49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

January 7, 2014
Film review: Defensive line well rested and it shows; why Cox was tapped


One of the best signs for the 49ers and their playoff hopes was how well their front four defenders played against the Packers. Going into Sunday's game, Ahmad Brooks hadn't had a sack in five outings while Aldon Smith hadn't had one in the last two. Against Green Bay, however, Brooks led the way with two sacks and two quarterback hits while Smith had 1 ½ sacks and two quarterback hits.

What's more, the 49ers pressured Aaron Rodgers without blitzing. They occasionally sent an extra man, such as Perrish Cox, who blitzed out of the slot in the fourth quarter. But for the most part it was Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks creating pressure.

Perhaps best of all when considering the potential road schedule ahead: Nobody played an exceeding amount of snaps. San Francisco forced four three-and-out series, which reduced the number of snaps. Furthermore, Vic Fangio and Jim Tomsula continued to rotate in Dan Skuta, Corey Lemonier, Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs as they had during the regular season.

As a result, Justin Smith played 46 of the team's 63 defensive plays while Ray McDonald played 51 snaps. Aldon Smith, who missed a series due to cramping, was in on 45 snaps. Only Brooks played the nearly every snap - 62.

Cox, meanwhile, got the call to play nickel cornerback instead of Eric Wright. Because the 49ers were in nickel or dime defense on all but two plays, Cox played the majority of the game. He was either lined against Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb - Rodgers' two favorite targets - and they definitely caught passes against him. Nelson finished with seven catches for 62 yards and a touchdown (TD vs. Tramaine Brock) while Cobb caught the only two passes that went his way for 51 yards.

Still, there were times when Rodgers had to throw the ball away or take a sack, and that was due in part to excellent coverage downfield, including from Cox. Entering the game, the most Rodgers had been sacked in 2013 was four times. He went down four times on Sunday.

The question is why the 49ers tapped Cox, who only had been signed six days earlier, instead of Wright, who had been with the 49ers longer. Wright did not play on defense; even in the dime packages, it was safety C.J. Spillman, not Wright, who entered the game.

One theory is that Cox is a bigger, more robust player than Wright and is a good tackler. If the Packers were going to run the ball with big, powerful Eddie Lacy when the 49ers were in the nickel formation -- which they did 21 times -- the 49ers may have thought they were better served having Cox in the game.

Another consideration may have been injury. Wright tweaked his hamstring and that Green Bay's frigid cold is terrible for muscle pulls. The forecast for Charlotte, N.C. Sunday calls for 64-degree temperatures with a 20 percent chance of rain. The 49ers certainly won't be in their nickel packages as much Sunday. But the warmer temperatures might mean that Carlos Rodgers, who also is dealing with a hamstring strain, could play.

From the Debbie Downer Dept.: Yes, Colin Kaepernick was sensational at the most critical times and all of the stories from the game - including mine - reflect that. But he wasn't perfect. Kaepernick completed 53 percent of his passes and threw two bad passes. One of them was picked off by Tramon Williams. The other, at the start of the 49ers' game-winning drive, could have been picked off by Micah Hyde. If it had, there would be a far more dubious tenor this week.

There were also more communication/play clock issues, which would have been a major storyline had the 49ers lost. The opening drive included two time outs - one when the 49ers were lined up incorrectly - as well as a play in which Kaepernick thought Frank Gore was taking a handoff on the other side, which forced Kaepernick to take a four-yard loss. The third quarter opened with a timeout because Kaepernick left his wrist band, which has the plays on it, on the sideline. Another timeout in the third quarter was burned because players were lined up incorrectly.

Michael Crabtree fumbled the ball out of bounds after his second reception on the team's opening drive. But beyond that, there were surprisingly few ball-handling, ball-control issues in the bitter chill. The 49ers had few/no dropped passes. The packers had two, not including Hyde's near interception in the fourth quarter.

Tight end Vance McDonald wasn't targeted in the passing game. But McDonald had an excellent block on Frank Gore's 10-yard run in which he got to the second level and took out linebacker A.J. Hawk. Fellow tight end Garrett Celek took out Hyde while Joe Staley sealed off the inside of the Packers offensive line. Outside linebacker Andy Mulumba, who was filling in for Clay Matthews, had a free shot at Gore, but the read-option look the 49ers were in froze him and he missed the running back. Would Matthews have made that mistake? (Ans: no.)

Fullback Will Tukuafu wasn't in on that play, but he played 18 snaps and had a very good outing... Tarell Brown had a quiet game, which means that he played very well. Brown has a chance to put together a last bit of good film before he hits the free-agent market. ... I thought the offensive line played very well, including Mike Iupati, who may have been the chilliest 49er (Was he wearing 12 layers?) but who warmed up and had a solid game, especially in the fourth quarter.

I'm talking all things 49ers and playoffs today at 11 a.m. Www.sacbee.com/live.

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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