Behind Enemy Lines: Packers/49ers, Part II

PackerReport's Bill Huber and NinersDigest's Craig Massei go Behind Enemy Lines to break down Sunday's showdown between the 49ers and Packers at Lambeau Field. Is Alex Smith a caretaker QB or a winning QB? Is this opener just a preview of the NFC Championship Game? What do upgrades at RB and WR mean for the Niners on offense? Can their front seven stop Aaron Rodgers? These Q&As and more inside.

Craig Massei of and Bill Huber of examine Sunday's season-opening showdown between the 49ers and Green Bay Packers. We continue with a breakdown of the 49ers.

Bill Huber, publisher, Let's just cut to the chase: Is Alex Smith a winning quarterback or a caretaker quarterback on a winning team?

Craig Massei, publisher, Despite what he accomplished last year, which is certainly worthy of praise, I tend to lean toward the latter, particularly when you consider Smith's body of work so far as he enters his eighth NFL season. That's not to say Smith didn't become an effective NFL quarterback last season; he did. But his success was more a product of the system and a great coaching staff playing to his strengths and masking his weaknesses. Smith did, finally, develop as a playmaker and displayed an ability to perform in the clutch. But he was more an efficient director of the offense rather than a prolific producer of offense. Smith gained confidence during last year's turnaround performance by the team and he developed a certain edge about him, and he had the best game of his career in the divisional playoff game against New Orleans, when he ran for a touchdown and then threw for the winning winning touchdown in the final 1:51 of the game. But I remember thinking at the time that that will go down as the best it ever gets for Smith; that is the highlight of his career. That's not to say it will be all downhill for him from there – Smith has looked good during the spring and summer and continues to show development in coach Jim Harbaugh's system. But San Francisco ranked 26th in the NFL last year in total offense and 29th in passing offense, so that reflects on the quarterback even if Smith did finish ninth in the NFL with a career-best 90.7 passer rating. While the 49ers would be satisfied to see him repeat the latter number, Smith is going to have to do better in improving San Francisco's offensive numbers as a whole, particularly the passing numbers. And he'll be on the spot to do it, since the three-year contract the team gave Smith during the offseason doesn't exactly qualify as a long-term commitment. In the final analysis, is Smith a winning quarterback? Consider the bottom-line numbers: Even after going 14-4 last year, Smith's career record as a starting quarterback stands at 33-35, and he has never been on the plus side of that ledger once in his entire career.

Bill Huber: The Packers kind of have one running back with Cedric Benson. The 49ers have veterans Frank Gore and Brandon Jacobs, young Kendall Hunter and rookie LaMichael James. Gore and Jacobs are true No. 1 backs and Hunter and James – smaller guys who the Packers pretend don't exist because of their fondness for big guys in bad weather – add some explosiveness. How do you see their roles for Sunday and beyond?

Craig Massei: Gore is still The Man in San Francisco and will be the featured back, and in Sunday's opener at least, you'll probably see the 49ers come at the Packers a lot like they came at opponents last year – with a steady dose of Gore and Hunter sprinkled in without any determined pattern. The plan is to change that formula this year and provide more relief for Gore – that's why Jacobs was signed as a free agent and the Niners burned their second-round draft pick on the luxury of a speed back in James that they probably don't need or will use much this year. Jacobs looked exceptional as a power back this summer – he's "slimmed down" this year to 260 pounds – but he suffered ligament damage in his left knee on an ugly hit during the team's Aug. 18 exhibition against Houston and has yet to practice since. Though he hasn't been ruled out yet, Jacobs almost certainly won't play against the Packers. That hurts the Niners, because Jacobs was going to be a regular part of the rotation, particularly on short-yardage downs.

Hunter provides lightning to Gore's thunder.
Brett Davis/US Presswire
That said, the Gore/Hunter tandem is solid and worked well for the Niners last year, when they combined for 1,684 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns. Gore looked as good as ever this summer and is still a front-line back; the problem is that, now in his eighth year, Gore tends to wear down from the punishment he absorbs as the season progresses after becoming San Francisco's all-time leading career rusher last year. That's why the 49ers brought in all the reinforcements during the offseason. James has potential, but he didn't show me this summer that he's quite ready for the big stage yet. He's small and needs to add strength and experience at this level. It would not be wise for the Packers to overlook Hunter, however. He was a productive weapon last season as Gore's understudy, and he solidified his status as the backup this summer, when he looked even quicker and stronger than he did last year during his fine rookie season.

Bill Huber: That said, the additions of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham give the 49ers the ability to spread the field along with Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. Do you see them being more pass-centric than in past years? Or will it be the same run-first philosophy but just spreading the field to do so?

Craig Massei: Probably a bit of both. The 49ers know they have to improve their passing offense to remain at the level of the elite teams and, particularly, to get to the Super Bowl. After starter Josh Morgan broke his leg in Week 5 last year, the Niners were seriously short on wideouts the rest of the year. Let's put it this way: At one point late in the season, Packers castoff Brett Swain had to fill a role as their No. 3 receiver. Capable wide receiver targets are no longer a problem with the arrival of Manningham and Moss and first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins, who came on strong at the end of the preseason. Crabtree, who finally showed signs of being a true No. 1 wideout last year, looks ready to take the next step as an individual.

Moss adds a new dimension to the offense.
Brett Davis/US Presswire
The big question is: Can the quarterback get them the football, particularly on routes down the field? The Niners had no deep game last year, except for Davis breaking loose on occasion, but now they don't have the excuse of not having the ammo at wide receiver. Certainly, they are going to attempt to use the pass more as a weapon than they did last year. But the philosophy will continue to be run-first until the players prove to coaches they can open it up more in the passing game. And even if that never happens, the 49ers can win games with a conservative offense because of their great defense and superior special teams units.

Bill Huber: It's like the immovable object against the irresistible force, with Green Bay's offense against San Francisco's defense. Do the 49ers have the best defensive front seven in football? And must they score a clear victory, or can the secondary hold up even if Aaron Rodgers has some time?

Craig Massei: Not to be a homer, but I clearly believe at this point the 49ers have the best front seven in the NFL, and it is without question the strength of the team. It sets the tempo for the team on Sundays, which not many front sevens around the league can say. I would say the front seven has to score a victory for the 49ers to win Sunday. I don't know if it needs to be a clear victory, but if the Packers neutralize the front seven and they can't consistently make life uncomfortable for Rodgers – I don't know if any team with an unproven offense can beat the Packers amid those circumstances. The San Francisco secondary is good – it sent two players to the Pro Bowl last year – but if you go on last year's performance, it's not good enough to stop Rodgers if he has time to pick it apart. Several teams had success throwing the ball against the 49ers last year – because nobody could run it against them – and if this defense has a weakness, you would have to say defending against the pass is it.

Bill Huber: Is this the undercard between these teams, with a return date in the NFC Championship Game? Of course, you probably can't speak for Green Bay, but you can speak about San Francisco with authority.

Craig Massei: That theory has been tossed around a lot since the schedule came out, and as trite or obvious as it might appear to some, I really believe that is a legitimate possibility. These are clearly two of the best teams in the NFL, and when you throw in a few more of the proven frontrunners, there's a defined dropoff to the second level. This game really could be a bout for homefield advantage in the playoffs, sort of like Green Bay's opener with New Orleans was last year. I hesitate to say the 49ers have arrived based solely on what they accomplished last year – remember, that 14-4 finish was preceded by eight non-winning seasons – but this team really is loaded. The defense is legitimately great by today's NFL standards, and on paper, the Niners have improved in almost every area and filled weaknesses and voids with upgraded talent. But a lot of things went right for them last year – few injuries to key players, a plus-28 turnover differential, good karma, etc., etc. – and their margin for error was rather small for a 14-4 team because of their mediocre offense. Have the 49ers risen to the level of being able to win consistently when things don't always go right? Perhaps they have. And if indeed they have, San Francisco has the right to be thinking Super Bowl as much as any other team in the NFL.

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