Nathaniel Hackett has had a rough few weeks as head coach of the Denver Broncos. His last week with the Green Bay Packers was no picnic, either.
Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers have already faced Nathaniel Hackett, and on a much bigger stage than the Sunday Night Football setting they’re about to share.
On a cold January evening earlier this year, the Niners won because they shut Hackett’s unit down.
In last season’s NFC Divisional playoff game between San Francisco and the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, the home team entered as a heavy favorite. The 49ers were beat up, the Packers were well-rested as the conference’s top seed, and the weather was frigid with snow.
Then the game started, and it ended in a stunning 13-10 win for San Francisco.
That evening, Hackett was the Green Bay offensive coordinator. His offense totaled only 263 yards, with one reception by running back Aaron Jones accounting for 75 yards. Take out the scripted 69-yard touchdown drive to start the game, and Hackett’s group amassed 119 yards on the remaining 51 plays of the night.
While Hackett wasn’t calling plays — that would be Packers head coach Matt LaFleur — he certainly didn’t help to create a quality gameplan or make any adjustments throughout the contest. Aaron Rodgers threw 29 times in the defeat, and famously targeted either Jones or All-Pro receiver Davante Adams on 21 occasions.
Fast forward to now, and the Niners defense is largely the same, with the addition of corner Charvarius Ward. Yet Hackett’s offense is nowhere near as talented as that Green Bay unit.
So far, Hackett’s Denver Broncos only have seven more points (32) than team penalties (25), splitting affairs with the lowly Seattle Seahawks and Houston Texans. This weekend, Shanahan and his 49ers come to Denver, with veteran quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo under center and the return of former All-Pro tight end George Kittle likely.
To beat the Niners, Hackett’s offense — for which he does call the plays — needs to get right. Last week against Houston, the newly-acquired Russell Wilson completed less than half of his attempts in a hideous 16-9 victory. That won’t work against a San Francisco defense that employs edge rusher Nick Bosa, as well as linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw in the front seven, to create chaos against the Broncos’ line.
Hackett desperately needs to create a new plan, one focused on attacking the weak spot of the 49ers’ defense — their corners. While Ward is good, Emmanuel Moseley and Samuel Womack III can be exposed. The problem? Wilson hasn’t been sharp, and he could be without receiver Jerry Jeudy this week as he works back from a shoulder injury.
If Denver isn’t going to win on the perimeter against San Francisco, then the team isn’t going to win. The Broncos have run the ball well this season behind the tandem of Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon III, rushing for 4.9 yards per carry. But against San Francisco’s stout front, Denver needs Wilson to loosen the defense with a few intermediate-to-deep throws.
The good news for Denver? Wilson has enjoyed success against the Niners, winning twice against defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans’ unit in 2021. However, the numbers were mediocre, with Wilson averaging 6.33 YPA with four touchdowns against one interception.
Ultimately, this comes back to Hackett. Last week, Broncos fans were lustily booing their team due to 13 penalties and three blown second-half timeouts before the fourth quarter was halfway over. Of those infractions, Denver was called for two delay of game infractions. One came at the Houston 1-yard line on fourth down, and another on Houston’s 36-yard line to turn a long field goal attempt into a punt. These led to Broncos fans counting down the play clock.
If Denver doesn’t have a smart offensive plan, and a team-wide discipline to accompany it, the Niners will roll.
Of course, San Francisco has experience with Hackett, and for the 49ers, it’s been a positive one.