San Francisco 49ers (4-7) at Green Bay Packers (7-4)
Kickoff: noon Sunday.
TV: Fox (Thom Brennaman, Brian Billick, Charissa Thompson).
Keys to the game: The 49ers' offensive line dominated against Arizona, and needs another strong performance in front of RBs Brian Westbrook and rookie Anthony Dixon with Frank Gore done for the season. San Francisco isn't as strong in pass protection and doesn't want to expose QB Troy Smith to the Packers' strong rush (31 sacks) that has contributed to a plus-seven turnover margin. Green Bay hasn't been able to run the ball effectively since losing its own lead back and will let QB Aaron Rodgers spread the field. A foot strain to red-hot WR Greg Jennings apparently won't be an issue.
Fast facts: Westbrook had 136 rushing yards in Week 12 after totaling 10 touches through the first 10 games. ... Jennings has 37 catches for 639 yards and six touchdowns the past six games.
Series history: 56th regular-season meeting, with Green Bay leading 29-25-1. Green Bay has won the last seven games in the regular season, dating to 1998. Counting the playoffs, Green Bay is 12-1 against the 49ers since the 1995 season, including 7-0 at Lambeau Field.
By the numbers
The Packers rank 12th on offense (23rd rushing, seventh passing) and 12th on defense (18th rushing, 10th passing). The 49ers rank 23rd on offense (17th rushing) and 10th on defense (eighth rushing, 15th passing).
Inside the 49ers
After failing to rebound after their first Monday night game this season, the 49ers have changed their routine after Monday's win over Arizona.
Following a loss on Monday to New Orleans earlier this year, the 49ers went on the road to Kansas City and were beaten down by the Chiefs, especially on defense. The consensus after the game was that the short work week coupled with a 10 a.m. (Pacific) kickoff robbed the 49ers of their stamina.
"I know defensively we wore down a little bit in the third and fourth quarter," defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said of the 31-10 loss to the Chiefs. "So, we've got to get them (the players' legs) back to where they were before, before training camp even."
This week the 49ers return to the Midwest — Green Bay — and have another noon (Central) start. But they are lightening their workload. Their regular Wednesday schedule, for example, was reduced. Instead of getting onto the field at 8 a.m. for a walkthrough, the 49ers did their walkthrough at noon. The afternoon practice, meanwhile, was done without helmets and shoulder pads.
The travel schedule has been changed to allow players to regain their legs from the Arizona game. Instead of traveling on Friday, which is when they left for Kansas City, the team doesn't take off for Green Bay until Saturday.
"I'm grateful for the way they made the schedule this week," linebacker Patrick Willis said this week. "They could have been hard-nosed. (Coach Mike Singletary) is looking out for us. We're thankful that we have a head coach that wants us to play fresh and understands what it takes."
The Packers are catching a big break with San Francisco's do-everything RB Frank Gore out for the season because of a cracked hip he sustained Monday night. Still, the 49ers managed to win that game at Arizona in convincing fashion and are in the midst of a 3-1 surge with Troy Smith at quarterback.
The 6-foot Smith, a Heisman Trophy winner at Ohio State, isn't a threat to put up big passing numbers and rarely throws the ball deep. Look for the Packers defense to crowd the box and bring consistent pressure when Smith does drop back to pass as they try to keep him from breaking the pocket and extending plays with his nimble feet. Without Gore, the assumption is the 49ers will be hard-pressed to run the football with any success, but veteran Brian Westbrook did just that and more in a pinch against the Cardinals with 23 carries for 136 yards and a touchdown. Although Westbrook has lost some of his explosiveness after multiple injuries in recent years, he has been a thorn in the Packers' side both carrying the football and catching it in previous meetings when he was with the Eagles.
Green Bay is going nowhere with its running game, so there's probably no use trying to light a spark against the 49ers' stout and assertive front seven in their 3-4 scheme. San Francisco ranks sixth in the league against the run, allowing an average of 98.3 yards per game — on par with the Packers' meager, 23rd-rated rushing output of 98.4 yards. That will leave it up to red-hot Aaron Rodgers to fire away in possibly another heavy dose of empty-backfield, four- and five-wideout sets — as Green Bay employed Sunday at Atlanta — against San Francisco's underwhelming secondary. The Packers will be challenged on third down, which was a sore spot in the loss to the Falcons and is a calling card for the 49ers, who are allowing opponents to convert at a rate of just 35 percent.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.