It’s the rematch many were hoping for after the week one meeting. The Green Bay Packers get another shot at the San Francisco 49ers this Saturday in the Divisional playoff round. Earlier this week, I talked about the changes between these two teams since that week one game. Now let’s see how some of those changes along with some of the consistencies will factor in the game’s outcome as we discuss this week’s keys to the game.
Rodgers has been discussed at great length this week. Here at allbgp.com, on ESPN, on Twitter, and on every sports radio/talk show imaginable. And all for good reason. Rodgers has a lot of expectations placed on him this week. His performance will single-handedly determine the fate of the 2012 Green Bay Packers.
Green Bay will have their core wide receivers all healthy this week and it’s no secret, they will try to out-man the 49ers secondary and move the chains. If there’s a guy open for a split second, Rodgers will find him. If he is accurate and the receivers don’t come down with a case of the dropsies, this could be the key to the fast start that the Packers absolutely need in this game.
The challenge there is that Rodgers has started off slowly on far too many occasions this season. Besides the week one matchup against the 9ers and the dud at New York in late November, Rodgers was still able to do his part to keep the Packers in every game this season. In both of those losses, the Packers got behind early and never recovered. They can ill-afford the same fate this weekend. Rodgers needs to be in mid-game form from the opening snap and hopefully he brings his deadly accuracy with him.
Rodgers has a high level of confidence in his play and he emulates that on the field. When it appears that there is nothing there at the snap, he keeps his eyes downfield and creates. Even with this superior field vision, Rodgers was picked off in week one by linebacker NaVorro Bowman when he tried to get a ball by Bowman and into traffic. The 9ers have a very active defense and they created 28 turnovers during the regular season. They know how big it would be to get one or two this week and they will be dialed into every move Rodgers makes.
What concerns me about Rodgers desire to be accurate is that it sometimes leads him to hang around in the pocket longer than he should, waiting for this man to get open. That leads to Rodgers laying on the ground more often than not. These coverage sacks will be the death of the Green Bay offense if they occur in this game. The quick pass and decisive throws are the key to moving the ball and beating the pass rush.
The Packers won 11 games this season. They very easily could have won 14. Now it’s the playoffs. “Could” win won’t be enough. They have to. Rodgers knows that. Expect to see some “have to” from #12 this week.
The Read Option
I had originally left the “Kaepernick factor” out of this piece entirely but I succumbed to my own peer pressure to mention it after all of the hype it has been getting this week in game discussions.
This area is simple: See Kaepernick, get Kaepernick. Tthe Packers have to make the flighty 9ers quarterback be all that he can be in his first career playoff start. That may be tempting too much fate as Green Bay has struggled to contain more mobile quarterbacks. Obviously, the more Kaepernick has to make quick decisions and use his arm to win, the more that favors Green Bay in this matchup.
On the first series last week, Minnesota’s Joe Webb was able to gain yardage with his feet and lead the Vikings to a score on the opening drive. Many of us wondered if that we were looking at what the rest of our night would become. Thankfully, Minnesota went to a traditional passing offense and the rest was history.
San Francisco won’t stop trying to push Kaepernick up field with the ball in his hands. It’s asking a lot from a defense that hasn’t seen a lot of read and that struggles to tackle. But this is the playoffs. That won’t magically make the Packers play better, but I was encouraged by the improved performance they had against another great back in that of Adrian Peterson. Clearly Green Bay was determined not to let the obvious beat them. Kaepernick running on Saturday is this week’s “obvious”.
Film study becomes key and stepping up to make the play. There can be no “I thought he had it” or standing around this week otherwise the Green Bay defenders will be standing around waiting for their tee times next week.
Packers Offensive Line vs. 49ers Pass Rush
Welcome to your biggest test as an NFL offensive lineman, Don Barclay, Evan Dietrich-Smith and Marshall Newhouse. Between these three starting linemen, they have four total playoff games worth of experience between them. They face a 9ers defense that forced 38 sacks this season.
The old adage that football games are won up front is very much true in this game. This is a mismatch on paper and Green Bay will have to get creative to avoid this freight train headed straight for Rodgers-ville. Chips from the tight end, extra backs in for protection and the wishbone formation in the backfield may all be employed. Head coach Mike McCarthy may try them all and just stick with whichever is most effective.
The top priority in this area is to both protect Rodgers and give him time to throw. Rodgers will need to move around and buy some time with his feet, but it’s no exaggeration that the Packers will need a highlight-reel performance from their linemen, all of them, this weekend. Rodgers was sacked over 50 times this season, many coming on 3rd down. Even worse than a stalled drive would be an injured Rodgers because they couldn’t keep the red jerseys off of him.
49ers defensive end Justin Smith missed the last two regular season games with a partially torn triceps. Smith is a one-man wrecking crew. The big question is how effective he can be playing with the injury. Any less attention that the Packers have to give Justin is a huge bonus. That’s because right next to Justin is another Smith, Aldon Smith.
Aldon had the second-most sacks in the league with 19.5 (just one behind Houston’s J.J. Watt). A. Smith is a young talent and it’s scary to think that he may still have room to grow. He can single-handedly take over a game and Newhouse will need to step up and have another solid performance on the left side. As I have said before, this is where running back Ryan Grant becomes valuable with his pass blocking ability and savvy.
My biggest concern with Barclay is getting caught up in the atmosphere of the game and losing his concentration. All penalties are untimely but in a game in which the Packers really can’t afford to give San Francisco any additional advantages, they become daggers. Barclay has to avoid the false start and holding penalties that have been a problem for him at times this season. There’s only so much help the play calling can give each side. And trust that the 49ers plan to test the Packers line early and often.
Two storied franchises who are both solid defensively lately. San Francisco has been all season long and Green Bay has resurged since the return of linebacker Clay Matthews and also safety Charles Woodson. Turnovers often tell the story in most games but in a tough playoff game that will surely be physical, this is a key. Each team must avoid them and each team must force them. Neither team turned the ball over much this season so this will come at a premium.
One area where Charles Woodson is so valuable is his knack for the football. He no longer has the burning speed to stay with a receiver downfield but he knows where to be and where the ball is headed. He has even been known to rip the ball out of a defender’s arms after the catch. Anything Woodson can do to confuse, pressure or pester 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick will help the cause to get the ball back for Rodgers & Co.
San Francisco’s secondary plays a very physical brand of football and Green Bay has to prepare much like they did for the Chicago Bears in week 15. Ball security is a must. Those potent five-wide sets won’t help too much if they’re putting the ball on the ground after a nice catch and run. Again, there can be no freebies for a dangerous 49ers team.
Both teams have somewhat shaky kicking games. I say “somewhat” because Green Bay’s Mason Crosby has made his last five attempts after struggling badly all season long. San Francisco is in a similar position, with kicker David Akers having struggled late this season as well. The Packers stuck with Crosby. The 49ers signed free agent Billy Cundiff and now have two kickers. It would only be appropriate after all of the extreme offensive and defensive talent that is on each of these teams that this game come down to the weakest area on each.
In the return game, the big question for Green Bay is whether to keep Randall Cobb on kick and punt return or let Jeremy Ross have a crack at it. In just seven total returns (both kickoff and punt), Ross has both a 44 yard and 58 yard return. He’s decisive and hits the crease quick. Cobb has the skills to take one back at any time, but he tends to dance around before heading north and south and has not had many big returns this season. In a game like this, go with the “hot hand” in Ross, coach!
Also known as play calling. Also known as preparation. Also known as moxie, bravado. The adjectives can go on and on. It comes down to who flinches first.
This is a great battle of two smart offensive minds. McCarthy has all of the tools and a plethora (I nearly made it through an entire season without using that word once!) of options in the playbook. Harbaugh just seems to get the best from his team each week and his team emulates the passion and fire that he brings.
Each team is here for a reason: they won enough games and were successful during the regular season. It would be foolish for either coach to abandon the identity of his team at this point. At the same time, games like this are often won and lost because one team took a chance and executed on it. What that means is that on 3rd and 1, McCarthy needs to leave the fullback dive to Kuhn in Green Bay. It means that Harbaugh probably doesn’t want to send Randy Moss streaking down the sideline to try and beat the Packers secondary at this late stage in his career (never did I imagine I’d be saying that about Moss!).
This is about adjusting in game and taking advantage of the slightest weakness. It’s about running hurry up when a favorable personnel matchup presents itself or the defense is winded. It’s about being unpredictable. For the Packers, that means no fullback dives or soft zone coverage with a slight lead. It’s about taking calculated chances. And let’s not forget that the play call is one thing. Execution is the crucial other half of the equation. Each coach has to put his team in the best position to succeed given the call and who is on the field.
I can’t sit here and say exactly which area or play call is the golden egg but it’s almost a guarantee that after this one is over, we will be talking about two or three plays more than any others that factored in the outcome.
Think about it. Out of three hours, it all comes down to less than one minute of actual play that will tell us which of these teams will be playing for a chance to get to another Super Bowl the following week.
Enjoy the game!——————
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: