5 Keys to the Game for the Green Bay Packers vs. San Francisco 49ers
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It's one of the best matchups on the league's schedule for the opening weekend, featuring two of last year's playoff teams. The 49ers advanced all the way to the NFC Championship game, and while the Packers were eliminated earlier than they'd like, they're still a team that went 15-1 last season.
Both teams would love this game to be a preview of this season's conference championship, but that's so far in the future, it won't even be on either's radar. The focus on Sunday will be to simply beat the other team and get their first victory.
A Steadying Influence by Marshall Newhouse
Marshall Newhouse (No. 74)
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Marshall Newhouse can't afford to be picking his quarterback off the ground on Sunday against the 49ers, nor can Aaron Rodgers be on it for that matter.
The Packers' starting left tackle must make big strides from a year ago when he gave up too many sacks for comfort.
In his player grades from last season, Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel put it bluntly:
The numbers weren't pretty. The 10.5 sacks allowed by Newhouse were part of his total of 41.5 pressures, twice as many as anyone else and more than any Packers O-lineman has had in the last 13 years.
People tend to give Newhouse the benefit of the doubt. He was pressed into action when injuries to Chad Clifton and Bryan Bulaga occurred. After sitting on the bench his entire rookie season, 2011 was the first time he'd seen any NFL action.
Newhouse no longer gets a free pass, however. He's the biggest question mark on the Packers' entire offense, and if he doesn't play well, he could be replaced in the starting lineup when last year's first-round draft choice, Derek Sherrod, comes of the physically unable to perform list.
During preseason action, Newhouse was easily better than any of the other options the Packers experimented with at left tackle, including journeymen Herb Taylor and Reggie Wells and rookies Andrew Datko and Shea Allard.
Even so, Newhouse had his struggles with the pass rush and false start penalties in back-to-back games during preseason Weeks 3 and 4.
Not making matters any easier is that Newhouse will spend most of Sunday lined up across from 49ers pass-rushing phenom Aldon Smith, who had 14 sacks as a rookie last season. It will make Rodgers' job much easier if Newhouse can keep him clean; any little help he gets from the tight ends and running backs will be beneficial.
No Malaise by the Offense
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It's getting to the point where it's assumed quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be at the top of his game and bail out the rest of the Packers if need be.
After all, he's been a Super Bowl MVP, was last season's regular-season MVP and holds the NFL's single-season and all-time passer ratings records (122.5 and 104.1, respectively).
Perhaps surprisingly, Rodgers didn't really do all that much in preseason action. He had a completion percentage of less than 50 percent (48.8), threw more interceptions than touchdown passes (two-to-one) and had a lowly passer rating of 53.8.
If it wasn't for two touchdown runs on the ground in the third preseason game when the starters played an entire half against the Cincinnati Bengals, the entire exhibition season might have been considered an utter disaster. It's all fine and dandy that Rodgers had had a pair of scoring rushes, but this is a player who is expected to make plays with his arm and not necessarily his legs.
It's generally considered that the Packers' relative strength is their offense and their weakness is the defense. It's vice versa for the 49ers.
If the Green Bay defense continues to struggle this year or gets off to a slow start, it's going to be up to the Packers offense to score even more points against opponents. If that's the case, the Packers' offense better be ready to hum right out of the gates on Sunday against one of the best defenses in the NFL.
Cohesiveness in the Secondary
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The Packers' secondary frequently seemed out of sync last season.
Tramon Williams and Morgan Burnett would look at each to determine who was at fault for a blown coverage. Sam Shields appeared to regress after a successful rookie season and was eventually demoted during the playoffs, sharing snaps with Jarrett Bush.
The Packers still haven't announced who their starters will be at two spots in the secondary. Whoever fills them better perform better than a year ago, when the Packers gave up the most passing yards in the history of the NFL.
There was literally a four-man competition during training camp between Shields, Bush, Davon House and rookie Casey Hayward to see who the starter would be opposite Williams. Just days before the season opener, the Packers aren't giving any indication who has won the job, but it appears to be down to Shields and Bush.
House is still recovering from an injured shoulder and isn't likely to play, while Hayward doesn't look like he's ready for that big of a role just yet. Bush is listed on the team's depth chart as the starter, but that's not a given.
It's possible the Packers will implement a time-share like they did last year in the playoffs with Bush playing on early downs to utilize his physical tackling ability against the opponent's run game and then turning to Shields on late downs—when teams are more likely to pass—for his coverage prowess.
Whatever player or rotation the Packers choose to use, they'll likely both be playing in the Packers' dime package, so both need to prepared to see action on Sunday against the 49ers.
The Packers' nickel safety position is also still up in the air when Charles Woodson moves to the slot cornerback position in the nickel and dime packages. Either M.D. Jennings or rookie Jerron McMillian will get the nod, but the Packers haven't given any indication who it will be.
No matter who wins these jobs in the Packers' backfield, they had better have good communication skills and mesh better than the secondary did in 2011.
Don't Lose the Turnover Battle
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One of head coach Mike McCarthy's keys to success has always been winning the turnover battle.
Since taking over the job in 2006, McCarthy's teams have been plus-69 in the turnover margin, which ranks No. 2 in the NFL behind the New England Patriots (plus-76). Amazing, considering the drop off from No. 2 to No. 3 is plus-36 (San Diego Chargers).
The reasons for the Packers' efficiency are two-fold.
First, they do a great job at forcing turnovers. Despite having a porous defense last season, they did one thing really well and that was intercepting passes. They had 31 picks last year, which led the league by a large margin with the next closest checking in at 23.
Second, the Packers are amazing at protecting the football. Not only does Aaron Rodgers rarely toss interceptions, but the receivers and running backs on the Packers' roster are gaining a reputation for not fumbling the football either.
Only rarely do the Packers meet their match in the turnover department, but the 49ers are a worthy adversary. They finished first in the NFL in turnover margin last season at plus-28 while the Packers checked in at No. 2 at plus-24.
The 49ers' formula is very similar to that of the Packers. They checked in second to Green Bay with 23 interceptions last season. On the other side of the ball, Alex Smith did a terrific job protecting the football with only five interceptions in 2011.
One player who will be under the microscope is new Packers running back Cedric Benson, who has a reputation of fumbling. Benson has 12 fumbles the past two season and also fumbled in Green Bay's final preseason game last week.
Packers' Specialists Must Match 49ers
Tim Masthay and Mason Crosby
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Pardon the pun, but it's important that Packers specialists Mason Crosby and Tim Masthay go toe-to-toe with 49ers specialists David Akers and Andy Lee.
The kicking specialists of the 49ers both represented the NFC in the Pro Bowl last season and are among the best in the NFL.
As just an example of how impressive their feats were, Akers led the NFL with 44 made field goals last season, 11 more than the next-closest kicker (Mike Nugent, Cincinnati). Lee, meanwhile, led the league in both gross and net punting average (50.9 and 44.0 yards, respectively).
Crosby and Masthay aren't quite in the same category but both had career-best seasons last year and are heading in the right direction.
Crosby was named as the Pro Bowl alternate to Akers last season and for the first time in his career had a field goal percentage above 80 percent (85.7).
Even though Masthay was a middle-of-the-pack punter compared to others in the NFL, he set single-season franchise records in 2011 in both gross and net punting (45.6 and 38.6 yards, respectively).
Special teams always plays a big role in the field-position game and can potentially mean the difference between winning and losing when field goals come into play, so Crosby and Masthay will look to negate any edge the 49ers might have in that department.