For both teams involved, it does not get much harder than the juggernaut San Francisco 49ers and the highflying Green Bay Packers to start the 2013 regular season. As a grandiose NFL debut, fans will be privileged to a show, featuring an unstoppable force versus an immovable object.
This is the heavyweight fight of all heavyweight fights this weekend. Even though the Broncos and Ravens are facing off in a rematch of the AFC divisional playoff game, Fox has declared the opener at Candlestick Park "America's Game of the Week."
It'll be a showdown, too. These are two upper-echelon teams with explosive offenses and gritty playmakers on the defensive side of the football. There is also a recent history between these two, guaranteeing an emotionally fought battle.
At the end of the day, this is game that could fall in the favor of either team and no one would be the least bit surprised. Coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers lead a team that is not too far removed from a Super Bowl, while Jim Harbaugh's Niners came up five yards short just eight months ago.
Considering the ballclub is 2-0 versus the Packers under the new regime, San Francisco has several advantages going into this one. There is a familiarity with this team. The 49ers know what works, and they know what doesn’t. Though, heading into the third match, there is a chance that McCarthy has deciphered Harbaugh's prevailing formula.
All things considered, there are concrete tactics the 49ers can deploy that—in terms of philosophy and system—will still be able to rattle the Pack.
Here are four things San Francisco needs to do in order to topple a visiting Green Bay team in Week 1.
No. 1: Put the Clamps Down
One of the great advantages the 49ers have on any given week is the defense's ability to clamp down and put a stranglehold on the run game, which inevitably leads to the opposition becoming one-dimensional. More often than not, teams get discouraged when every attempt to run the rock is viciously stuffed by Nos. 52 and 53, with the occasional appearance from No. 94.
San Francisco's knack for controlling the line of scrimmage and filling in gaps with the linebackers is unrivaled, and offenses know it. Thus, coordinators want to design a game plan that circumvents the All-Pro linebacking corps, putting the onus on the passing attack to win the contest outright.
This is a common mistake.
Now, if Green Bay wants to push all its chips to the center of the table, it has every right to do so. But it'd be wise not to get antsy. It plays into the 49ers' hand because not only are their defenders equipped to stop the attack, but now they know what it is coming, which leads to less hesitation, more anticipation and, ultimately, big plays like sacks and interceptions.
Though, having added running backs Johnathan Franklin and Eddie Lacy in the 2013 draft, the Packers have options now. They can avoid falling into this trap again. Even if they don't run to excess, at least they pose the threat of run now, which will be the difference. It sure beats their philosophical approach the last two times around.
In Week 1 and the divisional playoff round, Rodgers amassed 83 pass attempts while only being supported by a combined 22 non-quarterback runs. Green Bay went to the air 79 percent of the time versus the 49ers, which is the reason why both times the game looked out of its hands by the second half.
The teams San Francisco failed to get a win against last year include the Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants, St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks and Baltimore Ravens, all of whom ran the ball 30-plus times. Clearly, balance is the formula to defeating the Niners—not necessarily a high-caliber quarterback.
So, what do the 49ers need to do? They have to stop the run.
Once Rodgers is in a mode where he is throwing on every down, it will open the floodgates. Knowing there is less chance of a run play, the 49ers pass rush can pick up speed and the corners can anticipate throws. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will also have more leeway to get creative with the calls.
Moreover, with CBs in tighter coverage and safeties lurking, causing hesitation on the quarterback's part, this could lead to a barrage of QB hurries, second-half sacks, possible picks and an evident momentum shift as the game progresses.
So, as we can see, stopping the run has a profound domino effect.
No. 2: Test Datone Jones, Wear Out Clay Matthews
According to ESPN Stats & Info (h/t Zach Kruse), the 49ers ran the read-option 16 times against the Packers in January for 176 yards and seven first downs (11.0 YPA), giving the offense a real pulse that night.
The improvisational play between quarterback and running back had the defense on its heels, aggressively challenging Green Bay's gap integrity, player discipline and individual reaction time. More than anyone, it tested the unsuspecting defensive ends and outside linebackers, who have responsibility for contain.
By forcing them to commit to either the running back or the quarterback, or even to cover in space, the 49ers eliminated edge defenders from the play without ever having to block them. During the "read" part of the play, the defensive players up front were obligated to make a decision, and by handing it off or keeping it a moment after, quarterback Colin Kaepernick assured that it was often the wrong one.
This type of misdirection and sleight of hand is one of the eminent weapons the 49ers have on offense, and it will be effective again on Sunday.
On the edges, the Packers have Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews returning to command the front seven. This season, he will be complemented on the other side by left defensive ends Datone Jones and Johnny Jolly, while Nick Perry plugs in at the outside 'backer position.
Matthews, Green Bay's best defensive player, may be its hungriest one, too.
Sick to his stomach from the 570-plus yards and 40-burger his defense allowed in the divisional playoff round, Matthews has been pining over this game all offseason. The 49ers might not want to give him too many chances to get a hand on the ball-carrier because it could lead to a game-changing play for the Pack.
Instead, the Niners should dodge him while attacking the inexperienced players who were not apart of last year's shameful thrashing. Jones, the rookie from UCLA, only played one snap in preseason before being sidelined with an ankle sprain, via Rob Demovsky of ESPN.
Still working through it, Jones did dress in the final preseason game and looks good to go for Week 1. But even combined with Perry on the left side, that whole edge of Green Bay's front only has five NFL starts worth of experience, which makes it extremely susceptible to the read-option.
By focusing their outside runs and deceptive read-option to that side of the formation, the 49ers can take advantage of the inexperience while tiring out Matthews by making him run sideline to sideline. Another big game on the ground for San Francisco could result in a third consecutive victory against this team.
No. 3: Disguise Blitzes/Coverages; Bait and Hook Aaron Rodgers
When it comes to stopping an NFL MVP, the 49ers are going to have to do more than just line up and play—they'll have to play shadow games with quarterback Aaron Rodgers. This is a battle that will be more cerebral than anything. S.F.'s defense has to respect the football acumen of No. 12, combined with his undeniable talent to surgically pick teams apart.
They'll be looking to set Rodgers up over the course of a drive—or a quarter for that matter. For 60 minutes, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will be fully engaged in a fast-paced chess match with the MVP-caliber quarterback and coach Mike McCarthy, as both parties try to anticipate and counter each other's moves.
The last two times around, Fangio got the better of McCarthy. He'll have to up his game if he wants to go for the hat trick.
Now, while the man coverage by the secondary was pretty standard—and there was a lot of it—the play from the defensive front was more than meets the eye. To disrupt Rodgers in the pocket and prevent him from finding a rhythm, Fangio concocted a significant amount of edge pressure, bringing Texas stunts (via Matt Miller), zone blitzes and other disguised rushes.
The 49ers trusted their corners and safeties to win on the back end while putting the onus on the front seven to cut the play off at the head. Now, when you have a defensive front with five All-Pros, there is a lot of freedom when it comes to play-calling. The 49ers know their guys can handle the assignments.
Moreover, their inside 'backers are highly instinctual, so the Niners can let them roam free and use their natural talent to win the down.
One such instance was from Week 1 last season at Lambeau Field, when two-time All-Pro LB NaVorro Bowman made the defensive play of the game, all but sealing the victory for San Francisco. Let's take a look.
The Packers came out in their "20" personnel, with two backs signaling a potential run while three wide receivers spread the rest of the defense out. The 49ers decided to counter with their base personnel in what looked to be straight man coverage. The one oddity: San Francisco put rush linebacker Aldon Smith out in front of wideout Greg Jennings, who was lined up in the slot.
That looked like a mismatch in Green Bay's favor...if Smith was indeed playing man-to-man the whole way.
The play was snapped!
Rodgers dropped back and followed through with the play-action fake, buying time for his trio of wideouts, all of whom were streaking downfield. This temporarily held the inside linebackers, even causing NaVorro Bowman to bite up on what may have been a potential handoff to Cedric Benson.
At this point, cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers had solid position on the outside receivers, limiting the quarterback's options. However, there appeared to be a ton of space behind the inside linebackers. On the post route from the slot, Jennings looked to be filling in the spot momentarily, having slipped by Aldon Smith.
That was where Rodgers' eyes were.
As we can see from this next frame, Aldon Smith actually wasn't beat by Jennings. After the legal bump within the first five yards, he let him run by while focusing his attention on fullback John Kuhn, who was running a route toward the flat.
Greg Jennings was no longer Smith's responsibility. So, what originally appeared to be man-to-man across the board was actually a mix of man and zone concepts, which threw Rodgers off, especially given how fast an average NFL play is.
The Packers quarterback had already decided where he was going with the ball and intended on pushing it there despite the variable change in coverage.
Bowman read it, climbed the ladder and made an athletic game-changing play on the football. The complex defensive scheme, including the liberty that allowed Bowman to operate as a free-roaming 'backer, helped the Niners capitalize on an oversight by Rodgers.
No. 4: Let Tight End Vernon Davis Run Wild
Offseason buzz from training camp in Santa Clara largely revolved around the possibility of Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis lining up more like a wide receiver—whether it was at the flanker, split end or slot position. In that light, he seemed to be regaining his value as a workhorse TE and a deep threat.
As a big part of the passing offense, Game 1 is a great opportunity to start this year off with a bang.
In the past two games versus the Pack, Davis has an average of 21.75 yards per catch on four grabs. His speed and basketball body make him an intriguing weapon, especially when it comes to drawing mismatches. Once again, he is in line to have some favorable ones, too.
Safeties M.D. Jennings and Morgan Burnett are candidates to be exposed in this matchup, even more so now that San Francisco has upgraded the tight end unit. It will provide the coaches with scheme versatility, allowing the 49ers to move both Davis and rookie tight end Vance McDonald in various spots.
They'll get linebackers occasionally and perhaps a corner every so often, but for the most part, this will be a challenge for the pair of safeties.
Though they are taller defensive backs, Jennings and Burnett can't be expected to run with Davis all day long, while the 6'4", 267-pound McDonald presents a size mismatch on nearly every down. The Niners have their speed guy and rebounder, similar to New England's tight ends from 2010-2012, which will make this a nightmare for a team that isn't equipped to handle the duo.
- This will be the 49ers' first test when it comes to replacing the aerial production left by Michael Crabtree (Achilles). Outside the known playmakers, the coaching staff will have to trust wideouts Kyle Williams and Quinton Patton, as well as the backs and depth at the tight end position.
- In the secondary, San Francisco is also in a position where it needs to depend on rookie free safety Eric Reid and the depth at cornerback. The play-calling will be essential. In terms of covering space, it cannot give Reid more responsibility than he can handle, whereas the veteran corners need to constantly be put in a position that plays to their strengths.
- The 49ers cannot forget about their roots, which is essentially power football on the ground. Their top-rate offensive line sets the tone, and it is a matchup that greatly favors that unit this week. San Francisco should look to run it down Green Bay's throat.
- As much as the 49ers like their daring new approach on offense, ball security cannot get lost in translation. If S.F. does not take care of the football, it will lose time of possession and put this game in Aaron Rodgers' hands.
All statistics are courtesy of ESPN Stats, unless specified otherwise. In-game screen grabs are provided by NFL.com Game Rewind.