Packers pass offense vs. 49ers pass defense
Aaron Rodgers set an NFL single-season record for passer rating last season at 122.5. You name it, he dominated. His 45 touchdowns against six interceptions equated to a ratio of 7.5-to-1. Tom Brady was a distant second at 3.27-to-1. His 9.25 yards per pass attempt was fourth-best since the merger in 1970. His career interception rate of 1.80 percent is the best in NFL history by a significant margin. (Neil O'Donnell is second at 2.1 percent.) The point is, Rodgers is the rare quarterback who will make plays down the field but generally avoids mistakes. Or, put it another way, Rodgers wins games but doesn't lose games. His receiver corps is arguably the best in the league, led by Greg Jennings, who leads the NFL in 25- and 40-yard gains over the last five seasons, and Jordy Nelson, who ranked third in the NFL with 15 touchdown catches and second with 18.6 yards per reception. Rodgers will trade sacks for interceptions, so, the sack numbers are high and cast the offensive line in a bad light. The one question mark up front is left tackle Marshall Newhouse, a first-year starter last season who ranked as the worst starter in the NFL by ProFootballFocus.com.
Newhouse is in for a long afternoon, because he will be lining up against All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith, who is a beast with a motor who will provide relentless pressure throughout the afternoon. It's key for the 49ers to get consistent pressure on Rodgers, and they'll be relying on their formidable front seven to do it while only rushing four defenders on practically every down. Those four regularly will include Smith, defensive tackle Ray McDonald and edge linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. The 49ers will occasionally send a fifth man on blitzes, but they know they have to keep defenders back in coverage to defend the onslaught of Rodgers and Co. That will be the responsibility of the starting secondary of cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown and safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner. Those four work well as a unit and will be on the field practically every down while being complemented by solid nickel corner Chris Culliver and extra dime backs Perrish Cox and Tramaine Brock. The Niners will have Pro Bowler Rogers working both in the slot and on Jennings in single coverage. Brown is also a solid cover corner, but the Niners know they must mix their coverages to contain the Packers and keep the damage here to a minimum.
Packers run offense vs. 49ers run defense
Packers general manager Ted Thompson stopped far outside of his box by signing veteran running back Cedric Benson during camp. Benson's age (29 in December) and off-the-field issues typically would take him off the Packers' players-of-interest list, but James Starks can't stay healthy (out with turf toe now) and Alex Green is coming off a torn ACL and can't carry the load yet. Of more importance for Sunday, Benson has fumbled 12 times in the last two seasons, most among running backs. Still, he's a big-name running back who should at least have the 49ers' respect. Benson's rushed for 1,000 yards in each of the last three seasons. That probably won't happen here but the hope is he'll better exploit the natural running lanes created by the Packers' spread offense. Fullback John Kuhn is a favorite in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Up front, guard Josh Sitton and tackle Bryan Bulaga might be the best right side in the NFL. To the left side, T.J. Lang is an up-and-coming guard but tackle Marshall Newhouse is in the lineup to protect the quarterback more than open holes in the run game. Former Colts center Jeff Saturday replaced Scott Wells and will help run a no-huddle attack.
The 49ers had the best run defense in the NFL last year, and the scary thing for opponents is it might be even better this season. The entire front seven returns intact, and that includes three All-Pros in Justin Smith and middle linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, who both are rangy, active tackle machines. Brooks also is formidable against the run on the strong side, and both McDonald and strongman nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga are stellar up front. It will be a battle as both units attempt to establish control of the line of scrimmage. Even though the Green Bay passing attack is to be feared, the 49ers will stick with their standard philosophy of stopping the run first. The Niners will play the Packers straight up against the run with their front seven, which gets help in run support by feisty hitter Whitner at strong safety, and that typically will turn into a front six (minus Sopoaga) on passing downs when San Francisco goes into its coverage packages. The Niners are very difficult to run against on every area of the field; they set a NFL record by not allowing a touchdown run in the first 14 games of the season last year and led the NFL in both fewest yards allowed per game and per rushing play.