There is a much anticipated Week 1 match-up set to take place when the San Francisco 49ers travel to Lambeau to take on the Green Bay Packers. There are story lines aplenty, starting with this game as a potential NFC Championship preview -- and not to mention the Alex Smith-Aaron Rodgers saga and all that it entails.
The Packers should be the favorite to win this one at this point. Rodgers is arguably the league's top passer and with him at the helm, the Packers are perennial contenders.
However, the 49ers have risen from the ashes after last year's Cinderella season. They are determined to prove that they are a force to be reckoned with and they are here to stay. With Green Bay eyeing them in Week 1, the 49ers players and coaches have barely been able to contain their excitement. They are focused on Green Bay and know their run to the top starts there.
In this piece, we'll discuss the advantages the 49ers have over the Packers that could result in a Week 1 upset.
49ers Defenders Gravitate to Football
The Green Bay Packers sling the football around quite a bit as a risky high-octane offense. It's a pretty one-dimensional team; they have not developed much of a ground game. They go into football games with Aaron Rodgers, their game plan is well documented and they challenge teams to beat them by drawing them into a shootout.
San Francisco has the benefit of being one of the most well balanced teams in all the NFL. They are atop the league in defense and something they do particularly well is take the football away - they capitalize on opportunities. On a down-by-down basis, the 49ers defenders are looking to intercept or strip the ball away.
And the entire defense in general is extremely fast to the football.
Now, to introduce San Francisco's window of opportunity via this NFL fact: the Packers' receivers were 5th in drops in 2011.
This is a very real weakness that could be exposed on game day. The 49ers cornerbacks play tight, never give up on plays and are aggressive in nature. Any miscalculations by Green Bay receivers could prove detrimental to their team's Week 1 success.
The receivers will also have to be concerned about San Francisco duo at safety. Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are two safeties that hit hard and cause drops. So if this corps of receivers already has an issue with possession, it won't be any easier against the Niners.
The 49ers' hawking safeties over the top will also provide challenges for a Packers offense that likes to go vertical. If San Francisco can prevent Rodgers from finding a rhythm and take the football away, the 49ers could steal this one at Lambeau.
Packers Will Allow Points
The Green Bay Packers are a team that has been able to be dominant without being a three-phase team. Similar to the New England Patriots, this team is quarterback-driven and pass-oriented. They score so many points that they haven't required a top-tier defense to bail them out.
In 2011, the Packers finished 19th in points allowed, so the defense isn't impermeable. And even though their offense struggled, the 49ers as a team were 11th in points scored last year. The 49ers offense is expected to make strides as a total cohesive unit, as they have emphasized that side of the football this offseason.
And before those upgrades were made to the offense, this was a team that won a shootout against the NFL's highest scoring offense in Drew Brees and the Saints. They should be building upon that post-season mold where the Niners proved they could keep up with the league's most potent offenses.
The 49ers offense should also be able to move the ball because there will be a certain familiarity with the Packers defense. San Francisco and Green Bay run very similar 3-4 defenses, as both defensive coordinators are former colleagues.
49ers Ground Attack Could Have Monster Debut
LaMichael James and Brandon Jacobs received injuries that were thankfully not more severe, as both should be ready to go in Week 1 against Green Bay. That means the 49ers will be able to unleash this fast-agile-rocksolid-downhill-shake-and-bake-four-headed-monster. An attack that is set to feature Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Brandon Jacobs, the 49ers could very well improve from No. 8 to No. 1 in rushing.
The Packers have a questionable run defense (14th in 2011), and even more so after losing last year's leading tackler, Desmond Bishop. Bishop was second in sacks for the Packers in '11 with 5.0, and was solid in the middle for the defense.
With Bishop out, the 49ers could really take the reigns of this game by running the ball. The main concern would be to first neutralize disruptive defensive tackle, B.J. Raji. Clay Matthews and new addition Nick Perry are also efficient tacklers, but overall, San Francisco's ground game outmatches the Packers front.
San Francisco brings a lot of versatility with their selection of backs - and they could run the ball all game and everyone would still be fresh. The Niners could have a huge debut moving the ball on the ground at will, and ultimately keeping Aaron Rodgers on the sideline.
It also helps that this game is in Week 1 and there is no film on the 49ers new-look run game. The Niners may be able to take Green Bay by surprise with their notoriously creative designed runs. Gore, Hunter, James and Jacobs are all capable of big plays, and their unique skill sets will be utilized by the staff accordingly.
And finally, focusing on ball control, the 49ers could position themselves to win this football game.
San Francisco's Red-Zone Defense is Elite
A big boost for the 49ers going against this high-scoring Packers offense is that their red-zone defense is far and away the league's best. San Francisco's disciplined brand of football bodes well for them in this area of the field.
The Niners are able to use that limited space to their advantage, as they seem to disrupt what offenses want to do so quickly in the red zone. A lot of goal situation plays feature timing routes, and once the 49ers cancel those routes out, it puts the quarterback in the hot seat.
And while Rodgers is no ordinary quarterback in that he can adjust and make something out of nothing, San Francisco will be his toughest test yet. If the 49ers can force field goals instead of touchdowns, they can turn a would-be 21 points into 9 and stay in the ball game.
The red-zone defense should make a significant difference for the 49ers.
49ers Will Not Allow the Big Play
Please view this video of the 49ers defensive performance against the Saints before proceeding.
For the most part, San Francisco blew two coverages all game (Graham and Sproles 4th Q TD's), and Brees hit a dime pass to Marques Colston that was indefensible. This is a team that was pushing near 60 points at games during the season. The 49ers held them to 17 points until the middle of the 4th quarter.
Another sign of being able to restrict great passing offenses: They beat the formerly undefeated Detroit Lions by limiting their best weapon, Calvin Johnson. Johnson did break 100 yards but for the first time all season, he did not find the end zone. This is an example of another high-flying offense that San Francisco put the clamps on.
The 49ers are lucky enough that they can pressure with 3 or 4 and drop the rest into coverage. This takes away options down the field, and with the talent of San Francisco's defensive front, they still get to the quarterback in a matter of seconds. This makes it hard on some of the league's most elite quarterbacks, and we saw it with Eli Manning and Drew Brees last season.
This is a bend-but-don't-break defense. They don't give up anything lightly.
It should be an incredible game to kick off the 2012 regular season. The 49ers are certainly the underdog on the road at Lambeau against Rodgers and the Pack. However, it is way too soon to count this team out. San Francisco is looking for a title in 2012, and they know the first step to proving they are worthy is by taking out the consensus NFC favorite.