Here are five things to watch when the 49ers travel to play the heavily favored Green Bay Packers on Monday night:
Packers all-world quarterback Aaron Rodgers has few, if any, weaknesses. And one of his strengths in his ability to extend plays for explosive gains, which will be an enormous test for San Francisco’s young defense that ranks 27th in sack rate this season.
“You’re going to have to cover for a long period of time,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “You got to be ready for backyard football. He’s a great passer and he get the ball anywhere. He can be on his back foot and throw it 75 yards if that’s what he needs to do.”
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Since 2011, Rodgers ranks 36th among 46 qualified quarterbacks in average time to pass, 2.68 seconds, according to Pro Football Focus. It speaks to his ability to extend plays while also benefiting from sound blocking from his offensive line.
Left tackle David Bakhtiari has been arguably the league’s best at his position this season, but the offensive front has allowed 18 sacks to Rodgers, tied for the fourth most in the NFL.
Rodgers had been banged up with a knee injury for the entire season and had a setback this week, according to an ESPN report, but is expected to play.
What will the 49ers’ running game look like?
Running back Matt Breida has been one of the few bright spots for coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense this season. But his status for Monday’s game is in doubt after rolling his left ankle on the last play of the first quarter of last week’s loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
It was the third week in a row in which Breida was injured. He hyperextended his right knee against the Kansas City Chiefs, then suffered a shoulder injury the following week against the Los Angeles Chargers, which was his second dating to the preseason.
Breida has become one of the league’s premier outside running backs and leads the NFL averaging 7.5 yards per carry. Without him, the 49ers will be in rough shape with the ground game.
Veteran Alfred Morris, who’s been used primarily between the tackles, is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry to rank 35th in the NFL. San Francisco’s offense averaged 6.6 yards per play with Breida on the field against the Cardinals. It fell to 4.3 after his exit.
Quarterback C.J. Beathard has been charged with six turnovers in his two games since taking over for Jimmy Garoppolo, though not all have been his fault. He had catchable passes muffed by Garrett Celek and Pierre Garçon that led to interceptions against the Chargers and Cardinals, respectively.
But Beathard must be better at protecting the ball in the pocket. He was stripped twice against Arizona, including once when he didn’t step up enough to avoid the long reach of Cardinals star Chandler Jones, who also recovered the fumble.
“It’s not rocket science. It’s just little stuff. It’s a game of inches,” Beathard said this week.
The Packers have forced just six turnovers, tied for the fourth fewest in the NFL. But star pass rusher Clay Matthews will look to make game-changing plays on the national stage. He has just a half-sack this season, though he had at least one negated by a rougher-the-passer penalty.
Matthews will split time against rookie right tackle Mike McGlinchey, who has allowed just one sack and two quarterback hits this season, according to PFF, and Joe Staley, who has been hobbled by a knee injury and struggled against Arizona.
Can the 49ers take the ball away?
San Francisco’s defense enters Monday with just three takeaways, the fewest in the NFL. That can be tied directly to the pass rush and the fact the young secondary has taken some lumps early in the season.
“Sometimes it’s just the way the ball bounces and the way it goes for you,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “For us to continue to preach it, but as long we keep working with the intent that we have with regards to attacking the ball every opportunity we get, again, you trust the result.”
Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner is San Francisco’s only defender with multiple sacks, and quarterbacks have generally been comfortable inside the pocket.
“It’s rushing the passer,” Sherman said after the loss to Arizona. “It’s any time you take the ball from the quarterback. It’s just more strip attempts. It’s tighter coverage in the back end, being where you’re supposed to be. There were a couple of opportunities, if he had given a receiver a chance, we would have had a chance. But, rushing and coverage have to work together. That’s the biggest thing.”
Showing up on a big stage
Tight end George Kittle said Shanahan reminded his team to draw motivation from getting flexed out of Week 7’s prime-time NBC game.
“And no one really expects us to win Monday night,” Kittle said. “Screw them, we’re going to do everything we can to show up and we’re going to ball out.”
The 49ers are playing with house money in that sense. They’re 1-4, don’t have their franchise quarterback and are the second-biggest underdogs of the NFL weekend (9.5 points), according to Bovada.
San Francisco hasn’t visited historic Lambeau Field since the 2013 playoffs, when Colin Kaepernick helped orchestrate a 23-20 victory in sub-zero temperatures. Staley and Celek are the team’s only current players who were around for that game.
“It’s everything you ask for,” Beathard said of playing in the special environment. “We’ve just got to go in and handle the noise, handle the crowd and go out and execute and try to take care of the ball and just do the little things right.”
Said linebacker Fred Warner, 21, the team’s youngest starter: “I feel like you don’t want to make it bigger than it is. I know, obviously, it’s a big game. It’s on Monday night and everybody will be watching. But, at the end of the day, it’s a football game, we need to play like we’re supposed to (play) every game.”