The 49ers square off with the Green Bay Packers this weekend in an excellent test of where this team is after their win over the Arizona Cardinals. Arizona isn't particularly good so we can't really say the 49ers are in good shape coming out of that game. And that doesn't even factor in the injury to Frank Gore. Consider this a proverbial GPS game if you will. The 49ers don't actually need to win the game to win the NFC West, but it'd be nice to at least put up a good showing if not actually spring the upset.
I took a few minutes to speak with Brandon from Acme Packing Company, our Packers blog. Before answering the questions he actually passed along some other useful information. When you flip on the game on Sunday, the Packers will be sporting blue and gold throwback uniforms from 1929. So consider this your warning. On to the questions. Thanks to Brandon for taking a few minutes to discuss his beloved Green Bay Packers.
Fooch: Clay Matthews is the guy the 49ers will need to key in on in the pass rush. However, are there any other Packers that should be of concern, or is the Packers pass rush relatively one dimensional? Speaking of Matthews, can the 49ers expect him on one particular side of the field or do the Packers move him around?
APC: While DE Cullen Jenkins and LB Frank Zombo occasionally bring some pressure, the other guy to keep an eye on is Charles Woodson. He's only got one sack, and he didn't blitz at all against the Falcons because they wanted him to cover Roddy White. But when Dom Capers sees something he likes, there are some games when Woodson is constantly coming on the blitz.
Earlier this season, Clay Matthews missed their game against the Dolphins and the rest of the defense got no pressure on Chad Henne. Everyone else is a distant 2nd to him. He stays primarily on the strong side, with the occasional stunt up the middle. But he'll often drop back in coverage (which he did a lot against the Falcons), so in that sense he'll be all over the field.
Fooch: Football Outsiders ranks you guys fourth in overall defense but 18th in your rush defense. Are there particular reasons the ranking is so poor for rush defense but so solid in pass defense?
APC: There have been a few factors for the poor run defense. Surprisingly, their ranking at Football Outsiders actually improved a couple spots last week, though I thought they had trouble stopping Michael Turner. They've had some trouble catching quarterbacks. Vick surprised them in week 1 (Matthews knocked Kolb out with a concussion) and sometimes immobile QBs like Shaun Hill take advantage of a wide open field against man coverage. But since they know Troy Smith takes off a few times per game, they'll prepare for him this week. They've lost two starting linebackers for the season (Nick Barnett and Brad Jones) and just lost a key reverse linebacker (Brandon Chillar). They've been relying a lot on A.J. Hawk in the middle, and he has trouble getting off blocks.
As far as the passing game goes, Nick Collins and Charles Woodson don't have as many INTs this season, but they're as good as ever. Tramon Williams has been playing like a No. 1 CB (and just got a four-year extension as a reward), so there are few soft spots in the pass defense. The Packers do have some trouble against tight ends (see Tony Gonzalez last week) as they get to go up against some back-ups at linebacker (Desmond Bishop) and safety (Charlie Peprah). Even undrafted rookie CB Sam Shields is playing well as the nickel back, though he has been beaten at times.
Fooch: Aaron Rodgers continues to put up big numbers although his interceptions seem on pace for a career high. What do you guys view as his weaknesses that the 49ers would be wise to try and exploit?
APC: Rodgers has gotten even better over the past few weeks. He hasn't had an INT in his last 4 games, and his only fumble was on a designed QB sneak (I hate that play). He had some trouble adjusting to life without TE Jermichael Finley and WR Donald Driver several weeks ago, but now Driver's back and he's working better with 3rd & 4th receivers James Jones and Jordy Nelson. When he's under pressure, sometimes he and his receivers miscommunicate.
Fooch: The Packers are averaging right around the normal league average of 4.0 yards per carry. It's certainly not awful, but the loss of Ryan Grant seems to reflect in the offense. The 49ers have been quite strong defending against the run. Have the abandoned the run much or are they trying to force it to work with Brandon Jackson?
APC: Brandon Jackson is a great 3rd down back (good receiver and blocker), but he's nowhere near the runner that Ryan Grant is. Even with Grant, the Packers were always more likely to throw, and now they have even less incentive. Last week, the offensive line was terrible in run blocking game (but they were great in pass protection). Maybe you'll catch them at a good time. However, I didn't expect the Packers to run at all last year against the 49ers, and instead Grant ran for 129 yards.
Fooch: The 49ers have had issues of being out-coached at times this year. What does Mike McCarthy bring to the table for the Packers each week?
APC: I haven't agreed with everything Mike McCarthy has done, but overall he's a great head coach. He has the respect of the team. He's delegated the defense to Dom Capers, and stayed out of the way. He calls the offensive plays, but this is now Rodgers's 5th season in McCarthy's offense and he's mastered it. He always seems controlled on the sideline and in front of the media.