It’ll be up to the line to neutralize that. The line as currently configured – Newhouse, Lang, center Evan Dietrich-Smith, Sitton and Barclay left-to-right – will be playing its fourth game together following veteran Jeff Saturday’s benching before the Dec. 23 game against Tennessee. When the teams met in Week 1, Bryan Bulaga was at right tackle and Saturday was at center.
“I think when you have a couple of injuries starting with Bryan and then moving forward, then having Evan in there, I think they’ve had a lot of reps together, 200 plus reps (now),” offensive line coach James Campen said. “That helps, and I think they’re progressing in the right direction. As far as being cohesive and calls and those things, they’re fine. So I expect them to play their best game this week.”
I spy: For as much as is being made of 49ers second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick making his first NFL postseason start – the kid took over for Alex Smith and started the final seven games – the Packers certainly aren’t talking about Kaepernick like they view him as inexperienced or unprepared.
“He's been doing an excellent job for his team ever since he stepped in,” Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. “From what I've seen, on film, he's been throwing the ball well. Obviously everyone knows about his running ability. That's the main thing that you watch, but he's been getting it done with his arm. Obviously, they have a balanced attack and that's what makes them tough to play. Some of the throws that he makes, some of the reads that he makes, he's kind of ‘before his time,’ you could say, right now. He's doing an excellent job for his team.”
Because Kaepernick isn’t simply a running quarterback who can occasionally complete a pass – he’s 136 of 218 (62.4 percent) for 1,814 yards with 10 TDs and three INTs (98.3 rating) this season while running 63 times for 415 yards and five TDs – the Packers defense must decide how to defend him, and that likely will entail employing a spy, at least part of the time.
Whether that spy will be inside linebacker Brad Jones, outside linebacker Clay Matthews or safety Charles Woodson – all of whom have done it before – remains to be seen.
“If you’re having a problem with your rush lanes in terms of a guy identifying seams – because if you’re rushing four, there’s going to be a seam or two in there – they can tie you up,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “So, (a spy) gives you a second-level guy to where maybe if that quarterback pulls the ball down, it’s not a 20-yard gain (but) maybe it’s a 6- to 8-yard gain. There’s different ways. We’ve got different ways of doing it. If we’re playing an athletic quarterback, you always have some element of it. How much you use it kind of depends on how much you need it.”
Asked what the downside is of spying, Capers replied, “Sometimes, you can get caught in between to where you’re neither fish nor foul. You’re sitting there waiting for that quarterback so you aren’t rushing, and then you’ve got him more tied into the quarterback so you don’t get as much coverage out of him. What you’re doing is it’s kind of an in-between deal to where if you rush five, you’re designating five guys to go get the quarterback right now or if you rush four and you drop seven, you’ve got those seven guys in coverage. So now, if you go to a four-man rush, you’ve got six guys in coverage and that guy’s kind of in between, that’s why you’ve got to pick your spots.”
Tightening up on TEs: Once upon a time, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis was best known for then-Niners coach Mike Singletary’s diatribe about his attitude. (“I want winners!”) Then, in 2009, he emerged as one of the NFL’s elite tight ends, posting career highs in receptions (78), receiving yards (965) and touchdown catches (13). He also had a terrific two-game run in last year’s postseason (10 receptions, 292 yards, four TDs.)
But after the way Davis finished the regular season – only six receptions for 61 yards in the final six games – the Packers can only hope he remains that unproductive against them on Saturday night. Davis’ lack of productivity has coincided with Kaepernick’s ascension to the starting QB position, but 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Davis’ attitude has been excellent – even after Davis confessed that the season has been “stressful” for him.
“Vernon is on the field as much, other than the offensive lineman and quarterbacks, as much or more than every other player. So, he’s got something to do every play. He’s done a good job with that,” Roman said. “Day-to-day, his attitude has been great and he’s a mentally strong guy that doesn’t whither. Not getting a lot of balls, but stays focused. It’s coming, at some point.
“While many people point to one statistic – ‘Well, how many catches does this guy have?’ – the reality of it is, every play, he is critical to the success of the 49ers. From our standpoint, he’s had a really good year.”
The Packers certainly respect him, having seen him have big games before: Six catches for 108 yards and a TD in 2009; four catches for 126 yards and a TD in 2010; three catches for 43 yards and another TD in the Sept. 9 regular-season opener. Thus, they won’t be taking him lightly, especially since tight ends have been an Achilles’ heel for Capers’ defense over the years.
“You have to always be aware of Vernon Davis because he’s a tight end body type with the speed of a wide receiver. If you aren’t careful, they lull you to sleep playing the run and all of a sudden he can get out of there vertically up the field,” Capers said. “He creates matchup problems. (He’s) had a couple good days out here on Lambeau against us vertically. I’ve come out of those games saying, ‘Geez, if we just didn’t give him a play up the field …’ I still think that’s one of the keys because of the way they play. You play the run and you’ve got a tight end that’s got the speed of a receiver, so you’ve got to be careful that he doesn’t get the matchup that they want.”
Capers said the 49ers prefer multiple tight-end sets, and that’s in part because they have another excellent tight end in Delanie Walker, who caught 13 of his 21 passes on the season in the last six games, gaining 246 of his 344 yards and scoring two of his three touchdowns while Davis’ numbers dipped.
“I’ve had a lot of respect for Walker for quite a few years now because he brings such versatility to their offense. You’re going to see the guy line up as a wide receiver, you’re going to see him line up at tight end, you’re going to see him line up in the backfield. He’s their movement guy; he does a lot of movement things,” Capers said. “They run a lot of multiple-tight end schemes – they’ll have two, they’ll have three out there. They’ll have three and bring in another lineman. They use a lot of different personnel groups, and that’s kind of their game. They’re going to do a lot of the same things out of a lot of different personnel groups, give you a lot of looks formation-wise, shifting, motion. I think they play to their personnel and their tight ends are one of their strengths.”
How Capers opts to defend the tight ends remains to be seen, but look for Charles Woodson to have at least some role. Capers could also use some of his cornerbacks, even if they aren’t as big physically as the guy they’ll be covering.
“Those tight ends definitely are a big part of our offense. They run like receivers and are big like tight ends,” Tramon Williams said. “They’re definitely going to present a challenge. They can spread the field, get down the seams, things like that. You also got their receivers that can do the same. It’s definitely going to be a challenge but we’ll be prepared.”
Kicking themselves?: The Packers and 49ers took decidedly different approaches with their struggling kickers. Green Bay stood by Mason Crosby through thick and thin – and an alarming number of missed field goal attempts – while San Francisco decided to spend its playoff bye week conducting a kicking competition between scuffling David Akers and free-agent signee Billy Cundiff.
In the end, both the Packers and 49ers wound up in the same place: With their guys keeping their jobs, at least for Saturday night’s game.
“I feel like he gives us the best chance,” Harbaugh said in picking Akers. “Suffice it to say we feel confident in David giving us the best chance to win. (He) responded like a football player does. Competed and not really more to say about it.”
Well, there’s a little more to say about it. Harbaugh said Cundiff will remain on the roster, despite Akers getting the nod. It was Cundiff who missed a 32-yard field goal in the AFC Championship Game last January for Harbaugh’s brother John and the Baltimore Ravens, a kick that would have tied the game in the waning seconds of what was instead a loss to the New England Patriots.
The Packers never felt the need to put Crosby on the hot seat, and he has now made his last five field-goal attempts. He’s now 22 for 34 on the year, while Akers is 29 of 42.
“He went through a progression of his work and then putting it together on the field. His performance in the games has been solid. I feel good about where he is,” Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said of Crosby. “I think you look at what he’s done the last couple games and how he finished the season. He had some tough times that he dealt with and I think it shows what kind of character he is. He kept working and kept plying his trade. I look forward to seeing him kick.
“You could see when he missed a kick, he’d get disappointed, but I think that’s natural. I didn’t see anything unnatural. He just grinded through it.”
That approach was consistent with Crosby’s personality. Now, he wants to reward his team’s faith in and patience with him.