Aaron Rodgers lifts Packers to victory while Joe Barry's defense continues to stumble
The Packers continue to ride the right arm of Aaron Rodgers to victory, but Joe Barry's defense remains susceptible after blowing a 17-point lead.
The Green Bay Packers toppled the San Francisco 49ers last night in thrilling fashion. Aaron Rodgers added to his legacy with a surgical last-minute comeback drive, helping the Packers improve their record to 2-1 on the season. Meanwhile, Joe Barry's defense oscillated between extremes and an undermanned offensive line proved up to the challenge of containing the 49ers' pass rush.
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Which is greater: Your confidence in the Packers offense or concern about the Packers defense?
Jason B. Hirschhorn: Until the defense provides proof of concept, it will remain the answer to this question. Over the first two regular-season games under new defensive coordinator Joe Barry, the unit produced little pressure without blitzing and struggled to prevent explosive plays despite being designed explicitly to limit them.
Sunday's matchup with the 49ers looked different initially — the Packers forced three punts and an interception during their first four defensive series — the same issues returned. In the process, a 17-0 lead established just before halftime turned into a 28-27 deficit over the subsequent 30 minutes of football.
Other factors outside the defense's control contributed to the meltdown. The officiating extended multiple 49ers possessions via borderline to irredeemably bad calls, a special-teams blunder set up the San Francisco offense deep in Green Bay territory for a last-minute score before halftime, and the Packers offense twice went three-and-out during the second half. Still, even bad defenses can look competent when spotted a 17-point lead, and Barry's unit fell flat in that department for the third straight week.
Peter Bukowski: Definitely still the offense, but both because the offense can be great and because the defense is getting better. Look, I know the final score says Green Bay gave up 28 points to Jimmy Garoppolo and a cadre of backup running backs, but this is an explosive group of 49ers pass catchers and one of the best offensive lines in football so far this season.
They managed 11 QB hits on Garoppolo, forced him into two turnovers, and stopped the run effectively for much of the night. The offense will be fine because it apparently doesn’t matter who plays offensive line and Rodgers can still go deep in his bag. The bigger questions surround the defense to be sure, but my concern is waning somewhat after this game.
Without two of their best players, the Packers averaged 6 yards per play, went 5-11 on third down, and a team that scored 30 could have scored even more if not for a rookie error when Josh Myers snapped the ball early on fourth down, all of this against a potential top-10 defense.
Aaron Rodgers led a wild comeback thanks to key plays to Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling got more involved, and the defense created some pressure. What was the key to Sunday night’s win?
JBH: While much of the defense had a poor showing at one point or another against the 49ers, Kenny Clark played his finest game of the season and perhaps his best since 2019. Even without Za'Darius Smith playing along the defensive front or another interior player pulling attention from him, Clark routinely forced his way into the backfield, disrupting plays and ending some early 49ers drives with pressure. Clark also led the charge against the San Francisco ground game, which averaged a dismal 3 yards per attempt among the running backs.
Given the other players along the Packers' defensive interior, Clark needs to consistently perform at an elite level for the unit to function. While few nose tackles can live up to that standard, the extension Clark signed in 2020 signaled the team's belief that he can. On Sunday, Clark absolutely delivered, wreaking havoc and helping Green Bay secure the win.
PB: The offensive line. Coming into the game, I said on Locked on Packers all week, the game was blocking. If the Packers could block the 49ers and get off blocks against their offense, they’d win. Joe Barry and the defense held the always-dynamic Kyle Shanahan ground game to 67 yards on 21 carries and it would have been particularly ugly on the ground without a 16-yard carry by rookie Trey Sermon.
Barry mixed his pressure packages, got to Jimmy G, and created negative plays. They set the edge and held their own.
On the other side, the 49ers managed just the lone sack and two quarterback hits on Rodgers. After a rough first series, Yosh Nijman said he reset his arm point and pad levels against Nick Bosa, which translated into a pretty solid night. LaFleur sent Marcedes Lewis, Allen Lazard, and Robert Tonyan to help too and Big Bob made him remember it.
What we're hearing/seeing
JBH: Faced with protecting against a Nick Bosa-led pass rush without either David Bakhtiari or Elgton Jenkins at left tackle, the Packers took a somewhat unconventional approach. Rather than reshuffle the offensive line by shifting their next best tackle to the blindside, they simply inserted the largely Yosh Nijman and kept the rest of the unit unchanged.
Why give Nijman the nod rather than flip Billy Turner to the left side and bring Dennis Kelly off the bench? Because the Packers decided to undercut the 49ers' pass rush through play-calling rather than personnel. Head coach Matt LaFleur spammed run-pass options and quick passes out of empty on Sunday, getting the ball out of Aaron Rodgers' hands before anyone could get to him. The quarterback took just one sack all game, a takedown on third-and-long during a true dropback with a long-developing play.
While LaFleur has used both RPOs and empty in his play-calling before, the high volume of each caught San Francisco largely off guard and got the ball into Green Bay's top playmaker even more than usual. Davante Adams finished with a season-high 18 targets, 4.5 times the amount of the next largest total for a Packers receiver. Green Bay probably won't spam these concepts as much moving forward, but the team might continue to lean on them more than it typically does until Jenkins and/or Bakhtiari return to the field.
PB: Kenny Clark played grown-ass football on Sunday night, consistently resetting the line of scrimmage and penetrating into the backfield. His pressure led to Jimmy G’s fumble and his continuous upfield work forced the 49ers’ run game into mothballs for most of the game.
Clark’s personal defensive line coach Eddy McGilvra said they focused on making sure the 49ers felt his power, attacking vertically rather than widening to allowing for cutbacks. Although Clark’s name only shows two tackles and a quarterback hit, his presence resonated across the game.
When he plays with this type of force, De’Vondre Campbell, who made 12 tackles to once again lead the team, can come downhill to fill behind. Campbell started to catch a rhythm last week in the second half against the Lions as did much of that group. With Krys Barnes injured behind him, and potentially out this week, this is the version of Clark the Packers desperately need.
JBH: After the Packers' 38-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints in the season opener, the "does Rodgers care" narrative pervaded the talking heads of morning sports talk shows. While a prima facie silly argument, it continued to some degree even after Rodgers rebounded in impressive fashion against the Detroit Lions a week later.
Now, after Rodgers erased the 49ers' only lead of the night in the final 37 seconds of regulation without a single timeout at his disposal, the same platforms that buried Rodgers 14 days ago will pretend their previous comments never happened.
Such is the fickle nature of the hot-take culture, but those claims never passed the smell test in the first place. For whatever frustrations Rodgers has with the Packers and despite his uncertain future in Green Bay past the current season, he has every incentive to make a title run with the team. That was true when he reported for training camp in July and it remains so following the thrilling finish to Week 3.
So while the silly narrative will crop up again should Rodgers have a poor outing, dismiss the chatter as the nonsensical garbage that it is.
PB: Eric Stokes made his first NFL start on Sunday night and acquitted himself nicely. That’s not to say it was perfect; he drew a pair of DPI calls, neither of which seemed particularly egregious. He consistently found the ball in the air and used his movement skills to contest at the catch point.
The rookie first-round pick was in good position against George Kittle on Jaire Alexander’s interception, though he’s probably beat if Alexander doesn’t make it across.
Stokes won’t be prime Charles Woodson right away, but he’s shown more than enough in his short NFL career to warrant the starting job over Kevin King who was out in Week 3 with an illness. The 49ers weren’t able to target him in disadvantageous matchups and if anyone could it would be Kyle Shanahan. That speaks to his talent, but also his play on the field. Even with a couple of ticky-tack DPIs, the 49ers never went to an iso offense, attacking him consistently.
On defense, the plan is, “Don’t be the weak link.” In his first start, Stokes answered that bell and then some.