The San Francisco 49ers return to Levi’s Stadium Sunday night to take on the Green Bay Packers in the first game that counts at home with fans since the 2019 NFC Championship game. This will mark the fifth contest between the two organizations since the start of the 2018 season, the teams splitting the previous four contests.
Green Bay is coming off its first win of the season, a 35-17 defeat of the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field. It will be interesting to see if traveling on a short week has any effect on the Packers.
The 49ers defeated Philadelphia last week in a physically demanding game that saw each of the active running backs go down to injury.
With that as a backdrop, let’s take a look at five burning questions that will be key to the outcome of the game.
1. Will the 49ers run defense improve?
The 49er’s run defense has struggled over the course of the first two weeks, allowing 5 yards per rushing attempt, fifth worst in the NFL.
San Francisco did a good job against the run during Philadelphia’s first offensive possession last week. After that possession, 49ers allowed Eagles running backs to gain 5 or more yards on 10 of their last 16 rushing attempts. Through the first two weeks of the season, opposing running backs have gained 5 or more yards on 46% of their rushes.
After barely running the ball and falling behind early in a blowout loss to New Orleans on opening weekend, Green Bay showcased a more balanced attack featuring both Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon during its win over Detroit on Monday night. Of the Packers’ first 25 offensive plays, 12 were runs.
The defensive philosophy through the first two weeks has been to bend but not break. The defense has allowed opponents to chew up yards in the middle of the field, but once they get down into scoring territory they step up and shut the door. That philosophy will be put to the test this week against Aaron Rodgers.
2. Can the 49ers defense contain Aaron Rodgers?
Rodgers is going to make some plays, but that is a given. If San Francisco is going to win, limiting explosive plays is a must.
While the 49ers secondary is unsettled, the starting cornerbacks won’t be known until game time. It will be up to the pass rush to help slow Rodgers down.
All signs point to San Francisco’s defensive line having a decided advantage with David Bakhtiari out with an ACL injury and the All-Pro’s replacement Elgton Jenkins possibly missing this game with an ankle injury.
Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and the 49ers pass rush needs to lead the charge for the defense this week, much like they did in during the 2019 regular season matchup with Green Bay. During the 49ers 37-8 victory, Rodgers was consistently harassed as the 49ers defense recorded 10 hits on the quarterback and five sacks.
With at least one sack on Sunday night, Bosa will become the first member of the 49ers to record at least one sack in each of the first three games of a season since Aldon Smith in 2013.
3. Who will be running the ball for San Francisco?
Each of the four running backs on the 49ers’ original 53-man roster have been dealing with injuries. Two of them, Raheem Mostert and JaMycal Hasty, are not options for Sunday night. Mostert was lost for the season after only two carries against Detroit. Hasty will be out for a while after suffering a high ankle sprain against Philadelphia. Elijah Mitchell started last week but suffered a shoulder injury early in the fourth quarter, and Trey Sermon suffered a concussion on his first NFL carry.
Kyle Shanahan announced Friday that Trey Sermon had cleared the NFL concussion protocols and all signs point to him getting the start of Sunday night. The 2021 third-round pick was a surprise inactive for the 49ers season opener in Detroit after being the lone rookie to work primarily with the starters throughout training camp.
Mitchell became the first 49ers rookie running back to gain over 100 yards in a season opener against Detroit and made his first start last week against Philadelphia. The shoulder injury Mitchell suffered against the Eagles proved to be more than just a stinger. He has been listed as doubtful for Sunday, although Shanahan stated he is holding out hope for the rookie to be able to go.
Other options in the backfield include Trenton Cannon, who was claimed off waivers from Baltimore last week and had one carry against the Eagles, Jacques Patrick who was signed off the Cincinnati practice squad, and the team may choose to elevate Kerryon Johnson from the practice squad.
4. Can Jimmy Garoppolo keep winning on Sunday night?
Jimmy Garoppolo will be looking to keep his perfect record on Sunday Night Football against Green Bay, having won each of his previous four starts.
Against Philadelphia, Garoppolo had an uneven performance that saw him miss a couple wide open throws that could have extended drives early in the game. He would eventually get it going with a number of short passes. His intended air yards of 3.7 was the lowest in the league last week, before hitting Deebo Samuel with a dart over the middle of the field to set up the go ahead score just before the end of the first half.
After facing a strong Philadelphia pass rush last week, Garoppolo and the 49ers offense will face a Green Bay defense without its best pass rusher, Za’Darius Smith. Smith was a second-team All-Pro in 2020 and led the Packers in sacks the last two seasons.
If the 49ers offensive line can give Garoppolo time, look for him to have a big game.
5. Will Trey Lance get into the game?
Even when he doesn’t play, the first-round draft pick is a topic of conversation. Lance did not get into the game against Philadelphia after playing four snaps and throwing a touchdown against Detroit in Week One.
The raucous Philadelphia crowd and a tenacious Eagles defense made it a difficult enough situation for the 49er’s offense, and Kyle Shanahan didn’t see the benefit of putting the rookie out there. This week, however, is a different story. A friendly crowd for the home opener and going against a defense that has struggled in the past with running quarterbacks makes this seem like the perfect time to get Lance into the game for a change of pace.
49ers 30 Packers 24