It's time to break down the San Francisco 49ers second home game of the 2015 season, a Week 4 matchup against the Green Bay Packers.
The trio of 49ers.com writers returns with four topics to preview the matchup. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts in the comments section of this post.
1st Down: Who deserves pre-game analysis this week?
@Joe_Fann: Reggie Bush
The fan sentiment that the "sky is falling" in San Francisco is understandable after back-to-back lopsided losses. Amidst the adversity against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals, it's also very easy to forget that Bush is supposed to be a key cog in the 49ers offense. After injuring his calf in the first half of Week 1 against the Minnesota Vikings, Bush appears set to return to the field this Sunday. We still don't know exactly how Geep Chryst plans on using the versatile running back, but the 49ers could certainly use a wrinkle on offense to help keep pace with the Packers high-scoring attack.
@TylerEmerick: Bruce Ellington
When Ellington is healthy, he has the ability to be an impact player. Unfortunately, the second-year wideout has dealt with a host of injuries throughout his young career. But after missing the last two weeks with an ankle injury, Ellington is a full participant in practice this week. If he plays this weekend, Ellington brings an entirely unique skill set to San Francisco's offense. He can line up anywhere on the field, including the backfield. Just Ellington's presence on the field keeps opposing defenses on their toes. The more Green Bay has to account for the better. Ellington brings that unpredictability.
@TaylorPrice: Jimmie Ward and Dontae Johnson
Per Pro Football Focus, Randall Cobb led the NFL with 10 touchdown catches from the slot last season. He already has four from the slot this season, including a trio of receiving touchdowns against the Kansas City Chiefs last week. Defending Cobb's short-area quickness is paramount for slot defenders like Ward (nickel) and Tramaine Brock (dime). In regards to Johnson, who also plays in San Francisco's dime personnel, Aaron Rodgers has been known to take his perimeter shots to veteran receiver James Jones in multi-receiver sets. Johnson recorded two of his team's three pass breakups last week. He'll need to be active in defending the boundary against Jones this week.
2nd Down: The rookie I'm most interested in watching is...
@Joe_Fann: Arik Armstead
The 49ers first-round pick in 2015 will look to build on his three-tackle, one-sack performance against the Cardinals in Week 3. With San Francisco's defense struggling the past few weeks, it's conceivable that Armstead will continue to see a bigger role against the Packers. The former Oregon Duck played 12 snaps in Week 1, 14 in Week 2 and 18 last Sunday. That number could eclipse 20 this weekend. The 49ers pass rush against Rodgers will be one of the marquee storylines of the game, which means Armstead has the chance to leave his mark and help his team get back to .500 on the season.
@TylerEmerick: Jarryd Hayne
The Australian appears to be entrenched as San Francisco's punt returner, especially after setting up the team's lone score in Arizona with a 37-yard return deep into Cardinals territory. It was the club's longest punt return in two years. Hayne lost his balance after shaking off a defender near the sideline or else he would've had a shot at the end zone. It feels like it's only a matter of time until Hayne breaks one, and this would be the game to do it. In 2014, the Packers were one of two teams (Washington) to allow a kickoff and punt return for a touchdown.
@TaylorPrice: Damarious Randall
The first-round draft pick played free safety in college, but he now plays cornerback for the Packers. At Arizona State, Randall's main responsibility was to cover the wide side of the field and play man-to-man coverage against receivers and tight ends. Fast forward to his rookie year in the NFL, Randall's cover skills have been utilized as a left cornerback in Dom Capers' 3-4 defensive scheme. Randall saw significant playing time against the Chiefs, too. He finished the game with three tackles and a pass breakup. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Randall has not given up a reception after being thrown at six times in 75 defensive snaps. Testing the rookie's coverage skills on the perimeter in intermediate routes, and even on double-moves, will be crucial for San Francisco's chances of winning this week.
3rd Down: What will be a telling statistic in this game? @Joe_Fann: Pierre Garçon's rushing totals
After rushing for 168 yards against the Vikings, Hyde has a combined 94 yards in his last two contests. Furthermore, 87 of those yards have come in the first half. The lack of second-half production for Hyde is due in large part to the 20-point first-half deficits the 49ers have faced in those two games. If Hyde ends Sunday's game against the Packers near or over the century mark in rushing yards, that will likely mean that the 49ers were able to get off to a better start. @TylerEmerick: Quarterback hits
Through Week 3, the Packers have allowed the fewest quarterback hits (10) of any team in the league. Conversely, the 49ers have hit opposing signal-callers 11 times, but only three of them have come in the last two weeks. Obviously that has to change on Sunday when facing Rodgers. The reigning NFL MVP already does a terrific job of extending plays with his footwork in the pocket, but when he isn't pressured, he'll pick a defense apart. Good things will happen if San Francisco can get into the Green Bay backfield. @TaylorPrice: Third-down conversions
You could use this stat any week, but it looms large in this game especially. Green Bay's offense ranks 12th in third-down conversions, moving the chains 43.8 percent of the time on the money down. Limiting big plays against a Rodgers-led defense is critical. Limiting such plays when it's third down is even bigger. The 49ers rank 16th in the NFL in rush defense, allowing 98 rushing yards per game. If the unit can bottle up Eddie Lacey on first and second downs, that will further create pass-rushing opportunities against Rodgers on passing downs. It also helps to have a homefield advantage where a defense can't be drawn offsides by a hard-count from a home quarterback. Rodgers loves to use this trick. It will be much harder to do on Sunday.
4th Down: The 49ers will improve to 2-2 if they... @Joe_Fann: Score 30 points
As I alluded to on "1st down," I don't see any way this becomes a grind-it-out game like the 49ers played in Week 1 against the Vikings. Rodgers and Co. can always put up points, so it's about the defense limiting big plays and the offense being able to answer with scores of their own. To steal a few football clichés, that means the 49ers offense will need to convert on third down, limit turnovers and convert red-zone opportunities into touchdowns rather than settling for field goals. The Packers rank fourth in the NFL in scoring at 32 points per game. That makes 30 points for the 49ers a reasonable benchmark for the offense to shoot for on Sunday.
@TylerEmerick: Score a touchdown on defense/special teams
The 49ers saw first hand last week how big of an impact these plays have on games. Arizona scored two early touchdowns on defense, and consequently, San Francisco was forced to adjust its gameplan on the fly. Score a momentum-shifting touchdown like that and it gets the crowd involved, lets the defense pin its ears back and allows the offense to run the ball. That's all a recipe for success for the 49ers. As Eric Reid said on Wednesday, "They're going to make plays, we have to match them."
@TaylorPrice: Win the turnover battle
San Francisco has won four straight games over Green Bay. In those contests, the 49ers have won the turnover battle three times. The Packers have turned the ball over five times compared to two from the 49ers. So what does this all mean? San Francisco can't afford to tee the opponent up with good field position, and even give up points on the board, with giveaways. We've heard Colin Kaepernick talk about moving on from last week's four-interception game. We'll get a sense for the quarterback's confidence in what he displays in this game. If the 49ers can protect the ball, make timely plays and finish drives, they'll be in position to pull off an upset. Of course, stealing the ball away from Rodgers or Lacey will go a long way in shifting the tide into the home team's favor.* *