In today’s “Key Matchup,” PFW’s Dan Arkush focuses on the Niners RBs vs. the Packers’ run defense in this Sunday’s game in Green Bay.
Niners RBs (Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs, LaMichael James and FB Bruce Miller) vs. Packers run defense
While the Niners went to great lengths this offseason to fortify their passing game with additions such as veterans Randy Moss and Mario Manningham and rookie A.J. Jenkins, their 8th-ranked ground game from last season (127.8 yards per game) figures to remain the key to any offensive success the team has this Sunday at Lambeau Field.
A multifaceted ground game spearheaded by Gore, the team’s veteran featured back, could be a major challenge for a Packers run defense missing its leading tackler from last season, ILB Desmond Bishop, who has been placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. Even with Bishop in the lineup last season, the Packers had their share of problems stopping the run. Their 14th-place ranking in rushing yards allowed last season was respectable, but it was offset by the 4.7 yards per carry they allowed (26th in the league).
A major problem for the Packer "D" across the board last season was disturbingly poor tackling, and a major emphasis was placed on improving that aspect this offseason.
The Packers are going to have to make sure they wrap up every tackle against a Niners RB corps that features an array of contrasting styles. Gore is a well-rounded inside slasher who hates to come off the field and is excellent picking up the blitz and catching passes out of the backfield. While he might not like it too much, he figures to be spelled a lot more this season by the likes of Hunter, a quality change-of-pace back with great shiftiness; Jacobs, a proven short-yard specialist (17 TDs the past two seasons with the Giants); and James, a dynamic big-play threat at Oregon who led the nation in rushing yards per game last season (150.4).
Not to be overlooked is Miller, a converted defensive end who did a great job blocking as a rookie.
With Bishop out, the onus will be on his replacement, second-year pro D.J. Smith, who can be expected to play almost every down on Sunday. What Smith lacks in size (5-11, 239) and speed, he makes up for with great awareness and a relentless physical approach very much like that of Bishop.
Up front, the Packers need veteran DLE Ryan Pickett, who led the D-line with 54 tackles last season, and NT B.J. Raji to be at full strength. Pickett has been bothered by a sprained calf, while Raji has had ankle problems, but both say they will ready for Sunday.
One other Packer defender who better be ready against the Niners’ ground game is starting ILB A.J. Hawk, who is coming off possibly his poorest season in Green Bay after signing a five-year contract last March on the eve of the NFL lockout. Against the run in 2011, Hawk was a late reactor who never delivered a real good hit and often took bad angles. He was also typically a step slow and failed miserably to make big plays.
One final note: Don’t rule out backup QB Colin Kaepernick entering the game at some point in a read-option type offense that features his tremendous ability to run against the grain on rollouts.