Let’s cut to the chase and examine some of the key matchups that will play a big role in who wins this Sunday’s showdown of 2 NFC elites at Lambeau Field as the Packers host the San Francisco 49ers.
Marshall Newhouse vs the Smith’s
Unfortunately for Newhouse, I’m not talking about the band The Smiths. That would be far preferable than the daunting task of having to keep 12-year vet Justin Smith and 2nd-year man Aldon Smith out of the backfield and near QB Aaron Rodgers on Sunday. Together last season, the Smith’s combined for 21.5 sacks during the regular season and another 4 during the 2011 postseason. With the deep talent the 9ers have on defense, D Coordinator Vic Fangio can often have his linemen pin their ears back and get after the QB. This is a tough task for the top LT in the league, let alone Newhouse, who is entering just his 2nd season as a starting tackle and who has had his share of struggles to contain top D linemen.
The Pack will likely have no choice but to slide help to the left side as the 9ers overload and stunt to the Pack’s weakness. Hopefully Newhouse isn’t suffering any ill-effects from that concussion he suffered in training camp and his “happy feet” are with him on Sunday. This will be a big test as to how solidified the Green Bay O line is on the left side. Behind Newhouse, the Pack would likely have to shuffle their current line to cover the LT and LG spots. Let’s hope this doesn’t become a need and that Newhouse can hold his own against a very potent attack.
Cedric Benson vs 9ers front 7
If the Pack can establish any sort of run and sustain long drives on offense, they can hope to wear down the 9ers’ front 7. There are few defensive fronts better than whatSan Franciscoenters this game with and they are likely to bring it all day long. But the Pack can take advantage of any increased pressure by utilizing Benson to run some draws and screens to keep the 9er’s D honest. With a very smart QB in Aaron Rodgers who is mobile and able to dissect a defensive scheme well, hopefully that means getting the ball to Benson and taking what the defense gives them.
Now, establishing the run doesn’t fall squarely on Benson’s shoulders. The O line will have to put together an out-of-mind performance in order to neutralize the stash of All Pro’s and Pro Bowlers (can you say Patrick Willis AND NaVorro Bowman?) coming at them every down. Fortunately for the Packers, their offense is just as good as the 9ers defense is. This will be a great matchup and test of ability to impose will on the opponent.
Aaron Rodgers vs 49ers secondary
With 2 of the best LB’s in the game in that of Willis and Bowman, the 9ers can afford to press their corners and allow the safeties to roam free over the top. This is ideal against a potent passing attack as it allows the safeties to read the QB and react. Unfortunately for those DB’s, they are facing the best QB in the league and reigning MVP in Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers has very solid mechanics and doesn’t make many bad decisions throughout the course of a game.
The key here will be the time that Rodgers has to throw. If the 9ers can establish pressure on the pocket early on, the Pack will be forced to move Rodgers around in order to open up opportunities to throw it. His best shot would then be hoping that his ultra-talented WR’s can find a way to get open for that split second he needs to rifle the ball in there. If given any amount of time to throw beyond the norm, Rodgers has proven his ability to pick apart any secondary and he will likely do the same this Sunday if that is the case.
Rodgers will likely take what the defense gives him and look for shorter and safer pass opportunities, at least early on. This will help build some confidence in the offensive unit and sustain drives, thus wearing down the 9ers’ D. If the Pack are successful in controlling the tempo, there will surely be a few opportunities later in the game for play action to set up a long strike. This would help seal the deal and secure a win for the guys in Green & Gold. Often times inGreen Bay, as Rodgers goes, so go the Pack.
49ers run game vs. Packer’s front 7
It’s no secret, the 9ers offense isn’t built for a shootout. By contrast, the Pack won many games last year doing just that. They often outscored their opponent while taking the ball away on defense just enough to come out on the right side of the scoreboard. Because of that ability, the 9ers want Aaron Rodgers in the safest place he can be: on the sideline. They will look to establish the run early on and keep QB Alex Smith in safe down and distance situations. It is there that he can run the offense without having to improvise and get too creative.
Smith is known as more of a system QB than a play maker and that is largely due to the success of their running game. Frank Gore leads a potent ground game that added free agent Brandon Jacobs during the offseason andOregonstandout RB LeMichaeal James via the draft. With the struggles the Pack have had stopping the run so far during the preseason and with the tackling woes that have plagued them the past few season, look for the 9ers to capitalize on this kink in the armor.
Gore is your straight-ahead, pound it out guy while James throws in some slash and speed a la Darren Sproles inNew Orleans. Green Bay’s D line and linebackers will need to study their film carefully and watch for the misdirection and trickery that could keep them off balance and reeling. Jacobs has not practiced so far this week due to injury and it is unknown whether he will play this Sunday.
Jacobs had a field day in his last outing against the Packers as a member of the Giants. Jacobs slashed and diced the Packer defense on this same Lambeau Field turf during last year’s playoffs. The performance helped the G Men advance and face the 49ers and eventually win a Super Bowl. His presence this weekend would make a difficult task even more challenging for the Pack’s front 7. Not helping matters is Packers’ Pro Bowl NT BJ Raji just coming back from an ankle injury suffered in last week’s final preseason game. Hopefully he is truly ready to go and can help clog the middle and let the cavalry clean up on the outside.
VernonDavis vs. Charles Woodson
My lack of X’s and O’s training may show itself here as it may seem obvious that the Pack would take a different approach to covering Davis. But typically in Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers’ scheme, the S is on the opponent’s TE. Davishas both speed and size and poses a matchup problem for most defenses. While Woodson has the savvy to know what Davisis doing, the bigger question is does he still have the ability to stay with him and keep him at bay? My thinking is that Woodson will need help and the Pack will likely be forced to help underneath with a LB, which takes away a man rushing the passer.
We also may see quite a bit of that Corner Okie that we have heard so much about whereby Woodson is in a traditional safety position while a 3rd corner is brought on (likely Sam Shields or Jarrett Bush). Davis would draw the double team to neutralize his abilities and hopefully outside corners Tramon Williams and Shields can keep WR’s Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss under control. That was much easier to write than it will be to accomplish on the field Sunday.
Crabtree enters his 4th season along with a rejuvenated Moss who was out of football last year but appears not to have lost a thing so far this preseason. It could become a “pick your poison” proposition that the 9ers could exploit if the Pack aren’t solid in their fundamentals. Beyond Woodson, the entire Packer secondary will have their hands full and have to try and get Smith to make a mistake or 2. This defense has lived and died by the takeaway and this year looks to be no different.
The more I write about these matchups, the more I realize that, at least on paper, the Pack will have to turn in a top-notch performance to emerge with a win in week 1. Fortunately for them, they will have the crowd on their side as they look to get back on track and enroute to another Super Bowl appearance.
Jersey Al Bracco is the founder and editor of AllGreenBayPackers.com, and the co-founder of Packers Talk Radio Network. He can be heard as one of the Co-Hosts on Cheesehead Radio and is the Green Bay Packers Draft Analyst for Drafttek.com.