49ers vs. Packers: 5 Ways the Niners Can Have Success in Week 1
Ready or not, the San Francisco 49ers' 2012 season opener is here.
For both the Niners and the Green Bay Packers, preparation for Sunday's matchup began long before September.
These well-coached teams have been waiting to wash the bitter taste of playoff defeat from their hungry mouths for months, and you're likely to see two uncharacteristically (for this time of year) refined squads take the field at Lambeau on Sunday.
By now, each side knows the other's weakest links like the back of their hands. The only catch: There aren't many deficiencies to be exploited.
Rest assured, Jim Harbaugh and his staff will have a sound game plan in place. They're pretty adept at adjusting on the fly, too.
No one knows exactly what they'll have in store, but I've compiled a few potential weak points on the Packers roster that the 49ers could find success exploiting—if they so choose.
Here's a look.
Test Cedric Benson's Ball Security Early and Often
When the Pack signed the 5'11", 227-pound ball-carrier in mid-August, many construed it as an upgrade to a so-so corps of running backs in need of a boost.
While this may be true, there is a learning curve that comes with moving to a new city—even for an eight-year vet.
The 29-year-old may be coming off three consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns with the Bengals, but Benson has been piling up numbers in a concerning category as of late.
Benson has coughed up the pigskin 12 times over the last two seasons, turning seven of them over to the defense. The 49ers D tied for the NFC lead with 20 forced fumbles in 2011, and this is the perfect opportunity to catch the running back off-guard while he adjusts to a new playbook.
Of course, we shouldn't expect a heavy dose of Benson, or any Green Bay RB, in Week 1. This is an offense with no qualms over ditching the run game for chunks of plays at a time.
That said, he's going to get some touches. If San Fran can knock a ball loose and get in his head early, the result could put even more pressure on Rodgers and the passing game to carry the load.
Bringing Down the Newhouse
Every time I take a gander at the Packers offensive line in its entirety, the sore thumb that is Marshall Newhouse sticks right out.
I swear the words "Blitz Here" are written across the front of his jersey.
In 2011, the 6'4", 319-pound left tackle (Rodgers' blindside protector, no less) managed to maneuver out of the path of opposing sack masters (he made them look like such) a whopping eight times and allowed 39 QB hurries in all.
What's shocking is that the rest of Green Bay's O-line is rock solid. No one outside of Newhouse allowed more than three sacks last year.
49ers All-Pro defensive end Justin Smith tallied two sacks in the season opener against the Seahawks in 2011, and it's a foregone conclusion that the dynamic duo of he and Aldon Smith (14 sacks in 2011) have to be salivating over this matchup.
Exploit the Yet-to-Be-Named Starting CB Opposite Tramon Williams
The Packers still aren't ready to say (per Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel) who they'll be starting at the right cornerback spot, but QB Alex Smith should be keeping a close eye on that side of the field.
It's no secret that the Packers D struggled in 2011, and top CB Tramon Williams was no exception. But the performance from the typically solid defensive back was nowhere near as disappointing as what the NFL saw from Sam Shields and Jarrett Bush—two corners with potential to start opposite Williams on Sunday.
Green Bay drafted the undersized but impressively instinctive Casey Hayward in the third round of this year's NFL draft to bolster the secondary, so he could see some action as well, but the 49ers are now equipped with a corps of wideouts capable of beating whoever lines up on that side of the ball.
Though it was a result of many teams playing catch-up, no defense allowed more passing yards than Green Bay a year ago, and the additions of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham to join Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Kyle Williams in the passing game could be just what the 49ers need to keep the Pack from zeroing in on SF's potent rushing attack.
We're likely to see Crabtree lining up across from the Packers' No. 2 CB—whoever it may be. My money says the fourth-year WR should kick the season off with a bang at Lambeau this weekend.
Force Packers D into the Nickel Package
The 49ers don't often draw nickel coverage from opposing defenses, simply because Harbaugh and Roman rarely feature three-receiver sets.
As previously mentioned, the 49ers receiving corps has been stocked with skill. If they decide to feature, say, Moss, Crabtree and Manningham all on the field at once, the Packers would be forced to slide All-Pro safety Charles Woodson to the nickel spot in order to cover the slot receiver—presumably Manningham.
Doing this would be of no concern for Woodson personally, but benefit of attacking this defense with three receivers is that the Packers would be left with inexperienced options to replace the former Heisman Trophy winner at safety.
M.D. Jennings, a 6'0", 187-pound second-year DB out of Arkansas St. is the likely replacement, but he played just 10 snaps in his rookie season and would be a substantial downgrade.
If I had Randy Moss included in my arsenal, I'd be forced to bring this look once or twice just to see if there are any openings to be had down the field. Not to mention the havoc that Davis could wreak if Woodson isn't playing as a safety net deep in the secondary.
Punch It Up the Gut
The Packers' 3-4 defense features a couple of hogs up front, anchored by 6'2", 337-pound nose tackle B.J. Raji.
Except the man nicknamed "The Freezer" wasn't such an anchor in 2011, even though his first career Pro Bowl berth would state otherwise.
Raji is a big man with rare mobility, but the star of the 2010 NFC Championship game took a step back after the Packers' Super Bowl run and arguably hasn't been the same since.
If the 49ers' interior offensive line eliminates Raji in the run game, Gore and backup RB Kendall Hunter could be in for a field day.
Behind Raji, Green Bay is nursing a fresh wound from the preseason when they were forced to place ILB Desmond Bishop on IR due to a torn hamstring. Bishop, who logged 115 tackles and five sacks a year ago, will be replaced by second-year man D.J. Smith, with A.J. Hawk next to him on the inside.
Hawk is known as a subpar run defender who can easily be pushed out of running lanes, and Smith has shown potential but it's extremely unlikely he'll step in and replace Bishop with no drop in production.
The 49ers have an offensive line built for blocking second-level defenders, so if the defense plays up to its potential and the offense finds running room in between the tackles, there may not be much of a need to unleash much else—even at Lambeau.
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