To this point, I haven't done much preview material for ... well, anything San Francisco 49ers related this season. I've been mostly keeping away from it, partly due to my inability to watch any of the preseason games, and partly due to not wanting to overdose on football before I even get to take in my first game.
Well, watching Peyton Manning set a pace for like 4,000 touchdowns this season or something like that on Thursday managed to put me in the right mood. So I figured I'd talk about what I believe to be the most important matchup in Sunday's season opener against the Green Bay Packers:
Left tackle Joe Staley versus linebacker Clay Matthews.
Staley, as we all know, has been very good the past couple seasons, though he has had the tendency to start out slow. Staley handled his business against the Packers the last time out, but that was later in the year. The guy becomes unstoppable halfway through the regular season.
Just about anything less than unstoppable isn't good enough when you're up against Matthews. Last year, Matthews managed just 13 sacks, but that was before going down with an injury after playing in 12 games. He's one of the NFL's best pass rushers and would have a legitimate claim to the title of best pass rusher in this game if Aldon Smith hadn't come on so strong last season.
Matthews also got the one-up on Staley in the 49ers' season opener last season. That's where Staley was bloodied and gave up 2.5 sacks. I thought he showed some very good poise in that game despite not playing very well, something Staley hadn't shown in the past, in my opinion.
Now, we all know that the Packers are working on defending the read option and the pistol formation -- yes they are separate things (though I probably shouldn't be picky given that they've finally stopped calling it the Wildcat) -- and Matthews is a key part of that. They will obviously do their best to contain the edges at the fringes of the secondary, but their first and best option is to get Matthews around Staley cleanly and not give Kaepernick time to dissect Green Bay's defense.
Of course, Matthews chasing Kaepernick away up the right side en route to a big gain seems like a likely outcome given last season's playoff game, but again, Matthews will likely be chasing Kaepernick into a much readier secondary. Green Bay's defensive success starts with Matthews getting past Staley, regardless of how they plan to contain Kaepernick on extended plays.
Staley was a very solid left tackle last season. He seems to have gotten over the hump of being somewhat inconsistent, but there's only one or two tougher outs for your season opener than Matthews.