49ers rushing defense
Green Bay's inability to get anything going on the ground in the opener fell perfectly into the defensive script the 49ers want to write for every opponent. Stopping the run is the strength of the NFL's third-ranked defense, though there has been some significant lapses in that area since All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith went down in the third quarter of a Dec. 16 victory at New England.
Smith hasn't played since due to a partially-torn left triceps, but he has been practicing for two weeks and all indications are he will play Saturday. At what level of strength he'll be able to play, however, remains in question. And that is significant, because Smith's strength at an otherwise undersized 285 pounds is key to what the 49ers do on defense, particularly against the run.
With Smith, capable left tackle Ray McDonald and burly nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga occupying blockers and winning battles at the point of attack, San Francisco's premier linebackers are able to run unobstructed to the football and make plays from sideline to sideline. And that is just what they do, particularly All-Pro middle linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, who ranked 1-2 on the team in tackles this season while combining for 354 stops. Outside backers Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith are no slouches against the run, either, with second-year pro Smith – who played defensive end in college – playing particularly well in that area in his first season as a full-time starter.
San Francisco gets great support in the secondary from hard-hitting safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, who both were named NFC starters in the Pro Bowl this season. They fly to the football, and both ranked among San Francisco's top five tacklers this season while combining for 228 stops. While they don't exactly pack the same punch, the other secondary players are sure tacklers who can bring down opponents on first contact.
The Niners stopped Benson for just 18 yards on nine carries and limited Green Bay to 45 total rushing yards in the opener, beginning another season when the 49ers were consistently strong stopping the run. They'll hope to return to that form after a late-season lull against the Packers, and will welcome the new faces in the Green Bay backfield.
Packers rushing offense
The Packers came out of training camp feeling pretty good about the situation at running back. They added veteran Cedric Benson, who was coming off three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons for Cincinnati, and were returning Alex Green, a third-round pick in 2011, and James Starks, a hero of the Super Bowl run and the team's leading rusher in 2011.
None of those players will be in the conversation on Saturday night, with Benson on injured reserve, Starks injured again and Green having fallen off the face of the earth. Instead, it's the unthinkable two-man tandem of DuJuan Harris and Ryan Grant, neither of whom were on the active roster until December. The 5-foot-7 Harris was released twice in a span of five days by Jacksonville and Pittsburgh during training camp this summer and had taken a job selling cars. Grant was one of the most productive running backs in franchise history but the Packers decided to go in another direction by signing Benson. He had one touch during a brief stint with the Redskins at midseason.
Harris has been sensational. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry during his limited playing time in the regular season. He took over as the featured runner at Minnesota in Week 17 and almost had more total yards than Adrian Peterson in the wild-card game last week. Harris is short but he's not small. He's quick through the hole and finishes his runs with a fury. He's added a dimension in the passing game, as well, as a check-down receiver.
Of course, it all starts up front, and the Packers will be challenged by a tremendous defensive front. Right guard Josh Sitton is the best run blocker. Don Barclay, who replaced standout starter Bryan Bulaga (hip), has been a solid run blocker, as well. The Packers benched center Jeff Saturday three weeks ago in favor of Evan Dietrich-Smith. Humorously, Saturday was selected to the Pro Bowl team one week later. Dietrich-Smith is the more physical player. It's almost like the Packers had this game in mind when making that decision. They'll use fullback John Kuhn, one of their four tight ends and even rookie lineman Greg Van Roten as lead blockers.
This isn't the pass-happy attack of last year, with coach Mike McCarthy trying to build a running game throughout the season in order to have a more balanced attack for the playoffs. It was an utter failure in Week 1, but over the final eight games of the regular season, the Packers ranked 12th in rushing.