Behind Enemy Lines: Part 1

Michael Martinez,'s NFL guru and publisher of Niners Digest, drops by to kick off our three-part preview of Sunday's Packers-49ers game at Lambeau Field. It all starts with the first-round quarterbacks in 2005: Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith.

Michael Martinez: The Packers were considered Super Bowl favorites in the preseason, but they're not even leading their division and need to keep winning to preserve their playoff chances. What's the temperature in Green Bay — are fans surprised or upset that the team is 7-4 at this point?

Bill Huber: I'd say surprised, but both good and bad. One group of fans is surprised in a good way, considering they've got 13 guys on injured reserve. As of last week, no team in the league has more than three of their preferred starters on injured reserve. The Packers have six, including running back Ryan Grant (a two-time 1,200-yard rusher) and tight end Jermichael Finley, who was the Packers' version of Vernon David — a real game-changer with his size and ability to make big plays down the field.

On the other hand, there are those who are miffed that the Packers are in this position. All four of their losses have come by three points — two on overtime field goals and two on next-to-last-play field goals. So, this could easily be a 10-1 or 11-0 team. Aaron Rodgers is 2-12 in games decided by four points or less. Those aren't all his fault but it suggests the team has a chronic problem in close games. Last week, the Packers staged a brilliant 90-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes at NFC-leading Atlanta, only for the special teams to give it up on the ensuing kickoff. With San Francisco, New England, the Giants and Chicago coming up, the schedule is a major challenge, and a boisterous percentage of the fans are going to be steaming mad if they're watching other teams on Jan. 8-9.

Michael: 49ers fans are still lamenting the team's decision to pass on Aaron Rodgers and make Alex Smith the No. 1 overall pick in 2005. While Smith has stagnated, Rodgers seems to keep getting better. What has been the key to his development this season?

Rodgers and Smith
Michael Zagaris/Getty Images
Bill: He's been good from the get-go. Last year, he became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards in each of his first two seasons as the starter. He's on pace to make it 3-for-3.

Certainly, he's blessed in many regards. Coach Mike McCarthy knows quarterbacks. You wonder how Smith would have panned out had McCarthy remained the offensive coordinator. Rodgers also has an embarrassment of riches in the passing game, even without Finley. Greg Jennings is one of the best receivers in the business, venerable Donald Driver has been slowed by injuries but is still murder in the slot, and James Jones and Jordy Nelson are fantastic third and fourth receivers.

Put it together with his arm strength and accuracy, and Rodgers is No. 2 all-time in terms of passer rating (97.28 vs. Philip Rivers' 97.34) and No. 1 all-time in interception percentage (2.0 vs. Neil O'Donnell's 2.1).

Michael: The running game is obviously the Packers' Achilles heel, and that showed in last Sunday's loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Assuming they make the playoffs, how can they compensate for the lack of a rushing attack when teams are obviously going to focus on stopping Rodgers and his corps of receivers?

Bill: That's the million-dollar question for a team that still has Super Bowl expectations. Can Rodgers and Co. sling it all over the yard even when everyone knows they're going to sling it all over the yard? Rodgers is great and his receivers are good but that seems like a mighty tall order, especially with four of their last five games potentially being played in inclemate weather and some pretty good defenses on the schedule.

Then again, as McCarthy pointed out on Wednesday, the Packers didn't lose the NFC championship game in 2007 because they couldn't pass on that bitterly cold night. As long as it's not windy, they've got a chance because there isn't a team in the NFL with enough cornerbacks to match up against four quality wide receivers, and a cold, slick field generally works to the advantage of the receivers (who know where they're going) and against pass-rushers (who might not have the footing to make their moves). To me, the close-game woes are a lot bigger issue than the running game.

Michael: Linebacker Clay Matthews has been a beast again this season and will be facing a rookie tackle in Anthony Davis. How do teams compensate for his presence on the field and his ability to do so much on defense?

Matthews pressures Smith.
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
Bill: That's going to be an interesting matchup. I'd think Matthews is too polished and too fast for Davis to handle, but Matthews is battling a shin injury that will prevent him from doing anything more than the jog-through parts of practice for the rest of the season. That lack of practice time seems to have hurt him. He got a cheap sack against Minnesota when he chased Brett Favre out of bounds, and he never got close to even putting heat on Matt Ryan last week.

I think one outstanding pass rusher is relatively easy to neutralize — even someone like Matthews, who has a nonstop motor and will battle all day against double teams. So, as you'd expect, he's seeing plenty of chip blocks. What the Packers need more than anything is for someone to step up to help with the pass rush. Defensive end Cullen Jenkins has five sacks but went six games without one. The other outside linebacker is Frank Zombo, an undrafted rookie. Really, their best blitzer is cornerback Charles Woodson.

Michael: How critical to the Packers' pass defense is the loss of inside linebacker Brandon Chillar? How will be asked to cover tight end Vernon Davis, and how do you expect him to fare?

Bill: Chillar is a huge loss. He was their designated tight end stopper and frequently played in nickel by replacing starter Desmond Bishop. He wasn't air-tight by any means but he's so athletic that the Packers actually used him at safety at times last year.

Without him, Bishop and A.J. Hawk — a good run-stopper but subpar in coverage — will be every-down players. Here's my wild guess: Tramon Williams will go up against Michael Crabtree and Woodson will match up against Davis. The Packers have done this in the past. In 2009. Woodson shut out Dallas' Jason Witten, with Witten calling it the most frustrating game of his life.

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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