Senior writer jclombardi highlights Packers vs 49ers previews, keys & game plan.
Game scout–Packers vs 49ers: Kickoff–high noon Sunday. TV–Fox. Injury report–CB Pat Lee (ankle) is out. S Atari Bigby (hamstring) and S Anthony Smith (ankle) are doubtful. RT Bryan Bulaga (ankle), LT Chad Clifton (knee), CB Charles Woodson (toe), DE Ryan Pickett (ankle), LB Clay Matthews (shin) WR Greg Jennings (foot), S Nick Collins (shoulder), DE Cullen Jenkins (calf) and RB Dimitri Nance (concussion) are probable. Keys to the game–The 49ers’ offensive line dominated against Arizona, and needs another strong performance in front of RBs Brian Westbrook and rookie Anthony Dixon with Frank Gore done for the season. San Francisco isn’t as strong in pass protection and doesn’t want to expose QB Troy Smith to the Packers’ strong rush that has contributed to a plus-seven turnover margin. Green Bay hasn’t been able to run the ball effectively since losing its own lead back and will let QB Aaron Rodgers spread the field. A foot strain to red-hot WR Greg Jennings apparently won’t be an issue. Game plan–The Packers are catching a big break with San Francisco’s do-everything RB Frank Gore out for the season. Still, the 49ers managed to win game at Arizona and 3-1 surge with Smith at quarterback. He isn’t a threat to put up big passing numbers and rarely throws the ball deep. Look for the Packers defense to crowd the box and bring consistent pressure when Smith does drop back to pass as they try to keep him from breaking the pocket and extending plays with his nimble feet. Veteran Brian Westbrook, against the Cardinals, had 23 carries for 136 yards and a touchdown. He has been a thorn in the Packers’ side both carrying the football and catching it in previous meetings. Green Bay is going nowhere with its running game, so there’s probably no use trying to light a spark against the 49ers’ stout and assertive front seven in their 3-4 scheme. San Francisco ranks sixth in the league against the run allowing an average of 98.3 yards per game , on par with the Packers’ meager 23rd-rated rushing output of 98.4 yards. That will leave it up to red-hot Aaron Rodgers to fire away in possibly another heavy dose of empty-backfield, four-and five-wideout sets against San Francisco’s underwhelming secondary. The Packers will be challenged on third down and is a calling card for the 49ers who are allowing opponents to convert at a rate of just 35 percent.
Five things to watch: Gore no more–The 49ers rushed for 261 yards in their 27-6 victory over Arizona on Monday night, with 31-year-old veteran running back Brian Westbrook doing most of the damage (136 yards on 23 carries) after starter Frank Gore went down with what turned out to be a season-ending hip injury. Gore, one of the league’s top backs, had been backed up by Anthony Dixon; now, it appears Westbrook will get the bulk of the carries, with Dixon spelling him. Defending Davis–When the two teams met last year, 49ers tight end Vernon Davis had a huge day, catching six passes for 108 yards and a touchdown. The Packers tried a variety of coverage approaches, and none worked, with linebacker A.J. Hawk being beaten on a 32-yard catch, defensive back Jarrett Bush being beaten on a 29-yard catch and the combination of linebacker Clay Matthews and safety Atari Bigby giving up 24-yard catch. Against an offense with limited weapons, the Packers must contain Davis. Something to play for–While the Packers and 49ers have diametrically opposed records, they find themselves in the same spot in their respective divisions: One game out of first place. While the Packers are in the NFC mix at 7-4, one game behind NFC North leader Chicago, the 49ers are still in the hunt because of NFC West co-leaders St. Louis and Seattle are both under .500 at 5-6. So while the Packers may be viewed as the true playoff contender, the game is actually a big one for both teams. Running on empty: In Sunday’s 20-17 loss Atlanta, halfback Brandon Jackson rushed 10 times for 26 yards and backup Dimitri Nance had one carry for no gain. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers led the team with 12 carries for 51 yards and a touchdown. It was the second straight game in which the Packers’ backs combined to average less than 3.0 yards per attempt, with Nance (12 carries, 37 yards) and Jackson (14 carries, 28 yards) combining to average 2.5 yards per rush against Minnesota on Nov. 14. Meanwhile, fans hoping to see rookie sixth-round pick James Starks figure to get their wish. Five alive–The Packers ran 14 plays out of their “Big Five” package of Rodgers in the shotgun in an empty backfield with all five active wideouts, Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones, Jordy Nelson and Brett Swain, spread out last week against Atlanta. The formation had made its return for two plays against Minnesota on Nov. 21 – it had been in mothballs since tight end Jermichael Finley’s emergence last season. The Packers gained 104 yards and five first downs and scored both their touchdowns, Rodgers’ 1-yard keeper and his 10-yard touchdown pass to Nelson, came out of the formation. THE PREDICTION–The 49ers may technically be in the mix for the postseason, but they’re also on the verge of firing Singletary and starting over. The Packers have seen two coaches fired the day after games against them (Dallas’ Wade Phillips, Minnesota’s Brad Childress), and while that’s unlikely to happen again, the bounce Singletary and his team got from Monday night’s victory figures to be short-lived. Packers 30, 49ers 10.