Five things to watch for in Sunday afternoon’s regular-season opener between the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers:
1. Can the Packers stop the read-option any better eight months later?
It’s been the hot topic all week. It’s also been the primary defensive talking point in Green Bay since Dom Capers and his group was dismantled by Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers to the tune of 579 yards on Jan. 12.
The Packers traveled to Texas A&M this offseason to learn how to better defend the read-option and Capers met with University of Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, but that is just a sample of the type of dedicated work that was done by Green Bay’s coaching staff in recent months to make sure that 579 never happens again.
“It’s just another element you have to prepare for, and we’ve invested our time, and hopefully we’re prepared,” Capers said this week.
There’s been plenty of discussion this week from both teams about the legal ways for the Packers to try to stop Kaepernick if San Francisco uses a lot of read-option offense. It started with Clay Matthews’ comments that they “have to take shots on the quarterback.” That prompted 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh to call Matthews’ statements “tough talk” and telling reporters that it sounded like “targeting a specific player.”
The NFL disagreed with Harbaugh. In a video explanation sent to media members this week, the league explained that quarterbacks can be hit like a runner until it’s clear that the QB is out of the play. Harbaugh again then spoke out, calling the ruling “flawed and a bit biased” in a Friday press conference in San Francisco.
So where does that leave things heading into the Packers-49ers matchup Sunday afternoon? With a lot of intrigue and a lot of eyes on the officials. But for Green Bay, no matter how it’s — legally — done, Capers and the players need to show that the Packers have made a significant step forward in defending the read-option offense over the past eight months.
2. Are Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay’s offense ready?
Rodgers didn’t play much in the preseason. Only five drives and 46 snaps doesn’t give a lot of in-game time for any player — even one who is a former NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion — to get prepared for a very difficult Week 1 opponent. Part of the problem is that the Packers’ entire starting offense wasn’t on the field together much, but it compounded the situation that Green Bay’s first-stringers didn’t score a touchdown.
Not surprisingly, though, Rodgers isn’t worried.
“When we had the lockout season, a lot of people were talking about how the quality of play in the league was going to be down; it wasn’t, from the start,” Rodgers said this week. “I mean, we started fast against New Orleans. I don’t think that (San Francisco’s) 1s have taken a ton of reps on offense, and we haven’t, obviously. But I expect us to play well.
“We’ve taken a lot of practice reps, we’ve played a lot of football together. There’s going to be some guys and some stressed positions based on their matchups, but we expect to come out and put up some points and be effective.”
Kaepernick was the only starting quarterback in the NFL to play fewer preseason snaps than Rodgers. So, if the theory that QBs need a lot of preseason work is true, then both Kaepernick and Rodgers should struggle.
It wasn’t just Rodgers who didn’t play much in preseason for the Packers. Wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb both only played two snaps, and those were running plays. It will be interested to see if Rodgers and his receivers can get on the same page from the opening drive or if it will take a quarter or two.
3. Eddie Lacy and the running game
Well, this is it. It’s the first chance to find out whether coach Mike McCarthy’s offseason promise to improve Green Bay’s running game can become reality. McCarthy’s plan was to have DuJuan Harris as the starting running back and use him as a one-two punch with the rookie Lacy. But with Harris on injured reserve, it’s already onto Plan B before the season even begins. That’s not an encouraging early sign for McCarthy, but all is certainly not lost yet for the Packers’ ground attack.
Though McCarthy wouldn’t confirm it in his one-on-one interview with me earlier this week, Lacy now likely becomes the team’s featured running back. There’s James Starks and fellow rookie Johnathan Franklin behind him, but Lacy is simply a better player than those two right now.
Lacy had some moments (eight carries for 40 yards in St. Louis in the second preseason game) that suggested Green Bay is on the right track to run the ball effectively this season. There were other times (eight carries for minus-5 yards against the Seattle Seahawks in the third preseason game) that made it look as if the Packers had made very few strides.
According to the rating system at ProFootballFocus.com, no team in the preseason was worse in run blocking than the Packers.
Green Bay’s offensive line needs to be markedly better than it was last season. If they’re not drastically improved, not only will Rodgers be scrambling too often, but Lacy won’t have holes to run through.
“We understand that last year we got a lot of criticism,” starting right guard T.J. Lang said this week. “A lot of it was probably warranted. It’s a new season for us, a fresh start. A chance for us to go out there and set the tone for what kind of line group we’re going to be this year. There’s some things you try to correct from previous years, there’s also things you want to keep building on, some good things that you did. We’ve got some new guys in place, but it’s a fresh season for us.”
4. Defensive line rotation
The Packers kept seven defensive linemen on their 53-man roster this season. If hybrid player (and former full-time defensive lineman) Mike Neal plays any snaps at his old spot, that would be eight players there. This means that Capers has a lot to figure out in terms of which defensive lineman to use in which situation in order to have the most effective lineup on the field at all times.
Gone are the days when Capers had to overuse B.J. Raji. Now, Capers has the opposite problem. How can Green Bay balance snaps between Raji, Ryan Pickett, C.J. Wilson, Mike Daniels, Johnny Jolly and rookies Datone Jones and Josh Boyd? Keep in mind, this is a Packers team that has played — and will continue to play — a lot of nickel defense, meaning only two defensive linemen would be on the field on any given snap.
Daniels is a good pass rusher who got some pressure on the quarterback in preseason. Jolly was disruptive in the backfield on passing plays, while also getting in a few of his signature tipped balls. Pickett and Wilson are mostly only effective against the run, while rookies Jones and Boyd are still question marks. Raji is the best among the group to defend either run or pass.
Capers has to put the puzzle pieces together on the defensive line, and Sunday’s game will be the first chance to see how he tries to go about it.
5. Answering questions in the return game, offensive tackle rotation and safety
Who’s returning punts and kicks this season for the Packers? It would make the most sense if it’s Jeremy Ross. Though Ross showed improvement as a wide receiver in the preseason finale, he made the team mostly as a return threat. But with McCarthy still bringing up the names of Micah Hyde, Franklin and Cobb, it remains to be seen if it is in fact Ross’ job to lose this season.
McCarthy has yet to officially name a starting right tackle, at least in the traditional sense. Yes, McCarthy said that he’s leaning in the direction of starting Don Barclay, but then he mentioned how he thinks the Packers could use a three-tackle rotation. Is that really something McCarthy is considering? Is McCarthy actually going to use Marshall Newhouse on some sort of consistent basis, subbing him in for Barclay or perhaps even David Bakhtiari? The situation sounds strange, but McCarthy put the suggestion out there on several occasions recently.
Starting safety Morgan Burnett is questionable with a hamstring injury, but if he plays, who is starting next to him? With 48 hours before the game, Green Bay still hadn’t picked a winner in the battle between Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings. It’s possible that each plays in certain packages, but Sunday’s game will likely answer which of them sees the field more this season.