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Packers' defense happy to accept 49ers' gifts in dominant performance

Jim Owczarski
Packers News

The Green Bay Packers' defense needed Thursday night.

It needed San Francisco 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens trying to force throws while Preston Smith and Rashan Gary blocked his vision or affected his throwing motion.

It needed seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams to miss the game after he was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Wednesday, leading to backup Justin Skule having to start with no practice reps and 18 snaps under his belt this season. A change at center and right guard didn’t hurt, either.

It needed Richie James, who had played all of 33 offensive snaps in three games and battling an ankle injury, to be the 49ers’ No. 1 receiver.

Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith (55) celebrates after recovering a fumble against the San Francisco 49ers during the second half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020.

Four days after Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook ran for 160 yards and three scores in an upset loss at home, five games after its last interception and nearly 12 months since its last game forcing multiple turnovers, the Packers' defensive unit got healthy in a 34-17 win over a depleted 49ers team.

“We knew it was going to be a challenge,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “We knew at the start of the week it was going to be a challenge and then losing those three guys (Wednesday to the reserve/COVID-19 list) was obviously a bigger challenge. I still thought we could have a game. I still thought we could play better than we did (Thursday). Being down like that and not being at our best and going against a good team like that, that’s usually what happens. I knew we could have done better”

Mullens, making his third start this season with starter Jimmy Garoppolo now on injured reserve, was inaccurate and harried all night.

Shanahan had elected to move right guard Daniel Bruskill to center and have backup Tom Compton start at right guard, but then Wednesday they saw Trent Williams — the franchise left tackle they acquired from Washington in the offseason — removed from the game due to his high-risk, close contact to wide receiver Kendrick Bourne. Bourne had tested positive for COVID-19.

That forced Skule into the lineup and the second-year tackle was often overwhelmed by Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith and Rashan Gary.

According to the NFL’s NextGen stats, Green Bay pressured Mullens 41.7% percent of the time Thursday, a season high for the Packers. They also pressured Mullens on a season-high 15 dropbacks. Coming into the game, the Packers were last in the NFL in pressure percentage at 19.1.

“I felt like we had a lot of really good plays called that gave us a lot of opportunities and for whatever reason we didn’t connect,” Mullens said. “I’m excited to go back and watch that film because I really do, I feel like we could have gotten after those guys and done some good things. But that’s on the players and you just hope to go out there and do your best and we didn’t do that (Thursday).”

As a receiver, James ended up having a career night for the 49ers in catching nine passes on 13 targets for 184 yards and a score (several of which came on busted Packers coverages). But that wasn’t the plan. Shanahan said he was going to feature first-round draft pick Brandon Aiyuk in that role, but Aiyuk was put on the reserve/COVID-19 list Wednesday as well for being in close contact with Bourne.

That left James, Trent Taylor and practice squad call-ups River Cracraft and Kevin White as receivers. And it was Cracraft who dropped a game-tying touchdown on the 49ers’ second possession. He had played zero offensive snaps this season and had not caught a pass in a game since 2018.

The quarterbacking, protection and receiving issues all intertwined with the Packers leading 7-3 early in the second quarter and the 49ers marching down the field. On second-and-6 from the Packers’ 40-yard line, JaMycal Hasty got around the left side of the Packers' defense for a seven-yard run. Only, James was called for holding.

Then on second-and-16 from midfield, Gary hit Mullens’ hand and forced him to miss an open receiver. On third-and-16, Preston Smith bull rushed Skule and hit Mullens, and this time the ball floated into the sky and into the waiting arms of Packers safety Raven Greene.

The interception — the Packers’ first since Week 2 against Detr — set up a touchdown and made it 14-3. The route was on.

“That got us fired up,” Za’Darius Smith said of that turnover. “We was hyped off of that. ‘P’ has been talking about rushing for a while, as you guys know he’s been dropping a lot and for him to get that pressure and come back to the sideline and have a turnover play like that, that was big or us and that set the tone for us as a defense to go out there and be dominant.”

Darnell Savage dropped a ball Mullens threw right to him on the next possession, but it helped create a three-and-out. The changeover in downs preceded another Packers score that put them up 21-3. Then James had a bad drop on third-and-5 to force another three-and-out by the 49ers to end the first half.

To open the second half, Preston Smith nearly had an interception and Oren Burks had a tackle for loss to help force a punt. The offense then blew the game wide open with another score to make it 28-3. And with the Packers stretching the lead, the 49ers could not focus on running the ball. Jerrick McKinnon and Hasty managed just 55 yards on the ground on 16 carries as the 49ers were forced to try to throw their way back into it.

On the next 49ers series, Za’Darius Smith beat Skule to strip-sack Mullens, a turnover that led to a field goal. It was the first multiple-turnover game since the Packers forced three against Chicago last November.

“I think it all starts up front, and those are three of our best players on our defense,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said of Preston Smith, ZaDarius Smith and Gary. “When they play really well, we’re really tough to deal with. And I think that’s exactly what happened. Obviously, you know, getting two turnovers caused by that front, Preston with the hit on the quarterback that caused the interception by Raven Greene, and then also Z’s sack fumble. Both those led to points and just really happy with our overall effort.”