Behind Enemy Lines: Packers-Niners, Part 1

Niners Digest's Craig Massei and Packer Report's Bill Huber break down Sunday's clash at Lambeau Field. Is this the best Packers team under Mike McCarthy, as Jim Harbaugh has said? Was the defense as bad as it was last season, and is it better now? And is Aaron Rodgers unstoppable?

Craig Massei of and Bill Huber of examine Sunday's season-opening showdown between the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers. We lead off with a breakdown of the Packers.

After having such a spectacular 2011 season come crashing to a halt in the postseason, what has been the fallout and lingering effects of the Packers' loss in their first playoff game against the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants?  Does the shock of that defeat still resonate within the organization at all eight months later? Are there any changes or differences on the team today that can be directly attributed to that loss?

No, I don't think so. Those guys aren't like me, you and the fans. They've got short memories. It's a necessity and it's been ingrained in them for years. You play on Sunday, you watch the film on Monday morning and you get the game plan on Monday afternoon. So, no, I don't think there will be any hangover, just as I'd be shocked if there's a hangover in San Francisco after what had to be a gut-wrenching loss to the Giants in the championship game.

On your personnel question, that's hard to say. Did the Packers sign running back Cedric Benson because they lost to the Giants? Probably not. That said, the team had concluded that Ryan Grant left too many yards on the field and James Starks left too many yards in the trainers room. Playing in Green Bay, there's the potential for one or two bad-weather playoff games every year. Benson gives them a chance if the passing game is stymied by Mother Nature.

Niners coach Jim Harbaugh said earlier this week, "This is a great Packers team. I don't think I'm going out on a limb saying this is Mike McCarthy's best team that he's had in Green Bay." It's easy to agree with the first part of that statement, but what about the second? Is it accurate to suggest this is McCarthy's best team with the Packers after the two great seasons Green Bay just assembled? What evidence is there to support Harbaugh's declaration?

Jerel Worthy
Benny Sieu/US Presswire
No, that's not accurate at all. It could be in four months, but it's not today. The 2010 team that won the Super Bowl had a hellacious pass rush with Clay Matthews, Cullen Jenkins and B.J. Raji. The Packers still have Matthews and Raji, but they haven't found Jenkins' replacement. With Jenkins in Philadelphia, Matthews, Raji and the defense as a whole have suffered.

The Packers are playing the dangerous game of counting on rookies. Outside linebacker Nick Perry (first round), defensive lineman Jerel Worthy (second round) and defensive lineman Mike Daniels (fourth round) were drafted with an eye on upgrading a pass rush that fell to last in the NFL on a per-snap basis last season. If one or two of those guys pan out, then maybe Harbaugh's declaration will wind up being correct. At this point, I haven't seen enough consistency out of any of those guys to make me think the pass rush has been solved.

After allowing the most passing yards in NFL history last season, what have the Packers done to shore up their passing defense? Were all those yards surrendered last year more a result of opponents always playing catch-up against the Packers, or a sign of real problems within the defensive structure?

I hit on a lot of that a moment ago. I think it's easy to get lost in the numbers and think the defense was terrible. It wasn't terrible. You're right in that a lot of the points and yards were pure garbage as most opponents were playing catch-up from the opening kickoff. The Packers and 49ers tied for the NFL lead with 38 takeaways last season. There's nothing terrible about that. What was terrible was the pass rush. It can't possibly be worse than it was last year. At least you wouldn't think it could be worse.

If the pass rush is better, I think most of the other problems are solved, though the secondary remains unsettled at safety opposite Morgan Burnett (M.D. Jennings didn't play a snap of defense last season and Jerron McMillian is a fourth-round pick from powerhouse Maine) and cornerback (a lot of options with Davon House, Sam Shields, Jarrett Bush and Casey Hayward vying for roles in the base and dime). I think the secondary will be a work in progress for a while, with the potential of this defense becoming pretty good in November.

The Packers used their first six draft picks this year on defensive players, and they also picked up free-agent tackle Anthony Hargrove during the offseason. What kind of help do the Packers expect to get from those draft picks, and what kind of changes can we expect to see both in personnel and scheme this season from Dom Capers' defense?

Nick Perry
Benny Sieu/US Presswire
The Packers swung and missed on Hargrove, who had been a reliable pass rusher at times during his career. I figured his eight-game suspension for the Saints' bounty scandal was a mere nuisance, since championships are won in December and January. However, his pass-rushing skills never showed up on the practice field. As is the Packers' nature under Ted Thompson, when it comes to choosing between a so-so veteran and a rookie with some upside, youth is always served.

So, it's sink or swim with the rookies. Perry is one powerful man, which is the Packers' preference at outside linebacker. My guess is he'll be a more effective player in the fourth quarter of games than he is in the first quarter as he brings his 270 pounds on one bull rush after another. We'll see, though. He's a tremendous athlete but I haven't seen much off-the-snap explosion to simply beat someone with speed.

Honestly, I never understood the pick of Worthy, who didn't put up big sack numbers at Michigan State. I haven't seen him do much in the passing game here, either, but we'll see when the lights go on on Sunday. Daniels is an intriguing guy. He got a sack in the preseason game with his tremendous power and leverage. McMillian might be the starter; the Packers have kept that under wraps when we're allowed to watch. The last of those picks, inside linebacker Terrell Manning, has some upside and might be active on special teams.

It may sound trite, but can Aaron Rodgers be stopped? Or do you scheme simply to contain him? The 49ers seem resigned this week to the premise there is no one way to stop Rodgers and the passing attack he directs, that it must be done with a complete defensive performance that produces both in coverage and with blitzes. How good is Rodgers today, can anybody stop him, and is facing a very good San Francisco defense one of the best true tests he has faced since his rise to universal stardom?

Rodgers wasn't sharp in the preseason. In the last three preseasons, he had passer ratings of 130-plus with 16 touchdowns and no interceptions. This summer, it was one touchdown and two interceptions and sub-50 percent accuracy. It might not mean a thing but I think it's worth noting.

Pass rush beats a quarterback and a passing game every time. It's a big reason why the Giants stunned the Packers here in the playoffs. Obviously, the 49ers can get after the quarterback. Left tackle Marshall Newhouse isn't a bad player but he's probably never faced the challenge he'll get against the Niners, with defensive end Justin Smith and outside linebacker Aldon Smith. So, this game comes down to whether the Packers can handle the 49ers' front seven. If they can, Rodgers will put up MVP-type numbers. If they can't, the 49ers definitely have the edge in this game.

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