World's Best Preview: Throwback Run Game

Lacy (Mike Dinovo - USA Today Sports)

Our 20-point, 4,200-word preview is overflowing with stats, quotes and analysis you won't find anywhere else. Leading it off: With the Ice Bowl fresh in everyone's memory, it's appropriate that the Packers are using a Lombardi relic on offense. Plus, what is Rodgers' bread-and-butter "play?" Does the cold help the Niners? Plus, much, much more.

With Sunday's frigid conditions bringing back some memories of the Ice Bowl, perhaps it's appropriate that the Green Bay Packers are moving the ball with a Lombardi-era throwback.

The Packers, known as a zone-blocking team practically since the minute Mike McCarthy became coach and installed his offense in 2006, have widely expanded their running game this season. Now, the Packers run a steady diet of power-blocking schemes that include pulling linemen. The Packers might be in shotgun with three receivers (or two receivers and a split-out tight end), but the premise isn't all that different than the famed Packers Sweep that Lombardi rode to five championships.

"We've been more productive doing it this year, and it's a tribute to those guys," offensive line coach James Campen said on Thursday, a few days ahead of an NFC Wild Card game against San Francisco. "They've worked their butts off to be better run blockers and it's showing up. Maybe that's why you're noticing it more. We're better at it."

On Green Bay's first play from scrimmage against Chicago, center Evan Dietrich-Smith pulled and led Eddie Lacy to a gain of 14 on a toss to the left. On James Starks' 41-yard run in the third quarter, guard T.J. Lang pulled to his left to help create the hole.

To be sure, the emergence of Lacy has played a big role in the Packers fielding the league's seventh-ranked running game after ranking 20th, 27th and 24th the previous three seasons. But the addition of sweeps and pulling and trapping has become a major asset because it takes advantage of the blockers' overlooked athletic ability.

"I think it's played a big part in it," All-Pro guard Josh Sitton said of the run game's emergence. "They've trusted our athleticism to be able to get out and move, so it's been a part of it. In the past, we've been real heavy in just the zone game but we've done a lot more gap schemes and pulling schemes. It's definitely helped."

Dietrich-Smith, who has provided a dramatic upgrade over past-his-prime Jeff Saturday at center, called it a "really good change-up" to the team's usual diet of zones and draws.

"You can attack defenses in different types of schemes by running gap schemes, pattern schemes, zone schemes," he said. "It's not just a one-dimensional attack. You have to play everything that we do."

The Packers, who have remained relatively healthy up front all season, stuck mostly to their zone scheme in the Week 1 game against the 49ers. The Packers have adapted to more power schemes as the season has progressed, the linemen said, so this will be a new wrinkle for the 49ers to defense.

"It's a good change-up for us," Lang said. "We've been a big zone team in the past (while) throwing in a little of the power stuff with the pulls. This year, we've probably had a pretty even mix of it. We've got athletic linemen that can get out in space and move well and make blocks. We feel like, athletically, whether it's the zone-blocking system or the power system, we've got guys who can move. Obviously, having Eddie and James running the ball the way they've been running the ball all year, it's probably the first time that we've jelled as a unit. That's a strength of our offense right now, the way we've been running. It's a good change-up. Instead of just showing defenses that we're going to be zoning one way, zoning the other way the whole time, you throw some down blocks, you pull a guy around. It's a good change-up for us. It's worked well."

2. YAC ATTACK

At least a half-dozen times during last week's win at Chicago, Aaron Rodgers took the snap and immediately fired the ball to a receiver, who piled up yards after the catch.

It's one of the Packers' bread-and-butter plays, even if it's not a play, per se.

"They're big receivers," Rodgers said of James Jones and Jordy Nelson, "so if you give them a chance to have a little separation out there, often it's a better option than a run into a bad look. Occasionally, we'll throw it out to them, and we've been pretty productive. If we can get 5 or 6 yards off of that, that's a good play. Jordy broke a tackle and it went for a bunch. For those guys, whether it's Randall (Cobb) or Jordy or James, when you can get the ball to them in space, we think good things can happen."

Four of Jones' six receptions came on running plays in which Rodgers simply threw the ball to Jones rather than audibling.

"We're just taking what the defense gives us," Jones said. "We pride ourselves on being great ball catchers and making people miss after the catch. So whenever we get the ball in our hands, Aaron's trying to get the ball in our hands fast and we're trying to make some plays. Yeah, we want to throw it down the field. But the main thing is taking what the defense gives you, first downs and try to sustain long drives."

After Rodgers throws a rocket to the side, it's up to the receivers. The four quick passes to Jones — which traveled a total of 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage — were turned into a total gain of 31 yards.

"They've both got great stiff-arms," Rodgers said of Jones and Nelson. "They are definitely hard to tackle."

Early in the fourth quarter, with the Packers trailing 28-20, Rodgers flung the ball to the right to Nelson, who caught the ball at the line of scrimmage, broke a tackle about 8 yards downfield and gained 34 yards. That set up Lacy's 6-yard touchdown.

"We always preach win your one-on-one battles, and that's ultimately what it comes down to," receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. "You're one-on-one with the defensive back on the outside. There are two ways to attack it: Make a guy miss by your elusiveness or break a tackle. I think our guys, they mix it up. They do both. When you go back and look at the surface, all of that factors into it, as well. Putting that defender on an island, it gives us an opportunity to win our one-on-one battles."

3. IMPERVIOUS TO THE COLD?

In theory, the weather should be an advantage for the Packers.

After all, the players live and work under the glare of Old Man Winter. With a predicted kickoff temperature of about 0 — and plunging from there with the sun setting about 45 minutes after kickoff — and blustery conditions delivering a wind chill of about minus-25, the cold should work in the Packers' favor.

However, what is the winning formula in any kind of bad weather? Run the ball on offense, stop the run on defense and win the battles in the trenches.

From that perspective, the 49ers will be at no disadvantage. With three first-round picks on the offensive line leading the charge for underrated running back Frank Gore, San Francisco boasts the league's third-best rushing attack.

"Whenever you get to December, January football, you've got to be able to run the ball," receiver Anquan Boldin said. "I think we can run the ball. We have a good offensive line up front. Our backs do a great job of finding holes. So, I think (the Niners are built to win in the cold)."

Add in a defensive front seven featuring three All-Pros (NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Justin Smith — a list that does not include star linebackers Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis), the Niners seem perfectly well-equipped to survive the deep freeze. They are 9-0 when outrushing their opponent this season and 31-3-1 since Jim Harbaugh became coach in 2011.

"We try to keep it pretty simple here," Harbaugh said in a conference call. "We're going to take our best players and go come to you guys and see if that's better than your best players. Keep it as simple for us as we can."

The Packers have the offensive line and running backs to run the ball as well as any team in the league. Green Bay's problem is a run defense that has been gouged for 157.2 rushing yards per game over the last nine games. Green Bay has allowed 1,415 rushing yards over that span. The 49ers have allowed 1,534 rushing yards for the entire season.

"They're a physical team," Packers defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. "They like to rely a lot on their offensive line and Frank Gore. We feel like we're a physical team and we like our matchup with our defensive line against their offensive line. I love these type of games. All the guys are looking forward to it. It's going to be on the big guys."

THE OTHER SIDELINE

— 4. Gore is one of the best running backs in the league, yet he's consistently flown under the radar. Since 2011, with Gore posting fourth-ranked totals of 3,553 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns, the 49ers are 11-0 when he tops 100 yards.

"One of the things about Gore is he's one of the best finishing running backs that we play against," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "When I say that, you can hit him for a 2- to 3-yard gain and he finishes and normally picks up that extra yard or two. Those 2-yard gains turn into 4, and those 3-yard gains turn into 5."

Gore, coming off his sixth 1,000-yard season, is just 33 yards shy of being the 28th 10,000-yard rusher in NFL history. His 9,967 rushing yards and 60 rushing touchdowns are tops in franchise history.

"In my opinion, he's one of the most underrated backs in the league, it seems," defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. "The media never really talks about him, but if you look on film, his instincts, he's squeezing through gaps that are a few inches wide. It's amazing to watch."

— 5. Boldin — the fastest receiver in NFL history to 400, 500 and 600 receptions and the third-fastest to 700 — destroyed the Packers in the Week 1 matchup with his 13 catches for 208 yards and a touchdown.

"You definitely aren't where you want to be in the first game, and I'm sure they would tell you the same thing," Boldin said, downplaying his Week 1 performance. "Whenever you come in the first game, you have guys trying to work together, so the communication isn't where you'd like it to be. You're working in some new schemes, you're working in new players, so things aren't exactly how you'd like it to be. I think this time around, it's a lot different. I'm sure their communication is a lot better. They're playing good football right now. I definitely expect a different team."

Boldin's had a big year overall, though, with league-leading figures of 33 receptions and 529 yards on third down.

Other individual performers among the league leaders: Vernon Davis led all tight ends with 16.3 yards per reception, tied for third overall with 13 touchdown catches and was sixth among tight ends with 850 receiving yards.

Boldin and Davis are the two active playoff leaders with 11 and 10 receptions of 25-plus yards, respectively.

— 6. In the 2006 NFL Draft, the Packers had the choice of A.J. Hawk and Davis with the fifth pick in the draft. While Hawk has been a solid, steady performer — he had five sacks, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery this season while becoming the leading tackler in franchise history — the 29-year-old Davis is entering some pretty rare air among tight ends. 

With his 13 touchdown receptions this season and 13 in 2009, Davis is the only tight end in NFL history with two seasons of at least 12 touchdown receptions. And if that's not impressive enough, only two tight ends in NFL history have had more touchdown catches in a season (Rob Gronkowski, 17, 2011; Jimmy Graham, 15, 2013). Among tight ends, his 53 career receiving touchdowns already are tied for sixth in NFL history, and he got to 50 in the third-fewest games (115; Antonio Gates in 92, Jerry Smith in 100). Davis is tied with Keith Jackson for most 100-yard receiving games by a tight end in the playoffs with four.

— 7. Colin Kaepernick is the NFL's ultimate big-play quarterback. He finished second in the league with 13.16 yards per completion, with Philadelphia's Nick Foles at 14.24 and Rodgers third at 13.14. Plus, Kaepernick was fourth among quarterbacks with 524 rushing yards. The team is 15-0 when he has a quarterback rating of at least 90. Against the Packers, he posted ratings of 91.2 in last year's playoff game and 129.4 in Week 1 of this season.

Kaepernick threw for 412 yards against the Packers in Week 1 before going through a stretch of relatively mediocre play. That all changed with Michael Crabtree's return. In the first 11 games, Kaepernick completed 57 percent of his passes. With Crabtree returning for the final five games, he completed 62 percent.

"He's got more experience," Capers said of Kaepernick. "He's a good decision-maker. The guy doesn't throw many interceptions. He uses his athletic ability to extend plays and what that does is you might have their receivers covered but then because he can buy time, he gives them a chance to uncover and he has the arm strength to throw the ball anyplace on the field once he does buy that time. You can't ever relax with him. You'll have things defended and covered up and then all of a sudden he comes running out of there with the ability to throw or run the ball. He's been throwing it more. He's been scrambling to buy time to throw it."

With Crabtree, Boldin and Davis, the Niners' have an elite pass-catching trio.

"They have a bunch of explosive players," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. "You have to start with 85 (Davis), in my opinion. I think he's a tight end you have to treat as a receiver in certain looks. Crabtree and Boldin, they're very physical receivers that are gamers. Everybody talks about what Boldin can do, but he makes plays since the first day he got in the league. He's a physical man. Then you go to Crabtree, he's coming back. Anybody that comes off of injury, there are some growing pains. Each week, he's getting better."

NOTEWORTHY NUMBERS

— 8. San Francisco rookie safety Eric Reid intercepted four passes. Green Bay's safeties combined intercepted zero passes. No other team had zero; Jacksonville was the only team with one.

"It does not" bother safeties coach Darren Perry, he said. "We'd like to have more but I'm more interested in quality of play and how we tackle, how we get to the ball and if we're doing our part in terms of getting us off the football. That's the name of the game is to get the ball back to the offense, either through a turnover or a set of downs. More importantly than anything else, we've got to make sure our quality of play is at the level that it's going to need to be at to win championship football games."

It's the lack of consistency in those measuring sticks that bothers Perry. Morgan Burnett has had an up-and-down season. He finished second on the team with 104 tackles, even though he missed the first three games of the season with an injured hamstring, and he recovered three fumbles. Among his eight passes defensed was a big one in the end zone late in last week's game against Chicago. At the other safety spot, M.D. Jennings and Sean Richardson have played based on situations over the last four games.

"We need to be more consistent," Perry said. "I think that's what separates the really good teams from the average and not-so-average teams is the consistency."

— 9. Third down is always a key, and it will be strength vs. strength on third-and-short. Defined as third down and less than 4 yards to go, Green Bay ranks fourth in the league with a conversion rate of 65.7 percent. San Francisco's defense allows opponents to convert just 46.7 percent of the time on third-and-short.

— 10. In the Week 1 matchup, one number that went under the radar was time of possession, with San Francisco hogging the ball for 38:35. The Niners are 8-0 this season when winning time of possession and 26-2 under Harbaugh.

— 11. By any measure, the 49ers field one of the league's elite defenses. Here are some of those measures: They rank fourth against the run (95.9 yards per game), seventh in net passing yards per game (221.0), fifth in third-down percentage (34.1) and third in 20-yard gains allowed (48).

HISTORY LESSONS

— 12. Rodgers is the highest-rated quarterback in NFL history in regular-season play and isn't too shabby in the playoffs, either. His 103.6 rating ranks third in NFL history — Bart Starr is No. 1 with a 104.8 rating — and he's fifth with 66.1 percent accuracy. He's posted a 110-plus passer rating in four of eight career playoff starts. In the Wild Card round, he's posted a 116.3 rating with eight touchdowns and one interception.

"Aaron Rodgers is clearly our best player," coach Mike McCarthy said. "He's a franchise quarterback. He runs our offense at a very, very high level. Everybody has great confidence in him. When he's on the field we're different. I think that's very obvious."

It's been a mixed bag during the Packers' three-game, 16-month losing streak.

In Week 1, Rodgers went 21-of-37 for 333 yards, with three touchdowns, one interception and a rating of 102.6. In the playoff loss to end last season, he went 26-of-39 for 257 yards, with two touchdowns, one interception and a rating of 91.5. Those numbers were inflated with a meaningless touchdown drive to end that game. In Week 1 of 2012, he went 30-of-44 for 303 yards, with two touchdowns, one interception and a 93.3 rating. A good bit of that production came when the Packers were in comeback mode in the fourth quarter.

"There are so many big names and guys who play well," Rodgers said of the Niners' defense. "The film does not lie. I think it's good for a guy like NaVorro Bowman that he gets the credit he deserves. For the last three or four years, he's been one of the top guys in the league, but he's playing next to a guy (Willis) with one of the greatest name-recognition linebackers in the league. Patrick and NaVorro do a great job playing off one each other. Very similar players.

"Upfront, they've got guys who can get after you rushing the passer. On the back end, you've got a young player like Eric Reid, who has had a very good season. (Safety Donte) Whitner, he's a very good player. Tarell Brown is one of the more underrated corners in the league. I think he does a great job in man coverage. They ask him to do a lot. (Cornerback Tramaine) Brock has stepped in and done a really nice job and Carlos Rodgers is … a compliment here, he reminds me of Charles Woodson in the slot, a tough position to play and he plays at a high level. So, it's a talented defense and it's hard to pick out one guy. There's not a recipe I think to get after them. You have to be very accurate throwing the football and you have to execute your offense as well as you can."

— 13. Green Bay is 7-4 in Wild Card games while San Francisco is 3-2. They've met in two prior Wild Card games, with San Francisco winning 30-27 on Jan. 3, 1999, on Terrell Owens' last-play touchdown. Green Bay beat San Francisco 25-15 on Jan. 13, 2002.

— 14. Harbaugh is 36-12 in his first three seasons in the league. Only George Seifert, who won 38 games with San Francisco from 1989 through 1991, has won more in league history.

— 15. Under Harbaugh, winning on the road isn't an issue: Their 17-7 road record in the last three seasons is tied for the best in the league with Denver. Green Bay ranks fourth with a 15-9 mark.

FOUR-POINT STANCE

— 16. With the weather, this will be a battle of running games. Then again, it might be 70 degrees and sunny and this might be a battle of running games.

The 49ers, who ranked third in the league with 137.6 rushing yards per game, led the league with 20 rushing plays of at least 20 yards and were third with 68 rushing plays of at least 10 yards.

Green Bay's defense stuffed the 49ers in Week 1, limiting them to 90 yards on 34 carries (2.6 average). After a strong start to the season, the Packers' run defense fell apart. It finished 25th in yards per game (125.0) and 29th in yards per rushing play (4.63).

Flipping sides of the line of scrimmage, the Packers finished seventh in rushing with 133.5 yards per game — the team's sixth-best mark since the 1970 merger. Green Bay ranked fourth with 4.65 yards per carry and tied for ninth with 54 carries of at least 10 yards. Only Philadelphia (seven) had more 100-yard rushers than the Packers (six).

The 49ers were the only team in the league to not allow a 100-yard rusher.

— 17. The Packers' last three wins have come on fourth-quarter comebacks. They're the first team to post three second-half comeback wins of at least eight points in a calendar month since the Colts in 1986. In Week 1, they rallied to take the lead at San Francisco, only to let that lead slip away. A comeback will be no small challenge against the 49ers, who are 9-1 when scoring first, 10-1 when leading at halftime and 11-2 when leading after three quarters.

"It's like anything in coaching, our job is to emphasize, teach and continue to emphasize and make sure the players have the answers and adjustments in a proactive manner," McCarthy said. "That's the way we go about it and our players responded."

— 18. The 49ers have eight players in the Pro Bowl compared to none for the Packers. San Francisco's all-stars include linebackers NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Patrick Willis, defensive tackle Justin Smith, tight end Vernon Davis, left tackle Joe Staley, guard Mike Iupati and running back Frank Gore. San Francisco and Kansas City tied for the league high in Pro Bowlers.

— 19. When McCarthy mentioned turnover ratio as a key to Sunday's game, he was stating the obvious. Looking beyond that, here is why the Packers can't afford to hand the ball to the Niners: San Francisco ranked second in the league by scoring 129 points off of turnovers. The 49ers are 7-0 when winning the turnover battle this season and 27-3-1 during Harbaugh's three seasons. Moreover, the 49ers are 10-0 this season when not throwing an interception.

The Packers have forced 12 turnovers in the past five games after forcing 10 in the first 11 games. They've forced at least two turnovers in each of those five games, their longest stretch since 2002.

"Turnover ratio is huge, and obviously we've played uphill in that area all season, so we're doing a better job obviously taking away," McCarthy said. "We've got to do a better job here taking care of the football. Turnover ratio will probably be one of the primary factors in the outcome of this game."

San Francisco is one of the best teams in the league at taking care of the ball. The Niners tied for second with 18 giveaways this season, including a six-game stretch without a single turnover. Under Harbaugh, the Niners are 18-1-1 when not turning over the ball.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Or, the best thing that was said that we couldn't work into a story this week.

— 20. "(Friday) was pretty cold and I think it was minus-10 with the wind chill. It's going to be minus-40 (wind chill), so that's going to be cold. I think once it gets below zero, cold is just cold. Everybody's played in it before. Those guys, playing in California, they don't get to see it as much as we do but everybody's played football for so long that at some point they've probably played in a cold game. This might set some new records. It's not going to win any football games. You don't count on that being an advantage. You just have to prepare in it, like we have all week, and just play football." — Lang, on the cold weather.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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