NFC North: Aldon Smith

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Eddie Lacy that the San Francisco 49ers saw in Week 1 at Candlestick Park isn’t the Eddie Lacy they should be studying this week.

The Green Bay Packers running back was tentative, indecisive and a fumbler.

[+] EnlargeDavid Bakhtiari
Benny Sieu/USA TODAY SportsPackers rookie LT David Bakhtiari started 16 games this season and gained valuable experience.
He has been none of those things since then.

The David Bakhtiari that the 49ers saw in the season opener isn’t the David Bakhtiari they should be preparing for this week.

The Packers left tackle allowed outside linebacker Aldon Smith to sack quarterback Aaron Rodgers twice and had his hands full with the pass-rusher most of the game.

He has allowed multiple sacks in a game only once since then.

Almost an entire season has passed since the 49ers last saw the Packers, and perhaps the biggest difference in Green Bay is in their two rookie starters on offense. Lacy became the 1,000-yard power back that general manager Ted Thompson hoped he would be when he picked in the second round last April, and Bakhtiari held together an offensive line that could have fallen apart when veteran Bryan Bulaga blew out his knee less than two weeks into training camp.

Chalk it up to first-game jitters (in Lacy’s case) or just plain old inexperience (in Bahktiari’s case), but neither got off to the kind of start they wanted in the 34-28 loss in their NFL debuts at Candlestick Park.

“I can’t even start to describe how I felt that game,” Lacy said. “That was the first time for me, but it’s in the past, so I’m not too much worried about it.”

For Lacy, his 41-yard rushing game (on 14 carries) was his third-lowest total of the season in a game he finished. The fumble, who landed him on the bench for part of the game, was his only one of the season.

“He admittedly was very nervous for the game,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “So, yeah, Eddie's playing much better, just like any rookie in this league, you know he's got 16 games under his belt now. He knows what to expect, and he's comfortable in the offense, he's comfortable being asked what to do, so yeah Eddie is in a different place today.”

Even his sprained right ankle, which has bothered him the past three weeks, appears to be feeling better heading into Sunday’s NFC wild-card game against the 49ers at Lambeau Field.

Lacy finished with a Packers’ rookie record of 1,178 yards rushing -- the eighth-best total in the league -- and scored 11 touchdowns despite missing nearly two full games because of a concussion.

So what will the 49ers see when they watch film of what Lacy has done since they saw him last?

“I think they’re going to see a confident, hard-running Eddie Lacy,” Packers fullback John Kuhn said. “He's going to be determined, assertive. There’s things that he’s learned throughout the course of the year, he’s a great running back and I think they’re going to have their hands full.”

[+] EnlargeEddie Lacy
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsPackers coach Mike McCarthy says running back Eddie Lacy has learned from his rookie mistakes.
Since Week 5, when Lacy returned from the concussion that kept him out of nearly two full games, he has rushed for 1,127 yards -- the second-best total in the league behind only Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy (1,139).

“He’s a totally different back,” Packers receiver James Jones said. “It’s night and day. He’s a totally different back -- way more comfortable, way more confident. They’ll have to account for him. I know by them watching film and seeing what he’s done during the season they know he’s not the same player he was Week 1. It’s good for us to have him in the position he is now.”

Bakhtiari, who grew up not far from Candlestick Park, is too California cool to show any signs of nerves like Lacy had in the opener. The most he would admit to was this: “I generally have been pretty calm throughout the whole process. Given my level, it was a little higher than usual, but I wouldn’t say I was completely freaking out.”

The fourth-round pick settled into the job relatively easily. After giving up four sacks in the first four games, he went seven straight games and 10 of out of the next 12 without being changed with a sack, according to ProFootballFocus.com. He allowed only four more sacks after the first month of the season.

Among the opponents he faced in his sackless streak were Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs, Minnesota’s Jared Allen (twice) and Chicago’s Julius Peppers. Later in the season, he blanked Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware. His lone disastrous performance came in the Thanksgiving loss at Detroit, where he allowed three sacks (including two by rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah).

“Against different body types and very good pass-rushers, he's done a very good job of handling that,” Packers offensive line coach James Campen said. “And he’s done a very good job of handling success but at the same time he’s had some rough games like Detroit, which was his worst game, and he came back and played his [expletive] off. He’s done a very good job for a young guy to not let success creep into it in a negative way and handling it the right way, but he’s also bounced back every time something’s happened."


The Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers have met so often of late that they’re becoming like division rivals.

Sunday’s NFC wild-card playoff game at Lambeau Field will be the fourth meeting between the two teams in the past 17 months. They played in Week 1 of the 2012 season and again in the divisional round of the playoffs that season. They opened the 2013 season against each other again.

The 49ers won all three games.

ESPN.com 49ers reporter Bill Williamson and Packers reporter Rob Demovsky discuss what, if anything, might be different this time around.

Demovsky: Bill, the Packers have seen quarterback Colin Kaepernick beat them with his feet like he did in last year’s playoff game, when he rushed for 181 yards, and also beat them with his arm, like he did in the season opener this year when he threw for 412 yards. What has he been doing better lately, running or throwing, and how do you think coach Jim Harbaugh will try to attack the Packers’ defense this time around?

Williamson: Rob, he’s been a pass-first quarterback all season as he showed in Week 1. That was his best game of the season. But Kaepernick has been playing at a high level in the past five games with Michael Crabtree back on the field. Kaepernick’s Total QBR during the past three weeks is the highest in the NFL. Rob, I’m intrigued to see what the offensive attack is going to be. We all remember the cat-and-mouse game in Week 1 about the read-option attack that never materialized. I could see the 49ers hitting the Packers with it early to get them off-balance and try to go back and forth throughout the game.

Rob, what do you think the Packers are expecting from Kaepernick this week?

Demovsky: I’m not sure they know what to expect. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers pointed out that last year, the 49ers had the bye week in the first round of the playoffs and therefore had plenty of time to tinker with their game plan and install new looks like the read-option. They don’t have that luxury this time around. That said, maybe Harbaugh didn't use much read-option during the season because he wanted to keep his quarterback from getting hit. Now that it’s win-or-go-home time, maybe he’d be more willing to risk it. Either way, the Packers know they have to limit the big plays -- whether on the ground or through the air -- that have killed them in the previous meetings.

In the opener this year, receiver Anquan Boldin dominated the Packers. Now that Crabtree has returned, what dimension has he added to the offense?

Williamson: It’s changed everything. This is a much better, varied, dangerous offense. Crabtree is not 100 percent, but he is still able to help. It makes Boldin even more dangerous. He was double- and triple-teamed because the 49ers didn't have many weapons. With a trio of Crabtree, Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis, Kaepernick has some firepower.

Rob, do you think the Packers are giving Boldin extra thought this week because of the damage he caused in Week 1?

Demovsky: I’m sure they are, but they've changed the way they cover since that game. They’re more willing to match up Sam Shields on the opponent’s best receiver now, whereas early in the year they simply played Shields on one side of the field and Tramon Williams on the other. They’re also cognizant of what the return of Crabtree means for the passing game. Also, the Packers didn't have safety Morgan Burnett in the Week 1 game and although Burnett has had an inconsistent year, they’re hoping his presence on the back end helps slow down the 49ers' passing game.

From here, the 49ers look as though they have one of the NFL’s best group of linebackers with Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks. What makes those guys so effective and how can the Packers attack the heart of the 49ers' defense?

Williamson: And don’t forget Aldon Smith. The young star has been playing at a high level for the past month-plus. He came back in November after missing five games while receiving treatment for substance abuse. But you are right; Bowman, Willis and Brooks all made the Pro Bowl. They are dominant. Bowman has been playing out of his mind and he is a legitimate NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

Rob, do you think containing the linebackers is the key for offensive success from Aaron Rodgers’ unit?

Demovsky: That’s certainly going to be one of the keys, because they could impact both the passing game when their ability to pass rush and the running game because of how they can clog up the middle, where Eddie Lacy likes to churn out yards. The Packers’ second-level blocking is going to be more critical in this game than perhaps at any time all season. If they let those linebackers get loose, it could spell trouble.

Double Coverage: Redskins at Packers

September, 13, 2013
9/13/13
12:00
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Eddie Lacy and Robert Griffin IIIAP Photo, Getty ImagesEddie Lacy, left, and Robert Griffin III are among the keys to Sunday's Packers-Redskins matchup.
The Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins, NFC division winners last season and playoff hopefuls this season, both lost in Week 1.

That means, barring a tie, when they meet Sunday at Lambeau Field, one of these teams will be in an 0-2 hole to start this season.

“It’s not about, does it make or break your season,” Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III said this week.

ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and ESPN Redskins reporter John Keim break down the key elements to this matchup.

Demovsky: John, let’s get right to perhaps the most closely watched knee rehabilitation in recent NFL history. You’ve watched Griffin’s every move in his comeback from the knee injury. You have chronicled practically every step he has made since, and by now, you’ve dissected the film of Monday night’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. What limitations, if any, did he play with?

Keim: Griffin did not look the same and showed the effects of not playing in a game in the preseason -- and of recovering from major knee surgery in January. Was his knee 100 percent? Everyone says it is, including the doctors. But his game was not 100 percent, as should be expected. Jon Gruden pointed it out a few times on Monday night, showing how Griffin wasn’t always transferring his weight onto his front leg when he threw. In some cases, the line was getting shoved back and provided him no chance to step into a throw. But it was evident early, even when he had that room. It seemed like his reactions in the pocket, especially early, were not where he would want them to be. He also made the worst passing decision of his career, throwing an interception into triple coverage to a receiver who never even appeared open. He finished strong, though most of the passes he completed during this stretch were short throws. Still, he showed a better rhythm. It’s going to take him a few games.

The Packers just played a mobile quarterback; how did they take away Colin Kaepernick's legs -- and how did it leave them vulnerable to the pass?

Demovsky: The Packers did a good job limiting Kaepernick’s running opportunities by playing a lot of zone coverage. That kept the defenders’ eyes on the quarterback, and they rarely had their backs turned to him. However, that meant they couldn’t play as much press coverage as they normally would, and the result was that they gave up massive amounts of yardage to receiver Anquan Boldin, who caught 13 passes for 208 yards, and allowed Kaepernick to throw for 412 yards. Now, it should be noted that the Packers were missing two key players in the secondary, safety Morgan Burnett and cornerback Casey Hayward, who both missed the game because of hamstring injuries.

How much, if anything, do you think Redskins can learn from watching the way Kaepernick and the 49ers attacked the Packers?

Keim: I’m sure there is a lot to learn, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they anticipate different looks in the secondary because of who might be back for Green Bay and because Griffin needs to prove himself as a dynamic threat again. Until he does, I wouldn’t be surprised to see teams play him more aggressively, or at least without as much fear. I’m not sure how long that will last; until he makes them pay, I suppose. But I also think what Washington needs to do more than learning from Green Bay's game is learn from its own. The Redskins killed themselves with penalties and poor decision-making. That meant their bread-and-butter run game could never get going, and their offense sputtered until it was 33-7.

Are Burnett and Hayward expected to play Sunday? If so, how big a difference will that make for the Packers?

Demovsky: Hayward won’t play. He already has been ruled out and is likely to miss at least another game or two. This is the second time he pulled the same hamstring. The first time, he missed a month. He reinjured it Aug. 23, and if it’s as severe, he could be out for a while. Last season, his six interceptions were huge for the defense. Burnett’s injury didn’t seem as bad, and it was somewhat surprising that he missed the 49ers’ game. The Packers hope he can play, because their safety play with M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian was subpar at San Francisco.

Speaking of the secondary, the Redskins were 30th in the NFL last season in passing yards allowed. Are there any signs that will improve this season? I would think Aaron Rodgers would be licking his chops to play against this defense.

Keim: It’s debatable how much they’ve improved. Long term? I think they’ll be helped because two rookies -- starting free safety Bacarri Rambo and cornerback David Amerson -- are playing key roles. Rambo’s big issue is tackling, mostly in the open field. His coverage has mostly been fine, but I don’t think he’s been challenged in a way that Rodgers could on Sunday. I like Amerson’s future, if he remains disciplined with his technique. He’s a better tackler than anticipated. But Washington has issues at strong safety because of Brandon Meriweather's constant injury issues (missed Monday with a groin injury). The Redskins used a cornerback who had never played safety before in his place (E.J. Biggers), and he struggled. Their corners, DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson, do some good things but are not top-line starters. What this group needs more than anything is a better pass rush.

Speaking of the rush, how is the Green Bay offensive line holding up without Bryan Bulaga, and where is it susceptible?

Demovsky: Perhaps surprisingly, Green Bay's young tackles, rookie David Bakhtiari on the left side and second-year man Don Barclay on the right, held up well against the 49ers. Aldon Smith beat Bakhtiari a couple of times for sacks, but Smith does that to a lot of tackles. It’s why he had 19.5 sacks last season. But other than those two plays, Bakhtiari’s first start went fine. Barclay is much improved over last season, when he filled in for Bulaga the final six games. As a unit, the run blocking needs to get much better. Eddie Lacy didn’t have much running room, and when he did, there were penalties -- three of them on left guard Josh Sitton, who is normally pretty clean -- that wiped away the Packers' longest rushes of the game.

Looking at the big picture, one of these teams is going to be 0-2 after this game (barring a tie). If that’s the Redskins, how devastating would that be for them? I know they finished strong last season, but I’m sure they don’t want to put themselves in a hole again.

Keim: It’s a hole they could dig out of with games against the Detroit Lions at home and on the road against the Oakland Raiders in the following two weeks before their bye. But I don’t think any team wants to start off 0-2, especially one that has designs on accomplishing grand things in the postseason, which, if healthy, the Redskins should have. I also think it would depend on how they look against Green Bay. If they play well and lose a close game, it still suggests they’re on a certain path (no moral victories, but more about being headed in the right direction). If it’s an ugly game like it was for nearly three quarters Monday? Then it suggests other issues. That would be difficult for them to swallow. But the one thing I’ve seen with this group, last season and in the previous few, is that they are resilient. Their mindset is a good one for a 16-game season.

I would think if there’s any formula for stopping the Green Bay offense, everyone would use it. But is there a theme to when teams are able to slow this attack?

Demovsky: For about the past year and a half, teams have played the Packers predominantly one way -- keep both safeties back and dare them to run the ball. That’s why they drafted Lacy in the second round. The hope is that teams will start respecting the Packers’ running game and bring a safety in the box to stop it. That would give Rodgers more open space to throw in the secondary. Lacy did not get off to a strong start against the 49ers, but he did have one impressive series late in the game in which he gained 26 yards on five carries. Problem was, he couldn’t get much else done the rest of the game.

Underrated tackles held up well

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Whatever angst the Green Bay Packers had about their starting tackles should have been eased somewhat after their performance in Sunday’s season opener at San Francisco.

Although it wasn’t a flawless performance and there were issues in the running game, rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari and second-year right tackle Don Barclay held up well, especially considering their pedigree.

Bakhtiari was at least partially responsible for both of Aldon Smith's sacks, but otherwise was solid in his debut. Meanwhile, Barclay, in just his seventh career start, showed significant improvement over last season.

A study of all 64 opening-day tackles showed that the Packers trotted out one of the most unheralded combinations in the league. Bakhtiari was a fourth-round pick, while Barclay was undrafted.

Only two other teams had both of their Week 1 starting tackles taken in the fourth round of the draft or lower. They were: the Chicago Bears (Jermon Bushrod, fourth round; Jordan Mills, fifth round), and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Demar Dotson, undrafted; Donald Penn, undrafted).

Based on Week 1 starting lineups, 28 of the 64 starting tackles were first-round picks. Another 13 were drafted in the second round. That accounts for 64.0 percent of the opening-day starting tackles. Only 15 were drafted in the fifth round or later (or were undrafted).

“I know that when you get players that are doing a good job, that’s a tribute to them, not where they were picked,” Packers offensive line coach James Campen said. “It doesn’t matter to me where they were picked as long as they can play.”

Bakhtiari was one of only six rookies who started at tackle in Week 1. Four of them -- Eric Fisher of the Kansas City Chiefs, Luke Joeckel of the Jacksonville Jaguars, D.J. Fluker of the San Diego Chargers and Justin Pugh of the New York Giants -- were first-round picks. Of the six, only the Bears’ Mills was drafted lower than Bakhtiari.

Of course, the Packers didn’t envision a Bakhtiari-Barclay starting tackle combination. Like many teams in the NFL, they used high draft picks on tackles. In 2010, they took Bryan Bulaga at No. 23 overall. A year later, they picked Derek Sherrod at No. 32. Together, they were supposed to be the starting tackle combination for the foreseeable future. But Sherrod still hasn’t recovered from the broken leg he suffered as a rookie and remains on the physically unable to perform list, and Bulaga was lost for the season to a knee injury on Aug. 5.

Tackles are often the key to pass protection, and other than Smith’s two sacks, one of which came when Bakhtiari whiffed on a cut block, the Packers kept Aaron Rodgers fairly clean against the 49ers. The running game, however, was another story. The Packers had only 63 yards rushing against the 49ers.

“Didn’t notice them that much, so that was good,” Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements said of the starting tackles. “They both played well. They got after it, and they were playing against excellent players, and they moved their front four around at times to get different defenders on them, and they reacted well.”
Mathews-KaepernickAP PhotoClay Matthews and Green Bay had all offseason to digest what Colin Kaepernick did to them in January.

The final season at venerable Candlestick Park begins in style as the San Francisco 49ers host the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.

It is a rematch of an NFC divisional playoff game in the same building. The 49ers completely outclassed the Packers on Jan. 12, as first-year starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick and crew had their way with a defense that looked slow and lost in a 45-31 San Francisco victory.

Packers team reporter Rob Demovsky and 49ers team reporter Bill Williamson have plenty to discuss. To the questions:

Williamson: Rob, I think we have to start this off with this simple query: Can the Packers stop the read-option of a Kaepernick-led offense?

Demovsky: Bill, that’s what everyone has wanted to know since Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards against them in the playoff game. The number 579 -- the total yards of offense the 49ers piled up that day -- has been burned into the brains of the Packers’ defensive players. Almost every day in practice during training camp, the defense went off to one end of the field by itself and worked against the read-option. But the Packers haven’t seen any of it in live action since that playoff game, so at this point, there’s no way to know whether they’re any better equipped to handle it now.

Williamson: That’s the thing. Green Bay will be coming into this game nervous. The read-option has been on the minds of this coaching staff and its players all offseason, yet the Packers don’t know for sure if they can handle it any better than they did the last time they saw Kaepernick. Kaepernick and his coach, the always-confident Jim Harbaugh, believe in their system and their personnel. They are going to challenge the Packers right away. I fully expect Kaepernick to come out gunning to make a statement -- a full-tilt San Francisco offense. If Kaepernick has early success, it could open the offensive floodgates. Now, if the Green Bay defense holds Kaepernick early, the Packers will get a confidence boost and should hang around all day.

Rob, just how confident do you think the Packers will be if they get a ton of read-option right away?

Demovsky: Clay Matthews said this week that the Packers know they have to take their shots at the quarterback when he tries to get outside the pocket, and if they do, perhaps they can get Kaepernick to sit in the pocket more, which ultimately is their goal. They want to make him a pocket passer if at all possible. That’s their best chance for success.

There are other issues to this game, of course. Bill, considering the fact that the Packers will start a rookie, David Bakhtiari, at left tackle and a former undrafted free agent, Don Barclay, at right tackle, how big of an advantage does a pass-rusher like Aldon Smith have against Green Bay?

Williamson: Other than Kaepernick and Aaron Rodgers, Smith might be the most important player on the field Sunday. He can change the game by himself, as his 33.5 sacks in two NFL seasons attests. Bakhtiari and Barclay have an incredible challenge ahead of them. It is also bad news for Green Bay that 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith is healed from a triceps surgery. Aldon Smith had all 19.5 of his sacks in the regular season with Justin Smith playing with him, and none in 2012 without him. Having the Smith & Smith show together could mean a long day for Rodgers.

Demovsky: But won’t the 49ers have to respect the Packers’ running game a little bit more with the addition of rookie Eddie Lacy? He looks like their first legitimate running back since Ryan Grant in 2009. If the Packers can establish Lacy on first down, they might be able to keep themselves out of obvious passing situations, and then Aldon Smith wouldn’t be able to tee off and jet-rush up the field on every second and third down.

Williamson: That is certainly the Packers' hope. It is clear that getting their ground game back on track was a focal point of the offseason. This is a passer’s league, but getting yardage on the ground and keeping Kaepernick off the field will surely help Green Bay’s cause as much the relief that it would give Rodgers. But here’s the rub -- San Francisco is a monster against the run. The 49ers allowed just 3.7 yards per rush last season, third-best in the NFL. The Packers will be hard-pressed to break their streak of 43 regular-season games without a 100-yard rusher.

Demovsky: Bill, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about how the Packers are going to defend Kaepernick & Co., but don’t forget that January's playoff game was tied 24-24 midway through the third quarter, and the Packers' offense was having a decent day -- Rodgers throwing for 257 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Can the 49ers secondary hold up against Rodgers and the likes of Randall Cobb, James Jones and Jordy Nelson?

Williamson: A fine point. Look, the Packers are legitimate. They will not be embarrassed in this game. Rodgers is the best player on the planet. He and his receivers must be accounted for. If the 49ers are vulnerable on defense, it might be in the secondary, where they have the oldest defensive backs in the league. Can older players like Carlos Rogers and Nnamdi Asomugha (who may be slowed by a collarbone injury) keep the Green Bay passing game honest? If Green Bay is going to win this game, it’s going to be because Rodgers is unstoppable. That’s possible.

Rob, as we have discussed the major talking points of this anticipated matchup, an intriguing side story has developed. The Packers have brought in a pair of former 49ers backup quarterbacks in Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien. Do you think they can help Green Bay pull out a victory from the meeting room?

Demovsky: I doubt Wallace can. He wasn’t even with the 49ers for a full week. But you'd better believe they’ve grilled Tolzien about the 49ers. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the biggest reason they brought him in, and if they end up cutting him from the practice squad in a week or two. Now, Tolzien probably won’t know much about the 49ers' game plan for this week, but considering he was with them for both meetings against the Packers last season, he likely has a good working knowledge of how Harbaugh wants to go after Green Bay.

Williamson: I’m with you. These moves add some strategy elements, but this is going to be a big-boy game pitting two of the NFL’s finest teams against one another. Once the game starts, this thing is going to all about Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, Kaepernick, Rodgers and Matthews.

Another in a periodic series examining the roles of NFC North newcomers:

We have all debated the potential for Ziggy Ansah's immediate impact as a Detroit Lions defensive end in 2013. Ansah was a late arrival to football, a late bloomer on the NFL scouting scene and was drafted based on his athletic potential rather than his college body of work.

With that in mind, I thought it would be worth looking at how a few other NFL teams have approached the rookie years of pass-rushers drafted under similar circumstances. For various reasons, we can classify the New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul, the San Francisco 49ers' Aldon Smith and the Seattle Seahawks' Bruce Irvin in a similar category with Ansah.

Each player has his own story, but generally speaking, all three were drafted in the first half of the first round with limited résumés but extensive projections based on their physical attributes. The chart shows that none of them started a game and each played less than half of his team's defensive snaps. But even with that controlled playing time, they still combined to post 26.5 sacks between them as rookies.

The Lions have bid farewell to both of their 2012 starters at defensive end, Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch, so there is plenty of opportunity for a rookie to earn a starting job. Veterans Jason Jones and Willie Young are also in the mix, and the Lions drafted an imposing defensive end in 6-foot-7 Devin Taylor who could also compete for playing time.

If nothing else, we know a template exists for a developing pass-rusher to be used in a focused way while still having a highly productive rookie season. I wouldn't be too worried about whether Ansah will be on the field for the first play of games. More important to me is if he is out there for the most important ones -- and if he can influence them.

Earlier: The Minnesota Vikings know they need to have a plan for receiver Cordarrelle Patterson's rookie season.
I took part in a segment on ESPN's "NFL 32" this week, one that focused on the top five draft positions for 2013. My job was to suggest the Detroit Lions' likeliest pick at that spot, and I took the safest route by naming Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner.

Afterward, ESPN's Chris Mortensen said he had heard buzz about the Lions and Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, perhaps the top pass-rusher in the draft. We've noted the inherent risk in drafting Jones, who has a potentially career-shortening condition known as spinal stenosis.

[+] EnlargeEzekial Ansah
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergEzekiel Ansah had seven tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble in the Senior Bowl.
So for the fun on of it on this Saturday morning, let's throw another pass-rusher into the mix: BYU's Ezekiel Ansah, who is known as "Ziggy."

Ansah has a similar build to some of the new-wave pass-rushers that have dominated the NFL in recent years, including Aldon Smith of the San Francisco 49ers and Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants. After lighting up the Senior Bowl with 1.5 sacks and two other tackles for loss, Ansah measured 6-foot-5 and 271 pounds with long arms (35 1/8th inches) at the NFL scouting combine. He ran the 40 in 4.63 seconds and is rocketing up the draft boards of media analysts.

ESPN's Todd McShay has Ansah ranked as the eighth-best prospect in the draft, while Mel Kiper has him at No. 12 Insider.

The No. 5 overall spot in the draft is reserved for elite, blue-chip players. But if the Lions think Ansah will follow in the footsteps of Smith, Pierre-Paul and others, isn't that an elite level?

I've seen several explanations for Ansah's quick ascendance, but here is a thorough take from ESPN's Bill Polian Insider:
Ansah is an outstanding, gifted, physical specimen whose play improved as the season went on. It's hard to believe he only made it onto the field due to injuries ahead of him. He had what some would call an average week at the Senior Bowl, then came in the ballgame and lit it up. He has a real football temperament. He's in the Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis range in terms of his 40 and what makes it more impressive is that he's a big man (6-5 with 35 1/8-inch arms). He lacks football instincts because he simply hasn't played a lot, and his technique is raw, but you don't find players with those kinds of gifts rushing the passer that often. His body of work is limited, but those physical qualities he showed off in Indy and what he has shown on film makes me think someone will take a chance on him in the first round. While offense in the NFL is dictated by strategy and dictating action, defense is defined by reaction and athleticism pays big dividends on that side of the ball. Ansah has plenty of athleticism, and the physical gifts to match.

Just something to consider on a chilly March weekend here in the NFC North.

Final Word: Packers-49ers

January, 11, 2013
1/11/13
1:30
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» NFC Final Word: Packers-49ers | Seahawks-Falcons » AFC: Ravens-Broncos | Texans-Pats

Five nuggets of knowledge about Saturday's Green Bay Packers-San Francisco 49ers divisional playoff game:

Tight matchup: In talking and writing about this game over the past week, it became clear that there truly is no favorite. The Packers and 49ers have the same number of advantages and disadvantages, which makes for what I think should be the most anticipated matchup of the divisional weekend. The 49ers are 2.5-point favorites at home, which basically means Las Vegas would consider this a pick 'em game on a neutral field. ESPN's panel of 14 experts is split -- seven picked the Packers and seven chose the 49ers to win. My NFC West colleague Mike Sando, who is 36-17 in picking his division's games this season, predicts a 28-24 win for the 49ers. Me? I don't make picks. Lucky meeeeeeeee!

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesAaron Rodgers has three consecutive road playoff wins -- just one shy of tying an NFL record.
Rodgers on the road: We've noted that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has three playoff victories on the road in his career, a relatively modest number that nevertheless is two away from the NFL record. And it's worth noting that Rodgers was exceptional on the road during the regular season, even by his standards. He threw 22 touchdown passes and three interceptions in those eight games -- the second-best touchdown-interception differential (+19) in road games during the Super Bowl era. Only Tom Brady (+25 in 2007) has been better. This week, we also noted that Rodgers' low interception rate over his career gives him a head start for consistent playoff success.

Smith factor: Rodgers and the Packers should get an early gauge on how close 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith is to full strength. Smith was a key part of a defense that physically overwhelmed the Packers in Week 1, but he missed the final two and a half games of the regular season because of a triceps injury -- and the 49ers defense took a notable dive in his absence. Over that stretch, the 49ers' sack rate dropped by about half and linebacker Aldon Smith didn't have a single sack. The 49ers forced a turnover about once every 57 plays without Justin Smith as opposed to once every 41 plays with him, and opponents averaged 5.1 yards per play after managing 4.5 yards per play with him on the field.

Defending Kaepernick: The 49ers' bold midseason move to promote Colin Kaepernick to their starting quarterback meets a critical judgment point this weekend. Kaepernick brings a more explosive mixture of running the read-option and throwing downfield, but his ability to handle the pressure of the postseason has not been tested. Although it was an admittedly small sample size, the Packers gave up an average of 10 yards on the six read-option plays they faced last Saturday against the Minnesota Vikings. On the other hand, you have to assume the Packers -- now at full strength with linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive back Charles Woodson on the field -- will send heavy pressure at Kaepernick. The Packers' 40-percent blitz rate during the regular season was the fourth-highest in the NFL. Kaepernick completed 57 percent of his passes against the blitz this season, ranking No. 20 in the NFL. His Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) was 59.6 against the blitz and 86.5 against four or fewer rushers.

Kicking strategy: The teams have taken different approaches with inconsistent veteran kickers this season. The Packers never considered replacing Mason Crosby, who has emerged from an extended slump to convert five consecutive attempts over his past three games. The 49ers' David Akers, meanwhile, struggled for much of the season and has missed four of his past 10 attempts. He will kick in this game only after fending off a challenge from veteran Billy Cundiff, whom the 49ers signed for an extended competition during their playoff bye week.

(Statistics courtesy ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted.)

Blogger Blitz: Don Barclay's big task

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
11:00
AM ET

The development of the Green Bay Packers' running game, and their consistent commitment to it, has been one of the stories of their season. Some of the credit has gone to an offensive line that settled down when coaches decided on rookie Don Barclay as the replacement for injured right tackle Bryan Bulaga, which then allowed T.J. Lang to move back to left guard.

It's only fair to mention, however, that pressure on quarterback Aaron Rodgers has increased over roughly the same span. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rodgers was sacked or put under duress on 28.1 percent of dropbacks over the Packers' final seven regular season games. That was the fourth-highest rate among NFL teams over that span; Rodgers' duress rate was 20.1 in the previous nine games, the 12th-best in the league.

(ESPN defines "duress" as any time a quarterback is forced from the pocket, had his throwing motion altered or faced a defender with a clear path in his line of sight.)

That's why the relatively anonymous Barclay will play an important role in Saturday night's divisional playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers. Barclay figures to get at least a few matchups with 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith, who brutalized another NFC North team -- the Chicago Bears -- for a 5.5-sack game in Week 11.

Rodgers typically plays well in such situations. His 81.7 Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) while under duress was the NFL's best by a long shot during the regular season. But you still don't want to see a pass rusher like Smith running free in a playoff game. Hence, this week's Blogger Blitz.

Related: Elizabeth Merrill's Hot Read profile on Smith.
Rodgers/KaepernickUSA TODAY SportsThe play of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, left, and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick will go a long way in deciding the outcome of Saturday's divisional playoff matchup.
The 2012 season began at Lambeau Field for ESPN.com's NFC West and NFC North bloggers. The San Francisco 49ers had a Week 1 date against the Green Bay Packers, which meant that Mike Sando and Kevin Seifert would be working side by side in a game that figured to be a (early) playoff preview.

Except -- oh, that's right -- Sando got caught up in Russell Wilson-mania, bailed on the trip to Green Bay and left Seifert to chronicle the 49ers' wire-to-wire victory. So it's only fair to let Seifert have the first word in this discussion of Saturday night's rematch in the divisional playoffs at Candlestick Park.

Seifert: Yeah, Mike, I remember turning to you during the game to express surprise at how much better the 49ers seemed that day -- and there was only an empty seat next to me. I know you were busy tracking your guy Wilson, but I can tell you firsthand that the 49ers physically manhandled the Packers that day. They walked into Lambeau, took a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter and never looked back. Both teams have changed since then, but there was a clear physical advantage there. I remember seeing Frank Gore bulldozing into the second level and popping outside, an issue the Packers would face later in the season against Adrian Peterson as well. (Gore gained 72 of his 112 yards outside the tackles.) So I'll ask you: Are the 49ers still as physical of a team as they were in Week 1?

[+] EnlargeJustin/Aldon
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezAldon Smith, left, and the 49ers' defense weren't as productive with Justin Smith out of uniform.
Sando: That’s just how we roll in the NFC West, Kevin. It has become the new Black and Blue division. The 49ers are still a physical team. Their offense is pretty much unchanged from that standpoint. I expect a rested Gore to run the ball effectively. If the 49ers are smart, they’ll involve Colin Kaepernick in the running game, adding another dimension. The big question for San Francisco is whether the defense can be as physical with Justin Smith playing through a triceps injury. Smith will have had 27 days between games by the time he suits up for this one. If he is at full strength, the 49ers will be just as physical now as then. If not, the entire defensive front is compromised. San Francisco doesn’t have great depth along the line.

Seifert: We'll dive deeper into that Smith issue in a bit, but let's pick up with the 49ers' read-option capabilities with Kaepernick. I realize it's a small sample size, but the Minnesota Vikings had some success Saturday night using Peterson and Joe Webb in a similar type of option arrangement. They ran the read-option six times and gained 65 yards on it. Gore isn't as dominant of a runner as Peterson, but I would say Kaepernick is a more reliable scrambler than Webb. Regardless, the 49ers could have some success with it Saturday night. It's a lot to keep track of. But even typing the name "Joe Webb" reminds me what can happen when a quarterback makes his first NFL playoff start. Kaepernick has to be a bit of a question mark in this game, doesn't he?

Sando: Kaepernick is a different kind of question mark. The conventional and advanced stats say he has been as good as or better than Alex Smith. Kaepernick ranks third in Total QBR (76.8) behind Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Matt Ryan is fourth, and Aaron Rodgers is fifth. That doesn’t happen by accident. But the identity of the offense is changing, and the process has been a little unsettling for a team that had a pretty strong identity for more than a year. The offense can be much more explosive with Kaepernick. He has had a couple of 50-yard runs in fourth quarters and his arm strength has opened up the field, but Gore hasn’t been as comfortable running from the pistol formation. It throws off his timing. Vernon Davis has disappeared from the passing game. Kendall Hunter, Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams have landed on injured reserve. Randy Moss’ playing time is up. There has been a lot of change packed into a short window, and there’s a sense almost anything could happen, good or bad.

Seifert: Well, that certainly settles things. Anyway, I was in the Packers' locker room Saturday night after they beat the Vikings, and the team seemed to have every expectation that the 49ers would try to run the ball down its throats, especially with an inexperienced quarterback making his first playoff start. The Packers know Gore steamrolled them in Week 1, but they feel as though they've had a lot of practice against Peterson since then. Even though Peterson had 409 yards against them in two regular-season games, the Packers did a nice job bottling him up in the playoffs. (Most of Peterson's 99 yards in that game came after the Packers had a three-score lead.) But we've now spent, oh, about 800 words discussing Gore and Kaepernick in this matchup and have barely mentioned the two most important words in this game: "Aaron" and "Rodgers." With all due respect to the Smiths, Justin and Aldon, Rodgers will be the best player on the field Saturday night. You can have your Colin Kaepernick.

[+] EnlargeDuJuan Harris
AP Photo/Jeffrey PhelpsDespite his size, DuJuan Harris was effective as a rusher for Green Bay.
Sando: That’s an interesting take on Kaepernick. I think he’s better than that. He went into Gillette Stadium, threw four touchdown passes and had the 49ers up 31-3 on Tom Brady. Kaepernick and Rodgers both have 5-2 starting records since Kaepernick entered the lineup. Kaepernick is averaging more yards per drop back in part because he has taken half as many sacks (since Week 11, when both have been starting). Kaepernick has a higher Total QBR over that span. He has 10 touchdown passes and three picks. Rodgers has 14 touchdowns and three picks. Rodgers is completing 67.6 percent of his passes, while Kaepernick is at 62.5 percent. I’m giving the QB edge to the Packers in this game, but I’m not sure it’s as lopsided as conventional wisdom would suggest. Is Rodgers playing lights out, or was Greg Cosell -- the NFL Films analyst -- right when he said Rodgers is "leaving an awful lot of plays on the field" through tentative play from the pocket?

Seifert: There is no doubt Kaepernick has been productive and efficient. We in the NFC North were his first victims -- the Week 11 romp over the Chicago Bears. But as you're fond of saying, Mike, usually we can find a statistical split to tell whatever story we want to tell. On Rodgers-Kaepernick, I'll just throw out a few things. First, Rodgers enters this matchup having thrown 11 touchdowns without an interception over his past four games. Kaepernick has seven touchdown passes and three interceptions in his past four. Rodgers is 5-2 as a postseason starter and has the highest passer rating (105.4) in NFL playoff history. If my math is right, Kaepernick is winless as a playoff starter. Finally, on Cosell's analysis, I will say that other media observers have made similar suggestions about Rodgers' tentativeness. Ron Jaworski is one. I'm not smart enough to know how many plays Rodgers has left on the field, but I do know I would rather him pass up a few, and take a few extra sacks, than follow a more reckless approach that might hit a few more big plays but also almost certainly lead to more mistakes. Rodgers makes enough big plays; he led the NFL in touchdown passes per attempt (7.1 percent) this season. But he also has the single-best quality for a quarterback in the playoffs: He rarely throws interceptions. Rodgers' career interception ratio is 1.73, the best in NFL history by a long measure. Of all the statistical indicators, interceptions might be the one most directly correlated to postseason success and failure.

Sando: That brings us back to the beginning. Justin Smith and that 49ers defense must affect Rodgers. I’m not sure they’ll be able to do that well enough. Aldon Smith had 19.5 sacks this season, but none after Justin Smith played his final regular-season snap against New England in Week 15. When it comes right down to it, I’m less sure what to expect from the 49ers on either side of the ball. Their special teams also have gone from a major strength to a consistent liability -- at kicker, in the return game and in coverage. The more I think about this game, the more I think Kaepernick has to be Rodgers’ equal, or close to it. That’s a lot to ask, but the 49ers made the quarterback change with this type of game in mind. When I think about the Packers' allowing three touchdown passes to the Vikings’ Christian Ponder in a meaningful Week 17 matchup, I’m inclined to take the 49ers at home. You won’t see me at the betting window putting a wager on it, though.

Seifert: The best thing the Packers have going for them in this game is that they have built a more balanced offense around Rodgers in the second half of the season. If you think back to Week 1, they were such a pass-happy offense that they ran more than half of their plays against the 49ers -- 31 of 61 -- without a single running back on the field. Now they're in a position where they've run for at least 100 yards as a team in six of their past nine games. I think this is a great and fun matchup. Heading west to win a playoff game at Candlestick is tough -- just ask the New Orleans Saints last year -- but it's not impossible to envision a Packers victory. Hopefully Mike joins me this time.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 32, Bears 7

November, 19, 2012
11/19/12
11:47
PM ET


SAN FRANCISCO -- The Chicago Bears extended their run of futility at Candlestick Park, losing their eighth straight at the venue on Monday night in embarrassing fashion, 32-7.

With quarterback Jay Cutler missing the trip as he recovers from a concussion, backup Jason Campbell filled in ineffectively, and suffered five sacks behind poor protection in addition to throwing two interceptions to finish with a passer rating of 52.7.

The defense couldn't bail out the offense, either.

Although the defense had saved the offense seemingly countless times already this season, the turnover finally dried up for Chicago's takeaway-happy unit. The loss marked the first time all season the Bears defense failed to force a turnover.

What it means: The team's 7-1 start certainly brought optimism about its prospects for the season, but the Bears gave up their NFC North lead with Monday's loss and now sit behind the Green Bay Packers with upcoming matchups against Minnesota and Seattle, both 6-4. Having lost now to all three opponents they've faced with winning records (Packers, Texans and 49ers), Monday night's slaughter might have provided somewhat of a reality check for the Bears.

It's apparent they're probably not be the contender they thought they were just weeks ago. But at the same time, the Bears can certainly develop into that. The fact is that the teams that advance deep into the playoffs typically start peaking near the end of November and into December.

So the harsh dose of reality force fed to the Bears by the 49ers on Monday can either derail the club's season or serve as the catalyst it needs moving into crunch time. Only the Bears can determine how they'll respond from this.

OL woes: Perhaps Campbell should have pulled a Cutler and barked at the offensive line, bumped some of them or something to motivate the unit, considering the way it performed in giving up five sacks against the 49ers. As usual, offensive tackles J'Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi served as the most egregious offenders up front. The former seemed confused by San Francisco's twists and the latter once fell flat on his behind when Aldon Smith bull rushed right through him on the way to a sack.

The loss to the Texans last week marked the first time the offensive line finished a game without giving up a sack. The unit has now given up 33 sacks with six games remaining, after allowing 49 in 2011.

Timely signing: It certainly appeared to be the case when Campbell took a hard shot from Ahmad Brooks that left him on the turf momentarily writhing in pain. Largely because of shoddy protection along the offensive line, Campbell suffered four sacks and appeared to be on track to be replaced in the lineup by veteran Josh McCown, who was just signed on Tuesday.

Because there was a penalty on the play, Campbell was able to recover on the sideline and re-enter the game. But the Bears came extremely close to needing to play McCown.

Marshall smothered: Prior to the matchup with the 49ers, none of Chicago's opponents fully committed to shutting down receiver Brandon Marshall. The 49ers did, however, and the tactic worked so well it eliminated a huge chunk of the Bears' passing game by taking out Marshall. Defended by double teams and coverage rolled to him most of the night, Marshall didn't make his first catch until the 10:47 mark of the third quarter.

Marshall hauled in a 13-yard touchdown for his second reception of the night, which also gave Chicago its first points of the night with 3:43 remaining in the third quarter. But by then, San Francisco had already jumped out to a 27-0 lead.

Marshall came into the game averaging 7.4 receptions and 100.4 yards, and left having caught two passes for 21 yards and a TD.

Shoddy safety play: Inconsistency at the safety position seemed to be a hallmark of Chicago defense in recent years, before the team appeared to correct the problem with solid play through the first nine games from Chris Conte and Major Wright. That didn't last, however, as San Francisco exploited Wright and Conte on Monday night by threatening them for most of the night with tight end Vernon Davis, who caught six passes for 83 yards and a TD.

On several occasions, Davis broke free in Chicago's secondary, running wide open with either Conte or Wright chasing only to be overthrown or missed by Kaepernick.

Dating back to last season Conte and Wright had started 15 games together coming into Monday night, holding opposing quarterback's to a passer rating of 63.7 with the duo combining for eight interceptions over that span.

Kaepernick finished with 243 yards through the air and a passer rating of 133.1 and tossed a pair of TDs.

What's next: The Bears take Tuesday off, before returning to practice on Wednesday in preparation for Sunday's game at Soldier Field against the Minnesota Vikings. Focus is key coming off a loss like this with a short week to prepare.

Bears-Cowboys: Luxury of 4-man pressure

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
10:00
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Of all the matchups in Monday night's game at Cowboys Stadium, the Chicago Bears' defensive line might hold the biggest advantage over a Dallas Cowboys offensive line that has disappointed the team so far this season. In fact, there has been so much discussion about the Bears' reconfigured offense recently that I'm not sure if everyone realizes how efficiently their defense -- and their line in particular -- has played.

The Bears' defensive line has 13 of the Bears' NFL-leading 14 sacks. And of that total, 12 have come when the Bears have sent a traditional four-man (or less) pass rush. There are many factors that go into sacks, even in a four-man rush. But suffice it to say, the Bears' linemen have won many of their one-on-one battles this season. Last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bears didn't get their 12th sack out of the standard pass rush until Week 7.

The chart provides details of that improvement compared to the same time frame last season. Overall, the Bears have sent their standard pass rush on 77.5 percent of opposing dropbacks, the sixth-highest rate in the NFL. As we have discussed many times, the luxury of a consistent four-man pass rush is rare and allows defenses to maximize coverage elsewhere on the field.

The uptick in production is more difficult to explain than it is to demonstrate, but one factor has been first-round draft pick Shea McClellin. The Bears have followed a plan we discussed this summer, picking and choosing his spots, much like the San Francisco 49ers did last season with rookie Aldon Smith. McClellin has two sacks while playing 40.5 percent of the Bears' snaps (79 of 195, via Pro Football Focus).

As Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune noted, McClellin has helped form a more competitive environment. The surge has included notable performances from fellow defensive ends Israel Idonije (2.5 sacks) and Corey Wootton (1.5). Defensive tackle Henry Melton (3.0) is off to a strong start, as is defensive end Julius Peppers (2.5 sacks), and nose tackle Stephen Paea (0.5 sacks) has established himself as a starter after making minimal impact as a rookie.

I can't think of a more important matchup Monday night for the Bears. The Cowboys are the NFL's lowest-scoring team, lead the league in false starts and last week allowed their running backs to be tackled behind the line of scrimmage eight times by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Swarming the Cowboys' offense, and quarterback Tony Romo in particular, seems to be the Bears' clearest path to victory.
I took the role of Tom Coughlin in this week's Inside Slant podcast, while partner Mike Sando got all revolutionary in the Greg Schiano sense of the word. Our wide-ranging discussion not only hit the concept of NFL protocol, but it also included how best to approach two-point conversions and how the heck the Philadelphia Eagles are 2-0.

From an NFC North perspective, we noted how Sunday night's game at Candlestick Park provided a stark example of the elevated risk to player safety as long as the NFL uses replacement officials.

You might recall that Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was sacked twice on one play because referee Matt Nicks didn't notice that Stafford's knee clearly hit the ground after getting hit by the San Francisco 49ers' Aldon Smith.

With no whistle blown, Stafford popped back up in one of those chaotic and unnatural situations that leaves a quarterback vulnerable to an unexpected hit. Ultimately, he was dragged down for a second time by the 49ers' Ray McDonald.

The Lions challenged the play and got back the additional yardage they lost between the first and second hits. But a referee is expected to protect the quarterback, not expose him to additional and unnecessary contact.

Related: I also jumped on ESPN Radio earlier Wednesday to wrap up a week's worth of discussion about Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 27, Lions 19

September, 16, 2012
9/16/12
11:36
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Some thoughts on Sunday night's events at Candlestick Park:

What it means: The Detroit Lions fell to 1-1, matching the record of every other NFC North team. It's hard to conjure much criticism toward the Lions on this night, however. They were overwhelmed by a better and more powerful opponent playing its home opener, a result that seemed predictable since the day the NFL released its schedule. It's not as if the Lions botched a bunch of opportunities to win this game. The 49ers might be the best team in football.

For those asking: Lions coach Jim Schwartz and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh shook hands without incident both before and after the game. Finis.

Mixing in the run: The Lions kept it close in large part because of an uncharacteristic commitment to the running game. Before they got into catch-up mode in the fourth quarter, the Lions ran on 22 of their first 40 plays. Quarterback Matthew Stafford had 89 yards passing through three quarters. I don't blame the Lions for their approach; the 49ers' defense is too good to be allowed to defend only half the field. Unfortunately for the Lions, they couldn't convert their possessions into touchdowns. Unofficially, they didn't throw a single pass into the end zone. As it turned out, place-kicker Jason Hanson accounted for most of their scoring with four field goals in five attempts.

Turning point I: The Lions forced the 49ers' first turnover in seven regular-season games during the first quarter, a fumble by kick returner Kendall Hunter. But they weren't able to fully capitalize on it, gaining only two offensive yards, and settled for Hanson's 41-yard field goal. A touchdown would have given them a 10-7 lead and perhaps changed the complexion of the game.

Turning point II: After the Lions made it a one-score game at 20-12 on Hanson's fourth field goal, 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree converted three consecutive third-down receptions. The 49ers then sealed the game on Vernon Davis' 23-yard touchdown reception with 3 minutes, 4 seconds remaining.

Official confusion: Here's one I don't remember seeing before. Schwartz had to challenge a play to prove Stafford was sacked. Midway through the fourth quarter, referee Matt Nicks did not blow this whistle when Stafford's right knee hit the ground at the 49ers' 30-yard line after a hit by Aldon Smith. Stafford popped up and lost another six yards before getting tackled again. Nicks gave the Lions their six yards back after the review, and the decision left the Lions in position to end the possession with Hanson's 48-yard field goal. Nicks' crew also missed clear head shots on both quarterbacks, Stafford and the 49ers' Alex Smith, after scrambles. The blow Smith absorbed from Lions safety John Wendling left the bridge of his nose bleeding.

What's next: The Lions will play at the Tennessee Titans next Sunday.

Final Word: NFC North

September, 7, 2012
9/07/12
1:30
PM ET
» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

History-making: The Green Bay Packers have a nine-game winning streak against the San Francisco 49ers, who haven't defeated the Packers in the regular season since Nov. 4, 1990. (They did knock the Packers out of the 1998 playoffs.) Both starting quarterbacks for this game, Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith, were 6 years old at the time. Eleven of ESPN's 14 experts picked the Packers to win Sunday, but overall it's one of the best Week 1 matchups in recent memory. The teams combined for 28 victories last season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there has been only one opening game in NFL history where the opponents have combined for more. (1999, Minnesota Vikings at Atlanta Falcons.)

[+] EnlargeMarshall Newhouse
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastLeft tackle Marshall Newhouse and the Packers' offensive line will face a fearsome 49ers' rush.
Important matchup: There has been plenty of discussion about the return of 49ers receiver Randy Moss, both to the NFL and Lambeau Field. (People forget he already has been back once since his infamous 2004 mooning, a three-catch performance for the Vikings in 2010.) The Packers' pass defense remains unsettled from a personnel standpoint, but to me the bigger matchup will be the Packers' offensive line against the 49ers' powerful defensive front. Can the Packers maintain the line of scrimmage against beastly defensive end Justin Smith and speedy pass-rusher Aldon Smith? The best way to stop an elite offense, as the 49ers proved in their playoff victory against the New Orleans Saints, is to dominate the line of scrimmage and collapse the pocket. The Packers' defense might have improved, but is it ready to carry the team to victory if the Packers' offense gets overwhelmed at the line of scrimmage? Not sure about that.

Lions' advantage: The St. Louis Rams enter the season on a seven-game losing streak, have lost 33 of their past 40 road games and don't appear equipped to capitalize on the Detroit Lions' injury-riddled secondary. (Safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston aren't expected to play.) All 14 ESPN experts have picked the Lions to win at Ford Field, and this should be an easy Lions victory. One development I'll be watching: How will the improvement of receiver Titus Young, and the presumed emergence of new slot receiver Ryan Broyles, affect the Lions' attack? We saw only glimpses of both players in the preseason. Let's see what they can put on tape Sunday for future opponents to fret about.

Testing Urlacher: The Chicago Bears' revamped offensive scheme will get an early test from the Indianapolis Colts' bookend pass-rushers, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. But if I'm the Colts, I'm doing a little testing of my own. Despite middle linebacker Brian Urlacher's insistence that his surgically repaired knee is sound, there is every reason for rookie quarterback Andrew Luck to test him repeatedly in the deep middle portion of the field. The Colts are heavy underdogs in this game, and aren't likely to win if they play it safe. It's quite possible Urlacher will do his thing and keep the middle mostly clean of big gains. But it would be criminal for the Colts not to at least find out.

Immediate urgency: Almost all of the national attention on the Vikings-Jaguars game has centered on the extent to which tailback Adrian Peterson will play after a 260-day recovery from two torn knee ligaments. But from the bigger picture, this game -- and next week's affair at Indianapolis -- represents a referendum on whether the Vikings can be written off as a rebuilding team. If they have any designs on competing in 2012, based on how their schedule shapes up, the Vikings need to claim victory in both of these highly winnable games. Owner Zygi Wilf told players this week that Sunday is the most important season opener in his eight-year tenure. Suffice it to say, however, the Vikings haven't engendered much national confidence. Six of ESPN's 14 experts have picked the Jaguars to win in the Metrodome.

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