After a solid preseason performance, regardless of record, the Green Bay Packers appear to be ready for their 2013 season opener on the road against the San Francisco 49ers. All of you know the history of these two teams, particularly the last two games played.
The Packers gave up 579 yards in the 45-31 loss to the 49ers in the NFC Divisional round playoff game in January. Forty-Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick burned the Packers multiple times to the tune of 444 total yards, including an NFL record 181 yards rushing.
The Packers were so embarrassed in the playoffs that during the offseason the coaching staff made a trip to College Station to pick the brain of Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin, who coaches the reigning Hesiman trophy winner, Johnny Manziel. The trip revolved around schemes for stopping the read-option and the pistol formation in general.
The Packers defense has changed significantly since the last time these two teams faced off. Erik Walden, who was torched by Kaepernick many times, including a 50-yard touchdown run, now plays with the Indianapolis Colts. The Packers also have a healthy Nick Perry, who was on injured reserve and ineligible to play in the playoffs. The Packers also return Johnny Jolly for the first time since 2009. He will provide a toughness among the interior linemen that has been missing since his departure due to suspension. Finally, the Packers’ first round draft choice Datone Jones will also add depth and athleticism to the defensive line.
The Packers’ defense vs. the 49ers’ offense is just one of the battles that we will have to be watching all day on Sunday. Here are the five things we will be watching when the 49ers and Packers renew their heated rivalry.
5.) Can Aaron Rodgers figure out the 49ers’ defense?
It’s a bit weird to be questioning Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers as he has been arguably the NFL’s best quarterback over the past four seasons. However, the truth is he has struggled against the Niners’ defense in his career compared to other top defenses.
In the two games last season against the 49ers, Rodgers combined for 560 pass yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions, four sacks, a quarterback rating of 92.4, compared to his career quarterback rating of 104.9.
He also averaged just 6.75 yards per pass. Compare that to his career average of 8.13 and the 49ers’ defense has done a solid job against Rodgers compared to other NFL teams’ difficulty in containing Rodgers and the Packers’ offense.
Rodgers’ numbers are still above any other quarterback who has faced the 49ers’ defense twice in a season. However, for the standard that Rodgers is held at, these performances are certainly not his best. Rodgers will have to be better for the Packers to have a chance against the stingy 49ers’ defense.
4.) Will Eddie Lacy be able to run the ball against the 49ers’ front four?
This question goes the same for the offensive line. First, the offensive line must be able to push the 49ers’ freakish front four up the field otherwise Eddie Lacy, or any other running back for that matter, won’t have a chance against the NFL’s fourth best rush defense a season ago.
Lacy was impressive in the second preseason game against the St. Louis Rams, rushing for 40 yards on eight carries (5 yards per carry) and looking every bit an NFL starting running back. However, Lacy followed that performance up with an abysmal showing against the Seattle Seahawks. Against the Seahawks Lacy managed minus-5 yards on eight carries, a forgettable performance. The Packers will need to be able to run the ball against the 49ers lest they stand little chance at victory.
3.) Can Mason Crosby come up clutch if needed?
Most of the time when teams are so evenly matched the game can hinge on one play, perhaps a field goal as time expires. Do the Packers have the confidence in Mason Crosby to come through in a situation like this?
The answer has to be no, at least for now. Crosby is coming off one of the worst seasons in NFL history for a placekicker. He connected on just 21-of-33 attempted field goals (63.6 percent) and five of those makes came inside 29 yards.
Aside from his 2-for-8 performance on Family Fun Night, Crosby has been solid in the preseason going six-for-six and beating out Giorgio Tavecchio in a training camp kicking competition. Crosby will have to be nearly perfect in 2013 to earn the fans’ trust and basically his 2012 contract after restructuring his deal in mid-August.
Packers need Crosby to have a better season as missing 12 kicks is the equivalent of 36 points left off the board. Every point will count against the 49ers on Sunday.
2.) Who will handle the kick returns for the Packers Sunday?
The Packers have had a revolving door this preseason at their returning positions. Jeremy Ross, Micah Hyde, Johnathan Franklin and a few others have had their shot at the return game. For now, it appears the Packers are ready to go with Hyde as the punt returner and Ross as the kick returner.
Ross has bad memories at Candle Stick Park as the last time he was there he muffed a punt in the second quarter with the Packers leading 14-7. The muffed punt really turned the momentum of the game around as the 49ers scored a few plays later and the rest is history of course.
Ross is much faster than Hyde, but Hyde appears to be more sure-handed as he handled the return duties at Iowa during his four-year career with the Hawkeyes. The Packers will have to decide which is more important: Sending a guy to field a punt who can take the ball to the house every time he touches it (Ross) or the sure-handed returner who will get you 5 to 10 yards per return (Hyde).
1.) Can the Packers defense slow down the read-option/running game of the 49ers?
I hit on a lot of this conversation earlier, but mentioning it again as the top key to the game shows the importance of this aspect to the game.
He is 100 percent right.
The risk that teams take when running the read-option is that their quarterbacks are not afforded the protection they usually are as a pocket passer. When Kaepernick, or any other read-option quarterback, carry out their fakes or even carry the ball they are to be treated as runners, therefore they are free game to be hit and hit hard.
That’s what the Packers must do to Kaepernick.
Of course the question is whether the Packers will target Kaepernick within the legal confines of playing defense or not. However, the NFL clearly advised the coaches on this aspect of the game, and the Packers have every right to hit Kaepernick legally.
Game prediction: 49ers too tough at home for Packers, they win 31-27
There you have it, the five key things we will be watching when the Packers and 49ers face off in this early season battle.
Keep it here at Lombardi Ave for more pre- and post- game coverage. Also, be on the lookout for our weekly podcast as we get you ready for every Packers game in 2013-14.