Green Bay Packers (3-0) @ San Francisco 49ers (1-2)
Sunday 10/04/15, 3:25 p.m.
Series: Packers lead (30-27-1)
Line: Packers by 9.5
Two revenge games in three weeks? There’s no better way to start the season. The Packers head into Levi’s Stadium on Sunday with a moderately sized chip on their shoulder, never having beaten Colin Kaepernick in his young career. I can hardly wait.
Quick Hits: San Francisco 49ers
It’s been a strange and troubling start to the season for the 49ers, something that hasn’t been the norm for them in quite a while. They started out with a bang, beating the playoff-candidate Vikings on Monday Night Football, in an ugly albeit dominant win. They ran the ball well and stuffed Adrian Peterson in his first game back, not unlike what we’d expect from previous Niners teams. But this year’s squad is different.
Since then, they’ve lost two humiliating road games by a combined 65 points to other playoff hopefuls, the Steelers and the Cardinals. Kaepernick has seemingly regressed for the last year, their once vaunted defense is a shell of its former self, and their head coach is increasingly becoming the subject of some hilarious Twitter banter. After an abysmal offseason, the Niners are bereft of veteran talent; they will need some of their younger players to make an impact.
Can the Packers finally stop Kaepernick?
This has to be the question on everybody’s mind. They can do it, right? I mean, we’re talking about a guy who threw two pick-sixes in a span of two minutes last week (he would finish the day with 81 yards passing and four interceptions). Well, so far they haven’t been able to. Really, they haven’t come close.
Including the playoffs, Kaepernick’s career numbers against the Packers are pretty staggering. He’s 4-0, with a 106.3 Passer Rating, a 6:2 TD:INT ratio, and he’s run for 318 yards and and two touchdowns on 31 carries (10.3 YPC). Aside from Brandon Bostick’s hands, he has been the Packers’ kryptonite in the playoffs over the last several years. They weren’t able to sack him even once in two playoff games.
For some reason, the guy just comes to play against Green Bay. Maybe it’s because he’s a Milwaukee native, or maybe he just gets amped playing against the best player in the game. And to be honest, the numbers suggest he has been slightly better than Rodgers has when the two match up. Since they’ve last met, however, things have started to look a bit different.
Here’s a little taste of how Kaepernick’s numbers have slipped since he took over as the starter midway through 2012:
|Yards Per Attempt||Passer Rating||QBR||Interception Percentage||Sack Percentage|
*Kaepernick started 7 games in the 2012 regular season
**He has started all 3 games thus far in 2015
Those are some pretty troubling trends, to say the least. He’s throwing the ball away more, which is concerning considering his average pass isn’t traveling as far down the field. Instead of taking that next step as a passer that the 49ers bet on him taking, he has seemingly regressed across the board.
Kaepernick’s ability to throw the ball may very well be the X-factor this Sunday. After what he’s been able to do to the Packers with his legs, and with the way he’s throwing the ball so far this year, it makes sense for Green Bay to try and prevent him from running the ball and force him to beat them with his arm.
With rookie safety-turned-cornerback Damarious Randall looking very solid so far, and veterans Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, Micah Hyde and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix all playing reasonably well, Dom Capers should be able to trust them in coverage. One matchup to watch will be who lines up across from big, bruising receiver Anquan Boldin.
Sam Shields usually covers the opponent’s best wideout, so it’s reasonable to assume he’ll shadow Boldin for a good chunk of the afternoon. Shields struggled against Alshon Jeffrey in week one, so it may be up to him to keep Boldin from catching too many passes, especially on third down. With monster tight end Vernon Davis reportedly out with a knee injury, the Packers can focus more on stopping Boldin and Torrey Smith in the passing game.
This means that, yet again, the spotlight is on the Packers’ front seven. I won’t dive into it again, but this has been a common theme so far this season. I’ll get to this later in a subsequent section, but since week one they’ve definitely answered the call. Continued solid play from Clay Matthews, Mike Daniels, B.J. Raji and others will be crucial to containing Kaepernick.
The Packers managed seven sacks last week, most of which came without sending extra pressure. It’s not reasonable to expect close to seven sacks in a given week, and the Chiefs do have a pretty porous offensive line, but that’s not to take away from the performance. It was a dominant showing and a good indication of what this defense is capable of, especially considering they’ve been without defensive lineman Letroy Guion.
Like I said, seven sacks is an unreasonable expectation; but creating pressure is a must. Moving Matthews inside has done wonders for the run defense, but it’s meant relying more on outside linebackers Nick Perry, Mike Neal and Jayrone Elliot. They’ve looked good so far, but Kaepernick is an entirely different animal, even compared to Russell Wilson. If he’s able to consistently break the pocket and find room to the outside, it will be another long day for the Packers’ defense.
The wrinkle in this is the Niners’ offensive line, which is considerably worse than it has been in recent years. Mike Solari was the Offensive Line Coach in the Bay Area for the last five years, but he’ll be on the other sideline this time around. The left side of the line remains steady, with Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley and longtime starter Alex Boone at left guard. The rest of the line presents many opportunities for the Packers to create pressure and get into the backfield.
Second-year center Marcus Martin has been thrust into the starting role due to injury, and he’s been average at best. Jordan Devey has replaced Mike Iupati at right guard, a significant downgrade. Erik Pears is a savvy veteran at right tackle, but after 11 years in the league, he’s lost a step compared to what he once was. The Packers will look to attack this side of the line.
If Green Bay can at least keep Kaepernick’s legs in check, which is a decently-sized if, then the Packers should be fine. Goading him into deep throws means turnover opportunities, which is what Capers’ defenses have relied on to change the direction of many games. An interception or two would do wonders for the Packers, not to mention it brings #12 back onto the field.
Can the 49ers (or anyone) stop the reigning MVP?
Probably not. I don’t have time to get into how great Rodgers has been, nor do you need me to do so. Watch one Packers’ offensive series and you should get the gist. He has been downright surgical thus far, sporting a 10:0 TD:INT ratio on the way to his most efficient start to a regular season ever.
His brilliance has the Packers rated as the fourth-best offense so far. The Niners’ defense on the other hand? It’s ranked 31st, quite a divergence from the squad they’ve deployed in years past. The defense hasn’t come close to recovering after losing the stable presences of Patrick Willis and Justin Smith, and All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman hasn’t looked the same since recovering from surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL.
That’s not including the losses of defensive end Ray McDonald, inside linebacker (and former Badger) Chris Borland, outside linebacker Aldon Smith and cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox. Simply put, this is a radically different defense than what we’re used to seeing.
On a per-game basis, San Francisco is bottom-five in points allowed, yards per play, passing yards allowed and turnovers forced. None of that bodes well for stopping Rodgers and Co. Expect him to continue his dominance on Sunday, even on the road in an unforgiving environment.
The Niners get strong safety play which should limit some of the Packers’ success going deep, but Randall Cobb should have a field day across the middle. Defensive coordinator Eric Mangini likes to send extra men on the blitz, which should mean Cobb and Ty Montgomery get thrown to on a lot of quick slant and out routes.
Honestly, holding Rodgers to 250 yards and 1-2 touchdowns would probably be a victory for this reeling defense. They will need exceptional play from their veteran linebackers, and whatever pressure they can create will be sorely needed. If they can force Rodgers to throw an interception, they may be able to turn things in their favor. Then again, that might just give him more motivation than he already has.
Who will run the ball more effectively?
The answer to this will be crucial. In the Niners one victory this season, they ran the ball extremely well, which meant Kaepernick didn’t have to win the game with his arm, a victory in itself. Hyde ran for 168 yards on 26 carries against a solid Vikings defense, good for an impressive 6.5 YPC. Not including Kaepernick’s consistent rushing numbers, in weeks two and three they only managed a pedestrian 2.3 YPC.
The Packers can’t allow 6.5 yards per tote and expect to win on the road, but they don’t need to hold Hyde below 2.5 yards per carry either; something in the middle should suffice. So far, they’ve done a great job handling Marshawn Lynch and Jamaal Charles, and though that was at home, it shows that this defense is ready for Hyde.
Though they struggle against the pass, the Niners defense is still built well enough to stuff the run. Nose tackle Glenn Dorsey is massive, and they have a stable group of defensive ends and linebackers that get to the line quickly and can disrupt plays.
The Packers have averaged about 4.2 YPC this season, which is decent but leaves something to be desired. Part of that can be attributed to Eddie Lacy hurting his ankle and playing two solid run defenses, but there is clearly still a lot of room for improvement (pun intended) in the running game. Look for the Packers to continue to run behind Pro Bowl left guard Josh Sitton, who is continuing to play at a high level.
Whoever wins this battle inevitably controls the game flow, which often goes a long way towards winning the game. If the Niners are able to run the ball like they did in week one, it will tire the Packers’ defense out and keep Rodgers off the field, while at the same time making Kaepernick less predictable. If the Packers can do so, however, then it means the defense can’t focus as much on Rodgers, which is a nightmare scenario.
Disappointingly, I’m predicting something of a draw in this matchup, which is probably a win for Green Bay. I think Hyde will find some room to run, but Matthews and Daniels should keep up their level of play, which means a lot of two- and three-yard rushes. The Packers will certainly take that.
Players to Watch:
Last week’s Gruden Grinder, Daniels is playing well in his contract season. He’s honestly become one of the more underrated defensive linemen in the game, and he’s improved every season in the league. He’s now getting to the point where he can consistently beat smaller centers at the point of attack, collapsing the pocket and disrupting running lanes. He had 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble last week; I expect at least another sack on Sunday.
Smith has been a boom-or-bust receiver throughout his career, and Kaepernick’s presence only reinforces that. Still, he’s a deep threat who gets downfield quickly, and as we saw in the Chiefs game, sometimes it only takes a few big plays to get a team back in the game. With Morgan Burnett doubtful to play, I expect Kaep to take several shots downfield to Smith. If he connects on a few, it could tip things in San Francisco’s favor at home.
Peppers has been somewhat quiet in the last two weeks, but he always seems to make his presence felt in big moments. With the middle and right side of San Francisco’s line relatively weak, it provides Peppers with an opportunity to wreak havoc on Kaepernick and Hyde. He rarely disappoints.
Bush offers Kaepernick a pass-catching option out of the backfield that he hasn’t really had before. He missed the last two weeks with a calf injury, but he’s now listed as probable and should suit up on Sunday. Matthews is really the only Packer linebacker capable of hanging with Bush in the open field. If he’s able to break a couple plays open, it could change how the Packers approach the Niners offense.
The Packers have done a great job overcoming narratives so far in 2015. They finally beat Russell Wilson, they finally slowed down Marshawn Lynch, and Aaron Rodgers finally beat the Chiefs. Even on the road, I feel pretty good about the Packers continuing the trend and finally handing Kaepernick his first loss against his hometown team.
Recently, the Packers have been great against the spread (7-1 in their last eight), and the Niners haven’t been. Still, nine points on the road to a hungry team feels like a lot. The Packers have looked good so far, but Dom Capers’ bend-but-don’t-break philosophy means that big early leads can get slimmed down in garbage time. It will be close, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Niners cover.
Green Bay 31, San Francisco 21
So far this year on Packers picks: Straight up: 3-0; Against the spread: 1-2
oddsshark.com; Pro-Football-Reference.com; 49ers.com; Packers.com; JSonline.com; CSN Bay Area