It’s here. Finally, it’s here.
The draft? Done. Training camp? Finished. Preseason? Completed.
The dress rehearsals are done and the games that count are upon us. The curtain on the 2012 NFL season has been raised and the march to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans begins in earnest this weekend.
The Green Bay Packers kick off their 2012 campaign Sunday at Lambeau Field against the San Francisco 49ers. Many thought when last season’s playoffs began that this would be the NFC Championship Game, but thanks to the New York Giants the Packers’ season ended prematurely.
The regular season opener is the first big test to see if the Packers have fixed their defense, the Achilles heel that doomed their run at a second straight Super Bowl title a year ago. It’s also a chance for reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers to begin to make his case for a second straight award and that the Packers offense is still as lethal as ever.
How do the Packers stack up against 49ers? Let’s first take a look at their opponent
Scouting the 49ers
Last year, the Packers faced one of the top offenses in the league during their season opener in the New Orleans Saints. This year, they face one of the best defenses in the 49ers.
When you talk about the 49ers’ defense, you start with linebacker Patrick Willis. Willis anchors a linebacker group that is one of the best in the NFL against the run. He was an All-Pro selection along with NaVorrow Bowman and helped the 49ers allow only 77.3 rushing yards per gain. With defensive end Justin Smith leading the group up front, the 49ers figure to again have a very stout rush defense.
A strong defense allows the 49ers to make their opponents one dimensional which in turn allows their secondary to go on the hunt for interceptions. San Francisco finished 16th in pass defense last season despite decent years by safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Carlos Rogers whom both were selected to the Pro Bowl.
Despite coach Jim Harbaugh’s background, the offense remains the weak link for the 49ers. Alex Smith was re-signed by the team only after a secret attempt to sign Peyton Manning became public. The 49ers still don’t quite know what they have in Smith despite having a career season in 2011 and nearly leading the team to the Super Bowl.
The 49ers brought in Randy Moss in attempt to surround Smith with more weapons. With Vernon Davis already one of the best tight ends in the game and Mario Manningham coming over from the Giants to provide some relief to Michael Crabtree, the stage is set for Smith to continue to climb the ranks of NFL quarterbacks.
With Frank Gore, Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James, the San Francisco rushing attack is nothing to sneeze at either. Gore returned to form last season rushing for over 1,100 yards and when you add the veteran Jacobs and the rookie James from Oregon, 49ers have a multi-headed rushing attack to go along with an emerging passing attack.
Ted Ginn Jr. is a threat in the return game, but with him potentially missing the game thanks to an ankle injury, Kyle Williams could handle return duties against the Packers. Williams was the scapegoat of the NFC Championship after a late fumble cost the 49ers the game.
So what do the Packers have to do to stop the 49ers?
Keys to a Packers victory
1. Get to Alex Smith
The 49ers passed over Aaron Rodgers in favor of Smith in the 2005 draft, but it wasn’t until Rodgers took over as starter when the truth became rather obvious.
Smith is no Rodgers.
He’s had to endure a lot as the 49ers’ starting quarterback, but when he is put under pressure during the game Smith becomes an ordinary quarterback. Don’t let that 28 yard touchdown run against the Saints in the playoffs fool you. Smith is nowhere near as good of a scrambling passer as Rodgers is.
If the Packers, with their revamped defense, can get to Smith, they can neutralize that offense. It may not even take a sack; just forcing Smith into some bad throws allows the Packers secondary to do what they do best—force turnovers.
This will be a golden opportunity to see what Nick Perry can do. If he can be a disruptive presence, this should ease some pressure off of Clay Matthews and allow #52 to begin his re-emergence as one of the NFL’s best pass rushers.
2. Get the running game going
As mentioned earlier, running against the 49ers is a tall task and last year the Packers had one of the worst rushing attacks in the NFL.
Enter Cedric Benson.
Benson may not have been with the team long, but he showed enough in limited preseason action to warrant giving him the start over incumbent James Starks. Going up against Justin Smith and Patrick Willis is a challenge in and of itself but if he can help even bring some balance to the Packers offense, which could take just enough pressure off of Rodgers and the passing game.
3. Win the turnover battle
Despite marked improvement over the final two preseason games, the Packers’ offense began to develop a nasty habit of turning the ball over this preseason.
The Packers were one of the best teams in the league last year in turnover ratio, which made the way they started the preseason all the more surprising. Rodgers will be smart with the ball as always but with the Packers facing such an aggressive defense, his receivers (I’m looking at you, Randall Cobb) will need to be extra careful to not place the ball on the ground.
Same goes for Benson. The big knock on him when the Packers signed him was that he had a bit of a fumbling problem. Now that he’s going up against one of the league’s best rushing defenses, here’s his chance to dispel that notion.
Packers 27, 49ers 20
Once again, the Packers face a stiff test right out of the gate. The 49ers are going to be out to prove their surprising 2011 season was no fluke.
The Packers likely will jump out to an early lead but the 49ers will be able to make a game out of it thanks to an improved but still leaky Packers defense. Rodgers plays brilliantly as always and Smith has a slow start before moving into a rhythm later in the game.
As for Benson, anything above 75 yards would be a victory against the 49ers defense. The defense, as mentioned above, shows some signs of life in the pass rush but also flashes the familiar signs of bending but not breaking that ultimately proved to be the team’s fatal flaw last season.
All in all, a good start for the Packers but they won’t have time to rest on their laurels as they face the Chicago Bears at Lambeau only four days after playing the 49ers.
Football is back. Enjoy.——————
Kris Burke is a sports writer covering the Green Bay Packers for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WTMJ in Milwaukee. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) and his work has been linked to by sites such as National Football Post and CBSSports.com. Follow @KrisLBurke