Welcome to Opposition Research, where I’ll be taking a look at the next Packers opponent, the San Francisco 49ers (4-5). Coming off the high of the victory over Dallas, many now see this as a winnable game. Not so fast, Packer fans. There are a lot of things to be wary about in this Week 11 match-up between NFC teams on the playoff periphery.
Coming into this game, the 49ers are…rested and feeling pretty good about themselves. They hurried through a short week to take on the Bears last Thursday, picking off Jay Cutler 5 times en route to an ugly 10-6 win. The game was special for Singletary, playing the team that got him his Super Bowl ring, but it wasn’t particularly memorable – the 49ers managed only 12 first downs and 216 total yards, 104 of which (and the sole TD) came from standout RB Frank Gore. The Bears kept the 49ers from converting a crucial 4th and 1 (Singletary was pissed), 4 other drives were 3-and-outs, and one promising drive ended on a pick. Even the TD drive was underwhelming – the offense got the ball at the CHI-14, and Gore did the rest. And yet, in everything but passing offense, the 49ers graded out OK. The defense got the bulk of the credit for the win, after keeping Forte to 41 yards on the ground (though he did get 120 through the air). More on that later.
The fans at home are…wondering who will win the match-up between “blah blah rush versus awful pass protection.” In fact, they're questioning a lot of things. Who are the 49ers with Alex Smith? With all this volatility, will the real team ever show up at all? Are they who we thought they were?
At midseason, there were several high marks, at RB, TE, and in the defensive front seven. Last Thursday's game gave a lot of people hope that the 49ers will make the playoffs, but there are still a lot of questions surrounding this team. Speaking of questions...
Something to chew on…there is tons of talk this week about the 2005 Draft Day…should SF have picked Rodgers then? (No, losers. Get off your high horse.) What about now? Would they be better off if they had? Does Rodgers feel slighted? (No. He channels Alanis.) Does Rodgers care that it took 5 years to make as much money as Smith did in his rookie contract? Will Smith prove the 49ers made the right choice? They’re both getting sacked a lot – does that have meaning? Let’s look at their stats. Greg Bedard said early in the week that he was going to stay out of the fray...he seems to be in the minority.
When looking at the Packers on film…SF OC Jimmy Raye isn’t sure what to expect from Dom Capers’ defense. With the 49ers playing on Thursday, Raye had a head start on a game plan before he sat down to watch the Packers-Cowboys game…at which point he realized that the Packers “looked like a completely different team.”
San Francisco realizes that Jay Cutler-type quarterbacks don’t come around every week, but they hope that, instead of picks, Aaron Rodgers will be generous with sacks on Sunday. Still, they can read stats...they know Aaron Rodgers is dangerous in the red zone:
The 49ers have the athletes to keep an eye on him, but if the Packers get down close on goal to go, the 49ers better keep a close eye on #12. Maybe he's not quite on the scrambling level of he who shall not be named (who obviously can scramble better than anybody else, much like he has the best pump fake, the best hard count, and the best whatever else you want), but clearly Rodgers is no slouch in the pocket.
What we’re up against: In several significant ways, San Francisco looks like Dallas’s kid brother.** You can tell they have a lot of the same makeup, and there are days where the little guy shows you that he can be as good as (and may one day be better than) his older and more seasoned brother, but at the end of the day, he’s a little greener, a little rougher around the edges, and, if you press him, he'll take his ball and go home.
No, really, stay with me here. Let’s start with the offense.
Where there was Jason Witten, there’s Vernon Davis, one of the most explosive tight ends in the game (and, if we’re honest, the only guy that Alex Smith is looking for in the red zone – he has caught 7 of SF’s 11 passing TDs). But, like all talented young kids, he runs off his mouth without backing it up and has a tendency to false start. Second, if Dallas can have a few good receivers and a breakout player in Miles Austin, so can San Fran! Yes, they’re young, yes, they’re still learning routes, but Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan would like you to know that they can make the same plays as anyone. (Some say they’ve got the upper hand in a match-up with the Pack.) As for the running game, the 49ers eschew the 3-man monster of Barber-Jones-Choice for the machine that is Frank Gore. 6 TDs, 5.2 ypc, and prone to 80-yd sprints to daylight, Gore commands respect and must be accounted for in the Packers gameplan.
Where the 49ers fall short is at the QB position. Unlike Dallas, San Francisco lacks a field marshal QB who can take over a drive and put the ball where only his players can catch it. Without a Tony Romo, the offense has a lot of potential but doesn't always click on multiple cylinders. Alex Smith is, among his fans, “good enough,” and he’s spread the offense more than the man he replaced, Shaun Hill. (This extremely cool chart maps Smith’s passer rating by section of the field, this one by pressure. For comparison, here’s Rodgers.) Still, the offense remains cautious and is searching for its identity. The offensive line is serviceable, but the top guy (LT Joe Staley, one of Lombardi’s preseason near-“blue chip” players) is injured and won’t see the field.
On the defense, the resemblance is a bit clearer. Both run a 3-4 scheme with creative blitz packages and a shrewd playcaller (DC Manusky was also a Wade Phillips disciple at SD.)
Like Dallas, San Francisco boasts a brick wall for a defensive line. Unlike Dallas, however, the unit of Isaac Sopoaga, Aubrayo Franklin, and (ex-Bengal) Justin Smith doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Franklin is one of the best NTs in the league, and he’s starting to make noise with his play. They’re staunch against the run (#3, 87.7 ypg), and are big enough to cause match-up problems, even if they're not known for their pass rush. Behind the line, 2007 DROY Patrick Willis is San Francisco’s answer to DeMarcus Ware, and he’s about as good as it gets. Per Rodgers, Willis is the guy on defense that “makes it all go,” and boy does he, from one sideline to the other. Willis keeps the blitzing and disruptive LB corps humming, and the introduction of Matt Wilhelm to the lineup is working out well. If Rodgers is running for his life on Sunday, it's likely that #52 will be chasing him.
But, as with the offense, there's a soft underbelly in the defense...like its older brother, SF shows weakness in the secondary. 29th against the pass (248.3 ypg) but 7th in opposing QB rating (76.6) -- the Packers are 6th in both (189.2 / 76.2) -- the 49ers would much prefer that you try to run against them. (FO puts them at #3 there.) They've given up the 7th most plays of 20+ yards. Their top CB, Nate Clements, is out with a shoulder (here are the rest of the injuries), and the replacements might not be headed to the Pro Bowl, but the Packers can't get sloppy. After all, 4 of SF's 5 picks off Cutler came from the secondary.
As a final caution, let me tell you something about little brothers (and sisters, for that matter) – don’t ever tell them they’ll never measure up. They (read, Mike Singletary) will come at you with more wrath and fire than you can imagine. The 49ers need to be taken seriously, and they need to be respected. If the Packers treat them like anything less than the dangerous team that they are, things could (and likely will) get ugly in a hurry. Given that Mike McCarthy called today's practice "only OK," you best hope they pick it up in a hurry. Little brothers aren't known for their patience.
As usual, there are several excellent previews of the game already posted (and I'll add others as I see them). The official 49ers line on Sunday’s game is that these two teams are much the same: both teams are coming off impressive home victories, and both teams are looking to stay in the playoff hunt. Bob McGinn does a great job breaking down the playmakers, Pete Dougherty pulls out what you need to know, and Niners Nation connects the dots between the teams. Brandon at APC looks into the matchup of FO's top 2 defenses.
- Just because we’ve dominated them the last two decades doesn’t mean that we don’t all (hate to) remember the 1999 playoff game and that catch by Terrell Owens.
- The CBA negotiations have serious implications for the 49ers. Unless there’s a new deal, 11 guys could see themselves shipped out of SF or unhappy in trap-contracts.
- Heading into the Bears game, there were many angry fans. Some said Singletary should be fired. Some moaned that he’s losing the team. Oh, how fickle fans are. After the Bears game, he’s up to 88% approval!
I am a little leery of this game. The best part of facing a team that is, in many ways, similar to the team we just manhandled is that the Packers have figured out what works. The crossdog blitzes were smooth on Sunday, and it wouldn't be unreasonable to think that an identical game plan wouldn't have a similar result (Woodson on Davis, Harris on Crabtree, Williams on Morgan, and everyone else in Smith's face). The worst part is that Jimmy Raye has a full game of tape on exactly how to prepare his team to counter Capers' tactics. Not only that, but DC Manusky has gotten some good film on how to keep Rodgers from throwing the long ball.
I still believe that a similar plan is in the best interest of the Packers as far as defense is concerned, but I absolutely agree with those who've called for a quick-strike offense. The 49ers average 20.4 points a game, and while that's not Cleveland Browns territory, it's nearly a touchdown less than the Packers. If Rodgers can make his red zone mojo work for him, and the Packers maintain their league-best turnover differential, I think the Packers will have a good day. Prove to the little brother that he's got a ways to go, knock him around, and take care of business. I like the 49ers and all, but c'mon...isn't that what little brothers are there for?
** I have no kid brothers myself, and write this from the perspective of the youngest of 3 girls. If I have misrepresented the plight of younger brothers, feel free to call me out.
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