By: Matt Bove
In Week 1 of the season at Lambeau Field, the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Green Bay Packers 30-22 in a game that was not even as close as that score idicates.
On Saturday, the scene will shift to Candlestick Park for an NFC Divisonal Round playoff game, and both teams are completly different. The 49ers physically dominated the Packers in the first matchup, but this Packers team is more than capable of turning the tables on San Francisco this time around.
The Packers have evolved as a team on both sides of the ball since Week 1. In the Week 1 loss, Cedric Benson only received nine carries and only ran for 18 yards on those carries. Mike McCarthy completly abandoned the running game and used Randall Cobb at running back a ton.
The Packers have averaged almost 30 carries per game since Week 9 and the Packers have averaged 122.5 yards per game since, which ranks 12th in the NFL. The Packers have appeared to have found a hot running back in Dujan Harris, who had over 100 total yards in the victory over Minnesota last weekend. He will find running room much tougher to find against San Francisco, but McCarthy has to keep the 49ers honest with it.
On defense, the Packers have overcome injuries and now are the healthiest that they have been all season. Charles Woodson returned last week and certianly looked like an upgrade over MD Jennings. Woodson was a key player in containing Adrian Peterson and the Packers will be calling on him to do the same against Frank Gore. Gore killed the Packers on the edges in the season opener and ran for 122 yards on only 16 carries, which comes out to a whopping seven yards per carry.
Another huge factor in the Packers' struggles on defense in Week 1 was the fact that Jarrett Bush started at corner over Sam Shields and was torched. Anytime Bush is on the field in a major role it has been a problem. When healthy this season, Shields has improved his tackling and has been very solid in coverage.
Also, Casey Heyward has greatly improved from Week 1 and has been one of the best corners in the NFL this season. Heyward was tied for fifth in the NFL in interceptions (5). Also, according to Pro Football Focus, Heyward led all NFL cornerbacks with a 31.1 passer rating by opposing quarterbacks when throwing at him.
Ther 49ers have changed greatly since Week 1 as well. Their biggest change was replacing starting quarterback Alex Smith with Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick made his first start on Monday Night Football in Week 11 vs. Chicago and has impressed ever since.
Kaepernick is an amazing dual threat quarterback who can beat you with the read-option and by throwing down the field. He makes the 49ers much harder to prepare for, but he will offer up more chances for tunrovers than Smith would. Also, Smith has playoff experience and this will be Kaepernick's first career playoff start. He has not let the moment get to big for him in the regular season, but who knows what might happen in the postseason.
On the defensive side for San Francisco the health of Justin Smith may be the key of the whole game. Smith has torn triceps and is esxpected to play, but nobody knows how effective he can be with the injury. The 49ers looked terrible without Smith at New England and at Seattle. Without Smith in the lineup, Aldon Smith has not recorded a sack. That duo has been lethal off of stunts togther and they need that to be successful.
However, the defense approach the Packers will be seeing from San Francisco might be different from what they saw last weekend and for the majority of the season. According to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinels Tyler Dunne, an NFC scout told him that the 49ers might throw something different at the Packers.
" If they feel they can effectively take away the middle of the field, it just seems that that's been their M.O.," the scout said of San Francisco. "They take away the middle of the field because that's the easiest place for the quarterback to complete it. They"ll say, Listen, if you're going to be making 25-yard bombs on the outside, that sucks but we're going to live with it. We're not going to let you bleed us to death. That's kind of been their M.O. And when you want to throw deep, it's 'our pressure isn't going to let you get off the throw you want to."'
Teams who have blitzed Rodgers and have dared him to beat them deep have been torched. It is interesting that the 49ers would approach the Packers this way, but if any defense can stop him that way it is them. I will be very curious to see if they come out in the looks that the scout detailed in that quote.
This is such an interesting matchup because it really tests out the theory that you have to have an elite quarterback to win. The Packers have an elite quarterback who is hot right now, but you can argue the 49ers have an advantage at every other position other than wide reciever. Rodgers and his recievers will have to be good enough to overcome the 49ers' talent advantage on the offensive and defensive lines. They're certianly capable of doing that if they play their "A" games.