The Green Bay Packers open the 2013 regular season with a trip to San Francisco to take on the defending NFC champion 49ers.
As you'll likely recall, the 49ers used the Packers as a jumping off point for their Super Bowl run during the Divisional round of the NFC playoffs last January. Eight months later, the two will again lock horns in the same stadium that witnessed San Francisco beat Green Bay, 45-31.
Here's five important questions that the Packers need to answer during Sunday's rematch:
Are the Packers Better Prepared to Contain the Read Option?
There's really no excuse for Dom Capers' unit not to be. The defensive staff took a back-to-school journey this offseason, traveling to Texas A&M to meet with Kevin Sumlin and inviting a number of other college coaches, including new Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, to Green Bay to help solve the read-option riddle. Schematically, there should be no surprises. The Packers have also spent portions of every practice since OTAs working on the look, so being underprepared shouldn't be the issue it was in the Divisional round. Capers' game plan would appear to ask the Packers to hit quarterback Colin Kaepernick as often as possible, but we'll see how often that happens if Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter start gashing the defense on the dive. Hitting the quarterback isn't a sure-fire answer. The 49ers are going to get some plays out of the read option Sunday, but it's Green Bay's job to ensure that Kaepernick and Co. do not come anywhere close to the 176 yards and a touchdown they totaled using the look last January.
Can the Two Young Tackles Handle the 49ers Pass Rush?
If stopping the read option is focal point No. 1 on defense, protecting Aaron Rodgers with tackles David Bakhtiari and Don Barclay tops the offensive list. Bakhtiari, a 21-year-old rookie who will be making his first start, couldn't ask for a tougher test in his NFL inauguration. He'll be facing the length and flexibility of Aldon Smith (19.5 sacks in 2012) and the strength and power of Justin Smith for most of Sunday. The two pass rushers are also among the best in the game at combination stunting, which will stress communication and cohesion with left guard Josh Sitton. Any confusion will mean easy sacks and pressures. Having a Pro Bowler next to him will help, especially on the stunts, but the overall performance of Bakhtiari will go a long ways in deciding who wins Sunday. Barclay, a former undrafted free agent, at least has experience in this environment. He was predictably up-and-down against the 49ers in January (seven pressures allowed), even when the Packers gave him help. Green Bay can adjust on the fly if one of the tackles is having trouble; if both are Sunday, game over.
Is Eddie Lacy Going to Be an Immediate Factor?
The Packers preached all offseason that the running game was going to be improved in 2013. The losses of DuJuan Harris (knee, IR) and Bryan Bulaga (ACL, IR) were uppercut punches to that plan, but second-round rookie Eddie Lacy was always going to be the harbinger of any real improvement. Vision, power, patience; Lacy is the real deal and the most talented runner of the football in Green Bay since probably Ahman Green. But Lacy can only do so much on his own. The offensive line has to win battles up front. With inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVarro Bowman healthy, few would be surprised if the Packers ran 15 times against the 49ers and picked up south of 50 yards. But Green Bay did rush for 104 yards in January, and Lacy looked promising when playing behind the first-team offensive line during the preseason. There's a glimmer of hope. At the very least, Lacy's presence should force the 49ers to be more honest about defending Green Bay's running game than in past meetings.
How Do the Packers Handle Vernon Davis?
The 49ers might come into Week 1 with the poorest quartet of receivers in the NFL. Veteran Anquan Boldin can still win with smarts and toughness, but behind him, Kyle Williams, Marlon Moore and Quinton Patton have a combined 47 catches in the NFL. That reality will force the 49ers to lean more on tight end Vernon Davis, who slowly built an impressive chemistry with Kaepernick during San Francisco's postseason run. After catching just one pass for 44 yards against the Packers, Davis exploded for 11 catches and 210 yards in the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl combined. The 49ers have given Davis a crash course in playing receiver this offseason, and it should be expected that the fast and powerful tight end will line up in the slot and outside on a percentage of snaps Sunday. Boldin catching seven or eight passes wouldn't doom the Packers, but Davis getting that kind of workload could be big trouble. Without Davis providing the big plays, it's difficult to envision how the 49ers will hurt the Packers vertically in the passing game.
Will the Packers Win Third Downs?
Playing the read option more effectively has been an obvious teaching point for the Packers defense since January. But equally important for Sunday is how Green Bay defends Kaepernick and the 49ers offense on third downs, a situation in which San Francisco owned the Packers in the Divisional round. While 99 of Kaepernick's 181 rushing yards came off the read option, another 53 was surrendered when the 49ers quarterback scrambled on third downs. Overall, his scrambles accounted for 75 yards and a touchdown—nearly equal to his contributions using the read option. The 49ers ended the night 8-of-13 on third downs, with five of their seven scoring drives including a third-down conversion. In fact, San Francisco's first two touchdowns (Kaepernick 20-yard run, Michael Crabtree 12-yard reception) came on third-down plays. Not having Crabtree in the lineup is a big deal for the 49ers, as he was the offense's go-to receiver on the critical down. But keeping Kaepernick in the pocket—regardless of down—is just as paramount if the Packers plan on leaving San Francisco with a Week 1 win.
Prediction: San Francisco 27, Green Bay 23
Zach Kruse is a 25-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covered prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at [email protected].
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