Defense Not Discouraged

Despite allowing 30 points and 186 yards on the ground to the 49ers, the Packers defense was better in a few key areas than a season ago. For now, that is what the unit will have to hang its hat on after a 30-22 opening game loss.

The San Francisco 49ers ran the ball with conviction, threw it with efficiency and took advantage of the Green Bay Packers' defensive mistakes Sunday at Lambeau Field.

So, why are the Packers defensive leaders still relatively upbeat about their opening act?

Because, they say, it felt better than it looked.

"They put up 30 points, but I thought overall as a defense we made strides from where we were last year," said defensive back Charles Woodson. "We flew around. We got sacks today. We got to the quarterback. There were a couple plays here and there where we missed some assignments, but I come away from this game feeling really good about our team."

Woodson, a 15-year veteran, is one of the Packers' harshest critics. Not afraid to say what is on his mind while remaining professional at the same time, his evaluation of the Packers' defense holds as much weight as any.

For a Packers defense that was historically bad a year ago, Woodson and other teammates know that this unit, just one game in, is a work in progress.

"There were a lot of bright spots, but at the same time, there were some mistakes that we need to improve on," said linebacker Clay Matthews. "Obviously the penalties, the big plays, we're always trying to improve upon that. I think you saw us get after the quarterback a little more and improve upon some things from last year. As with any opening game, there's a lot of room for improvement."

That improvement will start with addressing communication issues in the defensive backfield, something that has reared its ugly head more frequently since the loss of safety Nick Collins a season ago. With Woodson playing safety only in the base defense, M.D. Jennings got his first extended action at safety on Sunday (when Woodson moved to the nickel cornerback) but was benched in the third quarter in favor of rookie Jerron McMillian.

Jennings appeared to be partially at fault on a 14-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter on which 49ers receiver Randy Moss ran free down the middle of the field. And Jennings made a poor tackle attempt in the third quarter on an outside run by Frank Gore that went for 21 yards.

Though Jarrett Bush got the start at cornerback opposite Tramon Williams, he, too, gave way to a backup, Sam Shields, in the third quarter when the Packers ran more nickel. Bush was a frequent target of quarterback Alex Smith, who was effective in exploiting favorable matchups. Smith had only six incompletions in 26 attempts and beat Aaron Rodgers' passer rating, 125.6 to 93.3.

To the casual observer, it had to look like the preseason with the substitutions for the Packers, which included expected changes along the defensive line. Those changes, however, included B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett taking snaps at both nose tackle and defensive end.

Still, the Packers gave up 186 yards on the ground at a clip 6.1 per carry. Particularly bothersome were big runs at key times, including Frank Gore's 23-yard touchdown run in fourth quarter after Rodgers had just thrown an interception. The Packers missed three tackles on the play.

"We stopped the run a few times but, for the most part in the game, when they really needed it, they found a way to run the ball on us, which was bad," said linebacker A.J. Hawk, who led the Packers with 14 tackles. "Any coach at any level will tell you that to win a game, you've got to stop the run first. We didn't get that done today."

The Packers were better, however, in the areas they were poor in a season ago. Though Smith played a turnover-free game, they limited the 49ers' offense to just 191 net yards through the air tallying four sacks and six quarterback hits.

Matthews, with a new sidekick at outside linebacker in first-round pick Nick Perry, was overpowering at times with 2.5 sacks. And Woodson, 35, was his play-making old self with 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble (which went out of bounds).

The 49ers were also just 2-of-9 on third downs.

In the end, though, it was the 49ers' balance on offense – 32 runs and 26 pass attempts – that might have made the difference.

"It wasn't a surprise," said head coach Mike McCarthy of the 49ers' balanced attack. "That's something that both teams had a chance to evaluate in the offseason. I think some people thought San Francisco would be more spread out, more vertical. That wasn't the case. They did a good job with their ball control passing game underneath with the completion throws. Frankly, it comes down to execution. We'll take a look at their play call versus our defensive call, our play call against their defensive play call. That's all part of the game evaluation. But it goes on through the game. You make adjustments. They did a good job on offense."

Perhaps that might be why Woodson is not so discouraged. The 49ers just beat them.

"I don't think it was tough to prepare for them, but they are a balanced team," said Woodson. "They have a good mix of run/pass and different personnel groupings and they mix them in throughout the game and do a lot of different things, a lot of different formations.

"I feel good about where we're at. I feel good about a lot of the things we did today. There were some things that we have to correct, but I like the energy we had on defense. We flew around to the football and I think we had some fun out there today and I think we'll be better because of it."

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at

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