Green Bay is Exhibit A in an NFL trend that emphasizes mesmerizing passing games above all else, and Aaron Rodgers nearly passed the Packers to an undefeated season in 2011.
The 49ers bucked that trend last year, winning primarily with defense and running back Frank Gore – and they made it farther than the Packers in the playoffs.
And while both teams spent the offseason trying to become more well-rounded, neither is expected to stray too far from their identity in Sunday's season opener at Lambeau Field, a pivotal early NFC matchup that could have an impact on where both teams wind up in January.
"Obviously, what they like to do is grind the ball out, grind away in the trenches, and they're really good at that," Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings said. "And they try to eliminate that on the opposing side. What we do is we spread 'em out and we throw the ball around – and we have fun doing it."
All that fun didn't get the Packers back to the Super Bowl, so they tried to fix their porous defense with draft picks and beef up their running game with the addition of Cedric Benson. The 49ers added a few new pieces to their passing game – including old Packers nemesis Randy Moss.
Those tweaks add intrigue to a pair of potential Super Bowl contenders, but aren't likely to change either team's basic approach.
"Everybody has a formula or team identity they try to play to," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "I thought the 49ers did a very good job playing to their identity. 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."
Still, the addition of veteran wideouts Moss and Mario Manningham, along with the selection of Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins in the first round of the draft, at least opens up the possibility that the 49ers will make more big plays.
Moss one of many new weapons in 49ers’ arsenal
Moss is 35 and was out of football last season, but 49ers quarterback Alex Smith says there's no doubt in his mind that Moss remains a dangerous player.
"A guy like Randy and the unique toolset that he has creates a lot of problems," Smith said. "I think it gives them a lot to think about."
And while Packers fans surely haven't forgotten Moss' heyday with the Minnesota Vikings – including his notorious fake-mooning episode at Lambeau Field – McCarthy is more concerned about what Moss can do now.
"I really haven't seen him this preseason so I don't have a strong opinion on where he is today," McCarthy said. "He's a unique talent and you definitely have to be aware when he's on the field."
While Smith was best known for avoiding mistakes last season – he threw only five interceptions in 445 attempts – he's talking about the possibility that the offense could take a step forward this season.
"We just have so many weapons," Smith said. "So much of this game comes down to matchups sometimes. We have a lot of guys that can do a lot of unique things. I think that's a good problem to have. The more matchup problems you can create the better."
Smith and Rodgers are forever linked by the 2005 NFL draft; the 49ers took Smith with the first overall pick, while Rodgers fell to the Packers at No. 24. That hasn't stopped the two from becoming friends off the field.
And Rodgers said it would be dangerous to discount Smith's potential to make big plays.
"He's a great guy, and a guy who's playing at a high level," Rodgers said. "To have that many pass attempts like he did last year, and then to take care of the football the way he did, didn't get enough credit for the job that he did. That's very difficult to do. And they gave him some weapons this year, and he's going to be a big-time quarterback."
Packers prepared for ‘old-school’ football
But despite their high-profile additions, Packers defensive lineman Ryan Pickett expects the 49ers to remain a run-first offense.
"They're kind of old-school football," Pickett said. "It is kind of rare. It's not normal to face a team like this. You may face one or two teams like this the whole year. And they do it (well)."
And as one of the Packers' primary run stuffers, Pickett says he's up for the challenge.
"I love that challenge," Pickett said. "I wish every game was like this, honestly."
Rodgers is the reigning NFL MVP, and has perhaps the league's deepest group of wide receivers and tight ends at his disposal. But Rodgers has spent part of the preseason talking about the value of an improved running game, led by Benson.
And Rodgers knows he's in for a tough test against the 49ers defense.
"They've got a lot of talent, a lot of Pro Bowl players, a lot of guys that could be Pro Bowl players," Rodgers said. "Justin Smith is kind of the guy that makes it go at times. He's a blue-collar guy, doesn't always get the stats, but 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."
Niners linebacker Patrick Willis talked about stopping the Packers cold – a sign of confidence from one of the league's best defenses.
"We want to make sure when they want to run the ball that they can't," Willis said. "When they want to pass the ball we want to make sure they can't do that either. At the end of the day, we know that they're a good offense."
Prolific Green Bay offense planning to produce again
Green Bay entered last season's playoffs as the favorite to win the Super Bowl after going an NFL-best 15-1. With Rodgers directing the offense, the Packers, winners of 13 straight regular-season games at Lambeau Field, led the league in scoring with an average of 35.0 points – fifth-best in NFL history.
Green Bay hosted the New York Giants in a divisional playoff game, but the offense wasn't sharp and the defense – a weakness all season – struggled mightily in a 37-20 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champs.
"That's a very important game and you want to play your best in the most important games, and we did not accomplish that," coach Mike McCarthy said.
While Rodgers routinely frustrated defenses, setting the NFL single-season record with a 122.5 passer rating and franchise records with 4,643 yards and 45 touchdown passes, his own defense made Packer fans sweat.
Green Bay allowed 4,924 passing yards - the most in NFL history. A poor pass rush contributed to the secondary's struggles, as the Packers' 29 sacks ranked 27th.
"We know that wasn't us. You can look at the tape from the previous years and look at the one last year, and it just wasn't the same," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "We know that, and that's why we came into training camp refocused, ready to go."
The Packers, who are without linebacker Desmond Bishop after he tore his right hamstring in the first preseason game, will start Williams with safeties Charles Woodson and Morgan Burnett, but it is still uncertain who will occupy the other corner position in the opener against an improved San Francisco offense.
Niners looking for boost from revamped attack
The 49ers went 13-3 last season to win the NFC West, and defeated New Orleans 36-32 in the divisional round of the playoffs before losing to the Giants 20-17 in overtime of the NFC title game.
"I think that feeling is still there,'' Smith said of failing to make the Super Bowl. "As much as we all talk about pressing delete on last year ... I don't think that anyone is pressing delete on the taste in our mouth."
Smith threw for a career-high 3,150 yards and 17 touchdowns last year, and his five interceptions were tied for the third-fewest in NFL history with a minimum of 400 attempts. He was playing with a wide receiving corps that was considered one of the league's worst, and that unit managed just one reception in the NFC title game loss.
To give Smith some help, San Francisco found some wideouts with more than a few big games on their resumes.
The 49ers added the Moss after a year out of football along with Super Bowl XLVI hero Manningham. They signed another former Giant in Brandon Jacobs and drafted Oregon's LaMichael James to boost the depth at running back behind three-time Pro Bowler Frank Gore, though Jacobs is uncertain for the opener after suffering a knee injury in the preseason.
Even if he can't, San Francisco feels like an offense that averaged 23.8 points a year ago – 11th in the NFL – is poised to improve.
"We feel, obviously, much further along than we were last year,'' left tackle Joe Staley said.
A matchup of power vs. power
While there are new faces on offense, the 49ers return every starter from a defense that was second in the league in scoring at 14.3 points per game.
Anchored by All-Pros Patrick Willis and Justin Smith and second-year linebacker Aldon Smith, San Francisco became the first team in NFL history not to give up a rushing touchdown through the first 14 games. It allowed a league-low 77.3 run yards per game and three total rushing TDs.
"We have great expectations. We have big hopes. We've got big dreams,'' said Jim Harbaugh, the reigning NFL Coach of the Year.
The defense will likely have its hands full in the opener.
Jordy Nelson had team highs of 68 catches, 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns, while Greg Jennings had nine TD receptions, Jermichael Finley eight and James Jones seven.
"We're deep," said Donald Driver, who had six TDs.
The Packers opted not to bring back running back Ryan Grant, instead signing Benson, who is coming off his third straight 1,000-yard season with Cincinnati.
"I don't know how you would like to quantify it, but anytime you have another weapon on your offense, it certainly helps," McCarthy said.
Can Williams make positive impact returning punts?
The last time Kyle Williams circled underneath a punt that really mattered, the Giants capitalized on his miscues to win the NFC Championship Game.
Williams is likely to get an early opportunity to atone for those mistakes Sunday. With regular punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. questionable to play, Williams is expected to handle return duties against the Packers like he did in place of an injured Ginn against the Giants in January’s title game.
That didn’t work out so well. Williams muffed one punt that led to a New York touchdown, then fumbled another punt in overtime that led to the winning field goal in the Giants’ 20-17 victory.
The 49ers believe Williams has put those gaffes in the past and can provide a spark for one of the NFL’s best return units from last season.
“We’ve always been extremely confident in Kyle back there as punt returner and a kickoff returner,” Harbaugh said.
Williams was a standout in training camp this summer and has distanced himself from the unpleasant ending to last season. Even though the 49ers added veterans Moss and Manningham and first-round draft pick Jenkins to their wide receiver corps this year, Williams’ roster spot never was much in question.
Williams finished second among San Francisco wideouts and third on the team with 20 receptions last year and gave the team’s return units a boost near the end of the season, when he averaged 20.5 yards on two punt returns and 26 yards on four kickoff returns in two December games.
That gave the third-year veteran a chance on the big stage against the Giants after Ginn was injured the week before in San Francisco’s divisional playoff victory over New Orleans. Williams had a 40-yard kickoff return and a 24-yard punt return in that game, but what most people remember are his two turnovers that led directly to half of New York’s points, most notably the winning points.
“If you go by everybody has mistakes, that one obviously was one that the whole world got to see,” 49ers special teams coordinator Brad Seely said. “But I think Kyle’s rebounded nicely. Hopefully he’s learned from it, and we progress.”
Harbaugh says 49ers ‘ready to go’
Ginn handled most of San Francisco’s returns last season, when he finished third in the NFL in kickoff returns with a 27.2-yard average and fourth in the league returning punts with a 12.3 average.
But Ginn suffered an ankle injury in San Francisco’s Aug. 26 exhibition at Denver and hasn’t practiced since. Running back Brandon Jacobs, who suffered a knee injury in the team’s Aug. 18 exhibition at Houston and hasn’t practiced since, also was listed as questionable to play against the Packers.
Williams did not speak with reporters this week. The 49ers have not asked him to tone down the aggressive style that may have contributed to his struggles in the NFC title game.
“That’s the way we want to play. We want to go after it,” Seely said. “I think (Williams) likes to try to attack a little bit more than you will see from some other guys, and I think it’s because he has an extreme amount of confidence in his ability to catch the ball. He’s a really fine catcher, and he’s a guy that can judge the ball.”
The 49ers have not determined who will handle kickoffs in Ginn’s absence. Kendall Hunter and rookie LaMichael James handled all of San Francisco’s kickoff returns during the preseason, combining for a 26.7-yard average.
Harbaugh said that decision won’t be made until game time. But he's eager to get the ball rolling on a season of high expectations after leading the 49ers to a 14-4 finish in his first season as their coach in 2011.
“We’re ready to go,” Harbaugh said. “Guys have worked their tails off, and there’s not much left to dissect or to really talk about. It’s time to go do and compete, compete, compete. Last year was a good foundation you can build from, and I feel like our team’s ready to do that.”