SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As the pocket collapsed around Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, 49ers linebacker Fred Warner charged in and punched the football out of Rodgers’ hands. The ball trickled back, behind the play, where Nick Bosa scooped it up at Green Bay’s two-yard line.
The turnover, which led to a one-play, five-second drive for a first-quarter touchdown, foreshadowed a dominating performance by San Francisco’s defense, which entered Sunday night allowing the second-fewest yards per game in the NFL.
The 49ers defense asserted their dominance against the NFC North-leading Packers, holding them to just 198 yards of total offense — the third-fewest San Francisco had allowed all season — in a 37-8 win that cemented the 49ers as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
“Our guys aren’t just pumped about where they’re at,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “They’re pumped about the possibilities of where we can go.”
After Rodgers’ fumble on the first drive, each of Green Bay’s next three possessions resulted in three-and-outs.
The 49ers split six sacks between Warner and three others, including included defensive lineman Arik Armstead, who raised his season total to 10 after being credited with two on the night.
“At the end of the day, we understand what kind of team we have,” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said. “If you do your job effectively, you fight hard, you trust your teammates and play disciplined football, especially on the defensive side, it’ll give you a chance to win.”
By halftime, the Packers had accumulated just 60 yards of total offense — their second-lowest first-half total this season, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
San Francisco, though, also had trouble moving the ball, at least initially. After running back Tevin Coleman scored the easy, two-yard touchdown in the first two minutes of the game, the 49ers (10-1) punted on two of their next three drives.
To make matters worse, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was sacked twice in the first half, as rookie tackle Justin Skule — who was benched midway through the game — allowed Packers Za’Darius Smith to get around the edge, and the Green Bay secondary kept 49ers receivers covered.
It wasn’t until the two-minute warning — after Garoppolo called an impromptu meeting on the sidelines to refocus the unit — that San Francisco’s offense found traction.
“In the moment, I thought that was the right thing to do,” Garoppolo said. “I thought it would get the guys up and get them going.”
On a three-play, 61-yard drive, Garoppolo connected with rookie wide receiver Deebo Samuel for a 42-yard touchdown — Samuel’s longest scoring play of the season.
After the 49ers defense forced another Packers three-and-out, San Francisco drove down field in 58 seconds to add a field goal to its tally, taking a 23-0 lead into the break.
Green Bay’s only substantial drive of the night lasted the majority of the third quarter as three penalties — assessed to three different San Francisco defensive players including Sherman — kept it alive.
Taking 8:34 off the clock, Rodgers sent a push-pass to wide receiver Davante Adams, who swung around the left side of the formation for a two-yard score. After a successful two-point conversion to Adams, Green Bay (8-3) trailed 23-8 with just under four minutes to play in the third quarter.
The 49ers offense responded quickly, though, as Garoppolo — who finished the game with 253 yards and two touchdowns — connected with a wide-open and healthy George Kittle for a 61-yard touchdown — the longest play of the game.
The play was set up by Kittle’s run-blocking set, which allowed the Pro Bowl tight end to run a post route up the middle of the field between Green Bay’s linebacker and safety, who attempted to stop him from reaching the end zone seconds later.
“We’ve been running that [play] since Week 1,” Kittle said. “I have to run it like two or three times a week [in practice]. That’s like a 50-yard route every single time so it’s like ‘Hey, Kyle [Shanahan], relax. I’m a tight end.’ We finally got a call to run it so that was pretty fun.”
Kittle had missed San Francisco’s last two games with an injured left knee and a chipped bone in his left ankle according to Shanahan. In his first game back, Kittle finished with a game-high 128 yards for his most productive game of the season.
“It’s football,” Kittle said. “It’s fun. It’s a mindset. You just go out and play football. I think both [the ankle and knee] did pretty good tonight.”
San Francisco wasn’t done making its statement, however, as its defense stopped the Packers on fourth down during their ensuing possession, bringing Green Bay’s conversion success on third and fourth down for the night to 11.1% (1-for-15 on third down and 1-for-3 on fourth).
With a 15-yard touchdown scamper from running back Raheem Mostert to cap off a 69-yard drive shortly thereafter, San Francisco took a 37-8 lead with 4:58 to play in the game.
Yanking Rodgers and the rest of the starting offense from the game, Green Bay finally submitted, acknowledging that the 49ers’ dominance was too much to overcome.
“We just played our game,” Sherman said. “They still had some plays that we’re going to have to correct but whenever you play a Hall of Famer like that, you never know when he can go for 400 any given time … You just play as hard as you can, as fast as you can, as long as you can and let the chips fall.”