GREEN BAY, Wis. — The physicality of the San Francisco 49ers cannot be questioned. With a defense that ranked second this season in points allowed and third in yards allowed, the 49ers have one of the NFL’s elite groups.
The Green Bay Packers, on the other hand, are getting plenty of those questions leading into Saturday night’s divisional round playoff game. It has been the most frequent topic in the team’s locker room this week, but cornerback Tramon Williams isn’t sure why.
“We feel that we’re a physical team, also,” Williams said. “When people talk about the Packers, the first thing they say is they have a high-powered offense and things like that. But we’re a physical team.”
The Packers greatly improved their defense this season compared to a year ago. In 2011, despite a 15-1 record, Green Bay gave up more passing yards than any team in NFL history and had the third-fewest sacks in the league. However, the Packers also led the NFL in interceptions by a substantial margin. The players often referred to it as a ‘bend-but-don’t-break’ defense.
This season, there was drastic improvement in nearly every defensive category aside from interceptions. Green Bay finished 11th in points allowed, 11th in yards allowed and fourth in sacks.
“We feel good about where we’re at as a defense,” linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “We feel like we can be a very physical defense. It’s up to us to bring it to the field Saturday.”
The Packers had one of their best defensive performances of the season on wild-card weekend when they held Minnesota Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson to 99 rushing yards. In the two regular-season meetings with the Vikings, Peterson totaled 409 rushing yards.
“For us a defense, we’re not going to change anything,” Hawk said. “We don’t have to go out of our way to do something different. We just need to come to play, because if you’re not hitting on all cylinders, as we saw last year in the playoffs, you can be out of it like that.”
One solid, physical game against Peterson isn’t likely to change the minds of many observers when it comes to what makes the Packers a feared team. With an offense that features MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a talented, deep group of wide receivers, Green Bay’s defense will rarely be what stands out in a win.
San Francisco is far more dependent on its defense to win them games, and Rodgers is well aware of the 49ers’ reputation as a physical team. Rodgers described defensive end Justin Smith as “one of the top defensive players in the league” and called outside linebacker Aldon Smith “one of the top rush-ends.”
Aldon Smith was second in the NFL this season with 19.5 sacks, accounting for more than half of his team’s total sacks.
“They’re a very unique defense,” Rodgers said. “It’s a talented group. They can get after you a number of different ways and we’re going to have our hands full.”
The 49ers secondary isn’t as big as the Seattle Seahawks’ massive starting cornerbacks. But, like the rest of San Francisco’s defense, cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are physical and are known to challenge wide receivers at the line of scrimmage.
“They try to hit you in the mouth, just like every defense,” receiver James Jones said. “People say they’re super tough because of the type of style of football they play, whether they’re running it down your throat or they’ve got a couple big hitters on defense.
“Every defense in the National Football League is trying to take your head off (and) they’re going to do the same. Great players on that defense, physical defense. You’ve got to keep your head on a swivel.”
The Packers don’t need to change their identity to win Saturday night. But if the 49ers successfully take control of the physical aspect of the game, it will be difficult for Green Bay to advance to the NFC Championship Game.
“They play the game of football the right way,” coach Mike McCarthy said of the 49ers. “They do a lot of good things. They play to their strengths. They have good players. This is a game that we as a football team are looking forward to.
“These are the types of games that you start working for as a football team back in April. So we’re excited about this opportunity.”