NFC West: Green Bay Packers
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.
San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Asomugha, signed this offseason, will play and be the No. 3 cornerback. He was limited in practice with a collarbone injury Wednesday.
Asomugha will be important against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers passing game. Expect Asomugha to be on Jordy Nelson often.
With Asomugha set to play, the 49ers are pretty healthy heading into this game. Backup running back LaMichael James is expected to be out a few weeks with a knee injury. Other than that, San Francisco is set.
Unless, of course, that trio of consecutive games didn’t count. Such is the case for the Rams, who will play the second of those preseason games Saturday night in Denver against Manning & Co.
Because that murderer’s row is on the exhibition slate rather than the regular-season schedule, the Rams actually view the opportunity to play teams widely considered Super Bowl favorites as a net gain.
The Rams opened the preseason in Cleveland against a team that seemed to plan for the game a bit more than most do for an exhibition opener. Last week, the Rams hosted Rodgers and the Packers, and although Green Bay didn’t have many of its top players active, it didn’t hesitate to throw in some wrinkles that the Rams would see more of in the preseason.
Rodgers’ ability to use play-action was particularly effective and useful for the Rams' defense. Projected rookie starters Alec Ogletree and T.J. McDonald got an important lesson on discipline and maintaining assignments at linebacker and safety, respectively.
Tight ends have been an early headache for the Rams' defense, in no small part because linebackers and safeties have been out of position or blown assignments. Cleveland’s Jordan Cameron had a 30-yard catch in the opener, and last week Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley posted four catches for 78 yards in less than a half.
It won’t get any easier this week against Manning and the Broncos. The third preseason game is generally viewed as the one bearing the most striking resemblance to a regular-season game. That means Manning and his group could play into the third quarter and will likely have some offensive game plan in place.
“Yeah, that’s a huge challenge,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “The guy is brilliant. He’s a machine. He studies the game extremely hard. I have the utmost respect for him. He’s one of those guys you have to hold your look because if you tell him what you’re in, he’s going to figure it out and get that ball out before you can touch him.”
Laurinaitis recalled playing Manning during his rookie season in 2009, when Manning was still with Indianapolis, and marveling at how quick the quarterback would get rid of the ball.
“He got that ball out so fast it was frustrating,” Laurinaitis said. “He doesn’t like to get hit very often and he’s so smart that you can blitz him coming free, and if someone touches him he’s getting the ball out. It will be a great test for our young guys and old guys alike, everybody. It’s a good test to be facing a future Hall of Famer.”
The Rams' offense should be challenged plenty as well. Cleveland defensive coordinator Ray Horton didn’t hesitate to blitz regularly in the first preseason game and the Packers did the same, oftentimes with a loaded run box to force the Rams to max protect.
Denver linebacker Von Miller is still eligible to play and could view playing the Rams as an opportunity to take out some frustration for his six-game suspension. How much Miller plays is unknown, though his first-team repetitions decreased on the heels of the suspension.
The Rams will get an additional conditioning test in Denver as they adjust to the altitude.
Earlier this week, Rams coach Jeff Fisher indicated his starters would play into the third quarter. After disappointing performances in the first two games, the Rams won’t stray too far from their simplistic preseason approach, but they will look to have a bit more success than they did against Cleveland and Green Bay.
Regardless, playing Manning and the Broncos on the road should provide another strong preseason test.
“I think it’s great,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “Obviously, you want to face the best each week. You want to face someone that’s going to make you better. I feel like all of the defenses that we’ve seen have made us better, and we’re just looking to improve each week, to go out and play a clean game, execute what’s in the game plan and really try to limit the penalties.”
Here are five things to watch tonight for the Seahawks:
Tate has been in a good-hearted Twitter exchange all week with Green Bay fans. It will be interesting to see how the Lambeau crowd reacts if he makes a catch, and especially if Tate has a touchdown reception.
2. Penalties. The Seahawks had a whopping 20 penalties for 172 yards in the first two preseason games, including 12 for 107 yards last weekend against Denver.
Seattle has still managed to outscore its opponents 71-20 in those games, but the yellow flags are a concern to coach Pete Carroll.
“We’re trying to clean up some things,” Carroll said. “The penalty area is really a main focus for us. I’d like to see if we can do that. We’ve been incapable of proving it so far, but we’re really pushing hard to get that done. We want to take care of the football and we want to do the things we always do. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a preseason game or if it’s the last game of the year, we’re trying to play them all the same.”
Carroll also is seeking clarification on some penalty calls by the officials.
“We want to make sure that everyone understands what’s being called,” Carroll said. “We took a really in-depth look and are continuing to work with the officials about the penalties, just to understand what they are calling. There are some issues in the kicking game that we have found to be a little unclear.
“We’re not saying that they’re wrong; we’re just saying that we want to know why they are calling what they’re calling. That was the biggest focus. We can’t get that legitimate look out on the practice field when we’re not finishing plays. The issues that we’ve had have come after the play, and you can’t really deal with that stuff in practice. It’s going to take us a few weeks to get rid of these kinds of things.”
3. Marshawn Lynch. Seattle's standout running back hasn’t seen any significant action so far in the preseason. He has two carries for 1 yard in the first two games. Carroll said Lynch will get more carries Friday night, but wasn’t specific about how much Lynch would play. Three skill-position starters won’t play Friday -- receiver Sidney Rice, tight end Zach Miller and fullback Michael Robinson -- so Lynch and Russell Wilson will be the focus for as long as they play.
4. Tony McDaniel. It’s time to find out what the eight-year veteran can do at defensive tackle. McDaniel, acquired in the offseason as a free agent, missed the first two preseason games with a groin injury. He'll be able to make up for lost time tonight because rookie draft picks Jordan Hill and Jesse Williams are out with injuries. The Seahawks have liked what they’ve seen so far from both rookies, but McDaniel is the old pro who can win the starting job at the 3-technique tackle spot if he plays well.
5. Stephen Williams. The lanky wide receiver has been one of the pleasant surprises of the preseason. Williams has used his 6-foot-5 frame to outleap defenders and come up with some long receptions in the first two games, including touchdown grabs of 42 yards against San Diego and 38 yards against Denver, both from backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. Some people at practice were joking that Jackson and Williams should enter the game as a duo.
Reporters asked defensive coordinator Vic Fangio about the 49ers' preparedness to face four-receiver personnel groupings this season.
Buffalo, Arizona and Chicago led the NFL in percentage of offensive plays with four wideouts last season. All are on the 49ers' schedule in 2012. The Bears have a new offensive coordinator and a new philosophy, so their stats might not carry over as much.
The 49ers open against Green Bay, which used four receivers 6.1 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That's a low percentage, but it ranked seventh in the NFL last season.
Most teams prefer keeping a running back and tight end on the field, limiting the receiver count to three or fewer.
Anyway, in an effort to cover some non-Hall of Fame ground on this Saturday, here's what Fangio had to say about the matter:
"We still see a tight end on the field most of the time. Most teams when they get into their passing formation are three wide receivers, one tight end and one back. Now, sometimes that one tight end is a really good receiver, as we’ll see in the first game against Green Bay with (Jermichael) Finley and in the second game with (the Detroit Lions' Brandon) Pettigrew right now. We still see a whole lot more at least one tight end on the field than four wide receivers."
The stats support Fangio's thinking.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Cardinals first-round draft choice Beanie Wells has dropped from 247 to 229 pounds since beginning workouts under acclaimed strength and conditioning coach John Lott. That has to be a good sign for the injury-slowed running back from Ohio State (Wells, not Lott). Lott: "I think this kid has a chance to do something. He's got the tools. ... He could be a beast."
Also from Urban: Lott pushes players during a hike up Camelback Mountain.
Clare Farnsworth of Seahawks.com previews Jim Mora's climb with Roger Goodell on Mount Rainier. Farnsworth: "A crew from NFL Films is on hand to capture the climb and also produce national and local TV spots for the alliance between the league and United Way. KING-TV's Paul Silvi was planning to take part in the climb and Sam Farmer, the NFL writer from the Los Angeles Times, was planning to make the first leg to Camp Muir with the group."
Gregg Bell of the Associated Press describes Goodell as an avid skier accustomed to 11,000-foot elevations in Colorado.
Josh Bean of the Mobile Press-Register says Shaun Alexander has speaking engagements in Alabama this week through Fellowship of Christain Athletes.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Seahawks fullback Owen Schmitt pleaded not guilty to a DUI charge.
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks must improve on third down. Williams: "The Seahawks ranked last in the league in time of possession. Controlling the clock is key because it keeps the other team's offense off the field and allows your offense to get into scoring position."
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers' exhibition opener against Denver carries additional meaning because the team will be looking to settle its quarterback competition. Would Broncos defensive coordinator Mike Nolan go out of his way to fluster Alex Smith? Maiocco: "When the 49ers played the Packers early in the exhibition season last year, there was some talk around the league that the 49ers did more defensive game-planning than what's usually expected in one of those games. The conspiracy theorists reasoned that Nolan and the 49ers wanted to go to great lengths to ensure Rodgers did not come to Candlestick and have a good day as the Packers' starter."
Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross of the San Francisco Chronicle says a local politician is trying to exempt the 49ers from seeking competitive bids in building a stadium. Said a spokesman for the politician: "We don't want to take the chance of losing the 49ers."
David Fucillo of Niners Nation takes a shot at predicting the 49ers' 53-man roster heading into the 2009 season. He gives them six receivers and three quarterbacks, with Nate Davis beating out Damon Huard. Keeping Huard on the opening-day roster would guarantee his 2009 salary.
3k of Turf Show Times isn't opposed to the Rams giving players second chances. 3k: "This is the difference between Fakhir Brown and Claude Wroten, people who have made mistakes and people who have made mistakes part of their lifestyles. ... People who make mistakes deserve a second chance, deserve a shot at redemption. People who squander those second chances ... don't deserve the same breaks as those have yet to receive them."
Cedric Golden of the Austin American-Statesman says the NFL's scare tactics at its rookie symposium didn't affect Rams rookie Jason Smith as much as a speech from Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. Smith: "When a person like him is speaking about a place I'm trying to go [winning a Super Bowl], I take it very personally and if he tells me to jump, I'm going to jump."
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Seahawks' victory over the Rams leaves St. Louis in the lead for the No. 2 overall choice in the 2009 draft.
The next two weeks will probably affect the eventual order at the top of the draft, but here's how the top 10 would shake out at present, according to the league:
1. Detroit (0-14)
2. St. Louis (2-12): The last five players drafted second overall were Chris Long (Rams), Calvin Johnson (Lions), Reggie Bush (Saints), Ronnie Brown (Dolphins) and Robert Gallery (Raiders).
3. Kansas City (2-12)
4. Cincinnati (2-11-1)
5. Seattle (3-11). The last five players drafted fifth overall were Glenn Dorsey (Chiefs), Levi Brown (Cardinals), A.J. Hawk (Packers), Cadillac Williams (Bucs) and Sean Taylor (Redskins).
6. Oakland (3-11)
7. Cleveland (4-9)
8. San Francisco (5-9): The last five players drafted eighth overall were Derrick Harvey (Jaguars), Jamaal Anderson (Falcons), Donte Whitner (Bills), Antrel Rolle (Cardinals) and DeAngelo Hall (Falcons).
9. Jacksonville (5-9)
10. Green Bay (5-9)
The Rams would be picking second overall for the second year in a row. They've addressed the defensive line early in recent drafts. This might be time to help the offensive line. Orlando Pace certainly worked out well for them as an early pick.
The 49ers last picked among the top eight when they selected tight end Vernon Davis sixth overall in 2006.
As NFL teams fight for positioning heading toward the playoffs, we take a quick look at the top six seeds in each conference heading into Week 12.
If the current standings held, the AFC playoffs would feature the Ravens visiting the Jets and the Colts visiting the Broncos. The NFC playoffs would feature the Redskins visiting the Cardinals and the Bucs visiting the Packers.
The Titans, Steelers, Giants and Panthers would have first-round playoff byes. The Redskins defeated the Cardinals at FedEx Field in Week 3. The rematch would be at University of Phoenix Stadium, where the Cardinals haven't lost this season.
Four teams that won at least 10 games last season have losing records so far: Seattle (10-6 to 2-8), Cleveland (10-6 to 3-6), San Diego (11-5 to 4-6) and Jacksonville (11-5 to 4-6).
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Seahawks have 11 games remaining, which means there's plenty of time for improvement, but also a sense that things might get worse.
Losing at home to the Packers made official the Seahawks' decline into a below-average team in almost every sense. The one improved area this season -- the running game -- isn't going to matter when Seattle can't score enough points to offset recurring problems on defense.
When coach Mike Holmgren announced his intention to step away from coaching the Seahawks after this season, he never figured his team would take a sabbatical as well.
Injuries at receiver and now quarterback largely explain the issues on offense. Those issues are naturally affecting other aspects of the team. But they can't account for the full extent of Seattle's problems on defense.This division is the Cardinals' to lose. Seattle still plays Arizona twice. That's the good news and the bad news for a team that can't get a break or make any of its own.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
PHOENIX -- Greetings from the sunny, cloudless and soon-to-be warm desert. The weather isn't the only reason it feels like training camp around here. The other reason: Expectations remain high for the home team, usual for mid-October.
The Cardinals (3-2) can claim legitimacy with a victory over the Dallas Cowboys at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Let me recognize the occasion by providing roided-out rosters for the Cardinals, Cowboys and the other NFC West teams and their Week 6 opponents. If that's not enough, be sure to check out the sheets allowing you to sort each team's offense and defense by 18 statistical categories through the first five weeks. This is a relatively weighty file -- 3.5MB -- but worth the trouble for those of us who simply cannot get enough. Download here.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Seahawks have not yet made public their official injury report, but there's a good chance Matt Hasselbeck will miss the game against Green Bay. This is consistent with what John Clayton reported Thursday night and another indication that this simply does not appear to be the Seahawks' season.
Hasselbeck's availability will be determined at game time, coach Mike Holmgren told reporters, but the quarterback's knee has not responded well to treatment.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Gary Plummer of the 49ers' radio team says the 49ers' defensive players aren't trusting one another, leading to big plays. He draws on personal experience in saying Eagles running back Brian Westbrook won't be effective if he plays through a rib injury. And he says the 49ers' defensive front gets pushed around when it plays a 3-4. Interesting stuff.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee quotes 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz in defense of tight end Vernon Davis. Martz says Davis helps create opportunities for teammates.
John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle says Davis is frustrated after catching only five passes through five games. Fellow tight end Delanie Walker also has only five catches.
Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider quotes Manny Lawson as saying the 49ers are simplifying their defense. Some of the coverages had gotten a little complicated, with cornerback Walt Harris playing safety and giving up that deep ball to Randy Moss.
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers' defense lacks an identity after five games.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says veteran Cardinals running back Edgerrin James is mentoring rookie Tim Hightower.
Also from Urban: Cardinals cornerback Eric Green busts on rangy rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for eating only mashed potatoes and cookies. "That's why he's 125 pounds," Green said. Rodgers-Cromartie weighs more than that, but he's about as skinny as NFL players come.
More from Urban: Former Cardinals offensive lineman Leonard Davis returns to the desert as a member of the Dallas Cowboys.
Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says it would be a shame for the Cardinals if Dallas fans packed University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 6.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals are bracing for the Cowboys' ground game. "Big-boy pads" are needed.
Also from Somers: Do not expect Anquan Boldin to play against the Cowboys.
Scott Bordow of the East Valley Tribune says the Cardinals need to win some games before they complain about fans selling tickets, particularly in rough economic times.
Mike Tulumello of the East Valley Tribune says the Cowboys' circus is coming to town.
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer checks in with Seattle receiver Koren Robinson for a scouting report on Packers receiver Greg Jennings, a big-play threat with the potential to hurt the Seahawks' struggling defense.
Also from Farnsworth: Newly signed quarterback Travis Lulay was eating at a steakhouse in Missoula, Mont., when the Seahawks called.
Michael Steffes of Seahawks Addicts takes a look at the team's problems in pass coverage.
Frank Hughes of the Tacoma News Tribune quotes Seahawks safety Deon Grant as saying defensive players are trying to do too much instead of trusting one another.
Also from Hughes: Missing practice again means Matt Hasselbeck hasn't been able to develop a rhythm with an ever-changing group of Seattle receivers.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks aren't happy with their production in the return game.
Also from O'Neil: Seattle needs more from Pro Bowl linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who hasn't played for a losing team in 18 years.
Jose Romero of the Seattle Times suggests Robinson might make his 2008 receiving debut for the Seahawks against his former team.
VanRam of Turf Show Times says the Rams need a massive makeover on defense, with emphasis on linebacker, safety and cornerback.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Jim Haslett expects to do a better job as a head coach in his second shot at the job. As Saints coach, Haslett said he erred in sticking with struggling quarterback Aaron Brooks when Jake Delhomme was on the bench.
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says second-year defensive lineman Adam Carriker is learning a new technique. He is playing less nose tackle and more 3-technique, which means he can focus more on getting up the field.
Also from Coats: Steven Jackson, on pace for 80 receptions, wants more production in the ground game.
Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat also checks in with Jackson.
Also from Korte: New Rams tight end Daniel Fells has suffered from "some sort of a virus" this week.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Rams' unsettled ownership situation has cost them power at the league level, Daniel Kaplan of the St. Louis Business Journal reports.
Lions owner Bill Ford Jr. has replaced Rams executive John Shaw on the labor comittee. Pat Bowlen (Broncos) and Jerry Richardson (Panthers) co-chair the committee, which tackles the most important issues facing the league. Other members include Mike Brown (Bengals), Clark Hunt (Chiefs), Jerry Jones (Cowboys), Robert Kraft (Patriots), John Mara (Giants), Mark Murphy (Packers), Art Rooney II (Steelers) and Ford.