The tone of Aaron Rodgers’ voice wasn’t fearful. Respectful, sure. In awe, maybe a little. And concerned? Yeah, there had to be some of that, too.
As the Green Bay Packers quarterback went down the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive depth chart in his head earlier this week – solely off the film he’d broken down on his team-issued iPad, without a roster or any other crib sheet to guide him – it became crystal clear just how big of a challenge the Packers’ high-powered offense will face on Sunday against arguably the NFL’s best defense.
“Huge challenge. This is probably the premier defense in the league,” Rodgers said before launching into the list of talented defenders he and the Packers’ offense will face at Lambeau Field.
“I mean, if you look at them position by position, and then as a group, in my opinion, there has to be an argument for most dominant defensive players in the league.”
From Justin Smith (“Justin does things that go far beyond the stats; he really makes plays for that defense and opens things up for guys on that defense, and doesn’t get credit in the stat book”) to Ahmad Brooks, Aldon Smith, Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald (“Their front seven is as good as anybody’s”) to inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis (whom Rodgers compared to Chicago’s Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs before adding “For a 3-4 defense, it’s hard to find any 3-4 that can match those two guys”), Rodgers couldn’t say enough good things about the members of that unit.
“This is a great defense, and hopefully we’re in a position late in the season to be making a playoff run,” Rodgers said in sum. “But I think you can say that this is the team that’s definitely going to be there (in the playoffs) and be making some hay.”
Last season, the 49ers defense ranked No. 2 in scoring defense (14.3 points per game), No. 4 in total defense (308.2 yards per game), tied for No. 1 in takeaways (38, with Green Bay) and tied for No. 7 in sacks (42). The bad news for the Packers – and any other 49ers opponent this season – is that all 11 starters are back.
“Everybody has a formula or team identity they try to play to. I thought the 49ers did a very good job playing to their identity (last season),” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of the Niners, who went 13-3 before losing in the NFC Championship Game to the eventual Super Bowl-champion new York Giants.
“Obviously, their success reflected that and I think they continued that through the preseason. Their preseason tape has been very good. We’re preparing for their style of play.”
That style of play consists of an intimidating pass rush, swift and athletic linebackers and a secondary that isn’t forced to cover opposing receivers for very long because of the pressure the front seven creates.
“That front seven, they get after the quarterback and they can stop the run. They're very fast flowing,” wide receiver Greg Jennings said. “The linebackers are very athletic, very active in what they do. Those guys up front are very stout and they can hold up, which creates a lot of problems for opposing teams in the secondary because you have to get open, you have to make plays. Obviously, a lot of times you're watching the film and their defensive backs aren't covering a long time because that quarterback doesn't have too long to hold onto that ball.
“But we've watched those guys. We have our scheme. We're approaching this game the same as any other game. We're trying to attack them, bottom line. We're going to do what we do best and hopefully we can execute."
McCarthy also pointed to what a good tackling defense San Francisco has – something he wishes his own defense would be – while Rodgers focused more on the defensive speed and players’ ability to close quickly.
“As a quarterback who likes to move around, I think that’s definitely on my mind,” Rodgers said. “It’s probably not going to be me getting out in the open and making a move and trying to outrun somebody. It’s me getting out, looking to make a play with throwing the football. When I have to run, making sure I figure out how fast those guys are coming, and getting down, because those guys do really get after you quickly.
“When you have a defense like that, the thing that I’m going in thinking is that I want to limit the big hits. You know these guys really get after the passer, and they’ve got a lot of guys who can get into the backfield.”
Add all that to the fact that it’s the opening game and the Packers offense can expect plenty of unscouted looks from one of the league’s top defenses, and it could be a difficult day for the offense that led the NFL in scoring (560 points) and finished just shy of the 2007 New England Patriots’ NFL record for points in a season.
“They're a great defense. They've got a lot of talent, a lot of Pro Bowl players, a lot of guys that could be Pro Bowl players,” said Rodgers, who is 2-0 all-time against the team he grew up rooting for as a kid in Chico, Calif., having completed 53 of 75 passes for 642 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions (118.9 rating) against the Niners.
“(Justin Smith), everybody knows how important he is to that team. He's one of the very best players in the NFL, regardless of position. You surround him with a lot of experience, some youth that's playing well, and the guys on the back end are playing well, also.
“It’s a challenge.”