Game matchups: 49ers offense/Packers defense

NinersDigest's Craig Massei and PackerReport's Bill Huber break down the matchups of Sunday's pivotal NFC season opener between the 49ers and Green Bay Packers. Here we take a look at what to watch when the San Francisco offense is on the field.

49ers pass offense vs. Packers pass defense

Statistically, this was the worst pass defense the NFL has ever seen with 299.8 yards per game allowed through the air. The Packers didn't do anything well. They finished last in the league in sacks on a per-snap basis. The lack of pressure put the secondary in a bind. While they led the league by a mile with 31 interceptions, they also were guilty of gambling too often and missing too many tackles. There's confidence the pass rush has improved, though they'll mostly be counting on rookies Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels to provide a one-two punch with Clay Matthews. In the secondary, Tramon Williams is mostly healthy after struggling all season with a shoulder injury that took away his ability to jam receivers and tackle consistently. He'll be matched up with the opponent's No. 1 receiver. The No. 2 corner figures to be a mix-and-match of Jarrett Bush and Sam Shields, with Bush playing the "50/50" downs because he's a physical tackler and Shields playing the passing downs because of his coverage. Charles Woodson, the ageless wonder who tied for the NFL lead with seven picks, is playing safety in the base defense and moving into the slot in nickel and dime. Morgan Burnett, who had five turnover plays last season while playing with a club cast on a broken hand for much of last season, is one of the safeties. The Packers have kept the other nickel/dime safety under wraps.

While the Packers were surrendering prolific passing numbers to opponents, the 49ers weren't doing a whole lot better producing them with their weak passing game in 2011, when San Francisco ranked 26th in the NFL in total offense and 29th in passing offense – not the kind of numbers you would usually see in today's NFL from a team that finished 14-4 and went deep in the playoffs. One of San Francisco's excuses was it didn't have enough talent at wide receiver last year to go along with marginal No. 1 wideout Michael Crabtree, but the Niners went to great measures to fix that by adding veterans Randy Moss and Mario Manningham and first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins to the position during the offseason. Moss will start opposite Crabtree and Manningham will fit in as the No. 3 wideout. With them on the field, the 49ers surely will look to air it out more often than they did last year, when 19 NFL quarterbacks threw for more yards than Alex Smith. Tight end Vernon Davis is a threat both deep and underneath, so the 49ers have a whole lot more firepower to challenge the Packers through the air. Smith is efficient and accurate, but it's still unproven if he can get the ball down the field on a regular basis. He was sacked 44 times last season – more than any other NFL quarterback – so the Packers can cause problems if they can apply steady pressure. Right tackle Anthony Davis may be the weak link in pass protection, and he has a new starter next to him at right guard in converted tackle Alex Boone – the only newcomer in San Francisco's entire starting lineup this year.

49ers run offense vs. Packers run defense

This would have been a cause for concern even if the Packers were healthy, but they're not healthy. Last year's leading tackler, Desmond Bishop, is out for the season with a torn hamstring that required surgery. Underrated from a national perspective, Bishop ranked in that second tier of inside linebackers behind the likes of Patrick Willis and Ray Lewis. He was a tackling machine, big hitter and big-time playmaker. Nose tackle B.J. Raji and defensive end Ryan Pickett will start but probably aren't 100 percent. Raji turned an ankle during the preseason finale and Pickett missed time with a calf strain. Bishop has been replaced by short-but-sturdy D.J. Smith. Smith's a tackling machine, as well, but he's not a big-time playmaker. The other inside linebacker is A.J. Hawk, who the Packers took No. 5 in 2006 while San Francisco took Vernon Davis at No. 6. Hawk didn't create a single turnover last season. The Packers ranked 26th in run defense last season (4.7 per carry). They'll have to do better to put the game on the shoulders of Alex Smith. The Packers had their hands full in last year's opener against Darren Sproles; it will be interesting to see if Jim Harbaugh tests the defense with Kendall Hunter or LaMichael James.

The 49ers will look immediately to set the game's tempo on the ground, and they will come right at the Packers, seeking the soft spots in the Green Bay defense with a power rushing attack. San Francisco's ground game is the unquestioned strength of the offense, and that doesn't look to change much even though the 49ers have several new weapons in their passing arsenal. The Niners will attempt to run between the tackles with mauler left guard Mike Iupati pulling often to lead Frank Gore and Co. through the holes. Iupati is quickly becoming one of the best run-blocking guards in the league, and San Francisco's line works well as a unit in that department with tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis and center Jonathan Goodwin joining a new starter at right guard, Alex Boone, the team's No. 3 tackle last year. The Niners also have an outstanding run blocker in tight end Davis, and the Packers will see the Niners coming at them with several two-tight end alignments. Young fullback Bruce Miller also is a key ingredient in the mix. The whole operation revolves around the churning, slashing, power-bursting runs of Gore, the NFC's third-leading rusher last season who made it to his third Pro Bowl after becoming San Francisco's all-time leading career rusher. The Packers also will get a frequent change-of-pace dose of Hunter, who is elusive in the open field but also can run between the tackles. Green Bay may even see backup QB Colin Kaepernick entering the game to direct some wildcat formations that could feature slippery rookie James.

Niners Digest Top Stories