Classic collision course: 49ers vs. Packers

Posted Sept. 01, 2012 @ 11:22 a.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

I did not choose to quibble over the decision by the Pro Football Weekly powers-that-be to make the Cowboys-Giants matchup the Week One “Game of the Week” in the annual PFW Kickoff Issue that hit the streets earlier this week.

The official 2012 NFL regular-season opener, after all, certainly has a lot going for it, with Tony Romo probably wanting nothing more than to outduel Super Bowl MVP and arch-rival Eli Manning on a national stage.

But in my football-watching world, the 49ers-Packers clash at Lambeau Field three days later might be the best game on the Week One slate. With the league’s best offense (the Packers) squaring off against the league’s best defense (the 49ers) on that day, a strong case can be made for this game perhaps being the best game of the year — right off the bat.

Before getting really down and dirty on this game, a key point worth making is that both the Packers’ offense and the Niners’ defense could be even better this season.

In Green Bay, the arrival of RB Cedric Benson has generated a most positive buzz. With Benson added to the RB mix, second-year WR-RS Randall Cobb expected to be more of a receiving factor out of the slot and second-year pro D.J. Williams making more of his presence felt at tight end on specially designed occasions, it’s not a stretch to suggest that the Packers could break the franchise records they set last year in both points (560) and total net yards (6,482).

Could there be any better litmus test for Aaron Rodgers & Co. than the Niners’ stellar defense?

I think not.

It would appear that San Francisco’s front seven is more ferocious than ever. And while most of Niners Nation has been obsessed with the team’s offensive additions (Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and rookies A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James), the under-the-radar addition of ex-Bronco CB Perrish Cox, who has had an excellent offseason, could provide a nice boost for a Niners secondary that will be stretched to its limits this coming season.

What follows are what I consider to be the five key matchups between the Packers’ offense and the Niners’ defense:

5. Packers interior offensive line (OLG T.J. Lang, C Jeff Saturday and ORG Josh Sitton) vs. Niners NT Isaac Sopoaga

It would not be wise to underestimate the Green Bay spread offense’s production up the gut behind as sturdy a trio of interior linemen as there might be in the league in Lang, Saturday and Sitton. Lang, who was recently locked up long term with a new deal, won the starting OLG job over first-round draft pick Derek Sherrod last August and never looked back. Powerful enough to move defenders at the line and quick enough to block at the second level, Lang might be the Packers’ best drive blocker in goal-line and short-yardage situations. Both Lang and Sitton are nasty maulers with great strength. Sitton, who has the best reactions on the line according to head coach Mike McCarthy, is apparently over the knee issues that limited him last season. Saturday, who worked so seamlessly with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, has fit like a glove replacing Scott Wells at center and wasted no time developing a strong rapport with Aaron Rodgers. On the other side of the line, Sopoaga does not get nearly as much credit as he deserves. Forget the fact that he did not pile up great stats last season, remember instead just how good the Niners’ defense was last season on stopping runs up the middle, which is a direct reflection on Sopoaga’s ability to hold the point. What the surprisingly athletic Sopoaga did best was clog the middle and keep opposing O-linemen from getting to the second level to block stud ILBs Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.

4. Packers RBs (Cedric Benson, Alex Green, Brandon Saine, James Starks and FB John Kuhn) vs. Niners ILBs Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman and SS Donte Whitner

The Packers found out quickly that there was a good reason Benson was once a first-round draft pick. After gaining 1,000 yards each of the past three seasons for the Bengals, he adds a potential inside explosiveness that was lacking in Green Bay’s ground game. With more no-huddle expected from the offense, one-back sets featuring mostly Benson but also Green could be in the offing. On third down, though, there could be more dependence on Kuhn and Saine, who offer better blitz-pickup skills, which, after all is said and done, might be the most important contribution in this offense from the running backs. Starks, who has been limited lately by a turf-toe injury, must be considered a long shot for this game. Primarily entrusted with shutting down Green Bay’s ground game will be Willis and Bowman, who had a combined 233 tackles last season. Willis, who has made the Pro Bowl each of his five seasons, is considered a five-tool LB who plays better downhill than probably any player at his position. Bowman, who has speed to burn, comes close to Willis after a breakout season in 2011. As for Whitner, he single-handedly changed the tone of the classic playoff game against New Orleans last season with his legal helmet-to-helmet hit on Saints RB Pierre Thomas on the opening drive that caused a fumble and knocked Thomas out of the game.

3. Packers OLT Marshall Newhouse vs. 49ers DRT Justin Smith and ROLB Aldon Smith

If the Packers’ have a shaky link on the offensive line, it would have to be Newhouse, who had his share of struggles replacing veteran Chad Clifton at left tackle last season but was certainly serviceable. Newhouse has great footwork and seldom makes the same mistake twice. But he needs to be more physical on a consistent basis, improve his hand usage and ideally eliminate his disturbing tendency to get overpowered by dominant pass rushers. He had all kinds of problems with the likes of Von Miller, Jason Pierre-Paul and Tamba Hali last season, and the Niners’ “Smith Boys” pose a huge challenge. Justin Smith could be the strongest player in the league pound for pound and has a knack for playing his best when it counts most. Aldon Smith was a rookie revelation with 14 sacks and a rare blend of quickness, strength and closing speed. He’s taking on an every-down role this season, which could make him even more dangerous.

2. Packers TE Jermichael Finley vs. 49ers’ pass defense

Because the Packers use Finley all over the field (he will line up in as many as five different positions), San Francisco’s entire back seven must collectively try to stop him, with safeties Dashon Goldson and Whitner plus Willis, who frequently was asked to shadow top threats at tight end last season, at the top of the list. With his exceptional size (6-5, 247 pounds) and blazing speed, Finley creates consistent matchup headaches for opposing defenses, also taking into account his ability to play both outside and inside. Finley's body control and ability to come up with jump balls make him unstoppable at times. But he had way too many dropped passes last season and has been saying this offseason that not over-thinking will help him to do a better job hanging on to the ball in 2012.

1. Packers WRs Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Donald Driver and Randall Cobb vs. 49ers CBs Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox

Memo to the Niners' cornerbacks: Nine different receivers caught TD passes last season from Rodgers, who has no peers in terms of ball distribution, in no small part because of all the standout wideout weapons he has at his disposal. Jennings, who had a concussion earlier this offseason, is ready to rock after missing the final three games last season with a knee injury. He is the best receiver in the league at making the double move and is as smooth a route runner as there is in the game. Nelson might have actually surpassed Jennings as the Packers’ top WR weapon. Coming off a breakout season, Nelson seems to make all his routes look the same before making crisp cuts and exploding out of his breaks. Viewers of the Niners-Broncos preseason game might remember how badly Rogers was burned operating against Denver WR Eric Decker, who caught two TD passes. Decker is 6-3, 218 pounds. Nelson has almost the exact same size (6-3, 217). Jones went to great pains this offseason to get into the best shape of his life. The amazing Driver, who is revered in Green Bay, remains a viable third-down slot receiver. Cobb has a second gear in space that could make life miserable for the Niners' corners. Rogers really fit in well with the Niners last season and quickly became like a coach on the field with his quick grasp of the system. But a growing number of daily team observers believe Brown, who just kept getting better and better last season, has more upside than Rogers. Culliver, who replaced Shawntae Spencer as the team’s third corner last season, plays with a real attitude and has very quick feet. Culliver is really good at changing direction and just loves to tackle. As I’ve already indicated, Cox has been terrific all summer.

In my mind, this game is so big that I plan to focus on a key Niners offensive player vs. a key Packers defensive player in the first of what will be daily “Key Matchups” from every PFW editor all season beginning this Tuesday, Sept. 4.

I'll keep you in suspense on the matchup I plan to write about. Suffice it to say there are plenty of good ones from which to choose.