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.