Packers-49ers: 5 things to watch
The teams: The Green Bay Packers (0-0) vs. the San Francisco 49ers (0-0).
The time: 3:25 p.m. CDT Sunday.
The place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay.
The TV coverage: WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMSN (Ch. 47 in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 12 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the booth with Pam Oliver reporting from the sidelines.
The coaches: Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy is 69-36 (including 5-4 in the postseason) in his seventh season as the Packers’ coach and as an NFL head coach. The 49ers’ Jim Harbaugh is 14-4 (including 1-1 in the postseason) in his second year as the 49ers’ coach and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series, 30-25-1, and have won eight straight and 13 of the last 14 (including playoff games). The Packers won the most recent meeting, 34-16 at Lambeau Field on Dec. 5, 2010.
The rankings: The Packers’ third-ranked offense was No. 27 in rushing and No. 3 in passing during the 2011 regular season. Their 32nd-ranked defense was No. 14 against the run and No. 32 against the pass. The 49ers’ 26th-ranked offense was No. 8 in rushing and No. 28 in passing. Their fourth-ranked defense was No. 16 against the run and No. 1 against the pass.
The line: The Packers are favored by 4.5 points.
The injury report:
Out – RB James Starks (toe), LB Jamari Lattimore (ankle), CB Davon House (shoulder).
Probable – DT B.J. Raji (ankle), TE Tom Crabtree (shoulder), LB Robert Francois (hamstring), S Sean Richardson (hamstring), RB Alex Green (knee).
Questionable — WR Ted Ginn Jr. (ankle), RB Brandon Jacobs (knee).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Mr. and Mr. Smith: Packers left tackle Marshall Newhouse is going to face plenty of fearsome pass-rushing threats during the course of this season, and he’s not getting an easy one out of the gate with the 49ers and defensive end Justin Smith. Smith was the subject of a fascinating personality profile this week by Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter, and there’s no denying that Smith, who has registered 72.5 career sacks since entering the league with Cincinnati as the No. 4 overall pick in 2001, is a game-changer. But facing another Smith will be another issue for Newhouse.
While Newhouse figures to get Smith when the 49ers are in their base defense, left guard T.J. Lang will be dealing with him, too – on stunts, and when the 49ers go to their nickel defense. In those situations, it’ll be Aldon Smith – an outside linebacker who registered 14 sacks last season – that Newhouse wll have to keep off of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“Marshall is going against a premier pass rusher and the kind of guy who brings a lot of juice to their defense,” McCarthy said. “Justin Smith over there, the (twist) they have is probably the best we’ve seen in quite some time, the way they execute it starting with Justin as the penetrator. T.J. and Marshall will both be challenged.”
Taking away: No one took the football away better last season than the Packers and 49ers, who each had 38 takeaways on the season. The Packers did most of their damage with interceptions (an NFL-best 31) while the 49ers specialize in forcing fumbles (NFL-best 15).
“There’s no question that both teams were very good in that regard last year,” Harbaugh said. As for his team’s knack for it, Harbaugh replied, “It’s clubbing, punching, ripping the ball out. Football players that have a nose for the ball, that can track the ball in the secondary, can see the ball out of the hand of the quarterback when they’re in zone defense (and) have the ability to not turn the football over, to have the proper leverage on the football to counteract that – all of those things are essential.”
On the flip side, both teams also took great care of the ball. San Francisco led the NFL in turnover differential at plus-28, while the Packers were second at plus-24. In fact, it was when the Packers weren’t themselves in their NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the New York Giants – losing three fumbles on offense when they’d lost three fumbles on offense during the 16-game regular season – that their season came to a crashing halt. Newcomer Cedric Benson will have to do a better job of protecting the football than he did in the preseason finale (one fumble) and during his past two seasons in Cincinnati (12 fumbles, seven lost).
“We definitely addressed our self-scout statistics throughout the preseason and we take about taking care of the football every single day,” said McCarthy, whose team committed 10 turnovers (five lost fumbles, five interceptions) in preseason play. “Statistically, coming out of the preseason, we weren’t where we needed to be. It’s a focus for us daily.”
Surprise, surprise: When McCarthy says that preparation for the first game of the season is different than any other, he’s not kidding. Whether it’s his personnel (the No. 2 cornerback, nickel safety and dime cornerback remain something of a mystery) or his philosophical changes on offense, the coach is playing it close to the vest. In terms of schemes and play-calling, McCarthy says that director of research and development Mike Eayrs’ studies indicate that roughly 25 percent of the looks the Packers will see from an opponent in an opener will be unscouted. When asked how he hopes his players react when they see something they haven’t seen on film previously, McCarthy replied, “I’m not hoping, I’m counting on them relying on their training. … We just need to trust our training, trust our awareness and play football. This game will come down to fundamentals, like it always does.”
On the flip side, McCarthy insisted that as an offensive play-caller, unscouted looks aren’t a panacea. “I don’t put as much value into unscouted looks as I used to,” McCarthy said. “False expectations – sometimes you think you have a ‘gotcha’ play, but ‘gotcha’ plays are only as good as basic plays, it’s a matter of when you call them and how they’re executed. When you call football games, it’s more about the mindset of the call and what you’re trying to get done, how you’re attacking your opponent. Because the result is really based on the execution.”
Long time coming: It’s possible that most gut-wrenching loss over the last 20 years for Packers fans came at the hands of the 49ers, when Terrell Owens hauled in Steve Young’s game-winner in the 1998 NFC Wild Card playoffs. The infamous “Fourth-and-26” loss to Philadelphia in the 2003 NFC Divisional Playoffs is in the conversation, too, but The Catch II put an end to the Mike Holmgren era, stopped the Packers’ bid for a third straight Super Bowl berth and was the final game in a Packers uniform for Reggie White and others. The 49ers haven’t beaten he Packers since, with the Packers winning the last nine regular-season meetings, dating back to San Francisco’s last victory on Nov. 4, 1990 – when the quarterbacks were Joe Montana and Don Majkowski. (And the referee was Ed Hochuli.)
What will all this mean Sunday? Absolutely nothing. And that’s the point. While such streak statistics make for interesting conversation, they mean nothing on game day. What will matter more will be how much of an impact the 49ers’ offseason offensive acquisitions have (Randy Moss, Mario Manningham); whether Packers cornerback/safety Charles Woodson handles Vernon Davis. In fact, that matchup could be one that decides the day. In the team’s 2010 meeting, Davis had four catches for 126 yards, including a 66-yard touchdown down the vacant middle of the field. “He’s a heck of a football player, a very talented man with his ability to run vertically,” McCarthy said of Davis. “I think everybody remembers when he came out of the draft his speed, along with his size and strength. He was able to have some vertical success here at Lambeau the last time we played, but he’s done it all. I think he’s really polished his game.”
Joined at the hip: Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith will be forever linked because of what happened at the top of the 2005 NFL Draft: The 49ers opted for Smith and Rodgers tumbled down the draft board all the way to the Packers at No. 24. (Perhaps you’ve heard that story once or twice.) While Rodgers led the Packers to the Super Bowl XLV title in 2010 and won the NFL MVP last year, Smith was viewed as an effective “game manager” last season, when he threw 17 touchdown passes and just five interceptions when the 49ers reached the NFC Championship Game, losing to the eventual Super Bowl-champion New York Giants. In a conference call with Bay Area reporters this week, Rodgers supported Smith, with whom he’s gotten closer in recent years.
When asked about Smith being a game manager, Rodgers replied by saying that the term was “condescending,” adding, “I don’t think he’s a game manager. He’s a guy that takes care of the football and makes a lot of plays. To throw (445) times and only throw five interceptions, I don’t think he gets the respect he deserves. … I’ve been friends with him since we were 21 and I’ve followed his career. It’s been nice to be able to reconnect over the last year or so. I definitely pull for him and I enjoy watching him play.” Meanwhile McCarthy, who was San Francisco’s offensive coordinator in 2005 when the 49ers passed on Rodgers to take Smith, also defended Smith because of the many offensive systems he’s had to play in with the 49ers.
There are those who insist the 49ers defense, which ranked second in the NFL last year in scoring defense and fourth in overall defense, isn’t as good as its ranking last year. The theory goes that they faced inferior competition in their division (the NFC West was among the weakest in the league) and failed to deliver in the postseason, getting gashed by the New Orleans Saints and the Giants. If that’s true, expect Rodgers & Co. to exploit San Francisco’s weakness (coverage) and put up points. The guess here is that the home team wins in a struggle, with its much-maligned defense as a main storyline. Packers 21, 49ers 16. (Last season’s record: 12-5.)
– Jason Wilde