Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Packers, Part I

PackerReport's Bill Huber and SFIllustrated's Craig Massei begin their exclusive three-part breakdown of the Packers and 49ers and Sunday's game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay with five questions from Craig to Bill. Is former 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy the right choice to lead the Pack? Is Aaron Rodgers making people in Green Bay forget Brett Favre? These Q&As and more inside.

Craig Massei, editor in chief, SFIllustrated.com: Everybody around here was a bit surprised back in 2006 to see Mike McCarthy get the head coaching job in Green Bay after his one season as San Francisco's offensive coordinator produced an offense that finished ranked last in the NFL. But McCarthy obviously has done some good things for Green Bay. Now in his fourth season with the Pack, is he solidly entrenched as the head coach the team is building around, or is he in a position now where he must produce a playoff team to keep his job? What is your opinion of the job McCarthy is doing and is he the right man to be running the show in Green Bay?

Bill Huber, publisher, PackerReport.com: McCarthy certainly was the toast of the town in 2007, when he led the Packers to the NFC championship game. Last year's 6-10 season took some of the bloom off the rose, so to speak. McCarthy replaced most of the defensive coaching staff in the offseason, ditching the team's longtime 4-3 in favor of Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme. After a rousing preseason, expectations were sky high here, but an upset loss at home in Week 2 to Cincinnati, a season sweep to Brett Favre and the rival Vikings and – almost worse – a loss at previously winless Tampa Bay a couple weeks ago really cranked up the fans' anger. That led to a meeting between McCarthy, general manager Ted Thompson and team President Mark Murphy. It's hard to say if McCarthy is really on the hot seat because both he and Thompson have three years remaining on their contracts and the publicly owned Packers barely turned a profit last year. But, you know what happens when a coach replaces his staff: The next one to be fired is the coach, and there's something to be said about a fresh start after the Favre drama. I'm generally of the belief that players win games but McCarthy has rightly come under fire for the 41 sacks allowed by the offense. McCarthy is a bright offensive mind – notwithstanding what happened out there – but I think he's taken too much stock in his star quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) and star receivers (Donald Driver and Greg Jennings) and just assumed/hoped the offensive line would block well enough to let the skill players work their magic. If anything, he's got too much trust in his players.


Craig Massei: Has Aaron Rodgers finally done enough yet to make people in Green Bay forget about Brett Favre? What's your take on all the drama that came with Favre's "retirement" from Green Bay and the fact he's now a nemesis playing for the Packers' top divisional rival in the NFC North? Bottom line: Would the team be better off with Rodgers or with Favre right now? Should the Pack have decided to keep Favre around?

Bill Huber: No, Favre is anything but a distant memory around here. The specter of Favre will live forever, and it certainly didn't help that Favre dissected the Packers' defense en route to a season sweep. But for fans who put all the eggs into the basket of those two games, that view is shortsighted. First, Favre retired. What were the Packers supposed to do? Just let him waltz back in and take his job after skipping the offseason work? Second, if the Packers would have done that, I'd guess Rodgers would have been on the first flight out of Green Bay once free agency hit after this season. So then where are you? Your starter is 40 and you've run your prospect out of town. Third, just because Favre is playing well now, there's no guarantee he'll be playing well later. He's got about six consecutive seasons worth of late-season slumps on his resume. Would the Packers be better this season with Favre? That's debatable. His decision-making skills are so good that there's little doubt he would have avoided a decent percentage of those 41 sacks. Then again, without Rodgers' ability to scramble out of harm's way, would Favre have avoided enough of those to still be healthy? We'll never know, but at the end of the day, the Packers made a horribly difficult decision – and it was the right one.


Craig Massei:: What has been Green Bay's problem protecting Rodgers this season? Is keeping defenders off Rodgers the Packers' biggest weakness this year, considering they lead the NFL in sacks allowed? What has Green Bay been doing to address this problem, and do you see it improving any time soon?

Bill Huber: It's funny (in a sad way) that fans were happy after last week's win over Dallas. Rodgers was sacked only four times. Woo hoo strike up the band. The Packers will be fine if – and these are big ifs – veteran left tackle Chad Clifton can stay healthy and either veteran Mark Tauscher or rookie T.J. Lang is the solution at right tackle. Clifton has been one of the best pass protectors in the league for years, but of the nine games this season, he's started and finished only three. He hasn't played particularly well, but if he can stay healthy and practice consistently and get into a groove, he might be fine. Right tackle, however, is the bigger issue. Allen Barbre got seven starts and did a good impersonation of a turnstile. Tauscher, coming off a torn ACL, got the start at Tampa Bay but suffered a knee sprain. Lang got the start against Dallas and played well, even while facing DeMarcus Ware for about 20 snaps. So, there's hope, but if you think you're a playoff team, you'd rather not be hanging your hat on hope.


Craig Massei: The Packers have been playing very tough defensively, and they sure produced a defensive gem last week against the Cowboys. The Pack looks like it has been playing well in all phases of defense. Who has been leading the charge on that side of the ball and what are the reasons Green Bay has been playing such good defense?

Bill Huber: The numbers on defense look pretty – fourth overall, ninth against the run and eighth against the pass. But a lot of those numbers were beefed up by games against St. Louis, Detroit and Cleveland. Combined, those three teams couldn't field a good offense. So, a lot of it was fool's gold until last week against Dallas. Capers unleashed an aggressive game plan and the Cowboys' big but slow-footed linemen couldn't handle it. What counts this week is Green Bay's run defense, and it's been superb. After getting trounced by Cedric Benson in Week 2 and a little by Steven Jackson in Week 3, the run defense has been lights out. The Packers' ability to stop Frank Gore will be the story line this week. It all starts up front, and the line of Ryan Pickett, Cullen Jenkins, Johnny Jolly and reserve B.J. Raji (the ninth overall pick, one ahead of Michael Crabtree) has been great, and that sets up a good linebacking corps led by Nick Barnett. In the secondary, Charles Woodson has been nothing short of fantastic. There's a joke going around that 70 percent of Earth is covered by water, the other 30 percent is covered by Woodson.


Craig Massei: Statistically, Green Bay is a top 10 team both offensively and defensively, yet the Packers find themselves battling to stay in wild-card contention at this stage of the season. Are the Packers better than their record? Are they a playoff team? What does Green Bay need to do to have its record reflect that it's as good a team as statistics seem to suggest?

Bill Huber: Going back, a lot of those numbers were produced against the sad-sack Lions, Browns and Rams, so I don't put a lot of stock into them. The second-half schedule is a lot tougher, starting with Dallas last week and San Francisco this week, and games later against Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Arizona. To be a playoff team, the Packers have to protect Rodgers. It's as simple as that. If they can get that enormous problem solved, this team not only will get into the playoffs but be a real challenger for the conference crown.

PART II: Check back on both SFIllustrated.com and PackerReport.com as Craig answers five questions from Bill



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