NFL playoffs: Key 49ers-Packers matchups in NFC Championship Game

NFL playoffs: Key 49ers-Packers matchups in NFC Championship Game

There probably aren't another two NFL coaching staffs who know each other as well as the 49ers and Green Bay Packers.

And that is how it sets up Sunday for the NFC Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium.

The 49ers and Packers met this season in Week 12, and the Niners had few problems in a 37-8 victory.

But that makes little difference now. The Super Bowl is on the line, as the Packers advanced to the NFC title game with a 28-23 victory over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at Lambeau Field.

The connections run deep with the two coaching staffs.

Coach Kyle Shanahan, who runs his 49ers offense, will be matched against Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. In 2014, Pettine, as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, hired Shanahan as his offensive coordinator.

Shanahan was so miserable after one season, he got out of his contract in order to go to work for Dan Quinn with the Atlanta Falcons.

Meanwhile, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, who runs his team’s offense, will be playing chess against 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. LaFleur and Saleh have been best of friends since their days together as graduate assistants on Central Michigan’s coaching staff in 2004.

Saleh took an entry-level job with the Houston Texans in 2005. Three years later, LaFleur was hired for a quality control position with the Texans after Saleh recommended him for the job.

The NFC Championship Game should feature plenty of good matchups on the field, too. Here are some of the most important head-to-head battles that could decide which team represents the NFC in Super Bowl 54:

QB Jimmy Garoppolo vs. LB Blake Martinez

Jimmy Garoppolo must beware of the linebacker dropping into coverage.

Garoppolo has given linebackers chances to make plays because he sometimes locks onto his receiver and gives the underneath defender an opportunity to read his eyes and react to make a play.

That is exactly what happened Saturday when Minnesota Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks picked off a Garoppolo pass right before halftime.

But in this game, Garoppolo certainly will look to exploit this matchup. He has a chance to feast. But he also has to use his eyes to move the linebackers and safeties.

One of the weaknesses of the Packers' defense is their linebackers’ ability to cover. Blake Martinez in coverage gave up 58 completions on 69 passes thrown his way for 500 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

FS Jimmie Ward vs. QB Aaron Rodgers

Nobody on the 49ers has been through as much as Jimmie Ward to get to this point in his career for the first time. Ward seemingly has found a home at free safety after bouncing around in the secondary through his first five injury-plagued NFL seasons.

Rodgers will take deep shots – especially after using the hard count to try to draw the 49ers’ pass-rushers offside. And when he does, Ward has to live up to his job description as “the eraser.”

Ward had a good game in November against Rodgers, who completed just 20 of 33 attempts for 104 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Ward had two pass breakups down the field, one against wide receiver Davante Adams and one against tight end Jimmy Graham.

Rodgers’ longest pass play that day went for just 15 yards. The key for the Packers will be to hit big plays down the field. Ward is the key to preventing those big plays.

CB Emmanuel Moseley vs. WR Davante Adams

Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman has been a rock. But the 49ers have experienced plenty of uncertainty on the other side.

Emmanuel Moseley exudes confidence without a trace of bravado or conceit. He will be ready to make the start at right cornerback Sunday, and it seems logical the 49ers would place their trust in him.

For the second game in a row, Moseley replaced struggling Ahkello Witherspoon. Moseley allowed just three receptions on six passes thrown his way for 24 yards against the Vikings.

The Packers’ top receiver is Davante Adams, who does a lot of his work lined up on the left side. Adams had eight catches for 160 yards and two touchdowns in the Packers’ win over the Seahawks.

When the teams met earlier this season, Moseley started. The Packers targeted Adams only two times against Moseley. Adams caught one pass for 14 yards. Overall, Adams had seven receptiions but for just 43 yards.

With as well as Sherman is playing, this figures to be the matchup the Packers will look to exploit.

LT Joe Staley vs. DE Za’Darius Smith

Joe Staley did not play when the 49ers met the Packers earlier this season. Rookie Justin Skule lined up at left tackle while Staley missed action this season with a broken lower leg, then a fractured finger. Smith had 1.5 sacks against Skule.

Smith is playing with a purpose. He registered 13.5 sacks and did not make the NFC Pro Bowl team. After picking up a sack Sunday against Russell Wilson, Smith revealed the bottom of his undershirt, that had the word, “SNUBBED,” stamped at the bottom. He will be out to make a point against Staley, a six-time Pro Bowl performer.

Staley is playing at a very high level at the exact right time for the 49ers. He is coming off two very strong games, including Saturday in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs against the Vikings. Staley did not allow a quarterback pressure against Everson Griffen.

Of course, every aspect of the 49ers’ pass protection benefited from the team’s ability to run the ball consistently and effectively against the Vikings. The 49ers will want to follow the same formula Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.

[RELATED49ers snap count: Defense remains fresh in dominant win over Vikings]

LB Fred Warner vs. RB Aaron Jones

The 49ers did not allow Aaron Jones to do much when the teams met earlier this season. The Packers must find a way to get him going or it could be a long day for Rodgers.

Linebacker Fred Warner registered 11 tackles in the Week 12 win, four of which came against Jones. Jones managed only 38 yards on 13 rushing attempts (2.9 average). He did not catch a pass.

Jones rushed for 1,084 yards and 16 touchdowns in the regular season. He had 63 yards rushing with two touchdowns Sunday against the Seahawks.

DE Nick Bosa vs. LT David Bakhtiari

Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari earned Pro Bowl recognition after a season in which he surrendered just two sacks the entire season. But Nick Bosa had an impactful game when they met earlier this season. And, before that, his brother, Joey Bosa of the Los Angeles Chargers, had a good game against Bakhtiari.

Nick Bosa had six quarterback pressures in the meeting against the Packers earlier this season.

The entire defensive line appeared to benefit from the return of Dee Ford, who played just four snaps in the final six weeks of the regular season due to a hamstring injury. Ford made it back for the divisional round of the playoffs, and the 49ers' pass rush was outstanding. The 49ers sacked Kirk Cousins six times.

On Sunday against the Vikings, Bosa had two sacks, one quarterback hit and four hurries. He had three run stops on just seven snaps against the run, according to Pro Football Focus.

49ers' Raheem Mostert was NFL's third-most explosive runner in 2019

49ers' Raheem Mostert was NFL's third-most explosive runner in 2019

We know 49ers running back Raheem Mostert is a supreme athlete. How supreme? Well, last season, he was the third-most explosive ball-carrier in the NFL.

NFL.com's Nick Shook has been taking some deep dives into "Next Gen Stats" throughout the last few weeks, and on Wednesday, he delved into the most explosive runners the league has to offer. In order to do so, he had to establish some criteria.

In order to qualify for the top 10 most explosive runners from last season, each player had to attempt a minimum of 100 carries, at least 20 of which went for 10-or-more yards. Then, to determine the hierarchy, the percentage of runs in which they reached 15 mph or faster was the defining factor. Once the numbers were crunched, it painted Mostert in some astonishing light.

Last season, Mostert reached 15 mph or faster on an amazing 28.5 percent of his touches, which was the third-highest rate in the league behind Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson and Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook. To further that, he reached at least 20 mph on four rush attempts, a benchmark equaled by only seven other players; Mostert accomplished the feat with fewer total carries than any of them.

In fact, Mostert's average speed of 13.75 mph per touch ranked first among all running backs who had at least 100 touches last season. That's blazing fast. If that number is difficult to believe, well, just turn on the tape of the NFC Championship Game, in which Mostert accounted for four touchdowns and 226 yards from scrimmage on 31 total touches. I guarantee you the Green Bay Packers believe it.

[RELATED: 49ers' Mostert looks forward to running behind Williams]

Mostert seemed to pick up momentum as the season wore on, and projects to have a much bigger role in San Francisco's offense in 2020. His explosiveness is a tremendous fit for coach Kyle Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme, and there is every reason to believe the 49ers will be even more potent on that side of the ball in the season ahead.

If he stays healthy, Mostert should blow his previous career-high for touches in a season out of the water. If that's the case, well, good luck catching up to him.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

49ers' Charlie Woerner draws Rob Gronkowski comparison from high school coach

49ers' Charlie Woerner draws Rob Gronkowski comparison from high school coach

Charlie Woerner didn't catch the ball much at Georgia, but the rookie tight end could have a lot more passes come his way with the 49ers.

The Athletic's David Lombardi examined Woerner's potential fit within coach Kyle Shanahan's offense in a feature story Monday, noting that the 2020 sixth-round pick's athleticism could allow him to benefit from the attention opposing defenses pay to the 49ers' other weapons on offense. Woerner caught just 34 passes for 376 yards (and one touchdown) in four years at Georgia, but his high school coach said the tight end is capable of reaching much higher heights as a pro.

“Charlie is a tremendous athlete,” former Raburn County High School coach Lee Shaw told Lombardi. “He’s a diamond in the rough when it comes to developing into what I feel like can be another (Rob) Gronkowski-type player for somebody in the league, which looks like it’s gonna be the 49ers.”

Gronkowski, who came out of retirement this offseason to join former New England Patriots teammate Tom Brady on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was a far more prolific collegiate pass-catcher than Woerner. He caught 75 passes for 1,197 yards in two seasons at Arizona, scoring 16 touchdowns during that time and earning third-team AP All-American honors in 2008.

Woerner's limited involvement in Georgia's passing game wasn't for a lack of skill, according to his quarterback. Buffalo Bills draftee Jake Fromm played with Woerner for three seasons, and he told Lombardi the Bulldogs chose to mostly rely on Woerner's blocking prowess.

“I would say Charlie, he definitely got used more as a blocker, but that wasn’t because of anything Charlie couldn’t do,” Fromm said. “That was a lot more because of scheme and the way we were approaching the games. Charlie’s definitely more than capable of going out and making plays, running routes, catching balls -- whatever you need to do, he’s more than capable.”

[RELATED: Why Warner, Greenlaw are so important to 49ers' elite defense]

George Kittle didn't have extensive pass-catching experience at Iowa, but he has become one of the NFL's best tight ends under Shanahan's tutelage. Lombardi noted that Woerner isn't as explosive as Kittle, but the 49ers can utilize the rookie's athleticism.

If Woerner's high school coach is to be believed, they could potentially rely on the rookie for more than that.