The Green Bay Packers kick off their 2012 regular season schedule Sunday when they host the 2011 NFC West champion San Francisco 49ers. The nationally televised afternoon game (3:15 CT start) will likely be one of the best games of the weekend.
In fact, of the 16 games on the opening week slate, no matchup features as many combined 2011 wins as Packers-49ers, who won 28 total regular season games a season ago.
On Sunday, Jim Harbaugh's 49ers will look to erase their awful recent history in Green Bay.
San Francisco has suffered through over 20 years of futility at Lambeau Field, a venue where San Francisco hasn't left with a win since Nov. 4, 1990. The Packers have also won eight straight overall games over the 49ers since a 1998 playoff loss in San Francisco, including a 34-16 win back in 2010.
By early Sunday night, we'll know if the Packers have continued that recent dominance or if the 49ers have begun a new chapter in the Packers-49ers rivalry.
Here are five other things you could watch Sunday :
1. Left side of the offensive line
There may not be a more important factor for the Packers Sunday than the play of the offensive line's left side. Left tackle Marshall Newhouse and left guard T.J. Lang will have their hands full containing one of the game's best DE-OLB duos in Justin Smith and Aldon Smith.
As we broke down in-depth during Thursday's post on the 49ers defense, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio loves stunting the two Smiths to create pressure without bringing extra players on the blitz. Justin Smith is arguably the strongest defensive lineman in football, plenty capable of manhandling a one-on-one situation with either Newhouse or Lang. But when Smith pushes upfield and takes on both the outside blockers, Aldon Smith can stunt inside and have free lanes to the quarterback. Newhouse and Lang can't let that happen Sunday.
The one way we've seen Aaron Rodgers be contained over the last 18 or so months is with a defense that can manufacture pressure from just a four-man rush. The Kansas City Chiefs did it in Arrowhead during Week 15, and the Giants certainly did it last January in the playoff loss.
Blitz Rodgers and you're playing with fire. No quarterback in football is better at beating a defense when it brings extra players. But rush four and drop seven, without losing any ability to collapse the pocket? That's a winning formula against this offense, and the 49ers have the horses to do it. Will Newhouse and Lang be up to the task on the left side?
2. Missing Bishop
The lead-up to Sunday's game has been mostly without talk of Desmond Bishop, the Packers linebacker who tore his hamstring and will miss the entire 2012 season. I don't understand why.
Bishop was arguably this team's best defensive player in 2011; a thumping, hard-nosed inside linebacker who wasn't afraid to take on a fullback in the hole with a head of steam. He brought a physicality to the defense that can't be replaced. A 49ers offense is headed to Lambeau Field Sunday that could argue its place among the most physical in football.
Bishop is being replaced by D.J. Smith, an instinctual young linebacker who the Packers drafted in the fifth round in 2011. He played well during limited snaps as a rookie when both Bishop and A.J. Hawk missed time with calf injuries. But what happens Sunday against the mammoth 49ers offensive line and a never-ending stable of running backs? I'd be shocked if the 49ers don't line up heavy early and try to jam the ball right down Smith's throat. Can he hold up when a team runs down hill at him? What about when a guard gets to the second level? Can he escape that block, or will he be engulfed? These are legitimate question marks about a mostly unproven player.
If the 49ers can consistently run the football Sunday—and of course, that ability doesn't hinge solely on D.J. Smith—Green Bay might find it difficult to win this game. Rodgers would be left to stand helplessly on the sidelines while Alex Smith leads 12-play drives for scores, chewing up precious clock and shortening the game.
For that not to happen, the Packers' front-seven needs to match the physicality of 49ers' offensive line. Smith is a big part of that equation now that 55 won't be a member of this football team in 2012.
3. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers
The turnover aspect has probably already been beat into your head this week, and you'll surely hear a million more comments about it before and during Sunday's game. But the turnover factor is so important to who wins and loses this football game.
It simply doesn't happen very often when two teams adept at taking the football away and also limiting their own turnovers meet up on one field.
A season ago, the 49ers led the NFL with a +28 turnover differential. They forced 38 turnovers and only turned it over 10 times. The Packers also had 38 takeaways but turned over it four more times, leading to the NFL's second best differential at +24. No other team had better than a +11 differential in 2011.
In total, Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith threw 11 interceptions on over 950 attempts last season. In comparison, only three quarterbacks that attempted 300 or more passes threw less than that number of interceptions last season. That's mind-blowing avoidance of one of the game's biggest negative plays.
But both the Packers' and 49ers' defense feasted on picks in 2011. Green Bay led the NFL with 31, and San Francisco came in a distant second at 23. The Packers were very good at transforming turnovers into points on the scoreboard, and the 49ers relied time-and-time again on their defense jump-starting a stagnant offense.
I'd be willing to bet a turnover in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game turns the entire contest on its head. And whoever eventually has less in that turnover column at quadruple zeroes (00:00) will probably win Sunday. It's a time-honored clique of gargantuan usage, but a game like Sunday's puts the turnover battle under the magnifying glass.
Keep in mind, the 49ers advanced to the NFC title game last January on the back of five Saints' turnovers. The Packers were eliminated in part because of four of their own. Turnovers are huge Sunday.
4. McCarthy's game plan
It's a near certainty that the Packers won't be running the football 45 times for 200 yards Sunday. The 49ers put themselves in the conversation as one of the best run defenses of the last decade last season, giving up over 100 total yards on the ground just three times in 18 games and allowing only three (yes, three) rushing touchdowns.
But what does that mean for Mike McCarthy offensive game plan?
The Packers run game appears to have a little more juice after adding Cedric Benson. But it's no secret that the teams that scored points against the 49ers last season got production—and lots of it—from the passing game.
Just six teams scored 20 or more points against San Francisco's defense in 2011. Those six, however, averaged 329 yards a game passing, and only 76 on the ground. The Cowboys, Eagles and Saints all went over 400 yards passing against the 49ers secondary. Even the remarkable John Skelton was able to throw for 282 yards and three scores in a Week 14 win.
McCarthy likely won't completely abandon the running game—in fact, he should run right at Aldon Smith to both wear him down and see if the youngster can hold up the edge—but the Packers need to spread the 49ers out and attack the third and fourth cornerbacks in the dime defense. It's the only way to negate what a clear advantage the 49ers have in the front seven. The theory is, the more good up-front players that have to leave the field for average cornerbacks (exactly what San Francisco's nickel and dime corners are), the better for Green Bay. I can't imagine McCarthy not subscribing to that line of thinking.
James Jones, Donald Driver and Randall Cobb should win matchups against Tarell Brown and Perish Cox. It's McCarthy's job to find ways to isolate those matchups in Green Bay's favor Sunday.
5. First look at the shiny new pass D
At some point Sunday, the 49ers are going to need to make a play throwing the football. We'll then get our first look at how the brand-new Packers pass defense holds up. At the forefront are two rookies and a recovering cornerback.
First-round pick Nick Perry looked stout against the run during the preseason, but the pass-rushing ran hot and cold. Part of that was likely the fact Clay Matthews played only a handful of snaps over the last month. Now Perry will get a full 60 minutes of playing opposite one of the better outside pass rushers in football, and right tackle Anthony Davis is beatable for Perry Sunday. He needs to collapse the pocket when he gets one-on-one with Davis.
Same goes for Jerel Worthy when the Packers go to soft, pass-stopping defenses. He's quick off the ball, with an ability to slice through the one-gap and create inside pressure. It's exactly what the position calls for in the nickel and dime looks. The Packers created little to no pressure in 2011 in the nickel and dime look because they didn't have a player who could push the interior of the pocket. Now they do.
But beyond the rookies, the one player to watch defensively might be Tramon Williams. Every week of the preseason, Williams looked a little better. The shoulder may not be 100 percent yet, but he's playing more and more like the guy who was one of the game's best two or three shutdown cover corners in 2010, especially late.
I'd guess the Packers would shadow Randy Moss with Williams most times the 35-year-old receiver is on the field. The last thing Dom Capers needs is Moss pulling his pants down in the north endzone after a long touchdown. Williams will be called on to make sure that doesn't happen. Moss hasn't played in forever, but the speed he was blessed with for so many years in Minnesota and New England probably remains.
Prediction: Packers 27, 49ers 24
I've went back-and-forth on this game about a million times. The 49ers are clearly capable of pulling off the win on the road. But I'm not picking against Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy with a full offseason of preparation time. They'll be ready for whatever Vic Fangio throws their way. And with the Packers a hair better against the pass in 2012, Alex Smith can't make the one play to spring the minor upset. A late Packers interception seals it.
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