It’s still early in the week but the San Francisco 49ers are well into their preparation for the Green Bay Packers. On both sides of the ball, offense and defense, the storylines seem to be focused on two players: Colin Kaepernick and Justin Smith.
In my mind, the individual(s) or group that really has a chance to step into the spotlight and have a great game is in the 49ers secondary. The cornerbacks and safeties will be tested on Saturday night, as the Packers wide receivers are healthy and ready to roll.
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Green Bay will have Greg Jennings, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and James Jones at their disposal. The Packers have dealt with adversity at the receiver position this season, as injuries have been a significant issue all year. Jennings and Nelson went down, leaving mainly Cobb and Jones to step up – and they did so successfully. Cobb and Jones combined for 1,738 yards and 22 touchdowns. They were a significant part of the Packers' offense this year, so the 49ers might want to anticipate a change of roles. Also, Jennings and Nelson are not expected to be 100-percent going into this one.
But the 49ers will have some other things working in their favor:
1. The GB offensive line has struggled to protect Rodgers, so the SF pass rush may be a huge factor; forcing throws, making sacks, getting QB pressures
2. GB lacks any true semblance of a running game. They are comfortably one-dimensional, and the 49ers want them to be that way
San Francisco’s defensive front, which is expected to get Justin Smith back, has the advantage going into this game. Since their first match-up in Week 1, the Packers have since lost Jeff Saturday and Bryan Bulaga.
For San Francisco, it will be about playing disciplined on the backend. Their guys need to put an emphasis on finishing assignments and playing to the whistle. With Rodgers’ pinpoint accuracy and anticipation, this is not a game for mental mistakes or uninspiring effort. This includes penalties.
Rodgers is going to give San Francisco’s defensive backfield plenty of opportunities to get hands on the ball. But they must be patient and respect their opponent. The great thing about this defense is they know when to take their chances.
Additionally, the communication on that side of the ball needs to be constant and fluid. There are going to be a lot of vertical routes ran on the grass at Candlestick on Saturday, so the 49ers need to make sure the Packers don’t bust one loose.
The safeties, Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, will have to have one of their better performances. These two are exceptional in tandem, whether it's against the pass or in run support. 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh admired their talents in yesterday's presser:
Having two safeties specifically that can tackle, that is a tremendous thing for your defense. How do you know if you have a good defense, how do they tackle? Are you ready to play in a game, how do they tackle? And [S] Donte Whitner, [S] Dashon Goldson, in particular, are tremendous tacklers.
Though they might not be called upon to help against the run on Saturday, they cannot miss tackles at the point of the catch. This goes for the entirety of San Francisco's secondary -- it's imperative that the Packers receivers do not get yards after the catch.
In the nickel, dime or quarter, the corner depth will be contested. They will be facing combinations of four unique playmaking receivers, so they need to keep their guard up.
In my opinion, this game has Chris Culliver’s name written all over it.
Culliver is San Francisco’s most versatile and athletic cornerback, and I anticipate he’ll be amped up for this one. In games against New England, New Orleans and Green Bay, Culliver showed up. He was great running stride-for-stride with the receivers, downfield or underneath, and disrupting passes.
He’s either knocking receivers off their routes with his imposing physical presence, or using his speed and anticipation to break on the ball. Culliver brings a ton of energy to the field and seems to get better as the game goes on.
Rodgers will be throwing an awful lot, and trying to pick on players without a No. 22 or 25 on their jersey. Culliver in particular should have some opportunities to make defensive plays in Saturday’s divisional round.
Along with San Francisco’s advantage in the trenches, and the other intangibles (home field, bye, etc.), the Niners secondary could be in line for a big day.