How DeMeco Ryans and the San Francisco 49ers defended Davante Adams

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The San Francisco 49ers are headed to the NFC Championship game on the heels of a three-point win on the road against the Green Bay Packers. While their special teams units — and special teams coach Richard Hightower — are soaking in some well-deserved praise this morning, there is another coach also earning his share of plaudits.

Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans.

The Packers finished the regular season with one of the best offenses in the league, ranking second in Football Outsiders’ Total Offense DVOA behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They also ranked second in Passing DVOA (again behind Tom Brady and the Buccaneers) and quarterback Aaron Rodgers is considered a top candidate for the league’s Most Valuable Player award.

But on Saturday night, the Green Bay offense was held largely in check. After a touchdown on their opening drive had many wondering if it would be an early switch to Netflix, Rodgers and the Packers did not see the end zone again, and managed just one more score, a Mason Crosby field goal in the fourth quarter. A Crosby field goal attempt was blocked prior to halftime, one of two huge special teams plays from the 49ers on the night.

In the coming days, much will be written about the job Ryans and the San Francisco defense did limiting the Packers to just ten points, but today let us focus on just one small part: How the 49ers accounted for Devante Adams. Rodgers targeted his favorite receiver 11 times in the game, and Adams caught nine passes Saturday night for 90 yards. But he was held out of the end zone along with the rest of the Green Bay offense.

How did Ryans and San Francisco look to contain Adams and take away Rodgers’ favorite target? Through a combination of coverage looks which either forced the quarterback to look elsewhere, or led to Rodgers pulling the football down and fighting for his life in the pocket.

Safety help

One of the first ways that the 49ers constrained Adams in the passing game was with safety help over the top on a given play. Just when Rodgers thinks he has a chance to hit Adams quickly in the down, a safety comes into the picture to close off that option to the quarterback.

We can start with this example from late in the first quarter. The Packers face a 2nd and 8 on their own 20-yard line, with the home team holding a seven-point lead. Before looking at the play, we can start with the pre-snap picture and Rodgers’ expectations:

Adams is aligned on the right of the formation, with cornerback Dontae Johnson across from him. The 49ers show a single-high look before the play, with safety Jaquiski Tartt down in the box, aligned just outside the right tackle.

Adams releases vertically, and that is exactly where Rodgers looks first, but the quarterback is forced to work to another option almost immediately. Why? Because of the late rotation from Tartt and the Packers into a Cover 6 (Quarter-Quarter-Half) coverage:

The quarterback launches a throw in the direction of Adams on his post route, and Hufanga, looking in Adams’ direction from the snap, is in position to help prevent a deep completion. This is likely one of the snaps that Rodgers will look back on with regret, as both routes on the left appear more viable. Instead, after a quick look to that side, Rodgers gives Adams a shot downfield, but the two could not connect due in part to the safety help.

Bracketing Adams

Another way Ryans and the 49ers defense looked to contain Adams was through the use of brackets, or sometimes even true doubles, on #17 wherever he went.

For example, take this play from early in the second quarter, which results in a sack of Rodgers from Samson Ebukam:

Once more, the Packers are facing 3rd and 8. San Francisco shows pressure, and indeed they come after Rodgers, sending six after the quarterback. They play man coverage behind that, with Tartt — already shaded in Adams’ direction — squatting near the first-down marker on the receiver’s side of the field.

Rodgers opens to Adams and gives a thought about trying to drill in this in-cut to Adams, but runs out of time as Arik Armstead gets loose on the inside, and the quarterback has nowhere to go but the Lambeau Field turf.

Stalemates on the boundary

(Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

While there were moments when the 49ers gave Adams extra attention, as outlined with the previous examples, on other moments Ryans simply had to trust that his players on the outside would hold the talented receiver in check, or at least to a stalemate.

And yes, there were moments when Adams made big plays, such as this 25-yard reception late in the game that looked to give Green Bay a shot at a second touchdown:

Working off of play-action, Rodgers wants to hit Adams on the “blaze” out route, a staple pattern in the Shanahan coaching tree. Adams cuts inside first, looking like he is running a dig route, but then breaks back towards the outside.

But Johnson matches him step-for-step, and Rodgers, under pressure in the pocket, eventually throws this away.

Or take this example where Rodgers still tries to hit Adams on a vertical route, but the coverage forces the need for a perfect throw:

Adams gets an outside release against Josh Norman, so even though Tartt is shaded in that direction, Rodgers believes he still has a chance to squeeze in this throw. A contrast with the earlier play where Johnson forced an inside release, making Rodgers come off the vertical route from Adams.

But Norman does a good job at staying on Adams’ inside hip and in good position through the route, forcing Rodgers to have to place this throw perfectly. The pass is just out of Adams’ reach, and falls incomplete.

On the next play, Armstead would get home for the sack previously discussed.

Through a mixture of safety help, brackets and just good cornerback play, the 49ers were able to limit the damage the Packers could do when Rodgers targeted his favorite receiver. These are likely to be concepts Ryans draws upon next week, whether looking to limit Cooper Kupp, or Mike Evans, in the NFC Championship game.

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