How San Francisco 49ers Will Exploit Green Bay Packers Defense
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
When the San Francisco 49ers face off against the Green Bay Packers in Week 1 of the 2013 NFL season, one of the keys will be on how San Francisco's dynamic offense will be able to handle Green Bay's defense.
If everything goes according to plan, the 49ers should have little trouble doing so.
Yet, for that plan to happen, a number of key things need to go into effect. San Francisco will still need to establish the running game. Fortunately in years prior, this has been no problem. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick will have to be back on par with his 2012 self, and now that the league is better prepared for his type of play, Kaepernick and the offensive coaching staff will have to prove as the season progresses that they can make adjustments of their own.
One of the focal points of this season's 49er team will its wide receivers.
In the preseason, we saw almost nothing of veteran Anquan Boldin. Boldin will be ready to go in Week 1. There is no doubting that.
But what of everyone else? Will rookie wide receiver Quinton Patton perform to the level he displayed in the final two games of the preseason? How will the other members of the 49ers' receiving corps contribute?
San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman and head coach Jim Harbaugh will unquestionably have a plan set forth to handle the Packers defense. What it is, though, shall be determined on Sunday, Sept. 8.
On the other side of the ball, Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers will have his hands full trying to figure out how to stop the 49ers' hybrid offense.
The Running Game
As in 2012—and every year dating back to 2005—this year's 49ers offense will rely a lot on the ground game.
Aside from the fact that running back Frank Gore has crested the 30-year-old plateau, San Francisco's running game has relatively few questions.
Perhaps the only significant one at the start of the regular season will be how the team responds to the preseason injury to backup running back LaMichael James. James will reportedly miss 4-6 weeks which hampers San Francisco's backs to a small extent, but not much.
Gore will be fresh in Week 1. That is refreshing news for the 49ers offense.
Last year, San Francisco was fourth in the NFL, averaging 155.7 rushing yards per game. Gore had 1,212 yards, with 112 coming in Week 1 of 2012.
It is worth noting that that Week 1 performance came against the Packers as well.
There is an interesting note, however, regarding Gore's history of Week 1 rushing performances. Over his eight-year career, Gore has rushed for 100-plus yards only once to kick off the regular season. And that was last year. Analysts can dice that up any which way they please.
What it really means, however, is that Gore can still be very effective at what is an advanced age for a running back. Previously, when San Francisco's offense was nowhere near as dynamic, defenses would try and shut down Gore and eliminate the 49ers' best means of moving the ball.
That task will not be as easy this season.
In 2012, Green Bay's defense allowed 1,896 rushing yards over the course of the regular season—16th best in the league. Gore ran 112 yards against them in last season's opener.
He could very well do it again considering how much San Francisco's offense has opened up in one year's time.
With James out, running backs Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon will figure to take over some of the workload.
The Passing Game
For all the talk about the 49ers' wide receiver situation, concerns about the strength of the position have been somewhat overblown.
By all accounts, the passing game should be just fine. Why? Well it is pretty simple. San Francisco had only one legitimate receiving threat at the position last year, Michael Crabtree. Crabtree and Kaepernick's rapport ended up being a key factor in getting the team to the Super Bowl.
Granted, another receiver might have helped them win it, but the fact that they got there with only one top-flight receiver speaks volumes.
Now, Crabtree is out and Boldin has taken his place.
The accolades that Boldin received during training camp are already old news. His strength and excellent hands should fit in well with San Francisco's offensive scheme this season, starting Week 1.
There are other reasons to expect that Boldin could have a breakout debut against the Packers. Cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Jarrett Bush are both questionable for opening day. In addition, Casey Hayward is out for Week 1 with a hamstring injury.
However vulnerable Green Bay's secondary might therefore be is open to speculation, but one can figure that Roman and San Francisco's offense will take full advantage of the opportunity.
What about the rest of the 49ers receivers?
As of now, it appears that Kyle Williams will be the No. 2 guy opposite Boldin. Yet what we see as a starting slot may not last long.
"We do it by committee," Williams told the team's official website via Yahoo! Sports. "It's hard when you [do not] have a guy like Crab. He's definitely a No. 1-type of receiver. You could say the same thing about Anquan."
If one thing is certain, 49er fans are eager to see what rookie Quinton Patton will do in his regular-season debut.
Patton has already generated plenty of buzz this preseason and has developed great chemistry with Kaepernick.
Of Patton, Kaepernick had this to say via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, "He's a great player. He is someone who just knows football. He knows how to get open. He knows how to make plays. I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do for us."
As such, Patton could be a player to watch in Week 1. It would not be surprising to have him break out in his first ever game. If not, expect the 49ers, as Williams previously stated, to rotate their receivers in opposite of Boldin.
Green Bay was 22nd in the NFL last season in passing yards allowed with 3,492. Aside from taking Micah Hyde in the fifth round of this year's draft, the Packers did little to address their secondary during the offseason.
Combine that with a depleted backfield and the 49ers receivers may run rampant through the secondary.
The Aura of Colin Kaepernick
When San Francisco met the Packers in Week 1 of the 2012 regular season, Alex Smith was under center. When the two teams met again in the divisional round of the playoffs, Kaepernick was at the helm.
The two stories had only one thing in common—San Francisco won.
The difference-maker was Kaepernick as CBS Sports analyst Will Brinson wrote in an article grading each team's performance:
The ostrich was freed as Colin Kaepernick destroyed the Packers defense repeatedly. Remember when there was a debate about him versus Alex Smith? LOL. San Francisco ran roughshod over the Packers defense and set a 49ers record for most yardage in a single game.
With that season in the rearview mirror, Kaepernick hopes to emulate the same sort of success he enjoyed against Green Bay in the playoffs last year.
"When the quarterback can run like that, that opens up the arsenal of play-calling," defensive lineman B.J. Raji told the Packers' official website via Yahoo! Sports after the playoff loss. "Obviously if you can't stop the run, that's football 101."
As such, the dynamic playmaking abilities of Kaepernick will create headaches for Green Bay. While keeping him in the pocket will be a primary focus of the Packers defense, putting that focus into practice will be an entirely different manner.
Igor Mello of CBS Sports comments on what Kaepernick hopes to do in Week 1. He states:
The last time Kaepernick played at Candlestick Park, Green Bay could not find an answer for him on the ground. Green Bay's defense allowed at least one passing touchdown in 18 of the last 19 games, including the playoffs last season. Kaepernick should be able to keep Green Bay on their toes as he'll be looking to build off a solid 2012 campaign.
Of course, last year's embarrassing defeat at the hands of Kaepernick and the 49ers left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Packers—most notably linebacker Clay Matthews.
I think for the most part we had the entire offseason to focus on [last year's] loss. We've been noticing the league having quarterbacks who present problems with both their arm and legs.
While the added motivation and preparation will benefit Green Bay to a certain extent, the fact that the Packers defense remains prone to giving up big yards to the opposing offense will offset much of the effort it comes with in this grudge match.
With that stated, fans should not be surprised if Kaepernick pulls off a couple of those patented runs that made him famous in the playoffs. He has a pretty good arm too.
Combine those attributes with the added weapons and experience, and there is no ceiling to what Kaepernick can do this season, let alone Week 1.
Regardless of how each team is fared to perform in any particular game in the season, certain things can alter the course of a game.
Sunday's opening matchup should be no different.
Up to now, this article has mentioned nothing about tight end Vernon Davis. Davis could very well be the sole reason San Francisco has little to worry about regarding its wide receivers.
During the latter half of the 2012 regular season, Davis all but disappeared from the 49ers' offensive scheme. Over the final six regular-season games, Davis totaled a mere six receptions with a long of 27 yards. What was clear was that he and Kaepernick had not developed a rapport.
Expect that to change in 2013.
Davis has been working with the wide receivers and will likely see some time at the position this season, per Josh Alper of NBC Sports. In addition, Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News states that Davis and Kaepernick have developed a chemistry that was lacking last season.
These factors should scare Green Bay.
Davis already creates mismatches for defenses. His size and speed are elements that can prove vital to San Francisco's chances. Combine that with Green Bay's secondary being banged up, and Davis may very well have a big offensive showing for the 49ers this Sunday.
Green Bay's pass rush will also be a factor in Sunday's game.
Last season, the Packers had a total of 46 sacks—fourth in the NFL.
That will be another important element to how San Francisco's offense fares. Yet expect the mobility of Kaepernick, and the dominance of the 49ers offensive line to trump the pressure brought by Green Bay's defense.
The edge here should go to San Francisco, although things could change really quickly if Kaepernick sustains a big hit.
While this has been a topic of discussion as of late, Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee reports that being targeted is not something that particularly concerns Kaepernick.
Another factor worth noting is the Packers signing of former 49er quarterbacks Scott Tolzien and Seneca Wallace.
Tolzien has been sent to Green Bay's practice squad, and Wallace—who was in the 49ers camp very briefly in August—will back up quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Yet the critical component may be the amount of knowledge each quarterback possesses of San Francisco's offense.
Certainly Green Bay did not bring in the tandem strictly to garner information about 49er play-calling as suggested by Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, but the fact that Tolzien, in particular, has detailed knowledge of San Francisco's offensive playbook could factor in to how the Packers handle the 49ers offense.
San Francisco must have considered that too.
An important factor that needs mentioning is the fact that this will be the final opening-day game played at Candlestick Park.
The 49ers are moving next season and Candlestick will be no more. Thus, both teams can expect a raucous crowd getting behind their beloved 49ers. Aside from the final game of this season—whenever that may be—Sunday's opener may very well be one of the loudest games in recent memory.
Teams play off of the home crowd and the 49ers expect no different.
How will San Francisco's offense perform against Green Bay this Sunday?
While this article does not attempt to go into the nuts and bolts of how San Francisco will trump Green Bay's offense this Sunday, the aforementioned factors lend an insight to some of the specifics that will give the 49ers an offensive edge.
There are plenty of other factors too. There is the coaching element, time management, special teams and injuries—all of which can have an effect on the offense.
Yet if the 49ers are able to execute in most, if not all, of the aforementioned facets of the game, there is little reason to assume that San Francisco's offense will not have a big day.
While that is yet to be determined, all the pieces are in place. Fans will just have to wait until Sunday to find out how they fit together.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise stated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.
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