GREEN BAY, Wis. — With the Super Bowl approaching and the Packers watching from home for the second consecutive year, recognizing areas of improvement on Green Bay’s roster is important in projecting the team’s future success.
Right now, all comparisons in the NFC need to be made to the San Francisco 49ers. They’re a young, physical team that plays the exact style that gives the Packers the most trouble.
If Green Bay is going to make it to the Super Bowl at least one more time during quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ prime, it will likely require a playoff win over the 49ers.
The Packers aren’t going to completely reshape their roster this offseason, but improvements must be made. And those improvements should be made with beating San Francisco in mind.
Green Bay has proven the past two seasons that it can handily win the NFC North, and that’s an accomplishment that shouldn’t be taken for granted. But another division title isn’t the goal of coach Mike McCarthy and his players.
If the Packers can’t find a way to get closer to the overall talent level of the 49ers, Green Bay’s good-but-not-great roster will find itself out of the Super Bowl picture again and again in the coming years.
A look at how the two teams’ rosters stack up:
Quarterback edge: Packers.
Prior to the Jan. 12 divisional round game, the prevailing thought was that the one area that could help Green Bay upset the 49ers was in the Packers’ supposedly significant advantage at quarterback. Colin Kaepernick wasn’t playoff-tested, and Rodgers already had a Super Bowl ring. But the postseason spotlight wasn’t too bright for Kaepernick as he broke records and was the deciding factor in San Francisco’s win. Within the next two years, Kaepernick could continue to improve quickly and be viewed as one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. For now, though, with Rodgers still only 29 years old, the Packers have an advantage at quarterback.
Running back edge: 49ers
Kaepernick is a dynamic running threat all by himself. He certainly proved that with an all-time high in rushing yards for a quarterback to beat Green Bay. But, aside from Kaepernick, the 49ers have the better running back group. Frank Gore will be 30 years old next season and won’t have much left soon, but San Francisco has done a nice job in preparing for the inevitability of his drop-off in production by drafting Kendall Hunter in the fourth round in 2011 and LaMichael James in the second round in 2012. The Packers’ running back situation is full of question marks with DuJuan Harris, James Starks and Alex Green.
Wide receiver-tight end edge: Tie
Assuming Greg Jennings is gone, the Packers still have plenty of talent with Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Jermichael Finley. Though Jones led the NFL in touchdown catches in 2012, none of Green Bay’s receivers finished with more than 1,000 receiving yards or made it into the top 20 in league rankings. The 49ers’ Michael Crabtree outperformed each of Green Bay’s wide receivers this season. Crabtree had 85 catches and 1,105 yards, better than what Cobb — the Packers’ top performer — had. At tight end, San Francisco’s Vernon Davis performs better than Finley as a blocker and is a more sure-handed receiver. Davis dropped 6.82 percent of the passes thrown his way, and Finley dropped 12.86 percent. Green Bay, however, has an edge in depth at these spots.
Offensive line edge: 49ers
This one’s not even close. Josh Sitton is the Packers’ best offensive lineman and is one of the NFL’s 10 best guards. But San Francisco’s guards are just as good as — if not better than — Sitton. Right guard Alex Boone and left guard Mike Iupati both finished with better overall ratings than Sitton in ProFootballFocus.com’s metrics. Like Sitton, Boone and Iupati are also young. At offensive tackle, the 49ers have the best duo in the league. Joe Staley was arguably the best left tackle in the NFL this season, and Anthony Davis clearly a top-five right tackle. The Packers, with Marshall Newhouse and Bryan Bulaga, aren’t in the same elite class as Staley and Davis.
Pass-rush edge: Tie
The Packers and 49ers are very similar in this area, each with one dominant pass rusher. San Francisco has Aldon Smith (19.5 sacks this season), and Green Bay has Clay Matthews (13.0 sacks). Defensive end Justin Smith, at age 33, took a big step back as a pass rusher this season for the 49ers. Other than Matthews and Aldon Smith, there isn’t a significant threat to opposing quarterbacks. The Packers have Mike Neal (4.5 sacks) and Dezman Moses (4.0 sacks), and San Francisco has Ahmad Brooks (6.5 sacks) and Justin Smith (3.0 sacks). It seems fair to call this one a draw.
Run-stopping edge: 49ers
This is another area that’s not very close. San Francisco is big and physical up front with several players who specialize in stopping the run. Justin Smith, despite his decline in pass rush this season, is still great against the run. Inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are two of the best in the entire NFL at stopping running backs. At outside linebacker, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks are also among the league’s best run stoppers at their position. The Packers, on the other hand, aren’t nearly as secure against the run. Matthews and nose tackle B.J. Raji are very good in this department, Ryan Pickett is still playing well at his age and C.J. Wilson can stuff the run, but overall, the Packers are not on par with the 49ers’ dominant group of run stoppers.
Secondary edge: Packers
Casey Hayward’s incredible rookie season, along with Sam Shields’ continued quick development, swing this in favor of Green Bay. Morgan Burnett and Davon House were also good this season against the pass. Tramon Williams had an average season as the Packers cornerback who was most often expected to defend an opposing team’s best receiver. For San Francisco, Tarell Brown was the best cornerback, though he had only two interceptions. At age 31, cornerback Carlos Rogers was serviceable this season, and Dashon Goldson had a good season at safety. This is an area of strength for the Packers, though, especially because Hayward and Shields are still very young and have the potential to be even better very soon.
Special teams edge: Tie
San Francisco has one of the five best punters in the NFL with Andy Lee. Green Bay’s Tim Masthay is good but not on Lee’s level. This is also a battle of the league’s worst two field-goal kickers. Mason Crosby finished last in field-goal percentage and David Akers was second-worst. Crosby is 10 years younger, though, so the 49ers will soon — likely this offseason — have to find a replacement for Akers. With Cobb likely to no longer be on special teams, it’s difficult to project forward which team has an advantage in the return game.
Overall: The Packers are better than the 49ers in two areas: quarterback and secondary. San Francisco is superior in three areas: offensive line, run stopping and running backs. And, there are three areas in which the two teams are very comparable: wide receiver / tight end, pass-rush and special teams. Therefore, if Green Bay can improve its offensive line (specifically at tackle), develop a significant running back threat, find a pass rusher to team with Matthews and get more physical up front on defense, the Packers should have a shot at surpassing the 49ers in the coming years and find their way back to the Super Bowl. It’s a significant laundry list, however, and the 49ers will be doing their part to improve at the same time. For now, Jan. 12 serves as an on-field example of just how wide the talent gap is.