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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Kurtenbach: How do the 49ers stop Aaron Rodgers? Hook, Bear and Pray

Aaron Rodgers is going to win the NFL MVP this season, and it should be a unanimous vote.

Rodgers is a master of the craft – a true genius in the toughest of situations in the game – working at the top of his game.

And he enters Saturday’s divisional round playoff game with the 49ers at Green Bay, the most I’ve seen in the NFL in recent years.

Rodgers has bowled 20 touchdowns and zero interceptions in his last seven games, even against some good defense. His ball placement is almost impeccable. His dominance on the defense is tremendous. He has so much control over the Packers’ offense that his incredible throws from mid-November overshadowed his imperfections by an almost two-to-one ratio.

As I watched every single snap he’s taken this season over the past few days, I had a question in mind: How do you stop this guy?

Truth be told, there is no good answer.

A few seasons ago, it was clear how you stop Rodgers: You put pressure on him. At that point in his career, Rodgers was holding the ball for too long—he wanted to push the ball down the field instead of what the defense gave him, and that led to bad decisions and a ton of sacks.

The 49ers had no problem executing that game plan twice in the 2019 season, which includes the NFC Championship Game.

I thought the same formula would work again in Week 3, when these two teams met for a primetime game at Levi’s Stadium.

I was wrong. oh so wrong

Rodgers had learned from his 2019 mistakes and bowled lightning fast. Rodgers averaged 2.04 seconds in pro football focus per throw in that game, and was hit only twice in the competition. Overall, the Packers averaged more than six yards per game and won without playing particularly well, at least by their standards.

So going forward in this playoff game, the Niners need to mix things up, at least a little, lest Rodgers do the same thing again on Saturday and end the Niners season.

Here’s a three-step formula for the Niners that could give them the chance to slow down the NFL’s best quarterback right now:


Kurtenbach: How Do The 49Ers Stop Aaron Rodgers? Hook, Bear And Pray
(Shay Hammond/Bay Area Newsgroup)

Rodgers absolutely dominates against every coverage he faces, so the Niners would be foolish to skip their exclusive defensive coverage, Cover 3, which is a zone defense with a high degree of protection.

It wasn’t what he played in Week 3, though—that game featured a bunch of man-to-man defenses on the outside and two-high defenses above average.

So “mixing it up” for San Francisco means sticking to what they’re doing.

Since Week 10, San Francisco has re-established itself as a cover 3 team. That, as well as more exotic pass-rush schemes, are making the Niners play exceptionally well on that side of the field. Since mid-November, the Niners have allowed 284 yards per game on defense, with their best play coming in the final three weeks of the season.

Cover 3 would give the Niners eight men in the box against the Packers, limiting their run game. That many players are even closer to the line of scrimmage gives Rodgers more to think about. By moving around linebackers and safari pre-snap, the Niners can create some sleight of hand, a little window dressing, and maybe even speculate on coverage after Rodgers snaps the ball.

We’ve seen the Packers’ worst passing games (and that relative) come against teams that play a three-man defensive front, leaving linebackers on both sides as wild cards—players who play in the pass rush. May join or be returned to coverage. This made Rodgers a little uncomfortable in the pocket.

But the Niners are a four-man front through-and-through and defensive coordinator Demeko Ryans rightly abandoned the concept of leaving the lineman in coverage this season. I don’t expect or advocate such gimmicks before the biggest game of the campaign.

No, the Niners need to stick with their base defense and be funky. You’ll never have an advantage over Rodgers, so don’t step out of your comfort zone.

That said, linebackers crowding the line at the A-gap before covering the “middle hook,” or simulating the nickel-back K’Waun Williams Blitz, can buy the nearby crowd a little time to get home.

a bear

Kurtenbach: How Do The 49Ers Stop Aaron Rodgers? Hook, Bear And Pray
(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

The Niners have no chance without Nick Bosa on the defensive on Saturday.

No offense to the Niners’ other defensive linemen, who were immense against the Cowboys after Bossa abandoned that game, but the Packers’ offensive line is a different beast, with Rodgers being better as a quarterback than Duck Prescott, And Charles Omenihu, as he played on Sunday, isn’t going to get the job done against Green Bay if he has to play every down.

Whether or not Bossa comes back for the game will likely go up to kickoff. The Niners’ facility has optimism that Little Bear – his brother, Chargers star Joey Bossa, is Big Bear – will play on Saturday, but optimism is not part of concussion protocol.

The Niners pressured Rodgers only five times in Week 3, per PFF. That number needs to at least double if the Niners are to be given a chance.

Even then it might not matter.

a prayer

Kurtenbach: How Do The 49Ers Stop Aaron Rodgers? Hook, Bear And Pray
(AP Photo/Duane Burleson)
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