Divisional Matchups: When Niners Pass

In Part 2 of our five-part series previewing Saturday night's NFC divisional playoff game, beat writers Bill Huber of PackerReport.com and Craig Massei of NinersDigest.com break down the matchups when Clay Matthews and the talented Packers secondary face athletic, strong-armed Colin Kaepernick.

PackerReport.com's Bill Huber and NinersDigest.com's Craig Massei analyze Saturday night's matchups. In Part 2 of a five-part series, we examine the Green Bay Packers' passing defense against the San Francisco 49ers' passing attack.

Packers pass defense

Last season, the Packers fielded statistically the worst pass defense in NFL history. The problem spots were many: communication errors, bad tackling and a nonexistent pass rush. Most of those problems have been solved, and the Packers wound up allowing 80 fewer yards per game through the air.

Tramon Williams, who the Packers have matched up against No. 1 receivers all season, will get the assignment against Michael Crabtree. Williams had a Pro Bowl-caliber season, even though he hasn't had an interception since Week 2. He is an exceptional athlete with great instincts and typically rises to the occasion. The other cornerback is Sam Shields, an elite athlete who can run with anyone. He's got four interceptions in 11 games. Inside in nickel, second-round pick Casey Hayward could hardly have done better in replacing Charles Woodson after the future Hall of Famer broke his collarbone in Week 7. Based on ProFootballFocus.com's examination of the 76 cornerbacks who played at least 50 percent of the snaps, Shields led the league in receptions per snaps in coverage, Hayward was sixth and Williams was 17th. The play of the corners will be critical. As was the case in the games against Minnesota, the Packers are going to need a safety (or safeties) in run support, so the corners will have to win their one-on-one matchups.

Morgan Burnett and Woodson are the safeties in base and nickel. Both are comfortable lining up in the box and playing physical, which will be key against the 49ers' sledgehammer attack. In dime, Woodson joins Hayward in the slot and M.D. Jennings joins Burnett at safety. Jennings, who had the interception that was called a touchdown in the "Fail Mary" game at Seattle, has come a long way since blowing coverage on Alex Smith's touchdown pass to Randy Moss in Week 1. He's not Woodson or Burnett when it comes to physical player, though.

Meanwhile, Green Bay finished fourth with 47 sacks after placing near the bottom with just 29 a year ago. Clay Matthews led the way with 13 despite missing four-and-a-half games with an injured hamstring, then added two more last week. It's not just Matthews, though, as 15 players recorded at least one full sack. That's the second-most in the league (Cleveland, of all teams, had 16 with at least one sack). Outside linebackers Dezman Moses (four) and Erik Walden (three, plus one last week) combined for seven sacks, and Mike Neal (4.5) is the best of the interior rushers.

49ers passing offense

It seems the 49ers have been trying to add more explosiveness to their passing game since the day Jim Harbaugh arrived as their new head coach in 2011. Finally, to begin this season's stretch run in late November, Harbaugh and Co. took their most drastic measure toward that pursuit.

They replaced veteran Alex Smith as the team's starting quarterback with athletic but untested Colin Kaepernick, even though Smith had been playing at a Pro Bowl level throughout the year, leading the NFL with a 70.0 completion percentage and ranking third in the league with 104.1 passer rating at the time he went down with a concussion in the second quarter of a Nov. 11 overtime tie with St. Louis.

That concussion kept Smith out of San Francisco's Nov. 19 Monday night showdown with NFC North leader Chicago and gave the 49ers an opportunity to get a good look at Kaepernick, the No. 36 overall pick of the 2011 draft whom the 49ers had gradually been working into their game plan. The job has been Kaepernick's ever since. He gives the 49ers a better deep passing game and a unique dimension as a dangerous running threat, and the 49ers have been trying to exploit those virtues while remaining true to their philosophy as a power rushing team.

That has produced some mixed results and created some irregular play-calling over the final month of the season, but when all is right, Kaepernick is a big-play threat with a big-time arm who can burn a defense at any time – and do it repeatedly.

He's getting a bit low on targets to do it with, however. Since late November, the 49ers have lost starting wideout Mario Manningham – the team's second-leading receiver this year – backup running back Kendall Hunter and valuable reserve receiver Kyle Williams to season-ending injuries. Those players combined for 65 receptions for 721 yards this season.

The attack revolves around Michael Crabtree, who emerged as a legitimate No. 1 receiver this year and carried the team down the stretch while producing career-high totals of 85 receptions for 1,105 yards and nine TDs. He led the 49ers with seven catches against the Packers in the opener and hasn't slowed down since. Aging veteran Randy Moss, who had one of his three TD receptions this season against the Packers, is always a threat on the other side but needs to step up as a starter after the loss of Manningham in Week 16. The rest of the healthy wide receivers on the roster combined for two receptions for 1 yard this season.

But the Niners have great weapons at tight end in Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, both of whom are big-play threats. Davis' receiving numbers were considerably down this season, but that was at least in part because of the attention he attracts and demands from opposing defenses.

Protecting the quarterback has been a weakness for the 49ers, who ranked 30th in the NFL in sacks allowed per play this season. Left tackle Joe Staley, named a Pro Bowl starter for the second year in a row this season, had his worst game in the opener when he allowed 2 ½ sacks to Clay Matthews, and Staley is certain to be tested again this time around.

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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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