SANTA CLARA, Calif. - As he started upfield, Blake Martinez could have anticipated a San Francisco 49ers blocker would greet him. Seemed the 49ers connected with their blocks all night. No need for this second-and-5 to be any different.
Martinez took a couple steps toward the line of scrimmage. This time, there was no blocker waiting for him. The Green Bay Packers linebacker had a free shot at 49ers running back Raheem Mostert. Just open field between him and the football.
It should be a linebacker’s dream. Mostert turned this second-and-5 into Martinez’ nightmare. The 49ers had left Martinez unblocked intentionally. As he approached, Mostert simply outran him, hitting the left perimeter, then turning downfield for a 9-yard touchdown.
There were any number of plays that illustrated the gap between the Packers and 49ers — like, most of them — in Sunday night’s 37-20 loss in the NFC championship game, but none were more vivid than the back-breaking touchdown. Because Martinez, the Packers' top tackler, had a red carpet unveiled for him to make the play. Mostert scored anyway, giving the 49ers a 17-0 lead in the second quarter.
He was simply too fast.
“For me,” Martinez said, “it’s just keeping my (feet), running my feet. We work on drills like that, knocking the arm down. I went for his legs instead of just running through, and obviously he was just able to push me by, and obviously just keep the edge.”
The reality of Sunday night’s shellacking, the 49ers’ second blowout win against the Packers this season, is it left no doubt. They were the better team this year. In November, the Packers allowed 37 points. They held a players-only meeting one day later, scouring all the explosive plays they’d allowed not just in that game, but in the season’s first 10. They thought those issues were fixed, that they had somehow become a better defense for the trouble.
Then they allowed 37 points again Sunday.
The 74 points allowed this season made clear 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan had Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s number. The root cause, however, was the speed gap between these two teams. It’s not like the 49ers caught Pettine off guard. The Packers lived in their base defense much of the game, with three defensive linemen and two traditional inside linebackers. This was a defense that knew the 49ers would run, but couldn’t stop it.
The 49ers were simply too fast.
“They are a fast team,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “You look at their running backs, all their backs can run and shoot, their wideouts run really well, tight end, O-line, their O-linemen. That is a fast team, and they were better, and faster and more physical than us tonight.”
It didn’t take long for the 49ers to unleash their speed advantage. Their second drive ended with what would become a harbinger for the night, with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo handing off to Mostert on third-and-8. In a throwing league, running on third-and-long is abnormal, if not taboo. Might as well punt on second down, too.
Except Mostert took the handoff, and the Packers' defense made him look like an Olympic sprinter. That’s how he looked most of the night, finishing with 220 yards and four touchdowns on 29 carries. “That is not going to get it done,” LaFleur said. Mostert’s first score came on that third-and-8, which turned into a 36-yard touchdown, Mostert barely touched on his way to the end zone.
This was not entirely on Martinez — he was on the field’s opposite side for Mostert’s first touchdown — though it is impossible to ignore his shortcomings. Pettine’s scheme is designed for the Packers' defensive front to clean up blocks at the line of scrimmage, allowing Martinez free rein on the second level. It’s Martinez’s job to arrive at the play in time to make it.
Martinez said part of the Packers' run defense’s problem was schematic, particularly misfits up front. Shanahan’s scheme is skilled in the art of disguise, camouflaging plays behind misdirected motions. It’s a lot for the defense to diagnose. By the time the Packers' defense caught up mentally, Mostert was usually past them.
“He’s a great back,” Martinez said. “I think it was on top of that, and on top of our mistakes that we did throughout the game, whether it was being in our gap, being in the right position. We left a lot of open holes that would’ve allowed us to make him not run a full head of steam.
“If we could’ve done that earlier on, it would’ve obviously been a better performance.”
The Packers’ speed disadvantage was also evident when they had the football. The 49ers’ linebackers were all over the field, particularly when the game was competitive. Each of the Packers’ three plays of longer than 20 yards came in the second half, after the 49ers defense softened with a sizable lead.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers never came out and said it would be a different offense next season, but it’s apparent general manager Brian Gutekunst will focus on overhauling the Packers’ skill positions. Top receiver Davante Adams was held to one catch — on one target — for 7 yards in the first half before finishing with nine catches for 138 yards. When Adams was taken away early, nobody stepped up.
Rodgers had just 64 passing yards in the first half.
“The scheme is there,” Rodgers said. “The scheme and what Matt and his staff put together every week was fantastic. The execution and the moving pieces will continue to improve.
“The window’s open, and I think we’re going to be on the right side of one of these real soon.”
The question, as with any season, is who will stay and who will go as the Packers try to maximize their shrinking title window. Martinez is among their impending free agents, and the future’s uncertainty wasn’t lost on him as he dressed inside Levi Stadium’s visitor’s locker room late Sunday.
Martinez shared a moment with fellow linebacker Kyler Fackrell. The two were drafted together, part of the team’s 2016 class. Martinez remarked it felt almost like graduation, onto a second contract. Then he turned to face the cameras.
Tears welled in Martinez’ eyes when he was asked what’s next. It’s a question the Packers will need to decide. Martinez, second in the NFL with 155 tackles this season behind Seattle’s Bobby Wagner, is unlikely to be cheap.
“It’s up in the air,” Martinez said. “You never know what’s going to happen. Obviously, it’s kind of a waiting game to see what they want to do, what certain situations — obviously, free agency, things like that. But, yeah. Obviously, I’d love to be back. I love this place. Whatever they want to get done, they want to get done.”
No matter what the Packers get done with Martinez, they’ll need to find a way to add more speed on their second level.