3TFO: Packers @ 49ers, Week 1
The NFL season is upon us, and if Thursday night’s playoff rematch wasn’t enough, you’ll only have to wait until Sunday to see another. Both the 49ers and Packers have Super Bowl aspirations this year, and an early win against a likely playoff team would certainly help in what’s been shaping up to be a very competitive NFC.
Not only is this a rematch of last year’s Divisional Round game, but last year’s Week 1 opener as well. San Francisco emerged victorious in both contests, handing the Packers one third of last year’s losses. The big question this year is how Colin Kaepernick performs in his first full season as the starter. He now has had a full offseason worth of starting reps, but the rest of the league also has plenty of game tape on the third-year quarterback. Little else has changed for the 49ers, and that can only mean good news for a team that’s fresh off a trip to the Super Bowl.
In a similar vein, Green Bay remains largely the same team as last year. Gone are a few big names like Charles Woodson, Greg Jennings, and Desmond Bishop, but the latter two missed significant time last year (Bishop the whole season), and the loss of Eric Walden can only be viewed as addition by subtraction. But Aaron Rodgers is still under center, and that fact alone will be enough to give the Packers a chance to reverse their recent luck against the 49ers. Let’s take a look at some key points to watch for this Sunday.
Packers Rushing Attack
The running game in Green Bay has been of secondary concern since perhaps the early ‘90s, but getting something going on the ground has to be a priority for the club in this game. In their two contests last season against the 49ers, Packer running backs tallied just 71 yards on 20 carries for a pedestrian 3.6 yards per carry — and without an 18-yard scamper by DuJaun Harris, who’s since landed on IR, that number falls to 2.8 YPC. The Packers’ run blockers graded out at -7.2 in those two games, and it will be up to 2013 second-round pick Eddie Lacy to make the most of this blocking. Lacy has looked like the physical presence the Packers have so desperately needed so far this preseason, but with only 44 snaps under his belt, Sunday will be a stern test for the rookie tailback. James Starks figures to spell Lacy as needed, but either man will need some decent blocking if they want to be productive.
For the 49ers, the front seven is nearly identical to the unit that shut down the Packers’ run game last season. Sure, both Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois are gone, but with the Packers intent on airing it out early and often, neither player would have seen much time on the field anyway. Justin Smith is still with the team, and his Run Stop Percentage of 11.7 was second last year at the position. Both outside linebackers were Top 10 in Run Stop Percentage as well (fifth for Ahmad Brooks and eighth for Aldon Smith). And of course, there’s always the NFL’s best inside linebacker duo in NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis to clean up anything that does make it through the trenches. The pair missed just five tackles in the run game all of last season.
49ers Offensive Line vs. Packers Front Seven
Their defense is certainly one of the best out there, but it can’t be overstated how important the 49ers’ offensive line is. They’ll be returning all five starters, and that’s quite an accomplishment for a unit whose lowest individual grade a year ago was the +11.9 of center Jonathan Goodwin, even though he didn’t surrender a single sack all year. Running to the left will be made to look easy by the combination of Joe Staley and Mike Iupati, both of whom had a run block grade in the Top 5 among all offensive linemen last year. Don’t let that fool you into thinking that Anthony Davis and Alex Boone don’t pull their weight — both players would be instant starters on nearly any NFL team.
Tasked with shedding blocks and getting penetration will be the Packers’ 3-4 defensive front. BJ Raji and Ryan Pickett, a couple of Green Bay’s better run defenders, return as starters along the defensive line. CJ Wilson should also figure heavily into the mix, but it’s some of the new blood that figures to make a difference. Despite a disastrous debut to his NFL career last season, Nick Perry played much better in subsequent games before finding his way to IR in Week 6. Opposite Perry is Clay Matthews, who accounted for four of Green Bay’s six sacks against the 49ers last year. Also figuring for some playing time is the relatively untested Datone Jones (injury limited to just 42 snaps in preseason) and the reappearance of Johnny Jolly, who has so far dominated during preseason despite some time away from football. How this group handles San Francisco’s top tier offensive line will go a long way do determining their success defensively.
The Injury Bug
As has become the norm for the Packers, they head into the regular season with a rash of players out with injury. Chief among them is Bryan Bulaga, who was set to make the transition to left tackle before tearing his ACL. Filling in for Bulaga is rookie fourth-rounder David Bakhtiari. He was manhandled in the run game at the hands of the Cardinals, but has otherwise held his own, especially in pass protection. By giving up just one sack in 64 pass blocking snaps, he earned a Pass Blocking Efficiency of 98.4, eighth-best of 83 qualifying tackles this preseason. With their 2011 first-round pick (Derek Sherrod) on the PUP list, sophomore tackle Don Barclay will be manning the right tackle position. He had a rough go of it when thrust into the lineup last year (five sacks in seven games), but has come along nicely so far this preseason. In the event that either player succumbs to severe growing pains, backup tackle Marshall Newhouse will be waiting in the wings to reassume the starting spot he held last year.
San Francisco’s fearsome pass rush is headlined by the duo of Aldon Smith and Justin Smith. The former had more sacks and hits than any other 3-4 OLB, with an astonishing 20 sacks. Justin Smith, on the other hand, felt a dramatic drop off in his effectiveness rushing the passer. Clearly hindered by a triceps injury, Smith’s Pass Rushing Efficiency dropped from a league leading 9.8 in 2011 to a disappointing 4.3 in 2012. Never was it more apparent than in the playoffs where Smith managed just two pressures through three games. While Bakhtiari will face the Smith duo, Barclay will be set to see mostly Ahmad Brooks. Not quite as destructive as Aldon Smith, Brooks scored 54 pressures last year along with seven batted passes. San Francisco should make getting pressure on Rodgers a top priority in this contest- his quarterback rating in 2012 dropped 22 points when under duress.