GREEN BAY—One story from last year’s playoff meeting was the 49ers springing the read-option offense on the Packers defense and catching Green Bay off-guard.
One question heading into Sunday’s wild-card matchup at Lambeau Field is whether San Francisco has any more tricks up its sleeve.
“We seem to play these guys at the time when they can get the most unscouted looks,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “So we definitely feel that we’re going to see some.”
How many obviously isn’t known. The regular-season meetings the last two years have both come in Week 1, when new schemes and formations are the norm. It’s common practice across the NFL to expand the playbook in the offseason but show very little if any of the new wrinkles during preseason games.
Last year’s playoff game came after the 49ers had a bye week – a bye the Packers would have earned instead had they not lost on a last-second field goal at Minnesota in Week 17. If the 49ers had been saving many of their read-option looks for the postseason, they might have revealed them in the wild-card round if forced to play during the first playoff week.
This year, the 49ers haven’t had that kind of free time to work on new things. They didn’t clinch their playoff spot until Week 16 and had a chance to win the NFC West title last week had Seattle lost.
Still, that doesn’t mean they’ve put everything in their arsenal on film. Defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said the 49ers will use plays opponents haven’t seen “every week.”
“Most teams you get the traditional stuff, but San Francisco is not traditional,” outside linebacker Mike Neal said.
That said, the Packers gave themselves plenty of chances to stop the 49ers in Week 1 this season, putting them in third down a whopping 18 times. But the 49ers converted nine of those, and most upsetting was that seven of the nine conversions came when they needed four or more yards. Twice they scored touchdowns.
“We just didn’t get off the field on those third downs,” Williams said. “If we can get off the field on a couple of those, it can be a game-changer.”
The Packers put the 49ers in so many third-down situations by containing running back Frank Gore, who was held to just 44 yards on 21 carries, barely two yards per rush. The defense also focused on bottling up quarterback Colin Kaepernick and not letting him scramble – he had only 22 rushing yards.
But much of those efforts came at the expense of the pass rush, and Kaepernick had plenty of time to get those third-down throws away. He was 8-of-11 for 123 yards and two TDs on third down in Week 1, a 148.9 passer rating that was even better than his sterling 129.4 mark for the game.
“If we can do what we did the first game and eliminate the run game, and force him to pass, I think we have a better deal going on this time to be able to stop it,” Neal said.
Neal might have been referring to any number of things there, including possibly some new wrinkles defensively, though without the defense’s best player in Clay Matthews, it’s hard to imagine the unit getting too creative at this stage.
More important than scheme, cornerbacks Williams and Sam Shields have been playing their best football in the latter portion of the season, and two of the Packers’ top three safeties – Morgan Burnett and Sean Richardson – didn’t play in Week 1.
Better play on the back end is probably the Packers’ best chance to compensate for the absence of Matthews, who was a force in Week 1, and to minimize the success of any surprises San Francisco springs this time. That’s a lot to ask, but the 49ers always bring a lot to handle, known and unknown.
“We’ve stopped their pass before, we’ve stopped their run before,” defensive lineman Mike Daniels said. “We just have to win.” Additional coverage - Jan. 2