The San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers square off on Friday, and we’ll hopefully get some answers about the quarterback competition, whatever is going on with the offensive line, and maybe even the inside linebacker role next to NaVorro Bowman.
While we’re trying to figure that out, the Green Bay Packers have plenty of their own things to figure out. The third game is viewed by many as a dress rehearsal game, and that likely means significant snaps for a lot of notable players. I had a chance to chat with Tex at Acme Packing Company to discuss that and a few other topics heading into the game. You can read my answers to his questions here.
Niners Nation: How much will the starters play this weekend?
Acme Packing Company: As usual, the third preseason game is the one in which the Packers will play their starters the most. However, in light of Jordy Nelson's ACL tear last year in the second game, this is actually the only game in which we will see Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, and most of those big-name veterans, as they sat out the first two games and will assuredly be held out of the final context next week. I'm expecting to see most of them play through the first half and possibly one series in the third quarter so they can go through their normal halftime rhythm.
NN: Jordy Nelson is back on the field, but how close is he to playing in games? If he's playing Week 1, do you think he'll be on a snap limit?
APC: Nelson stepped back on the practice field for the first time on Monday, but he only ran routes alone that day. He stepped it up to running one-on-ones against corners on Tuesday, though, and at one point showed off the chemistry with Aaron Rodgers that make the two such a dynamic duo. He caught a ridiculous back-shoulder fade from Rodgers with starting corner Sam Shields in coverage, and after the play Rodgers joked that he could "throw that ball with my eyes closed" because of the connection that those two have.
All that said, I expect that he will continue to gradually get worked into more and more drills until he is finally ready for full participation by the time Week 1’s practices come around. I see no way that he plays this week, nor will he play next week, but I do expect that he'll be full-go by Week 1. When we get there, though, I would not be surprised if the Packers do indeed work his snaps up gradually, in part to get him fully back into game shape and also because I believe they will want to see all of their top four or five receivers in real game action early in the season.
NN: What are the two or three most significant position competitions yet to be decided?
APC: The first is at inside linebacker, where a trio of day three draft picks are vying for the two starting spots. Jake Ryan (4th round, 2015) closed out last season as a starter and began camp with the ones, but suffered a hamstring injury and was out for about two weeks. His injury synced up with the return of Sam Barrington (7th round, 2013) from the PUP list, and he stepped into the starting role that he held at the beginning of last season before an ankle injury landed him on IR. The one constant has been the rookie, Blake Martinez, a fourth-rounder from Stanford. He has picked up the defense incredibly quickly and is wearing the communications helmet, a sure sign that he'll likely be on the field in all situations. Martinez brings a great work ethic and set of eating habits to the table (perhaps a bit different from his old teammate and new 49er Joshua Garnett, who once put down 10 pounds of beef in one sitting).
Another question is around the starting lineup and rotation on the defensive line. We expected first-round pick Kenny Clark to step into the starting nose tackle spot right away but he has yet to do so. Instead Letroy Guion remains there while fourth-round rookie Dean Lowry mans the 5-technique position in the base 3-4. That's not that critical, as the Packers use a nickel formation with a two-man line as their base nowadays, but it's still worth monitoring.
On offense, there are no starting jobs really up for grabs (since Richard Rodgers and Jared Cook will probably split time evenly at tight end). The battle that has Packers fans on the edge of our collective seat is at punter. Yes, I said punter, where incumbent Tim Masthay faces the wrath of Green Bay fans that are fed up with his inconsistency. As competition, the Packers brought in Peter Mortell, a Green Bay native and rookie out of Minnesota. Both players have had moments of brilliance and disappointment, and it's still a coin flip as to who wins the job.
NN: Give us a player on offense and a player on defense that will be worth watching in the fourth quarter.
APC: On defense, keep an eye on safety Kentrell Brice, an undrafted free agent from Louisiana Tech. He is a big hitter who has been flying around the field recently, and he's making an impressive case for the 53-man roster. He's also been featured on the first-team special teams units this week and could be in line for more action on kickoffs even early in the game.
On offense, Packers fans have been excited about undrafted wideout Geronimo Allison out of Illinois. He's not overly fast (4.6 or so in the 40) but he's tall at 6'3" and has been one of the better receivers in camp. He might be the victim of a numbers game - after all, the Packers have as many as seven receivers who have better chances of making the team - but he might be trying out for a job with another team or at least the Packers' practice squad. Another player to keep an eye on is one of the receivers ahead of Allison: Cal rookie Trevor Davis, a speedster who should get some second-half action at receiver and on kick returns.
NN: What are the biggest weaknesses this team has to overcome in 2016?
APC: The run defense has been a continual work in progress since Dom Capers came to Green Bay in 2009, and it looks to be average at best again in 2016. Part of that is because the line and inside linebackers are a bit unsettled, but part is due to Capers placing overwhelming emphasis on defending the pass. The pass rush and secondary appear to be deep and full of talent, but how the team holds up against the run is a question mark.
On offense, lingering questions remain from last year's precipitous drop-off. Nelson's return should help significantly, as should Eddie Lacy's return to the physical form he was in two years ago. With a healthy receiving corps and a rejuvenated running game, the offense should return to the level that helped Rodgers to the 2014 MVP, but it's all theoretical until we actually see it in action.