World's Best Preview: Packers at 49ers

It's bigger and better than ever: Our 2,800-word gameday notebook leads off with the Packers' and Niners' unique ways of handling preseason playing time with their quarterbacks. Plus, the cloudy future of the read-option, the Niners' powerhouse offensive line and 17 more need-to-know facts.

The statistic is curious, to say the least, given the Green Bay Packers' offseason emphasis of getting out of the gate faster than last year, when they started 2-3.

Aaron Rodgers took just 45 snaps and played only five series in the preseason. That's compared 72 snaps and 12 series in 2012, 67 snaps and 11 series in 2011 and 78 snaps and 13 series in 2010.

It's incredibly interesting when you examine the schools of thought with other elite quarterbacks. Based on counts provided by Pro Football Focus, Joe Flacco played 98 snaps, most among the league's top quarterbacks. Peyton Manning, who threw seven touchdown passes on opening night, played 97 snaps. Eli Manning got 95 snaps, Tom Brady 88, Matthew Stafford 85 and Matt Ryan 83.

The other end of the spectrum, however, is more interesting. What starting quarterback took fewer snaps than Rodgers? That would be third-year pro Colin Kaepernick, with all of 10 professional starts under his belt. He was on the field for 42 snaps.

"It is (interesting)," agreed Rodgers on Thursday. "We wanted to make sure that I was in the right frame of my mind at practice and smart about the reps in the game. There was a lot of competition at the backup quarterback position, obviously, and Mike (McCarthy) wanted to get an extensive look at those guys, and some other guys, as well. I took what Mike thought was enough to get me ready. He's trusting in the experience that I have and the games that I've played."

As Rodgers mentioned, McCarthy's reasoning was the need to build depth and "gather information" on young players. No doubt that's true. But given the unsettled state of the offensive line after left tackle Bryan Bulaga tore his ACL and the injuries at receiver that prevented Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb from getting on the field with Rodgers for the first three exhibitions, you wonder if 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was more honest when asked about Kaepernick's playing time during his Wednesday conference call.

"There was a bit of a plan there but there's also a feel," Harbaugh said. "Colin played as much as our starting line does in preseason games, except there was probably a game or two in there where I just wanted to avoid something freaky and had a feeling. Might have taken him out a little early."

Both quarterbacks say they're ready.

"Football is football once you step on that field," Kaepernick said during his conference call.

"We're pros," Rodgers said of himself, Nelson and Cobb on Wednesday. "We're paid to be professional and paid to play well, so I expect it."

2. READ-OPTION'S FUTURE

There was an interesting give-and-take between Harbaugh and Packers.com's Vic Ketchman during Harbaugh's conference call.

Is this trend toward running quarterbacks just a fad or is it here to stay?

Clearly, there's a difference between a quarterback who can scramble away from pressure and a quarterback whose running ability is game-planned into the offense. Harbaugh, no doubt, is intelligent enough to understand where Ketchman was going with his line of questioning, though Harbaugh said he wasn't on the same "wavelength."

"I guess I'm coming at this not seeing eye to eye on this," Harbaugh said. "I've always seen running, athletic quarterbacks in the NFL. Do I know it's going to be here to stay for next year, the next five years, the next 20 years, the next 50 years? No, I don't have a crystal ball."

We bring this up in light of Clay Matthews saying the plan was to hit Kaepernick and Harbaugh countering by lobbying the officials to protect his quarterback. Harbaught took it a significant step further by questioning whether the Packers were putting a target on Kaepernick.

"I think it's a fairly new concept in the NFL, so there needs to be some rules that define who he is and what he is and when he is that," Packers outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene told Packer Report. "We just want to be definitive what is permissible as far as that position."

On Wednesday afternoon, the NFL sent out an officiating video to help "define" when a quarterback can be hit and when he's off-limits. The key, the NFL's vice president of officiating, Dean Blandino, said in the video, is that, "If he's running with the football or presenting a running posture," then he can be legally tackled, so as long as it's not unnecessary roughness.

At 230 pounds, Kaepernick is bigger than practically every running back in the league. He also wears different pads to help with the throwing motion, so he's not protected like a running back. Can Harbaugh — or any coach — continually put his quarterback in harm's way and expect him to be anywhere close to full speed when the calendar turns to December and January? Look to how the Redskins treated Robert Griffin III for evidence of what happens after an accumulation of hits.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who has seen just about everything during his 41 years in coaching, smiled when asked if it's "kind of funny" that there's a debate on whether a quarterback can be hit.

"These things kind of get blown out of proportion," Capers said. "Your goal on defense is to get the quarterback. You've got to make sure that that doesn't become more important than taking care of business. I think those things get overblown."

3. LAYING DOWN THE LINE

There's no bigger disparity between these teams than their offensive lines. Because of injuries to Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod, the Packers' starting five consists of three fourth-round picks (guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton and rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari) and two undrafted free agents (center Evan Dietrich-Smith and right tackle Don Barclay).

The 49ers counter with three first-round picks (left tackle Joe Staley, right tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati), a fifth-rounder (center Jonathan Goodwin, a former Pro Bowler with New Orleans) and an undrafted free agent (guard Alex Boone).

Last season, they were named the Madden Most Valuable Protectors and started all 16 games together. Over the last two seasons, the Frank Gore-led running attack ranks third in rushing yards (141.7 per game) and seventh in rushing average (4.6 per carry). Their 137 runs of 10-plus yards also rank third. Last season, the 49ers gained at least 4.0 yards per carry on first down a league-best 52.2 percent of the time. That means a steady stream of favorable down-and-distance situations.

"They're all first-round picks, and they're all pretty good," Matthews said. "Good athletic guys and they run that scheme very well."

Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said the key for his unit will be hanging tough against double teams.

"The big thing with us is making sure we're sound in our gap," Trgovac said. "They run some read-option plays and the big focus on us would be on the double team. The two guys that are away from it are making sure they take their cutback lanes. The big thing is the double team at the point of attack on that read-option, but they do so much more than that. That's not even a quarter of their offense.

"We'll get doubled on their counters, then they throw a trap in at you, where they make it look like a double team and then they trap you. They've got a good little scheme. You have to match up and play that stuff well."


EXTRA POINT: Packers' OTs are major underdogs

THE OTHER SIDELINE

— 4. Never mind Kaepernick and the read-option for a moment, because the 49ers boast two big weapons in the passing game. Tight end Vernon Davis, who went to San Francisco with the sixth pick in 2006 after Green Bay took A.J. Hawk with the fifth pick, has hauled in one touchdown reception in each of his previous four meetings against the Packers. He has 17 receptions for 395 yards in those games. Since 2009, he leads all NFL tight ends with 36 receptions of 25-plus yards, is third with 31 touchdowns and is fourth in receptions (242) and yards (3,219).


Davis beats Hawk in the playoff game. Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

Randy Moss, who played for the 49ers last year and serves as an analyst for FOX Sports, said Davis and Kaepernick didn't have a good rapport.

"I feel like me and Colin are on a different level than we were last season," Davis told reporters in San Francisco this week. "Think about it: If a quarterback steps in, it takes some time to learn his receivers. It's predicated on timing. This training camp, we've had more than enough time to build on what we started."

— 5. The other focal point of the Niners' passing game is Anquan Boldin, who the Niners acquired in a trade with the Ravens. He's the fastest player in NFL history to 400, 500 and 600 receptions. He led all receivers in last year's playoffs with 22 receptions, 380 yards and four touchdowns.

"He is quite a leader amongst a lot of great team leaders that we have on our team," Harbaugh said in his conference call. "Anquan came in, universally respected by our football team for the kind of player that he is and the kind of person that he is. As he got here, people quickly realized just who he is as a player and as a person. He's everything that they thought he was. He's everything that they had heard that he was – a team guy, smart guy, a competitive and hard-working guy. He's just as he was advertised. Everybody respects that. Everybody respects tough, everybody expects hard working, everybody respects team guy. That transition, never saw one smoother, I can tell you that."

Where would the Niners be without him in light of Michael Crabtree's torn Achilles?

"I don't think it changes what to expect from those guys," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "When you get a great team, they expect any player that comes to step up in and take on that challenge. And we're talking about Anquan Boldin first of all, great football player. Been doing it for years now, well respected around the league. Nothing's going to change. They're going to expect the same thing out of him that they got out of Crabtree."

— 6. The challenge is a tough one for Rodgers. The 49ers' defense led the NFL with 10.31 yards allowed per completion and were second with 6.13 yards allowed per passing attempt. In 10 of 16 games, it held the opposing quarterback to a passer rating less than their season average. San Francisco's pass defense is better at home, with top-ranked figures of 166.8 passing yards allowed per game and nine touchdown passes.

"They do everything really well," Rodgers said. "They're very well coached. Had some matchups against this defensive coordinator (Vic Fangio). I mean, he's always prepared. He always has a plan for those guys. They've played together for a while now. They're talented at every position from the defensive line, linebackers and the back end, and they're a year older in the system. They're plugging in a couple guys here and there but they've been deep ever since we've played them and they just keep getting better."

One of the new guys is at safety, with rookie first-round pick Eric Reid having replaced Pro Bowler Dashon Goldson (Tampa Bay).

"I thought we'd probably see (Harvey) Dahl, frankly, just watching the preseason," McCarthy said. "But we really liked him coming out. He's got great range. A good football player."

— 7. Harbaugh is just one of eight coaches in NFL history to win a division title in each of his first two seasons running the show. The others: Chuck Knox, Ted Marchibroda, Red Miller, George Seifert, Barry Switzer, Mike Tomlin and Jim Caldwell. Only Harbaugh, Knox and Marchibroda did that while inheriting a losing team.

NOTEWORTHY NUMBERS

— 8. The 49ers tied for eighth in the league last season at plus-9 on turnovers while the Packers ranked 10th at plus-7. Over the last two seasons, New England is first in turnover margin at plus-42, followed by San Francisco at plus-37 and Green Bay at plus-31. San Francisco had the fewest giveaways with 26, with Green Bay second with 30; San Francisco had the fourth-most takeaways with 63, with Green Bay sixth with 61.

"Really, you stress it every day," McCarthy said of turnovers. "We have the period that's dedicated to taking care of the football and taking the ball away, so it's a daily emphasis of ours as a football team. It's one of the key fundamentals that we feel needs to show up. Turnover ratio is a very important statistic in regards to being successful in this league. That's an every day focus."

— 9. "Very important," indeed: Under Harbaugh, the Niners are 20-2-1 when winning the turnover battle. Since McCarthy took over in 2006, the Packers are 56-6 when winning the turnover battle.

— 10. The Packers had better start fast: In Harbaugh's two seasons, the 49ers are 6-0 when scoring on the opening drive, 19-3 when leading at halftime and 21-3 when leading after three quarters.

— 11. The key number for the 49ers' offense is 20 points. San Francisco, with its outstanding defense making life easier, is 20-1-1 when scoring at least 20 points under Harbaugh. Under McCarthy, the Packers are 52-9 when allowing fewer than 20 points.

HISTORY LESSONS

— 12. The Packers are 52-37-3 on Kickoff Weekend while the 49ers are 33-29-1. Only Chicago (53) has more season-opening wins than the Packers, and the Packers' .584 winning percentage ranks seventh all-time. It's one game, but it's a big game: Of the Week 1 winners since 1978, 266 went to the playoffs. Of the Week 1 losers, 120 reached the playoffs.

— 13. The Packers own a 34-28-1 edge in the series, thanks to an eight-game winning streak spanning 1999 through 2010. The 49ers are 17-11-1 at home, though just 4-6 at Candlestick Park.

— 14. According to the Elias Sports Bureau via the Packers' Dope Sheet preview, this will be the first season-opening matchup between teams that have won at least 24 games over the previous two regular-seasons since 1991. The Giants beat the 49ers in that game 16-14; neither team made the playoffs.

— 15. Harbaugh has 24 wins in his first two seasons, third-best in NFL history. Nos. 1 and 2 on the list also coached the 49ers: George Seifert won 28 games in 1989 and 1990 and Steve Mariucci won 25 games in 1997 and 1998.

FOUR-POINT STANCE

— 16. You know the Packers haven't run the ball well in past seasons. For a fresh perspective, there's this: Alex Green had a team-high 464 rushing yards last season. Kaepernick rushed for 416 while starting just seven regular-season games.

— 17. These teams are the kings of avoiding interceptions. Rodgers, with his career interception rate of 1.73 percent, is the best in NFL history. Tom Brady is a distant second at 2.06 percent. Rodgers' streak of 144 consecutive passes without an interception is the longest current run in the league, and his streak of 39 consecutive games without a multi-interception game is the most since the 1970 merger. The 49ers, meanwhile, have thrown a league-low 13 interceptions over the past two seasons. Kaepernick's interception rate of 1.38 percent last year would have ranked fourth in the league (behind Brady and Robert Griffin III but ahead of Rodgers) had he thrown enough passes to qualify for the official rankings.

— 18. Over the last two seasons, Green Bay is a league-best 26-6, followed by New England's 25-7 and San Francisco's 24-7-1. The Packers are third in scoring offense at 31.0 points per game while the 49ers are first in scoring defense at 15.7 points allowed per game.

— 19. Since the start of the 2010 postseason, the Packers are 14-6 on the road. That .700 winning percentage is the third-best clip in the league. The 49ers are 13-2-1 at home over the past two seasons, the third-best mark in the league.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Or, the best thing that was said that we couldn't work into a story this week.

— 20. B.J. Raji, on the Packers' defense: "We want to be the best defense in the league and it starts this Sunday. Obviously, we have a good opponent, but we have confidence in our ability and our scheme and our players. We're taking it with the approach that we're going to be the best defense this year."


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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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