Breaking Down The Brawl By The Bay
The 49ers got the best of the Packers twice last season. They met Week 1 in Green Bay and the Niners’ defense stifled Aaron Rodgers and company. Then, in the divisional round of the playoffs in San Francisco, Colin Kaepernick dominated to the tune of 444 total yards and four touchdowns. But, 2013 is a new year. Both teams have a few new faces, but ultimately are bringing back the same principals from their playoff squads. This could eventually be a preview to another playoff matchup between these two storied franchises. For now, though, let’s tackle some of the storylines and matchups to look for on Sunday.
When the 49ers Have the Ball
Colin Kaepernick’s NFL single-game record of 181 rushing yards came at the Packers’ expense in the NFC Divisional game. That is surely one thing to watch on Sunday. The Packers took a few steps toward attempting to defend the read-option during the offseason. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers and company went back to school so to speak, going to a few schools to look at some of the ways the read-option was being defended. A necessary move, for sure, but the way Greg Roman handles his offense, there is no way to know what he has planned for the Packers this time around.
If you’ll recall, the week after Kaepernick embarrassed the Packers, he rushed the ball twice against the Falcons in the NFC Championship. That’s the problem here; with a dominant offensive line, the 49ers will run the ball no matter the score. And that ultimately sets up the play-action pass with his quarterback’s electric arm. We just don’t know what the Niners will do come Sunday. They’d be smart to keep the ball out of Aaron Rodgers’ hands and run the ball with Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and Colin Kaepernick, but we just don’t know. The Niners had zero read-option in their preseason playbook. Likewise, they were very unoriginal with their formations. Expect some exotic looks on Sunday.
Matchup to Watch: LT Joe Staley vs. OLB Clay Matthews
This is an easy one. Although rookie defensive end Datone Jones vs. the right side of the Niners’ offensive line is intriguing, Staley and Matthews is the must-see event. The 49ers’ All-Pro may get some help from time to time from a tight end or two, but in most cases, he may be left on an island. Gone is outside linebacker Erik Walden, who was abused by Kaepernick in January. But, second-year player Nick Perry is sure to see plenty of run plays to his side of the field, if only to avoid Matthews.
When the Packers Have the Ball
The Packers’ offensive strategy should be interesting on Sunday. They attempted to establish the run last season, but failed miserably, often relying on the incredible arm of Aaron Rodgers to matriculate down the field. However, in Eddie Lacy, Mike McCarthy may finally have a true workhorse back, his first since Ryan Grant had a big 2009 season. But, the 49ers run defense is one of the best in the league. Of their starting front seven, they lost nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga to free agency, but he was graded out as the worst player on the Niners’ defense last season, according Pro Football Focus. While Lacy might see a light box with six defenders, it’s unlikely he’ll have a ton of room to run.
That will leave Rodgers to move the ball against the 49ers. Luckily, Jordy Nelson has been medically cleared for the Pack and looks to be a full go on Sunday. There’s a chance for Rodgers to exploit mismatches with his receivers against a Niners secondary that has gone through a bit of a makeover. In Nelson and James Jones, Rodgers has two very capable outside receivers at his disposal. Inside the numbers, Randall Cobb and preseason hype MVP Jermichael Finley will go to work. We’re likely to see plenty of three wide receiver sets with Finley in the slot on Sunday and Rodgers will go to work and take apart a less than stellar secondary. It’s a difficult task for rookie safety Eric Reid in his first game. Reid is phenomenal tackler, which is paramount for the Niners, but Reid at times, struggled at LSU in coverage. If he has some growing pains in Week 1, the former MVP could feast.
Matchup to Watch: DE Justin Smith and OLB Aldon Smith vs. LT David Bakhtiari
Obviously, the rookie left tackle will not be tasked with taking on the Smith brothers alone. But, with the stunts and different looks they’ll show the Packers’ offensive line, Bakhtiari surely could have his hands full with the All-Pro performers. Likewise, on the other side of the line, right tackle Don Barclay has made just six starts in his career. To take some of the pressure off of their inexperienced tackles, the Packers should run the ball. But, against the 49ers, that’s easier said than done. Rodgers’ quick release and accurate laser will be helpful, but it’s certainly worrisome for Green Bay.
CB Casey Hayward
Hayward has already been ruled out of Sunday’s game. It’s certainly a blow for Green Bay’s secondary, as the second-year cornerback showed tremendous ability in his rookie season. It will likely push Davon House and Micah Hyde into larger roles. While the 49ers won’t push the Packers with 4 or 5-wide receiver sets, Anquan Boldin and even Quinton Patton could be in for larger roles.
RB Lamichael James
James is nursing a sprained MCL. However, he had been unimpressive in the preseason and was losing the battle to Kendall Hunter to backup Frank Gore. There were whispers that James would even be a game day scratch even if he was healthy. Although James provided a spark on kickoff returns last season, Kyle Williams will likely take that role back for now.
LB Patrick Willis
Willis broke his hand early in training camp, but was never expected to miss any time. He’s now in week 5 of 8 toward a full recovery, and there’s no doubt he’ll be starting on Sunday. Whether he has a club on his hand or the doctors clear him enough to play with a wrap, the all world linebacker will not be effected out on the field.
Similar to last season’s opener in Green Bay, the 49ers will come out and set the pace with their running game and defense. The difference this time, of course, is that the Niners have Colin Kaepernick under center in Week 1. Greg Roman shelves the read-option for the game, giving Kaepernick a chance to beat the Packers with his arm. Eddie Lacy will find some holes to run through as the Packers spread the field in an attempt to move the ball, but they fall short in their comeback in the second half.
49ers 27, Packers 24