games. But with Buffalo and Detroit on the schedule over the past two weeks, they were facing two of the offenses that use the tight end least often. Kyle Rudolph had seven catches for 72 yards back in Week 1 and the Jordan Reed-Vernon Davis combination had six for 135 yards in Week 3.
If Beathard and Kittle can’t find a way to get in sync, it may be tough sledding for the 49er offense. Beathard has shown precious little chemistry with any of his other pass-catchers, and fullback Kyle Juszczyk acted as the de facto No. 2 guy last week amidst all the injuries. Teams do not exactly seem scared of Beathard beating them either down the field or with throws to the perimeter — and with good reason. Beathard is averaging just 5.88 yards per attempt on 32 perimeter throws this season, per Sports Info Solutions. That ranks 31st among 39 qualified quarterbacks. Even worse, Beathard’s perimeter completions have averaged just 2.54 yards in the air, 38th among the same group of players and ahead of only Nathan Peterman.
With the uncertainty surrounding Matt Breida’s status for Monday night, the San Francisco run game may be somewhat limited as well. Alfred Morris is a solid one-cut runner but he does not provide the same variety of skills as Breida, and his presence on the field is more of a run/pass tip-off than is Breida’s. Even taking away Breida’s untouched 66-yard touchdown run, he’s averaging almost twice the yards per rush that Morris is this season. If he’s out, Raheem Mostert looks like the No. 2 guy behind Morris, and that did not exactly work out so well for San Francisco a week ago, as Mostert carried five times for 11 yards and lost a fumble.
Knowing Kyle Shanahan, he will have some wrinkles in his playbook that take advantage of the specific weaknesses of Green Bay’s defense, and will figure out a way to get Kittle open often enough for San Francisco to look respectable moving the ball. But it also probably won’t be enough against a team with Rodgers.
Prediction: Packers 27, 49ers 20