NFC North: Checkdown Charlie
September, 9, 2012
By Kevin Seifert | ESPN.com
AP Photo/Mike RoemerThe 49ers' Chris Culliver breaks up a pass intended for Packers receiver Jordy Nelson. The 49ers appeared to be a step ahead of the Packers the entire afternoon.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When did you know that Sunday wasn't going to go the Green Bay Packers' way? When did you know they were going to lose to the San Francisco 49ers, who ultimately took a 30-22 victory at Lambeau Field?
For me, it wasn't when the Packers unearthed painful memories of their 2011 defense, busting their coverage and letting 49ers receiver Randy Moss get free for a touchdown. And it wasn't when 49ers place-kicker David Akers coaxed the ball off the crossbar and through the uprights for an NFL-record tying 63-yard field goal just before halftime.
No, I thought this game could still be won until the third play of the third quarter. The Packers faced a third-and-1 from their 30-yard line, giving them the kind of run-pass option they so often exploited in 2011. In a two-back set, quarterback Aaron Rodgers faked a handoff to tailback Cedric Benson and began a familiar bootleg to his right.
At that moment, receiver Jordy Nelson was streaking down the right sideline against cornerback Carlos Rogers. He turned inside on the post route and found himself facing double coverage from safety Dashon Goldson.
We wrote last season about that exact formation and play, noting how frequently opposing defenses fell for the fake. Sunday, however, the 49ers had Nelson bracketed. The ball fell harmlessly to the ground. The Packers punted, and for me, the episode was symbolic of the way the 49ers seemed a step ahead Sunday in all aspects of the game.
"They were in one high [coverage]," Nelson said. "The safety was deep in the middle. When you run a post, you run straight into him. Aaron was booting my way, so [the safety] kind of followed the boot as well. That's obviously a play we've run before. They were able to defend it and we weren't able to connect. That's how that went."
Last season, that play worked almost every time. Sunday, it looked tired and almost predictable. The magic seemed gone.
There was little question Sunday that the 49ers were the sharper, smarter and more physical team. They stymied the Packers' running game so well early in the game that coach Mike McCarthy abandoned it, calling more than half of his plays (31 of 61) without a running back on the field, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The 49ers forced Rodgers to morph into a regular Checkdown Charlie -- only nine of his 30 completions traveled farther than five yards in the air -- and they ran at will outside through the Packers' defense.
The question we must ask is whether this was a singular occasion when an excellent team outclasses a really good one. Or was this a warning sign that forces us to recalibrate our thinking about the Packers' prospects? Does karma reveal itself this early?
I lean toward tipping my cap at the 49ers, who put together as impressive of a Week 1 performance as I've seen in a while. And apparently so would Packers cornerback Tramon Williams, who had this to say when asked about how dangerous the 49ers appeared: "I guarantee you this. We're going to be much more dangerous. We ain't worrying about them. They got their win today. We'll see them again."
Said cornerback Charles Woodson: "I feel good about where we're at. I feel we are close. We did a lot of good things today. And there are some things we have to correct."
One legitimate concern, from my vantage point at least, was the Packers' failure to hold their own from a physical standpoint.
We've already noted that the Packers abandoned all semblance of a running game. They got 18 yards on nine carries from tailback Benson and spent much of the game using receiver Randall Cobb as a pseudo-running back. In fact, all of Cobb's game-high nine receptions came when there was no running back on the field.
Meanwhile, 49ers tailback Frank Gore repeatedly burned them on outside runs, gaining 72 of his 112 yards outside the tackles. The Packers used their base defense much more often than normal, knowing they would need an extra big man to help slow the 49ers' running game, but it didn't work.
AP Photo/Mike RoemerThe 49ers' Frank Gore pounded the Packers for 112 rushing yards and a score.
"I just think they outflanked us on a lot of those toss plays," nose tackle B.J. Raji said. "You'd like to think we would have that kind of stuff squared away, but we didn't."
Again, the 49ers might prove to be the NFL's best team by the time the season is complete. But Sunday, at least, we were left wondering if the Packers' magic of 2011 has already faded into the ether.
"It's one game," Rodgers said. "This is a team that was in the NFC Championship Game last year. It's a good team. Hopefully we'll see them down the road in the playoffs."
Based on Sunday, at least, the Packers might want to root for a different draw. At the very least, we can say this wasn't a good matchup for them.