When The Packers Have The Ball
The Packers offense vs. the 49ers defense is the matchup that people are paying to see. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy is not afraid to spread teams out with four or even five wide receivers and let his franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers pick teams apart up and down the field.
Of course, this is assuming he has the time to find receivers downfield. The biggest question mark for the Green and Gold coming into this game will be how they handle both Justin Smith and Aldon Smith. No doubt defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will look to run stunts and overload blitzes to Rodgers' left side, where third year offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse is in charge of protecting the quarterback's blindside.
Newhouse is unquestionably the Packers offensive line's weak link. In fact, a read of the offensive line from left to right: Newhouse, guard T.J. Lang, center Jeff Saturday, guard Josh Sitton and tackle Bryan Bulaga, is also the ascending order of talent on the line overall. Fangio's front seven is as tough as any in the league, but Justin and Aldon Smith will present a particular challenge for Newhouse and Lang.
One trap that the Packers must avoid is their tendency to want to push the ball downfield on early downs. Both McCarthy and Rodgers can get caught wanting to take big chunks of yardage regardless of what the defense is playing.
While the Packers skill-position players can win against this secondary, Rodgers will need to get the ball out of his hands quickly, and he will need to be extremely disciplined with his eyes when it comes to the Niners' safeties.
I went back and looked at the 49ers' victory over the Saints in the divisional round of last year's playoffs, trying to figure out how the Niners will defend the Packers' spread attack. The Saints and Packers have similar schemes when it comes to getting multiple receivers out in the pattern, and the Niners have a particular way of trying to defend it.
One thing Fangio does an absolutely fantastic job of is making sure his guys don't tip their hands prior to the snap when sending extra pressure. Once the blitz is recognized, there are certainly places they can be exploited, but the Saints fell into the trap of trying to bite off too much more than once.
One such instance is shown below, and it's what Rodgers and company must be wary of. When the corner comes from the slot, with the outside corner playing a good 10 yards off on 1st-and-10, there is a ton of real estate for either outside receiver in the trips set to break off his route once he reads blitz and take a free five-to-10 yards. Instead, the receivers all push upfield in a classic four-vertical look.
Remember, this is 1st-and-10 in the first quarter. The score is 7-0 49ers. There is zero reason for Brees to be pushing the ball downfield into coverage. In fact, it almost seems like he never expects the safety to come over from the middle of the field, most likely because the Niners show a classic two-deep safety look prior to the snap. Instead, it is actually a single-high safety over man coverage.
The Saints do a great job in protection. Brees has plenty of time. Unfortunately, all his receivers are well downfield and the safety simply has to read his eyes. It's a turkey shoot.
Rodgers will need to stay extremely patient throughout this game. Obviously, one way you can bet the Packers will try to blunt the 49ers' pass rush a bit is by running new tailback Cedric Benson out of a multitude of spread looks. Seven and even six-man fronts from the 49ers in response to multiple wide receivers should give Benson and the Packers' offense a few extra seams to run the ball.
When the 49ers Have the Ball
The 49ers like to run the ball. It's no secret. You can certainly expect a healthy dose of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter, possibly a smattering of second-round pick LaMichael James (who is no lock to even be on the active roster Sunday).
The Packers will no doubt look to go heavy against the Niners' base concepts. You can expect a wrinkle or two from defensive coordinator Dom Capers, perhaps some form of the Packers' "Big Okie" which subs in an extra linebacker for a safety. The Packers have a bunch of nondescript-but-competent guys such as Brad Jones or Robert Francois who they could bring in off the bench.
One key matchup when the 49ers do take to the air will be Packers corner-turned-safety Charles Woodson against Niners' tight end Vernon Davis. While it was in a different offensive system, quarterback Alex Smith and Davis hit on several big plays against Capers' defense the last time they visited Lambeau.
Much has been made about the 49ers' attempt to upgrade their perimeter talent this offseason with the additions of wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham. While you can expect Packers cornerback Tramon Williams to shadow whoever the Packers consider the Niners' best receiver (the thinking here is that distinction will go to Michael Crabtree), you can also expect a healthy dose of zone looks behind Capers' pressure calls.
Moss is a bit of an X-factor, as no one really knows what to expect out of the 35-year-old receiver. Don't be surprised if Capers keeps safety Morgan Burnett over the top of Moss' side a good deal of the time to discourage an old-school moon from rising.
One of the Godfathers of the zone-blitz, Capers had to resort to heavy blitzing last year after it became obvious that no one upfront was capable of getting to the quarterback on their own. Even then, the Packers rarely got home, ending the year with 29 sacks, down from 47 during their previous Super Bowl-winning season.
Working in the Packers' favor is a 49ers offense and offensive line that was absolutely terrible at picking up the blitz in 2011, which is why Gore and the running game are so important. Staying "ahead of the sticks" and in favorable down and distances are the engine for the offense.
Otherwise, when third and long presents itself, you can expect a healthy dose of Woodson blitzing from the slot to go along with Clay Matthews and rookie first-round pick Nick Perry from their outside-linebacking spots.
You can also expect a good number of classic Fire-X blitzes, where both inside linebackers crisscross into the A gap to disrupt the protection.
Enough Already, Who Wins?
This is being billed as a possible NFC title game preview. I tend to think that's a bit much, as the NFL has proven year after year that whatever we see from these teams on Sunday, they will both look different come December and January.
I do expect a bit more offense from both teams than we saw from the Giants and Cowboys on Wednesday night. The 49ers will have success getting to Rodgers a number of times, but he will also make some big plays outside the pocket, both by design and when his protection breaks down.
From Alex Smith, I think he will have a game much closer to what we saw against the Saints than the Giants in the playoffs, but in the end, Rodgers and the Packers make one more play in Lambeau and pull out the win.