49ers present ultimate challenge for Packers

San Francisco’s running attack, pass rush will be severe test
When the Packers and 49ers tee it up in Sunday’s regular-season opener at San Francisco, it will have been seven months, 27 days and change since Green Bay was clobbered by the Niners 45-31 in the 2012 NFC Divisional Playoffs.
But who’s counting?
Well, just about everyone with a rooting interest on either side.
For the Packers the challenge is clear: Stop the 49ers’ running game, slow down their pass rush and hope Aaron Rodgers’ offensive line and skill position players are as ready as their quarterback. As last year’s 49ers-Packers season opener at Lambeau Field proved, it isn’t starting fast that matters so much. It’s how much you improve during the balance of the 16-game schedule that counts. San Francisco mauled Green Bay 30-22 in the 2012 opener.
The 49ers’ offense rushed for 186 yards in 32 carries while playing turnover-free football. Their defense sacked Rodgers three times, harassed him constantly and forced him into throwing an interception. While the Niners built on that win and continued to improve during the season (including a change at quarterback), the Packers absorbed injuries, dealt with the burden of having zero running game and eventually fizzled.
In the 49ers’ 45-31 blistering of the Packers they rushed for 323 yards on 43 carries and played error-free football after the first quarter. On defense, the 49ers sacked Rodgers once and forced him into an interception. The Packers’ special teams compounded the problems when Jeremy Ross fumbled trying to handle a punt.
Ultimately, the 49ers improved and the Packers did not since the opener. Now, the question is this: How much have the 49ers and Packers improved since their Jan. 12 encounter?
Let’s start with the Packers’ defense. Is it just me or are Packers fans sick and tired of seeing every NFL highlight featuring the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick sprinting in the open field with a handful of Packers in not-so-hot pursuit? I thought so.
To make sure Kaepernick doesn’t repeat his NFL-record 181-yard rushing performance by a quarterback, the Packers took extreme measures. They went to Texas A&M to study the read option. They discussed it at every single practice during training camp. They consulted referees about what is and isn’t allowed in terms of hitting the quarterback when he becomes a runner out of the pocket.
The Packers’ Clay Matthews talked about it on ESPN radio this week.
“One of the things that the referees have told us is that when these quarterbacks carry out the fakes, they lose their right as a quarterback, a pocket-passing quarterback, the protection of a quarterback,” Matthews said on Mike & Mike. “So with that, you do have to take your shots on the quarterback, and obviously they’re too important to their offense. If that means they pull them out of that type of offense and make them run a traditional, drop-back, pocket-style offense, I think that’s exactly what we’re going for. So you want to put hits as early and often on the quarterback and make them uncomfortable.”
The plan is to make Kaepernick pay when he’s out of the pocket. That sounds easier than it is because the 49ers have an exceptional running back in Frank Gore. The Packers’ plan may be to hit Kaepernick when he keeps the football. The problem with that is respecting Gore’s explosiveness – and the offensive line’s ability to brawl – without becoming preoccupied with the quarterback.
When Kaepernick handed off to Gore he rushed 23 times for 119 yards and a touchdown. With Lamichael James out with an injury, expect Kendall Hunter to spell Gore on Sunday. The Packers’ defense had no answer for either the QB or the back in January, but things may be different this time. The fact that there will be no surprises so should help Green Bay. Furthermore, I am certain the Packers’ defense is much improved from the banged up, rag-tag collection that was humiliated in January.
The Packers’ defensive line is upgraded from top to bottom. Rookie Datone Jones adds pass rush ability, and B.J. Raji, C.J. Wilson and Ryan Pickett have been strong throughout training camp. The Packers’ linebackers should be better with a healthy Nick Perry, a retooled Mike Neal and a more experienced Brad Jones at inside linebacker.
I am confident Green Bay’s defense won’t be gashed by the 49ers, and certainly not to the tune of 579 yards. In fact, I believe the Packers’ defense is going to be a pleasant surprise. My concern is for the Packers’ offense, particularly the offensive line. There is reason to believe rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari and second-year right tackle Don Barclay will be grow as the season unfolds. The problem is they face one of the NFL’s best defenses in the opener.
Aldon Smith set an NFL record with 33 ½ sacks in his first two seasons. He had none in the final six games, including the Super Bowl, but he didn’t have a healthy Justin Smith lining up across from him.
Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman headline the NFL’s top linebacker unit, and Nnamdi Asomugha provides depth in the secondary.
The challenge will be for the Packers’ offense to come out sharp, grab an early lead and force Kaepernick and the 49ers to play from behind. That was the plan the last two times these teams met. This time we’ll see if the Packers have the game plan and the players to meet the challenge.
PREDICTION: Just about everyone I talk to thinks the 49ers will blow out the Packers in the opener. They think the 5 ½ point spread isn’t going to be nearly enough for the Packers to cover, much less win.
I don’t see it that way. Certainly, the 49ers are favored and for good reason. But the Packers’ defense appears to be upgraded significantly, and Rodgers remains the best quarterback in the NFL. If he gets enough protection, and Eddie Lacy opens with a flourish, it’ll be close.
I’m going to stay true to my green-and-gold roots, and go with my heart instead of my head, and pick the Packers 24-20 over San Francisco.

Chris Havel is a national best-selling author and his latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through
Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio (www.thefan1075.com). Havel also
hosts Event USA’ MVP Parties the evening before home games.