Packers at 49ers: Keys to the Game
Well, Green Bay Packers fans, game day is almost here! The last time the Packers played in a meaningful game, it was in San Francisco and against the 49ers. It’s only fitting that Green Bay returns to the scene and really test how much this year’s team has improved.
Both teams have undergone changes since that last matchup. The Packers have gotten a bit younger and added more to their defensive front in that of first round pick Datone Jones and with the return of veteran Johnny Jolly. They also added another potential diamond in the rough at cornerback in that of fifth-rounder Micah Hyde. With Casey Hayward ruled out for this week’s game, Hyde could see some spot duty at defensive back.
The 49ers are without stud receiver Michael Crabtree (torn Achilles) and will rely on newly-acquired veteran Anquan Boldin, to fill in. San Francisco also lost a key piece of their secondary with hard-hitting safety Dashon Goldson moving on to Tampa Bay in free agency. They looked to veteran cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and rookie Eric Reid to fill that void.
With all of those changes, let’s look at some of the key factors that will play a role in the outcome of Sunday’s game.
Defend the Read Option/Dom Capers
If you’re getting tired of reading about this, also know that I’m getting tired of writing about it. But still, it’s important and warrants attention. The Packers were shredded by 9ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the divisional playoff game. They were flat-out unprepared and that responsibility falls, first and foremost, on defensive coordinator Dom Capers and head coach Mike McCarthy.
Before we harp on defending the read option as the bible to the Packers’ success this weekend, let’s not forget that Jim Harbaugh is San Francisco’s head coach. He thrives on outsmarting his opponent and keeping them off balance. While I expect to see read option and Kaepernick trying to take advantage of anything the Packers defense gives him, the 9ers aren’t going to line up and run this scheme all day long.
The Packers spent time, during the off season, learning more about defending the read option and they will need to be assignment-sure in this game. Our own Marques Eversoll noted that most of Kaepernick’s rushing yards in the playoff game came off of scrambles and were not necessarily from designed runs. Kaepernick needs to be accounted for and Green Bay can’t let their guard down or he will be scampering down the sideline to pay dirt.
Avoid Tunnel Vision
The Packers must also keep track of San Francisco’s offensive weapons not named Colin Kaepernick. This is where Capers becomes a big key. His game plan is going to have to be as comprehensive as it can possibly be. Green Bay struggled to defend 9ers running back Frank Gore and tight end Vernon Davis in both matchups last season. Both will get the ball on Sunday. Tackling is going to be key. The Packers have struggled in this area, in general. Against bigger ball carriers like Gore and Davis, this could continue to be a concern.
A few other keys here are 9ers receiver Anquan Boldin and rookie tight end Vance McDonald. Boldin isn’s as speedy, but he finds ways to get open. He gets after the ball and is strong. He’s a big receiver, something the Packers defensive backs have had issues with. McDonald has quietly had a good preseason and some are saying he could become an unexpected factor this week with all of the attention that Green Bay is expected to give to the usuals in Kaepernick, Gore and David. An effective second tight end could prove very problematic for Green Bay’s smaller defenders and inside linebackers who are not adept at pass coverage.
Battle in the Trenches
The 49ers still have one of the best offensive and defensive lines in the league. Games are often won and lost up front. The Packers can’t expect to come in and dominate in these areas, but they must be ready for a physical matchup from the opening kickoff until the final gun sounds.
Green Bay is starting two offensive tackles who have a combined one half season of NFL experience. Talk about a true test right out of the gate. Right tackle Don Barclay and left tackle David Bakhtiari will be tasked with keeping the likes of Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Ray McDonald and Ahmad Brooks away from Aaron Rodgers. Sure they will have help, but expect 9ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to scheme to get favorable matchups against the young tackles. Watch Justin Smith in this one. He’s a savvy veteran who knows how to occupy multiple blockers and open things up for the other Smith.
If the Packers truly want to run the football, they will have to find some mojo from somewhere to get a push up front and open up lanes for Eddie Lacy and James Starks. Starks lacks any type of move to free himself up and Lacy’s spin move will run out of gas pretty quickly against a sound defense like San Francisco’s. McCarthy has had a tendency to abandon the run when it hasn’t been working in the past, but he has to keep at it this week. Hopefully he can afford that patience and isn’t facing an early deficit. Quick three and out’s are going to lead to a very tired defense late in this contest.
On the defensive side of the ball, Clay Matthews and Nick Perry have to find a way to put pressure on Kaepernick. The Green Bay defensive line has never been about getting pressure on the quarterback as much as they try to occupy space and allow other play makers to do what they do best. In order to occupy that space, they can’t allow themselves to be bullied off the snap. Going toe to toe with San Francisco’s offensive line is easier said than done, but doing some of the little things like getting a hand up on pass attempts and relentless pursuit of the ball carrier will help alleviate some of those extra yards that tend to kill the Packers.
Aaron Rodgers vs. 9ers Secondary
If there is an area where the 9ers are not as strong, it’s in their secondary. That is not to say that they’re not good, but in comparison to the other areas of their team, this one is not as strong. Green Bay’s passing game has found much of its success with a fast vertical scheme. Receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are back in this one and both will need to hit the ground running. A quick strike early on could help in backing off some of the defensive pressure up front. Rodgers places his passes extremely well and his accuracy is going to be very important in this game. Opportunities to strike won’t come often so they have to hit while the iron is hot, as they say.
I wrote earlier this week about how tight end Jermichael Finley is going to be an X-factor this week. He has to get involved early on in this game. Rodgers fares very well against additional pressure although San Francisco was successful in disguising their pressure and coverage last season. Finley will need to win when matched up with one of the 9ers linebackers. His big frame is an advantage and hopefully his solid play from preseason continues when he was catching everything thrown his way.
The bottom line here is that with Nelson, Cobb, James Jones and Finley against four defensive backs, Rodgers should be able to find a “win” in that matchup more often than not. That is what will sustain drives and allow for more options in short-yardage whether it’s Eddie Lacy or a short pass to punch it in.
As of Friday morning, it was learned that both safety Morgan Burnett and linebacker Brad Jones are listed as questionable with hamstring injuries. Once again, the injury bug hits the Packers and at two key positions. All are key, really, but not having Burnett in the defensive backfield would be a huge blow. Neither safeties in Jerron McMillian nor M.D. Jennings are known for being stellar in their pass coverage. Hopefully Burnett is a fast healer and can still be effective on Sunday despite an injury that is likely to hamper his speed and range.
No small task, do the Packers have, in week one. This challenge will be just as difficult as it was last season. It comes down to personnel and in that area, the 49ers simply have more than the Packers do at this very early stage in 2013. This game will be a good barometer of where the Packers stand in terms of their improvement from last season and their readiness to be a top contender in the NFC this year.——————
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on "AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason at: Jason Perone
Follow @JasonPerone Add to Circleson