Packers-49ers Round Two
Matchup: Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers; 4:25 p.m. EST Sunday on FOX
Last meeting: Five-hundred seventy-nine. That’s how many yards the San Francisco offense gained as it steamrolled the Green Bay defense. The 49ers beat the Packers 45-31 back on Jan. 12, marking the second straight year the Packers lost in the divisional round of the NFL Playoffs.
Key injuries (as of Thursday): For the Packers, the only active player on the injury list is cornerback Casey Hayward, who has been ruled out (hamstring). Heyward was a dynamic playmaker as a rookie last year, but the Packers’ incredible depth at cornerback will help soften the blow of his absence.
San Francisco defensive lineman Demarcus Dobbs is suspended for this game (substance abuse). Running back LaMichael James will also miss the game with a sprained MCL. The 49ers will miss the change of pace James brings to complement Frank Gore.
What to watch for:
1) How ticky-tack the referees are will be a tremendous influence in how this game is played. Clay Matthews said earlier this week the defense will be looking to hit Colin Kaepernick hard and often whenever the 49ers use the read option. Jim Harbaugh countered by smartly seeking from the league officials how legal this strategy is. The referees will now be extra attentive to how physical the Packers get with Kaepernick. They can’t go too overboard; Nick Perry knows all too well the perils of illegally hitting a quarterback.
2) Speaking of Perry, he and rookie Datone Jones will be heavily relied upon to defend the read option. Neither were victims of the 579 yards last January; Perry was injured and Jones was still at UCLA. Both of them are super athletic and play well in space. They will be major upgrades over the likes of Erik Walden, who I believe, somewhere, is still looking for Kaepernick.
3) The most important one-on-one battle will be Packers rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari versus outside linebacker Aldon Smith. The résumés of these two are worlds apart – Bakhtiari has never played a snap in a regular season game, while Smith has recorded 33.5 sacks through his first two years and is already a Pro Bowler and a First-Team All-NFL selection. Bakhtiari looked solid in the preseason. The regular season against maybe the best edge pass-rusher in the league, however, is an entirely different animal.
4) How effective can the running game be? The talk has been how the Packers are more committed to the ground game, and drafting Eddy Lacy and Jonathan Franklin provided hope for this plan to be successful. Their rushing attack certainly had its high and low points in the preseason. The 49ers have the best run defense over the past two years, so expect a lot of low rather than high for this game. Just being somewhat successful on the ground will go a long ways in helping the passing game. Aaron Rodgers will likely want to pick on rookie safety Eric Reid. If the 49ers don’t respect the run, they can help Reid out by putting more bodies in the secondary rather than the box.
Prediction: I don’t see any way the Packers aren’t improved against the read option this time around. DC Dom Capers and his staff have spent the entire offseason trying to figure it out and even went to Texas A&M for some help. Still, I can’t bring myself to predicting a Packers victory. The 49ers know Green Bay’s main focus is to stop the read option. They’ve got a smart coaching staff, so I’d expect them to throw in some new wrinkle that will catch Capers off guard. On top of that, the Packers have proven they’re no match for the 49ers’ monstrous offensive line.
This game should be a close one, but the 49ers will be the victors, 31-27.