How 49ers Defense Can Slow Down Packers QB Aaron Rodgers


How do you solve a problem like Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers?

That is the question currently facing the San Francisco 49ers and defensive coordinator Eric Mangini. And, assuming Magini has watched the way Rodgers has played so far this season, it is one that will be keeping him up all night.

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Rodgers has been nothing short of sensational through the first three weeks of the campaign, throwing for 771 yards and 10 touchdowns with no interceptions.

The Green Bay signal-caller leads the NFL in QBR, according to Football Outsiders. Rodgers also ranks at No. 1 in FO’s DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), which represents a quarterback’s value, per play, over an average quarterback in the same game situations.

A consistent pass-rush is normally what makes most quarterbacks uncomfortable and disrupts their rhythm, however, Rodgers has made a mockery of defenses that have dared to challenge him by bringing pressure.

Indeed, Rodgers is No. 4 in the NFL when throwing against the rush, per Pro Football Focus. He has been pressured on 38 dropbacks, but has been sacked only three times and has thrown four touchdowns.

He now faces a 49er defense that has been dissected by Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer in back-to-back weeks. San Francisco has given up a combined 90 points in the last two weeks, with Roethlisberger and Palmer throwing for a total of 690 yards, five touchdowns and one interception.

The 49ers look set to be in big, big trouble when they welcome the Packers to Levi’s Stadium on Sunday, but there are some ways in which they can attempt to slow down arguably the best quarterback in the NFL.

San Francisco has registered only six sacks in three games. After hammering Teddy Bridgewater in Week 1, the Niners never touched Roethlisberger and took a while to get to Palmer.

The reason for the drop-off from Week 1 cannot be solely attributed to the quality of the offensive lines. The Cardinals O-line is substantially better than that of the Vikings and is No. 1 in the league in pass protection according to FO, but Minnesota’s actually ranks one place higher than that of the Steelers at No. 24.

Instead the struggles in Week 2 and Week 3 are connected to two deficiencies, a lack of quality pass-rushers on the 49er defense and a failure on Mangini’s part to confuse Roethlisberger and Palmer with his blitzes as he did Bridgewater.

Rodgers is unlikely to be fazed by too much that Mangini throws at him, but the Niners can be successful in getting to him if they deploy the correct personnel, attack the right areas of his protection and play coverage that prevents the former Cal Bears star from releasing the ball quickly.

First let’s look at personnel, the Niners – as PFF’s Neil Hornsby pointed out prior to the loss to the Cardinals – have been leaning towards a 3-3-5 personnel group, which features three defensive linemen, three linebackers and five cornerbacks.

David Neumann of Niners Nation actually states that the Niners used more base 3-4 personnel in the Week 3 loss to the Arizona Cardinals but, given the versatile players San Francisco has on defense, the 3-3-5 may be the best grouping from which to attack Rodgers due to the variety of options it offers.

Whether the 49ers have been using the right players to take advantage of the diversity the 3-3-5 can provide is debatable. The NFL is in an age of hybrid defensive players and San Francisco general manager Trent Baalke has recognised that by bringing a second-round rookie in Jaquiski Tartt who excelled in his 20 snaps in Week 1, but has seen just 30 defensive plays since then.

With the 3-3-5 typically relying on two of the defensive backs serving as strong safety/outside linebacker hybrids with the ability to cover and rush the passer it is surprising to see Tartt on the sidelines for much of the game.

Tartt has good speed and delivers a violent hit on contact, bringing him and strong safety Antoine Bethea – the Niners’ highest rated defender by PFF – down closer to the line of scrimmage on a more regular basis would not completely solve the riddle of how to stop Rodgers, but it might be a good start.

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Changes up front and in the linebacking core would be advisable as well. First-round pick Arik Armstead has seen only 44 defensive snaps so far but, after a fine performance against Arizona, has one sack and four hurries – more than any other 49ers defensive lineman – to his name.

Armstead appears to making particularly quick strides and, with his ability for drawing double teams, could be big weapon in putting pressure on Rodgers and opening up holes for others to do, especially in a 3-3-5 system that has long been built around zone blitzes with at least one linebacker attacking the quarterback.

Linebacker also looks to be a problem for the 49ers, NaVorro Bowman and Aaron Lynch, comfortably their best pass-rusher from the position, are likely to be on the field for most of every game. However, the continued presence of Ahmad Brooks and Michael Wilhoite is dragging the defense down.

The 49ers are obviously no longer blessed with a wealth of options at the linebacker positions, but both Brooks and Wilhoite have looked sluggish, struggling in rushing the passer and in pass coverage.

Those are two areas you cannot afford to be deficient in against Rodgers and, while are both are sure to still see the field, the Niners may be better served to rely on the youth at their disposal by deploying Tartt as a linebacker or utilizing third-round pick Eli Harold and Shayne Skov, who graded positively as a pass-rusher in the PFF system in  preseason, more often.

San Francisco is a young team and, although head coach Jim Tomsula will want to make use of the little experience he has at his disposal, the best formula to getting to Rodgers to rely on the explosion of his younger guys to excel in a personnel grouping that is predicated on speed and swarming to the ball.

But all that speed will be useless if not aimed at the weakpoints that do exist on a strong Packer O-line, which appears to struggle in pass protection on the fringes.

Backup right tackle Don Barclay, who will likely play again with Bryan Bulaga missing from practice, and left tackle David Bakhtiari have given up 24 hurries between them, per PFF.

Therefore the best avenue towards getting pressure on Rodgers would seem to be to attack the edges with the likes of Tartt, Lynch, Bethea and Harold, particularly given the apparent proficiency of the Packers’ interior linemen.

Center Corey Linsley and guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang have allowed a combined total of just seven hurries and zero hits, according to PFF, so manufacturing interior pressure would appear to be a tough challenge.

Even if the 49ers are able to get some pressure off the edge and up the middle, that may not be enough to stop Rodgers cutting up a secondary that has looked anything but secure the last two weeks due to his lightning quick release time.

The speed in which Rodgers is able to get the ball to an open receiver is nothing short of sensational and, if the Niners are to rely heavily on a 3-3-5 defense that has historically sent pressure while using zone coverage, they may have trouble stopping him doing the same.

Green Bay’s receiving core – which lost Jordy Nelson before the start of the season – is seemingly set to be further depleted due to an ankle injury to Davante Adams.

However, Rodgers has consistently elevated the play of those around him and, although the Packers’ strength in depth in terms of pass-catchers has declined, it would still be advisable for the Niners to play more aggressive press and man coverage in order to take the quick read away.

Should the Niners succeed in taking Rodgers’ quick read away, there is still the matter of his athleticism and ability to extend the play with his legs and make throws on the run.

To prevent Rodgers from improvising the 49ers have to keep contain, but the simple fact is San Francisco has too many improvements to make from the last two weeks in order to keep Rodgers at bay.

In his current vein of form, Rodgers cannot be stopped. It has not even looked as if he can be slowed down so far in 2015 but, by giving younger players more of an opportunity to impress and using more aggressive coverage, the 49ers can at least give themselves a better chance of doing so.

Next: 49ers Can't Stop Aaron Rodgers but Don't Need To

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