Five things we learned from the Green Bay Packers’ 34-28 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1 of the 2013 regular season:
1. 49ers are just a better team than the Packers right now
Let’s start with the most obvious takeaway from this game: The 49ers are better than the Packers right now. This was true last season, as well, so it shouldn’t be too surprising to those who know the personnel of both teams.
Green Bay’s advantage over San Francisco up until Week 11 of last season was at quarterback. Aaron Rodgers is a significantly better QB than Alex Smith and that difference made up for a lot in other areas, even though the 49ers still beat the Packers at Lambeau Field in Week 1 a year ago. But, now that Colin Kaepernick has taken the NFL by storm, Green Bay is simply outmatched in overall talent and would go into any potential playoff game against San Francisco as the underdog — just as the Packers did in this one.
Kaepernick isn’t just a read-option quarterback. If Green Bay — and the rest of the league — needed any more proof of that, Kaepernick provided it Sunday. He only ran seven times for 22 yards, but it was Kaepernick’s arm that picked apart the Packers as he completed 27 of 39 passes for 412 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 129.4. As good as Rodgers was in this game (21 for 37, 333 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, 102.6 passer rating), Kaepernick was better. That’s two Green Bay-San Francisco games in a row in which Kaepernick outplayed Rodgers.
It’s not as if the Packers didn’t have chances to win this game. They did. But, going into Sunday’s matchup, I believed that the NFC’s top contenders were the 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, with a fairly wide gap before getting to the Packers at No. 3. Being the third-best team in the conference isn’t bad, and it’s about where they’ve finished the past two seasons. Well, this game made it even more apparent that if Green Bay is going to get back to the Super Bowl this year, it will have to do so with the underdog status that the team thrived on before winning it all 31 months ago.
2. Green Bay’s secondary unable to stop Boldin en route to huge receiving day
Not having the 49ers’ top receiver — Michael Crabtree — on the field was a major bonus for the Packers. Crabtree led San Francisco in every receiving category last season, but a torn Achilles tendon has him sidelined. However, Green Bay’s secondary got destroyed by San Francisco’s new addition at wide receiver, Anquan Boldin. The 32-year-old Boldin had 13 receptions for 208 yards and one touchdown.
The Packers were without starting safety Morgan Burnett and nickel back Casey Hayward (both out with hamstring injuries), and that certainly had an impact on Boldin’s huge day. Green Bay’s safeties (M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian) struggled without Burnett playing next to them. McMillian especially had a rough day, missing several tackles that led to big plays for the 49ers — including one touchdown.
Tight end Vernon Davis also performed well with six catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns. But, without Crabtree available, Davis and Boldin are the 49ers’ only two receiving threats and the Packers could not stop them.
3. Packers running game has a long way to go
This is the last negative category, so make sure to read Nos. 4 and 5 to be reminded that it wasn’t all bad for Green Bay in this game. But before getting to that, it first has to be mentioned how poorly the Packers ran the ball, especially in the first half.
In Green Bay’s first two drives, rookie starting running back Eddie Lacy was handed the ball four times and gained one yard. Yes, one yard on four rushing attempts (0.25 yards per carry average). On the Packers’ third offensive possession, Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy dialed up a six-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in less than two minutes. It’s obviously a positive for any offense to score a touchdown, but it was also a sign that Green Bay’s inability to run the ball forced the Packers to adjust and just let Rodgers keep them in the game as best he could.
It got worse for Green Bay’s running game before it got better. The fourth series only had two plays. One resulted in a 10-yard illegal use of hands penalty on left guard Josh Sitton and the next was a Lacy fumble and turnover that led to San Francisco scoring a touchdown while working on a short field. Lacy was benched the rest of the first half in favor of James Starks and John Kuhn.
The Packers gave up more yards on penalties in the run game during the first half (30, all on calls against Sitton) than they did in actual yards rushing (16). That doesn’t even include Lacy’s fumble, which was clearly the biggest negative play in Green Bay’s ground game.
The second half saw improvement for the Packers in this area. Lacy scored a rushing touchdown and finished with 41 yards on 14 carries (2.9 average). It’s difficult to place much blame on Lacy, though. The one play in which he had room to run was on a 31-yard short pass from Rodgers that Lacy was able to able to make a play on with yards after catch.
This is coming off a preseason in which ProFootballFocus.com rated Green Bay as the worst run-blocking team in the NFL. In order for McCarthy to be able to deliver on his promise to improve the Packers’ running game this season, the offensive line will have to run block a lot better.
4. So much for preseason: Nelson and Cobb shine
Ready for some positive moments? There were plenty. But in a game that resulted in a Green Bay loss, the negatives have to go first.
Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb were phenomenal. Both of the star receivers were battling injuries in training camp and played only two preseason snaps. But the knee surgery that Nelson underwent early in training camp looked like it only helped him. A few weeks ago, there were questions as to whether Nelson would even be healthy in time for Week 1. Not only did Nelson play, he was nearly unstoppable. He finished with seven catches for 130 yards and one touchdown. Nelson’s reception along the sideline early in the fourth quarter was as fine a catch as any NFL receiver will demonstrate all season. Getting open late in the play, Nelson turned and was able to bring the ball in while dragging both feet behind him.
Cobb wasn’t quite on Nelson’s level, but he was still very good. Cobb had seven catches for 108 yards and one touchdown, while also running it twice out of the backfield for six yards. The right biceps injury that plagued Cobb throughout training camp didn’t seem to be bothering him at all.
James Jones, who was so consistent throughout training camp and preseason, was surprisingly the one receiver to significantly struggle. Jones was only targeted twice and didn’t catch either pass.
Tight end Jermichael Finley had one of the worst and one of the best plays of the game. Finley dropped a pass across the middle midway through the second quarter that was intercepted off the tipped ball by the 49ers and turned into a touchdown on the ensuing drive. Later, Finley showed marked improvement in yards-after-catch effort when he caught a pass from Rodgers, broke tackles and was able to get into the end zone to tie the game at 14. The most positive thing that the Packers can take away from that is the relationship between Rodgers and Finley. Rodgers didn’t give up on him and went right back to Finley twice on the drive after the interception and got a touchdown out of it. That could be looked back on late in the season as a defining moment that got Finley to remain confident despite a bad play.
5. Run defense steps up
Green Bay’s defensive line performed at a high level in this game. Using the combination of B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, C.J. Wilson, Johnny Jolly, Datone Jones and Mike Daniels, defensive coordinator Dom Capers had the big guys upfront in position to make plays, and the group delivered.
Frank Gore was handed the ball 21 times and only rushed for 44 yards (2.1 average). That’s impressive against a tough runner, but it’s even better when comparing it to Gore’s production in the Packers-49ers playoff game eight months ago. In that game, Gore had 119 yards on 23 carries (5.2 average).
Pickett and Jolly each had a tackle for loss, but the work by the defensive line helped non-defensive-line teammates to make plays, too. Clay Matthews had three stops behind the line of scrimmage, and A.J. Hawk, M.D. Jennings and Tramon Williams all had one.
San Francisco’s offensive line is one of the best — if not the best — in the NFL. If Green Bay can control the line of scrimmage this well against a group that good, it’s a sign that the Packers should show season-long improvement in their run-stopping ability.