SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The San Francisco 49ers take on the 3-0 Packers Sunday, who are playing like one of the best teams in the NFC after losing to the Seahawks in last year's conference title game.
Niners Digest: Bill, given the extremely high level Rodgers is playing at, does he have any weaknesses? Are there any areas in Green Bay’s offense that the 49ers can try to exploit?
Bill Huber: Up-the-middle pressure is any quarterback’s weakness. So, if Rodgers is the Packers’ MVP, then the two guards and center — Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang and Corey Linsley — are the runners-up. Against Seattle, the offensive tackles gave up a combined 19 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. None of it mattered because the interior protection was impeccable. Rodgers just stepped up in the pocket, moved to his left or right and fired the pass.
Other than that, no, he has no weaknesses. Want to blitz him? Forget it. His passer rating since the start of the 2014 season is a league-best 130.3 against the blitz. The one area that might wind up killing this team is the lack of a deep threat. Jordy Nelson's torn ACL was a devastating blow. He had five touchdown catches of 60-plus yards last season. That’s more 60-yard pass plays — touchdown or nontouchdown — than 30 of the other 31 teams.
Through the early part of the season, about the only time Rodgers flings it deep is when he has a free play like defensive offside or 12 men on the field. Can the Packers beat elite defenses and win a Super Bowl by throwing a bunch of 5- and 10-yard passes? It’s worked so far. We’ll see if that success can continue.
BH: Lacy is fine. He played through a sprained ankle last week and had a total of 81 yards from scrimmage on 13 touches. He didn’t aggravate the injury and was full participation at practice this week. I’d think James Starks will spell Lacy more than usual. Starks, who led the NFL in average per carry in 2013, is a big, full-speed-ahead runner. While Lacy runs with patience before exploding through the hole, Starks gets the ball and goes. He’s dangerous on cutbacks but a liability in the passing game.
Adams, on the other hand, is listed as questionable but I’d be surprised if he played. Coach Mike McCarthy called his chances “slim,” so he seems more doubtful than questionable, to me. He hurt the ankle against Seattle in Week 2 and aggravated it on the opening series of Week 3. Rookie Ty Montgomery filled the void. Montgomery is a Randall Cobb-like player in that he does his best work on the underneath stuff. While Cobb wins with quickness and elusiveness after the catch, Montgomery is like a running back at a muscular 216 pounds.
ND: Clay Matthews has been playing all over the defensive front. How is he as a middle linebacker, and what went into the decision to take him off the edge from time to time?
BH: At the bye last season, Green Bay owned the worst run defense in the NFL. As an answer, defensive coordinator Dom Capers moved Matthews into a part-time role at inside linebacker. During the eight games following the bye, the Packers ranked sixth against the run and seventh in yards allowed per carry. That should tell you all you need to know about Matthews’ impact in the middle.
With that success, the Packers stuck with it, then amplified Matthews’ inside role when starting inside linebacker Sam Barrington went on injured reserve after Week 1. Against Seattle, Matthews spent every snap at inside linebacker, including third-and-long situations when he normally would be the top sack threat. Against Kansas City, Matthews did get some edge-rushing opportunities with newly signed Joe Thomas playing the inside linebacker position in the dime defense. Given Colin Kaepernick's running ability, I’d think Matthews would spend most of Sunday’s game on the inside.
ND: Despite the way the 49ers have been playing lately, this has all the makings of a trap game. What have you noticed from the Packers this week in terms of their mind-set and preparation? And how did the way last season ended impact the overall mind-set heading into this year?
BH: Green Bay’s concern is a long flight coming off a Monday night game. They have 11 guys on the injury report, for one. With the short week, McCarthy scrapped Thursday’s usual padded practice, so they go into this game without any full contact since Monday. I’m not sure that’s going to help the performance of a defense that hasn’t tackled well in the first three games. Tackling Carlos Hyde and Kaepernick is hard enough under the best of circumstances.
As for the ending of last season, here are two things. One, if the Packers wouldn’t have started the season 1-2 — their third consecutive season starting 1-2 — they would have hosted Seattle for the championship game. In that light, McCarthy made starting fast a critical component for this year’s team. Mission accomplished with a 3-0 start and wins over two quality opponents (Seattle and Kansas City). And a nice little byproduct of the fast start: We’re not asking them about any “hangover” from that loss.
Two, the defense took a lot of confidence from the first 56 minutes of that championship game. The defense was the reason why the Packers were just minutes from going to the Super Bowl. They smothered Marshawn Lynch and had five takeaways, including an interception that should have put the game away. Then the roof caved in. But a defense that played well during the second half of the season looked like a championship-caliber unit in the biggest game of the season. That carried over. There was a lot of garbage production by the Chiefs last week.
ND: The Packers have a lot of interesting players contributing on defense. Can you give a brief rundown of young players playing expanded roles this year?
BH: Good point. There’s a lot of attention on Matthews and outside linebacker Julius Peppers, and veteran nose tackle B.J. Raji's return has been huge. I’m not sure Mike Daniels qualifies as a young player, but the fourth-year defensive tackle is a tremendous player. He’s not that 6-foot-4, 315-pounder that scouts draw up but he’s a powerhouse who wins by brute force, explosion and effort.
Jayrone Elliott is turning into an important role player at outside linebacker. An undrafted rookie last year, he led the NFL in sacks in the 2014 preseason but was limited mostly to special teams. He’s playing more on defense this season and had two critical takeaways to seal the deal against Seattle.
In the secondary, third-year pro Micah Hyde is like a Swiss Army knife. When the secondary is at full strength, he’s a quality nickel defender because he can cover, tackle and blitz. With standout safety Morgan Burnett iffy with an injured calf, Hyde might make his third start at safety. Two first-round picks are key performers. Safety HaHa Clinton-Dix, the top pick in 2014, has the talent to be a real star if he stops dropping his head and missing tackles. Cornerback Damarious Randall, this year’s top pick, has played a lot and has great awareness and ball skills and might be the cornerback group’s best tackler.
Chris Biderman is the Editor-in-Chief of Niners Digest and covers the 49ers from their headquarters in Santa Clara. Chris has been writing about the team since the spring of 2013. The Ohio State alum received his Journalism degree in 2011 and has been working in sports media since 2008. Chris, a Santa Rosa, Calif. native, is also a contributor to the Associated Press covering sports throughout the Bay Area. You can follow Chris on Twitter here.
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