49ers’ weak pass rush gives Packers hope

Here is my Saturday column on the upcoming 49ers-Packers playoff game.

GREEN BAY, Wis. — The 49ers can beat the Packers, have beaten the Packers, know how to beat the Packers, should beat the Packers and probably will beat the Packers on Sunday.But don’t count out the Packers just yet. A few factors work in their favor.The first factor is their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. That’s an easy one. He’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, he plays behind the second-best pass blocking offensive line in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, and he faces a vulnerable 49ers pass defense.

Yes, vulnerable. The 49ers’ pass rush has disappeared. Since Week 12, Aldon Smith hast just two sacks and Ahmad Brooks has zilch. According Pro Football Focus, Brooks has been one of the worst outside linebackers in the NFL since Week 12. Before that, he was one of the best outside linebackers, so you have to wonder if he’s playing through an injury. And one former coach told me he has bad pass rushing technique. “No technique,” is how he referred to it.

Week 16, the 49ers gave up a 102 passer rating to Matt Ryan before he forced his final pass of the game over the middle into double coverage and got intercepted. And Week 17, the 49ers gave up a 113 passer rating to Carson Palmer from the second quarter on. Those are long stretches of bad pass defense against quarterbacks who aren’t in Rodgers’ league.

And the 49ers played those games with all of their cornerbacks. Against the Packers, they could be down two. Carlos Rogers pulled his hamstring in the fourth quarter last week, and his replacement at nickel back, Eric Wright, pulled his hamstring in practice on Thursday. Wright’s replacement, Perrish Cox, gave up a touchdown catch against the Packers Week 1.

The Packers use three-wide-receiver formations on more than three-quarters of their offensive plays. Cox will have to play most of the game and match up with the Packers’ slot receiver, Randall Cobb, whom Cox cannot cover man to man. The 49ers will have to use mostly zone coverages, and that doesn’t work against a great quarterback like Rodgers. He can beat zone coverages in his sleep. If the 49ers’ pass rush doesn’t get to him quickly, he’ll complete 70 percent of his passes.

The Packers scored 28 points against the 49ers Week 1 at Candlestick, and 31 points against the 49ers in the playoffs last season. The Packers should be able to score 30 points again, especially at Lambeau Field.

Can the 49ers score 30 points?

Probably.

The Packers’ defense is terrible. It’s giving up an average of 26.8 points per game this season. And they won’t have their best player, Clay Matthews, this Sunday. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers will have to pull the caper of the year to keep the 49ers from scoring 30 points.

But if he pulls the caper, it might go like this:

Shut down Frank Gore, Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers’ run game like the Packers did Week 1. They held Gore to 44 yards on 21 carries, and they held Kaepernick to 22 yards on seven carries. The Packers still have three behemoth run-stoppers on their defensive line – Mike Daniels, Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji. So, that part of the caper is possible.

The question is can the Packers stop the 49ers’ passing game? They gave up 412 receiving yards to the 49ers Week 1, and 208 yards just to Anquan Boldin.

Here’s how you will know the caper is on – if the Packers can jam Boldin at the line of scrimmage every play and cover him man to man, it’s on. But if the Packers play off him in some soft zone coverage like they did all Week 1, the caper definitely is off and the Packers have no chance to beat the 49ers.

Boldin is a turtle. He can’t run by any NFL cornerbacks. There is no reason ever to play off him, and yet cornerbacks do it every week. The past two games, the 49ers’ first offensive play has been a quick pass to Boldin in front of a cornerback who was playing 10 yards off him.

Boldin has caught 35 percent of Kaepernick’s completions this season. Boldin is Kaepernick’s first read most of the time. The Packers have to jam Boldin and force Kaepernick to reset his feet and find his second read, the things he struggles doing.

That’s the best the Packers can hope to do – shut down Gore and Boldin. But would that be enough to beat the 49ers?

Probably not.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for the Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

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