SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers’ best defense last week against Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins was to limit the effectiveness of running back Dalvin Cook.
The plan is similar this week in the NFC Championship Game against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. For the 49ers, it starts with taking care of the other Aaron – running back Aaron Jones – on early downs to set up third-and-long situations.
“We have to force them to be one-dimensional,” 49ers free safety Jimmie Ward said. “Stop the run, just like any NFL team and force them to be one-dimensional, and it will probably be good results at the end.”
That is what the 49ers did on Nov. 24, as they held Jones to 38 yards rushing on 13 carries in the 49ers' 37-8 win.
On the season, Jones gained 1,084 yards and scored 16 touchdowns while averaging 4.6 yards per rushing attempt.
But against the 49ers in Week 12, Rodgers could not compensate for the Packers’ lack of production from their lead back. If the 49ers’ defense sets up situations in which Green Bay must pass, it enables the pass rush to turn up the heat.
Rodgers produced historically low numbers, completing 20 of 33 pass attempts for just 104 yards in the 49ers' dominant victory. Rodgers' 3.2 yards per attempt was the worst single-game production of his career.
Rodgers has uncanny arm strength and accuracy. He likes to take deep shots down the field, so Ward figures to be tested in the deep middle of the field. But, for him, it is another challenge to prevent big plays.
The 49ers took care of the Vikings' run game in their 27-10 victory last week. Cook had 18 yards on nine carries. And aside from a 41-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter from Cousins to Stefon Diggs, the pass defense excelled. The 49ers sacked Cousins six times.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh's unit was among the best in the NFL at limiting big plays in the passing game this season. The 49ers and Buffalo Bills tied for best in the league at allowing just 34 pass plays of 20 yards or more during the regular season.
“I feel like there’s a lot of pressure facing any NFL quarterback,” Ward said. “All of them are good. All of them can throw the ball deep. All of them have great talent surrounding them. I got to be at my best each Sunday, Monday, Thursday, Saturday, whatever day that is we got to play a ballgame.”
Ward, who was chosen as a Pro Bowl alternate after starting in each of the team’s final 13 games, broke up eight passes this season and registered a career-high 65 tackles. He still is looking to provide his team the kind of game-changing takeaway he believes he can offer.
Rodgers is a gunslinger, but he also careful with the ball. In the regular season, he threw 26 touchdown passes and just four interceptions. In the Packers’ 28-23 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs, Rodgers completed 16 of 27 passes for 243 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
“It’ll be a great opportunity,” Ward said. “He’s going to put the ball in the air, and I just have to make the play.”
Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers playoff coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday; 6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday)
Also tune in at 2:30 p.m. Sunday for “49ers Pregame Live,” with Laura Britt, Jeff Garcia, Donte Whitner, Ian Williams and Grant Liffmann previewing the NFC Championship Game against the Packers. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on “49ers Postgame Live,” starting at approximately 5:30 p.m.