What We Learned In Week 1: Niners Are Who We Thought They Were
Much of the debate in the lead up to the Packers-49ers game in Week 1 was based around the read-option. How would Dom Capers defend it? How would the Packers “hit” Colin Kaepernick? How animated would Jim Harbaugh get on the sideline? Well, in their seven-month preparation for Kaepernick’s legs, Capers forgot to account for his arm. It didn’t all come easy for the Niners on Sunday. Here’s the first installment of ‘What We Learned.’
Whether the 49ers' gameplan included taking advantage of Green Bay in the passing game or not, Greg Roman gave Colin Kaepernick the reins to the offense and he ran with it. The offensive line couldn’t create running lanes for Frank Gore, but that was due to the impressive play of B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett on the line and Brad Jones and Clay Matthews at linebacker. The big bodies of Raji and Pickett just clogged up the lanes and allowed Jones and Matthews to clean up. Matthews, on his own, was a force setting the edge and making defensive stops.
For as much as the Packers stuffed up Greg Roman’s great running game, with Morgan Burnett and Casey Hayward, they were exposed against the arm of Colin Kaepernick. Kaep carried the rock seven times for 22 yards in total — but on his read-option plays, he took the ball three times for minus-8 yards. However, for all the talk that the Niners would miss Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin didn’t miss a beat. While it was impressive to see Kaepernick’s run through the playoffs last season, he is undoubtedly better. His offensive line provided him exemplary protection, but his eyes were always scanning downfield. Although we shouldn’t overreact to one game, it’s clear Kaepernick’s hard work is paying off. A few more performances like Sunday, and we’ll be talking about his ascent into the upper echelon of quarterbacks.
If anything, we should be more shocked with Boldin’s performance. After being jettisoned for a sixth-round pick by Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome, the 33-year-old looked to be nothing more than a glorified possession receiver. With the speed and a body type similar to a tight end at this point in his career, many around the league wrote him off. But, he’s always been a smart player and that showed up again on tape. He lost his ability to separate from cornerbacks several years ago, but he was seemingly wide open on nearly each of his NFL-leading 17 targets. The Packers played a ton of zone so they could spy on Kaepernick, and Boldin made them pay.
The 11-year veteran doesn’t have the explosion after the catch like Crabtree, but he still broke five tackles. He still has some of the best hands in the league, and is a willing a capable blocker. Obviously, Boldin won’t be having that sort of production all season. Even so, It’s not inconceivable to think Boldin will get 10-plus targets per game, and if he keeps getting open, his quarterback will always look his way.
The only questions facing the Niners' defense were about the secondary. Although their schedule is rough this season, they may have got their toughest test in the passing game out of the way already. It’s incredibly difficult to run on Vic Fangio’s front seven. Starting nose tackle Ian Williams played just 10 snaps, as the 49ers had to play their nickel look to combat the Pack’s three wide-receiver sets. However, even against a six-man front, rookie running back Eddie Lacy still struggled to find running lanes. Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Patrick Willis, and NaVorro Bowman played their usual stout run defense, with Smith and McDonald taking up multiple blockers. That allowed Willis, Bowman and strong safety Donte Whitner to come up and make stops. Green Bay’s offensive line is nothing to write home about, but it’s another reminder that Justin Smith is one of the most important defensive players in football — and Willis and Bowman are two of the best at inside linebacker.
The secondary left a lot to be desired. As I said, it could end up being the worst matchup for Niners all season. Fully healthy for the first time since Week 14 of 2012, the Smith brothers were up to their old tricks. Running stunts against an inexperienced left tackle, the Smiths managed eight total hurries of Aaron Rodgers. Yet, it didn’t matter. The 2011 MVP found Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson all day, as Carlos Rogers and Nnamdi Asomugha struggled in coverage. Cobb’s ability to get open in the slot and Nelson’s uncanny chemistry with Rodgers on back shoulder throws has become so strong that James Jones was shut out of the box score. A bright spot in the secondary was rookie Eric Reid. He played every single snap in his debut, and he performed well in a tough matchup. Although he missed two tackles, he often came up from his free safety spot and was in position to make a play. On his interception, he adjusted well to a tipped ball in the middle of the field and even turned in a nice return, despite it being called back because his knee was down when he made the catch.
Every game we will learn something new, but there are plenty of positives for the 2013 edition of the 49ers after Week 1. Their schedule is brutal, but with an emerging quarterback — strengthened by a top running game — the offense is growing. With a defense that can render an opposing team one dimensional, Vic Fangio can let loose his fearsome pass-rush on the majority of third downs.
We’ll learn a lot about the Niners after their game in Seattle this Sunday, but to steal the words from former NFL coach Dennis Green, “They are who we thought they were.”