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Barber: 49ers stake claim with 37-8 win over Packers, Aaron Rodgers

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SANTA CLARA - The 49ers have rolled through the 2019 season like a Cadillac over newly laid pavement. Of course, most of the quarterbacks they had beaten through the first 10 games were strictly B-listers. They had played exactly one elite passer, Seattle’s Russell Wilson. And that was their only loss.

The string of good fortune ended Sunday when the 49ers hosted the Green Bay Packers at Levi’s Stadium. This game was the start of a meat grinder for the San Francisco defense, a string of three games against some of the NFL’s best quarterbacks.

It started with Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. And the 49ers didn’t skip a beat. In a decisive 37-8 victory, they managed to turn A-Rod, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, into just another Mason Rudolph, Baker Mayfield or Case Keenum.

“Whenever you play a Hall of Famer like that, you never know when he can go for 400 at any given time and can turn that game over at any given time,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “So you play as hard as you can, as fast as you can, for as long as you can, and you let chips fall.”

Most of the chips fell directly on Aaron Rodgers’ noggin, and he did not go for 400 yards. He threw for a pathetic 104, on 33 pass attempts. Never before had Rodgers recorded fewer passing yards on 30-plus attempts. His average of 3.15 yards per pass was his lowest in 184 career starts, regular season and postseason.

How did the 49ers do it?

“It looked like pass rush and coverage,” coach Kyle Shanahan said after the game, making me feel dumb for asking the question. “We kept him in the pocket I think fairly well. Guys weren’t open in rhythm, from what it seemed like.”

The 49ers clamped down on Rodgers in every way. His pocket was a sinking soufflé, caving in from every direction. That wasn’t a big surprise, because the San Francisco pass rush has been overwhelming all season. And if the Niners were at a disadvantage because of edge rusher Dee Ford’s strained hamstring, the playing field evened out almost immediately when the Packers lost right tackle Bryan Bulaga to a knee injury.

As I suggested, though, that wave of pressure was expected. The real key to the Niners’ performance against Rodgers was their underrated secondary. It was stellar.

When people talk about Rodgers’ greatness, they like to mention “off-schedule plays.” It’s where he has buttered his bread during 12 seasons as an NFL starter. When a Packers play breaks down, that’s when Rodgers is usually at his most dangerous. As chaos unfolds around him, he will coolly drift in one direction or another, duck a defender, juke another, and three-quarters-delivery an improbable strike to a receiver who has taken advantage of the lag to sneak into the open.

Those plays can break the spirit of a defense, and Rodgers executes them as well as anyone I’ve seen.

“You know the term ‘cover ’em twice,’ it came from Aaron Rodgers,” safety Jimmie Ward said. “He was one of the first guys to start that.”

Meaning that when you play the Packers, you have to cover your receiver for the play that’s called, and cover him all over again when Rodgers goes off-schedule and the Os start rearranging themselves on the diagram.

“Aaron Rodgers is very good at getting out of there,” cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon said. “So to actually finish those, that’s what’s important.”

There weren’t a lot of off-schedule heroics by the Packers. When Rodgers was able to buy time, which wasn’t often, there was rarely a play to be made. Time and again, he threw the ball away or settled for a low-percentage gamble or a harmless dump-off. According to ESPN’s Next Gen Stats, Rodgers didn’t complete a pass that traveled as far as 10 yards downfield.

Consider a third-and-8 play in the second quarter. The Niners flushed Rodgers to his right. He threw on the run to Jimmy Graham, and the ball down the sideline was perfect — one of Rodgers’ best of the night. But safety Jimmie Ward was right there with the tight end.

“It’s just a classic Aaron Rodgers play,” Ward said later. “Rush coming, scramble out the pocket, throw it deep. He has great accuracy, and hit him right in the hands. Basically, it was just me and Jimmy Graham fighting for the ball. It’s basically, who want it more?”

By that definition, Ward wanted it more deeply. He got into Graham just enough to create an incompletion.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Packers trailed 30-8 and were desperately attempting to perform a miracle. They had some reason to hope, because Rodgers has caused more miraculous football events than anyone of his generation.

But this wasn’t a typical night for the Cal product. On second down, he rolled right and tried to hit wide receiver Allen Lazard down the sideline. Next, on third-and-10, he had ample time for one of the few instances all night, and heaved a pass down the middle to Marquez Valdes-Scantling at the back of the end zone. Neither of these was an easy throw, by any means. But years of watching Rodgers condition you to expect him to come through. He didn’t. His pass to Lazard was a bit high. His launch to the end zone took Valdes-Scantling over the end line. Rodgers was just a little off.

Credit the 49ers for that discomfort. And specifically, credit the coverage. In particular, Ward and Witherspoon, who had missed most of the previous seven games with a high ankle sprain. They were all over the field.

“Getting in the receivers’ faces. That was our approach, just be hands-on,” Witherspoon said. “Don’t give ’em any airspace, because that’s what’s A-Rod’s looking for. So we preached that all week, just being aggressive and make him beat us, not just give it to him.”

Sunday’s win did so much for the 49ers. It put them firmly in command of the NFC playoff race, a game ahead of New Orleans and Seattle. It affirmed their legitimacy on a national stage. And it showed they can beat any quarterback in the league, even Aaron Rodgers.

The timing couldn’t have been better, with Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson (MVP candidate) and the Saints’ Drew Brees (another Hall of Famer) up next.

“We don’t get scared of ‘who’s the next opponent,’” 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said.

No, it’s the next opponent who should be scared of playing the San Francisco defense. And it doesn’t matter who’s at QB.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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