Positional Battles That Will Decide NFC Clash Between Packers and 49ers
The Green Bay Packers host the San Francisco 49ers Sunday in what figures to be one of the best games of Week 1. The two franchises are widely considered among the best in the NFC for 2012, with 28 regular season wins between them last season.
As can be said in most weeks, Sunday's contest will be decided by individual matchups.
Here are the one-on-one matchups that will go a long ways in deciding who leaves Green Bay with a win Sunday afternoon:
Packers LT Marshall Newhouse/LG T.J. Lang vs. 49ers OLB Aldon Smith/DE Justin Smith
No matchup on the field Sunday will be as telling to the outcome of the game as the left side of the Packers offensive line against the 49ers' duo of Aldon and Justin Smith.
As I outlined in greater depth at CheeseheadTV, the 49ers are the best in football at stunting with their outside rushers. Justin Smith is more than powerful enough to push an interior guard into the retreating tackle, which opens up acres of space for Aldon Smith to stunt inside and take open alleys right to the quarterback.
The onus will be on Newhouse and Lang to communicate on the stunts, or Aldon Smith could have a field day Sunday. He may even if the stunts are effectively stopped.
Smith is one of the game's very best young pass-rushers, with an explosive burst on the edge and violent hands. Newhouse will probably need help from a tight end or chipping running back on most snaps.
However, when the Packers give him a one-on-one assignment with Smith, he needs to win the majority of those snaps. If not, Green Bay could be in trouble. The 49ers have to be forced into bringing more than four men on passing downs.
Packers TE Jermichael Finley vs. 49ers LB Patrick Willis
The 49ers tend to use Willis in pass coverage against opposing tight ends, even the athletic varieties like Finley. You may remember the NFC Divisional Game, when the New Orleans Saints got 103 yards and two scores out of Jimmy Graham, who was primarily covered by Willis that afternoon.
The Packers hope they can get similar production out of their seam-busting tight end.
Finley fits the tall, athletic prototype of Graham, but to Willis' credit, Graham made a few spectacular catches against him last January to break open that boxscore. Finley will likely need to do the same Sunday. He has to win a couple of the one-on-one matchups he gets with Willis to loosen this elite defense.
Packers QB Aaron Rodgers vs. 49ers LB Patrick Willis
Most casual fans don't pay attention to the pre-snap action, but watch it Sunday. Rodgers and Willis will be waging their own war before the ball is even snapped on most of the Packers' offensive snaps.
While Rodgers is dissecting the 49ers' defensive look and adjusting protections during the pre-snap, Willis will be attempting to disguise any coverages and blitz packages defensive coordinator Vic Fangio calls for San Francisco.
It's a game of football chess that plays a bigger factor on every play than most realize.
Packers LDE Ryan Pickett vs. 49ers OL
Pickett remains the Packers best run-stopping defensive lineman, so his role Sunday becomes magnified against one of the NFL's better running teams. He needs to remain stout inside to free up lanes for flowing linebackers.
If the 49ers can get their guards into the second level to engage linebackers, San Francisco can control the flow of this game with the run. The best way to defend Rodgers is keeping him on the sidelines.
If Pickett and company makes running the football a difficult avenue for San Francisco, however, the 49ers may need to lean more on Alex Smith to makes plays for this offense. That's probably a winning situation for Green Bay.
Packers LB D.J. Smith vs. 49ers RB Frank Gore
One factor no one is talking about in the lead-up to this game is the loss of Desmond Bishop to the Packers defense. He was the leader, the physical presence at linebacker who would step into a hole and smash someone in the mouth.
Bishop tore his hamstring during the preseason and was put on injured reserve.
Stepping in to take his place is Smith, a 2011 fifth-round pick who played well in limited snaps last season. But starting against one of the most physical teams in football won't be easy for an inexperienced linebacker expected to replace one of the Packers best defenders.
Watch for the 49ers to attack Smith early. They need to see if he can handle a game of this magnitude and physicality.
Packers S/CB Charles Woodson vs. 49ers TE Vernon Davis
While the 49ers are comfortable putting Willis on opposing tight ends, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers was more fond of putting Woodson or another safety on athletic tight ends. He'll have his hands full with Davis Sunday.
Two years ago in Green Bay, Davis caught four passes for 126 yards and a score. He beat Woodson twice on two attempts for 35 yards.
Davis really played well for the 49ers last January, when he caught 10 passes for 292 yards and four touchdowns. Expect Alex Smith to look his way early and often Sunday.
Packers CB Tramon Williams vs. 49ers WR Randy Moss
Most of the NFL contingent is interested in seeing what Moss has left in the tank. He's 35 years old and hasn't played football in 18 months, but the 49ers took on a chance on him still being the deep threat he once was with the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots.
Moss will be able to run. But is there anything else left to his game? Expect to see Williams shadowing him on most downs. If Moss can make just one or two plays down field, he'll be worth it to the 49ers.
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