What to Look for in Sunday's Packers-49ers Showdown
NFL rematches are never boring, especially when it is between two juggernauts like the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers. Realistic expectations for both teams is a Super Bowl championship, which is why there is bad blood between them—in the same conference, they’re standing directly in each other’s way.
Not to mention, two years removed from winning a Lombardi Trophy of their own, the Packers falling 0-2 to a resurgent 49ers team has left a bad taste in their mouth. Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews are eager to prove they're still the criteria for success in the league, not the 49ers.
This is very much a battle for league supremacy, setting the tone for the 2013 season.
For a full-scale guide of what to expect in this weekend's grudge match, check out the following preview of America's Game of the Week.
Who Is Vance McDonald?
Hailing from Rice University, TE Vance McDonald will be a key role player for the 49ers, even as a rookie. With multiple tight end sets taking the league by storm—combined with the philosophical approach by this team on offense—he may be a household name sooner rather than later.
In his first year, he is slated to take over for the departed Delanie Walker, who left for a starting gig with the Tennessee Titans in free agency.
According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, the ex-49ers tight end participated in over 56 percent of offensive downs behind front man Vernon Davis. He was an integral component in the offense and Walker did not possess the physical upside as a receiver that McDonald does.
With all of attention Davis is bound to get as a receiver—combined with the unknown factor about McDonald, his pro-readiness and place within the offense—the 49ers rookie tight end could be a silent killer against Green Bay on Sunday.
Don't be surprised to hear his name called on a few occasions.
Second-Leading 49ers WR in Reps Taken
After newly acquired wide receiver Anquan Boldin, there is a bit of a drop off near the top of the depth chart, leading many to wonder who will lead the 49ers in reps at the position behind their No. 1.
Heading into Week 1, the coaching staff named fourth-year pro Kyle Williams as the other starter, via the team’s official website.
It makes sense, too.
Williams is like Michael Crabtree or Vernon Davis, he is a talented offensive player brought in via the draft that has yet to see his potential due to inconsistent quarterback play in years past. He first arrived on the scene in 2010, coming in a class that netted Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati and NaVorro Bowman.
And honestly, Williams has a chance to emerge as the next stud in this group.
All in all, he has an incredible range of physical tools, including top speed, lateral quickness and steady hands—all of which help him look like a complete receiver. And in today’s NFL where the Tavon Austins, Percy Harvins and Wes Welkers are all the rage, there seems to be a fit for a 5’10” pass-catcher that can run (per NFL Draft Scout).
He does possess the type of quickness scouts are looking for in an undersized receiver, which may translate into him being a deep threat as well. With his ability to get behind the defense combined with quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s ability to drop dimes 40-plus yards downfield, there is serious upside here.
It’s a brand new year for Kyle Williams, who is a breakout candidate in 2013.
Also: Rookie WR Quinton Patton expects to be highly involved in this weekend’s game plan, and will rotate in with Williams. In three-plus wide receiver sets, Patton will also be the first guy called from San Francisco’s bench.
Nnamdi Asomugha Is in for Work
According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, the Packers used at least three wide receivers 68.3 percent of the time in 2012. Knowing that, the 49ers can expect to be using three-plus corners on a majority of downs on Sunday.
Over the past two seasons, it wasn’t a problem—the 49ers had a gem in cornerback Chris Culliver to complement Nos. 1 and 2 guys, Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers. But Cully going down with an ACL injury changed everything, leading San Francisco to open a competition at the third corner spot this offseason.
In a battle of three veterans—two returning and one free agent—former All-Pro corner Nnamdi Asomugha won the job outright. He registered a strong training camp in Santa Clara, competing with two guys that are no slouches.
Perrish Cox and Tramaine Brock are very steady and should get in the rotation with the top-three, but will likely take a back seat to Asomugha.
Frankly, the ‘Niners must’ve wanted Asomugha to be the guy to win the job, largely because his ceiling is higher than the other two. When he is on his game, he is as valuable as any starting corner in the league and the 49ers are only asking him to fill in as a rotational player.
This is a good situation for Asomugha, perhaps the best of his career. In an incredibly challenging test in Week 1, it will be interesting to see if the ex-star rises to the occasion, demonstrating that his cataclysmic stint in Philadelphia was a fluke and he is still a viable option on the back-end.
Will Eric Mangini’s Impact Be Apparent?
Outside of the player roster, San Francisco added to its coaching roster this offseason, hiring two-time head coach Eric Mangini away from a desk at ESPN. Now back in a football setting, he will function in a behind-the-scenes role, helping the team scout the opponent on a weekly basis.
Mangini will spend a lot of time watching tape to decipher looks and find patterns, which he can then report to the offensive staff. Now provided with an outsider’s perspective, the 49ers will be more proactive when it comes to winning the chess match that comes with each different opponent.
Visually, fans might see a more fluid, proficient offensive attack.
Nose Tackle Ian Williams Gets His First Start
Big Ian Williams is an up-and-comer that the 49ers really like, which is a great sign seeing as how they don’t play favorites (See: A.J. Jenkins trade). The 6’1”, 305-pound nose tackle is the new starter in the middle, replacing the contributions from Isaac Sopoaga and Ricky Jean-Francois.
In terms of his physical dimensions, he is the purest looking 0-technique lineman the 49ers have had under the new regime.
Under the tutelage of league titan Justin Smith and the ever-so-brilliant D-line coach Jim Tomsula, Williams looks to be in great shape heading into his first season as the No. 1 guy for San Francisco. His insertion could lead to better all-around years from all the key players in the defensive front.
Even though he isn’t a proven or known commodity, Williams—with his size, nimble feet and exceptional push—may greatly impact the play in the box, starting this weekend versus Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith.
He is a sleeper to watch on Sunday, largely because of his ability to push the pocket back and create opportunities for the players around him.
Will Eric Reid Be a Liability in Coverage?
No. 38 is out, No. 35 is in.
This offseason, San Francisco consciously allowed free safety Dashon Goldson to walk in free agency, but followed up by trading up in Round 1 of the 2013 draft for LSU safety Eric Reid. Coming into training camp, the rookie knew he had some mighty shoes to fill.
However, he came in, got in lockstep, competed and won the starting job opposite Donte Whitner, fair and square.
Coordinator Vic Fangio has seemed confident in the young defensive back, while his peers have been impressed with his ability to plug right in where Goldson used to be and stand out in a star-studded group of defenders.
In preseason, Reid was seen using hand signals to communicate with Whitner and the rest of the defense. As the former captain for Les Miles’ Tigers, it is no surprise that he was assertive stepping into that role. So far, nothing about Reid has given the impression that he is a rookie.
Nevertheless, the regular season is a different animal. This will be his first test and he will be pitted against a top-ranked passing offense, spearheaded by the 2011 league MVP, Aaron Rodgers. It would not blow the lid off of any conspiracy theories if No. 12 and Co. immediately went to work, targeting Eric Reid.
One way or another, we’re going to find out a lot about San Francisco’s first-round pick.
#49ers Fangio on S Eric Reid debut: "Sure there's other tms we'd prefer for him to start against. There's no Sacramento States in league."— Janie McCauley (@JanieMcCAP) September 5, 2013
The Debut of the NASCAR Package
The “NASCAR package” was first popularized by the New York Giants—a team that consistently seems to have a surplus of athletic pass-rushers whether they are linebackers, defensive ends or defensive tackles. For the G-Men, the blitz is more about speed than it is raw horsepower.
Their four-man rush is based on their guys being fast, agile and, most of all, bendy.
After three years of rebuilding under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers now have a great blend of speed and power to stock the defensive line with, including three natural edge-rushers that can all play down in a three-point stance.
This means, when the 49ers line up in their four-man front—which they do roughly 60-plus percent of the time—they may have up to three pass rush specialists, not including the big, bruising All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith.
More often than not, the three featured specialists that will look for pressure will be outside linebackers Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Corey Lemonier. With No. 94 hogging double-teams, as well as the caliber of the other three rushers, someone is bound to get free.
The ceiling is there for this to develop into a very effective four-man rush, which is great considering how often the ‘Niners utilize the package.
Moreover, in a game like this, there will be a lot of obvious passing situations by Green Bay. This defense knows it has to get in Aaron Rodgers’ face because if he has all day to throw, he’ll dissect coverages. This way, the 49ers don’t have to send the house in order to generate pressure.
Corey Lemonier looks slimmer, and faster, than I remember him being at Auburn. Really good first-step off the right side. #49ers— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) August 9, 2013
How Will the Packers Stop the Read-Option?
Clay Matthews and the Green Bay Packers defense were the dependent variables for a popular NFL study this offseason, the read-option.
Though used during the season by Washington and Seattle, this cutting-edge wrinkle had its coming out party on the national stage, as quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers posted 176 yards with it (11.0 YPA), via ESPN Stats and Info.
There have been a lot of great articles from college scouts, ex-players and league insiders regarding techniques on stopping it—or at least tips on slowing it down. To name a few, Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller and Matt Bowen, along with Greg A. Bedard of Sports Illustrated have all assembled insightful mockups.
These are all worth reading if you’re looking for a comprehensive breakdown of this new, enigmatic wrinkle.
The Packers know this is coming to some degree or another. Shortly after being eliminated from Super Bowl contention the coaches went to school, trekking down to Texas A&M for insight on the read-option, particularly on how to defend it, via Jim Corbett of USA Today. Whether that adequately translates to game day is another story.
Defenses now have to account for the Read Option on almost every play. So yes, you can take it away, but your pass D will go bye-bye.— Eric Stoner (@ECStoner) August 28, 2013
Who Got Better, Who Got Worse
There is always change over the course of the offseason. Most players take advantage of the time to improve, while others decline by getting out of routine or dilly-dallying by not working on parts of their game that require extra attention. Week 1 can be very telling of who was working hard and who wasn’t.
The player with a hot hand is usually the one that’s been working hard and eager to get back into the swing of things.
Here are a few situations to monitor:
- How about Aldon Smith and Justin Smith? Did that tandem actually get better?
- Where is cornerback Carlos Rogers at in 2013?
- Is Frank Gore’s age starting to show?
- What in the world are the 49ers getting with Nnamdi Asomugha?
- Is Quinton Patton ready for a featured role week in and week out?
- How much better will this O-line be in their second full year together?
- Did Eric Reid catch up to the NFL speed in his first-ever offseason?
How Will Green Bay’s Upgrades Impact the Game?
With their first, second and fourth-round picks this year, the Packers added defensive end Datone Jones (UCLA), along with running backs Eddie Lacy (Alabama) and Johnathan Franklin (UCLA). OL David Bakhtiari of Colorado also looks to play a significant role, checking in as the starting left tackle.
Not a bad group of guys, especially considering their impact on their respective college teams.
It appeared as if Jones, the No. 26 overall pick in 2013, might have an instant impact up front. Green Bay never fully recovered from losing defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins to the Eagles and the idea is that, hopefully, Jones will fill the void in spades. He is a very athletic lineman that fits the scheme of defensive coordinator Dom Capers to a T.
However, going into Week 1, Jones is the third-listed left end on Green Bay’s depth chart behind C.J. Wilson and Johnny Jolly, via the team’s official website. On top of which, he only played one snap in preseason before going down with an ankle sprain, per Rob Demovsky of ESPN.
Once he finally returned to the field in Week 4 of exhibition against the Kansas City Chiefs, Jones was shut out:
Rookies first rounder Datone Jones was blanked in 22 pass rushing snaps.— Bryan Hall (@PFF_BryanHall) August 31, 2013
Guarding Aaron Rodgers is perhaps the single most important job for any one offensive player on the Green Bay roster. If you’re protecting his blindside, it is even more critical. For young offensive tackle David Bakhtiari, he no doubt has butterflies fluttering around in his belly, going into what is easily the most difficult matchup for a tackle’s first-ever NFL start.
Frankly, this poor rookie is going to have his hands full on that side with All-Pro defensemen Justin Smith and Aldon Smith. He’ll be lucky if he isn’t embarrassed—and that is not hyperbole.
Getting back to the running backs, this could conceivably be the difference-maker for the Packers this time around, who are 0-2 against Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco squad. It is imperative for a team to have a balanced offensive approach when it lines up against the 49ers.
This defense is too talented for an opposing offense to zero in on its game plan.
Once Patrick Willis and Co. are in a groove and know what’s coming, the unit as a whole is able to kick it up another notch. Balance keeps them honest throughout the course of a game and holds defensive play-caller Vic Fangio at bay. Ergo, the mere presence of Lacy and Franklin is going to make the 49ers play them differently.
If Green Bay runs the ball to soften up this defense, it has a chance to set up Aaron Rodgers for some daggers down the field. And that's what they ultimately want: to put their best player in an optimal position. With this approach, they’ll get more favorable looks and will be able to take what the defense gives them.