The San Francisco 49ers beat the hell out of the Green Bay Packers last season. Twice.
In week one, the 49ers ran for 186 yards and averaged almost six yards per carry. Alex Smith had only six incomplete passes and routinely hit wide open receivers hanging out in the middle of the field, unafraid of being laid out by Packers defenders.
In the divisional round of the playoffs, things got even uglier. Colin Kaepernick ran for 181 yards and threw for 263 more. When Kaepernick took off, he made Packers’ defenders look like lead-footed, lifeless zombies in a scene from The Walking Dead.
All of that damage was easy for even the average viewer to see while watching from his or her couch. If you broke down the film after the game and paid attention to what was happening in the trenches, things got even uglier for the Packers.
The 49ers offensive line operated like a machine — a modern, deadly, ruthless machine that was sent to Earth specifically to blow Packers defenders off the line of scrimmage, seal off the edges and create giant spaces for guys like Frank Gore and Kaepernick to gallop through.
When compared to the Packers offensive line, the 49ers wrecking crew was on a completely different level. The Packers allowed 20 quarterback hurries in the two games and never established the run. Green Bay’s front five always seemed to be flailing as yet another San Francisco defender broke through and set his sights on Aaron Rodgers.
The middle of the field — where both toughness and athleticism have a chance to shine — was also heavily tilted in the 49ers favor. Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis, the 49ers two middle linebackers, combined for 30 tackles, a key interception and a sack.
In the week 1 loss, Alex Smith consistently found open receivers in the middle of the field while Kapernick simply ran by, through and around whoever happened to be manning the middle for the Packers in the playoffs.
A.J. Hawk totaled 22 tackles, but were any of them impact plays?
The 49ers left little doubt last season that they were tougher than the Packers. With the two teams set to meet again this Sunday, have the tables turned at all?
You’d have to look hard for anybody besides those who work at 1265 Lombardi Ave. to tell you that the Packers are now the tougher of the two teams. Not only do the 49ers have most of their tough guys coming back, the Packers are already down a few players from their tough guy column.
Starting left tackle Bryan Bulaga is out for the season. David Bakhtiari is replacing Bulaga and looks promising as a pass blocker, but likely won’t be blowing any 49ers defensive lineman off the ball while run blocking.
DuJuan Harris ran like a rolling ball of butcher knives at the end of last season and brought some semblance of toughness to the running game. He’s also out for the season (although Eddie Lacy, Harris’s replacement, has a shot at being a tough runner himself).
Might there be a few new(ish) faces on both of the Packers lines to up the toughness level a few notches? Depends if you think Don Barclay and Evan Dietrich-Smith — both undrafted and both smallish — fit the bill. On defense, first-round pick Datone Jones has been slowed by an ankle injury. We’ll see if Johnny Jolly’s display of toughness carries over into meaningful snaps when the games count.
The previous 576 words were a long and depressing way of saying that, as of now — before any real games have been played — the answer to the question posed in the headline is a definite “no.” The 49ers are still tougher than the Packers.
But the key phrase in that previous paragraph is “as of now.” It’s a long season, folks. It’s easy to toss out labels and make broad assumptions before any real snaps have taken place. Four weeks from now, many of the labels pasted on teams will be proven untrue. Bold preseason declarations will be forgotten.
Remember the 2010 Packers? They didn’t look all that tough as the calendar turned to December. Then all of the sudden they grinded out a late-season win over the Bears to reach the playoffs, developed a decent running game with James Starks, grinded out playoff wins in Philadelphia and Chicago, and won the Super Bowl.
Toughness can build over the course of the season. Sometimes, toughness built over 16 games pays off more in the end than entering the season as the biggest bully on the block.
Am I just trying to put on a happy face as I resign myself to the fact that the Packers are going to get pushed around and lose again to the 49ers on Sunday? Maybe.
But I do believe the Packers will be tougher than they were last season. Will they ultimately end up being tougher than the 49ers when January rolls around? That’s a tall task, but one that I believe the Packers are up for.——————