Gameday Notes: Running Challenges

We clean out our notebook in time for Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau Field. We kick it off with the difficulties the Packers will have on defense and offense, plus notes on Quarless, blitzing and much, much more.

The Green Bay Packers have been ravaged by injuries last year, so there's not a lot of sympathy for the San Francisco 49ers, who will be without do-it-all star running back Frank Gore for Sunday's game at Lambeau Field.

Then again, the Packers (7-4) can't take the 49ers (4-7) lightly, even though they're without by far their best offensive weapon. Brian Westbrook ran wild in Gore's place last week against Arizona, and in four career games against the Packers while he was a dominant back with Philadelphia, he's rushed for 243 yards, caught 21 passes for 213 yards and scored a total of four touchdowns.

With Westbrook rushing for 136 yards on 23 attempts – after five carries for 9 yards in the first 10 games – the 49ers ran for an astounding 261 yards against the Cardinals. Clearly, the Packers are better than the Cardinals on defense, but the Packers' top-ranked run defense from last year is 18th this year (112.5 yards per game) and 25th in yards per carry (4.5).

"When a team can do that, it's a helpless feeling," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said on Friday. "That's the thing about Westbrook. You've seen Westbrook for a lot of years there in Philly and what he can do there. He's always been a guy that was a matchup problem. They use him out of the backfield, they use him out in space. He looked like a fresh-legged runner. It's been a while since he's run the ball as much as he ran it the other night. I guess it's nice when you lose a guy like Frank Gore, who has 1,250 yards of your offense, to just stick a guy like Westbrook in there and have him respond the way he did. I think their young back (rookie Anthony) Dixon did a good job, too."

Clearly, the Niners will want to run the ball, with powerful guards Mike Iupati and Chilo Rachal and rookie right tackle Anthony Davis. They're suspect at quarterback with 6-foot Troy Smith and a ball-control game will help their defense keep an explosive Packers offense on the sideline.

"We know they're going to come in here with (Mike) Singletary as their coach trying to do the exact same thing," linebacker Clay Matthews said. "Obviously, with last week's performance against the Falcons, we gave up a little too much yards (on the ground). They're going to come in here and try and run the ball. We understand that. Just like any game, we need to stop the run. Once we stop the run, we can kind of turn the guys loose and create some turnovers and what-not. But, it all starts with that, and that's what we look to do. There's an extra focus on what we need to do, especially after last week's performance. I think we'll be all right."

Singletary's defense

Before last year's game between these teams, center Scott Wells, his linemates and the running backs spent extra time in meetings preparing for a wide variety of exotic blitzes. The 49ers are doing less of that this year, but they rank 10th overall on defense (Green Bay is 11th), including 15th against the pass, 13th in sacks (23) and 18th in interceptions (nine).

"A little bit more coverage, a little less pressure," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "A little bit. Last year, they were doing a little more roam around more defense, especially on third down. This year, I'd say they're a little bit more basic – that's not really the right word. They're just doing less of the exotic, exotic stuff. They run their stuff a little bit better now."

Offensive coordinator Joe Philbin echoed that, but also said the 49ers will run their version of the Packers' "Psycho," with 11 defenders standing up and moving around before the snap.

"It will be a challenge, there's no doubt about it," Philbin said. "It's a good scheme. Maybe, as we enter the game, they may not be pressuring quite as much as they did a year ago from what we've seen. They pressured us not a ton here before. But you've got to get ready. You don't know when they're going to dial it up. They have the whole gamut. They've got the inside stuff, they've got the corners coming, they've got the safeties coming. They've got a little bit of everything. You've got to spend some time preparing for all of that."

Can the Packers run the ball?

The common-sense answer to that question is "no."

The Packers haven't had a running back average even 3.0 yards per carry the last two games. By contrast, San Francisco ranks eighth in the NFL against the run and is tied for fourth in yards allowed per carry (3.6). All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis is the star attraction but hardly the only reason, according to Philbin.

"It's a good defense overall. It's a very good defense overall," he said. "They're well-coached. They have a good scheme. It's a 3-4 in their base but they do a lot of things. Their sub package is very good. He's an excellent player, don't get me wrong, but there's certainly more to contend with than him. He's very good, very productive, runs really well. Kind of plays like you think a linebacker should. He's got good instincts, he can go sideline to sideline, he's got some power and some pop. (Takeo) Spikes is a veteran player but a productive player, too. They're two very good guys inside and they're certainly part of the strength of the defense."

Rookie running back James Starks is expected to make his NFL debut but he won't help if he doesn't get help from the blockers. The run game has been inconsistent all year. Brandon Jackson, surprisingly, ranks 12th in the NFC in rushes of 10-plus yards, but the Packers as a whole rank 22nd in converting on third-and-1 or third-and-2 on running plays (42.9 percent), according to STATS.

"We've got to move people off the line," offensive line coach James Campen said. "I know those guys in that room are not happy about it. The pass blocking was fine. The run blocking, they have to get back to where they were. We certainly do have to improve, and the focus is on improving against the 49ers. It needs to be fixed."

Quarless provides lift

Andrew Quarless
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Rodgers says rookie tight end Andrew Quarless reminds him of a "young Jermichael Finley."

The Packers could use Quarless playing like a second- and third-year Finley as they enter the stretch run. He showed a flash of that last week against Atlanta. On the 90-yard, game-tying touchdown drive, Quarless converted a second-and-15 with a 19-yard gain.

Before that drive, Rodgers told Quarless that he'd have to make a play. It was quite a statement considering Quarless was once so naïve about the game that he didn't know he could be deactivated on gameday, which he was the first two weeks.

"He's grown up a lot since then, and I think really the whole rookie class has," coach Mike McCarthy said. "Andrew really I think has grown the last three or four weeks. The bye week was something that he individually really benefited from. He's been dealing with that shoulder injury since Washington. But I think since the bye week, you really see him starting to make a move. He's in better shape. His awareness is improving every week. We're definitely counting on him to contribute here down the stretch."

Incredibly, Finley's 21 catches in four games is just one fewer than Quarless, Donald Lee and Tom Crabtree combined.

"I think I've had to," Quarless said of stepping up. "With me having to step in and play, I think I had to accelerate. I think the thing that changed was, I was really motivated to know my stuff and be on the same page with Aaron. That's where it starts – that chemistry with the quarterback."

Weather Channel

This is not the forecast McCarthy was hoping for. It won't be raining or snowing or especially cold, with a forecast of partly cloudy and 25 degrees. However, the major issue could be the wind, which will be blowing from the northwest at 20 to 30 mph.

"Wind to me is always the challenge in the game because bad weather, you can easily make the argument that the advantage goes to the passing team because you know where you are going and so forth," McCarthy said. "When you say bad weather, there is different levels as we know playing in Green Bay, Wisconsin. But in the coldest games, you go back to the NFC Championship Game, I didn't think the ability to throw was a factor that day. So if you can throw the ball on that evening, I think you can throw it at any time outside of the wind games."

Hello, good-bye; hello, good-bye

Robert Francois knows about getting hired and fired. This year, he was released among the final cuts on Sept. 4, signed to the practice squad on Sept. 6, released from the practice squad on Sept. 15, brought back to the practice squad on Sept. 23, promoted on Oct. 13, released on Nov. 9, brought back to the practice squad on Nov. 15 and added to the active roster again on Wednesday.

"This is a crazy business," said the man who the Vikings released to sign Brett Favre last year. "I mean, the 53, that makes the coaches really decide what is a priority on the team. Say they've got too many guys at that position, they're going to move me down or pick up someone else. Well, my position now, there's not that many linebackers. So I'm one play away from going in."

Seven points

-- Without Brandon Chillar, who will matchup on tight end Vernon Davis? Perhaps Charles Woodson, who smothered Dallas tight end Jason Witten last year. "We're just going to move around, try to keep them on their heels," Woodson said. "I'll line up in different places, like I've always done. He's one of the better tight ends in the league. He's a guy that runs around like a receiver, a fast guy. So he presents that problem for us."

-- Sunday's game will be a bit of a homecoming for running back DeShawn Wynn, whom the 49ers promoted from their practice squad this week. Wynn started four games for the Packers as a rookie in 2007. He's had 14 carries since. "It's been frustrating," Wynn told reporters. "Every running back wants to carry the ball. I had that role my first year with injuries and stuff like that. I kind of haven't had that opportunity since. But I'm just looking forward to any opportunity I have here. Special teams -- just going out there and performing."

-- Rodgers has gone 147 consecutive passes without an interception, a streak spanning four-and-a-half games. That's the third-longest current streak in the NFL (Tom Brady, 199; Matt Ryan 165) and the third-longest run of his career (159 and 157).

-- The Packers are 3-3 when wearing throwback uniforms. They wore them four times in 1994, the Packers' 75th anniversary, going 2-2. They wore them for Thanksgiving at Detroit in 2003 (1967 team) and lost 22-14 and for Thanksgiving at Detroit in 2001 (1939) and won 29-27.

-- No team in the NFL has more than three starters on injured reserve. The Packers have six, and three others have missed time. Including Sunday's game, the Packers will have lost 53 games to injuries from their starters.

-- McCarthy is reviving the homefield advantage. The Packers are 8-1 since last year's Dallas game. Only New England (8-0) has a better home record during the past 13 months.

-- Woodson hasn't been as dominant as last year, but he's the only defensive back in the NFL with four forced fumbles in each of the last two seasons. Woodson's 18 interceptions since the start of the 2008 season trail only the Eagles' Asante Samuel, and his six interceptions returned for touchdowns top the list.

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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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