GREEN BAY – With so much of the focus in Saturday night’s NFC Divisional Playoff game between the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers on the Packers’ offensive line, it may seem logical that the inexperience of rookie right tackle Don Barclay would merit most of the attention.
But it’s veteran left tackle Marshall Newhouse who will face the most challenging match-up in the against the San Francisco 49ers.
Newhouse will be playing opposite 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith, who had 19.5 sacks in the regular season (second only Houston’s J.J. Watt’s 20.5 this season), and with the expected return of 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith from a Dec. 16 torn right triceps, Smith & Smith made for a daunting task.
“He’s got a big challenge, obviously, this week,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Being the second time around (after the teams’ Week 1 meeting), I look for him to perform better.”
According to Packers’ left guard T.J. Lang, the 49ers run a twist “10 to 15 percent of the time” where Justin Smith engages both the guard and the tackle long enough to allow Aldon Smith to rush inside untouched. San Francisco hasn’t been able to use the stunt since Justin Smith’s injury, but while it isn’t fully healed – the defensive tackle will have surgery in the offseason – he does expect to play on Saturday. How much he’ll play, and more importantly, how effective he will be, is unclear.
Without Justin Smith playing in front of him, Aldon Smith has been forced to beat the tackles himself to get to the quarterback, and has found himself facing double-teams as well. In the two games that Justin Smith missed – against Seattle and Arizona – Aldon Smith does not have a sack of the quarterback. Smith went into the final three games needing three sacks to tie the single-season NFL record and was shut out in the final 10 quarters after his partner went down.
Newhouse doesn’t buy that Aldon Smith has been playing any differently.
“I wouldn’t put too much stock in him struggling since then,” Newhouse said. “He’s still a good player. You can see it on the film. It shows up. But they’re just really in tune with the games, and they’re really in tune with staying in the rush lanes, so that will be a challenge for T.J. and I.”
That challenge isn’t new to either Newhouse or Aldon Smith – they faced off in the 49ers’ 30-22 win over the Packers in Week 1 – and Packers’ offensive line coach James Campen said he thought Newhouse played OK against the 49ers linebacker, who did have a sack on quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“He did pretty well,” Campen said. “He had a couple of rushes he’d like to have back but I thought he did a good job against him. The first game of the year for him, being the starter, and I thought he did a good job.”
To be successful against Aldon and Justin Smith, Campen said it was important for the offensive line to focus on playing fundamentally sound.
“I thought that the guys did pretty well with that last time we played them but certainly the key is that you have to keep your pads down,” Campen said. “You have to be fundamentally correct against two very good football players and when they run stunts like that, you have a big, fast guy inside who’s experienced, and a very fast linear guy on the outside and it makes it difficult if you get on different levels, so it makes it very difficult.”
The stunt is especially tough to handle because there are times when it appears Justin Smith is getting away with holding on the offensive guard. Campen said with a grin that “he doesn't get flagged so apparently it's not (a penalty),” and the lack of a holding call doesn’t bother him.
Regardless of whether Justin Smith is using illegal holds to form a lane for Aldon Smith to run through, it is clear that he is using his strength to muscle the guard over to create space. A lot has been made about the 49ers being a more physical team than the Packers, but Lang said they use their strength in a different way.
“I think we focus a lot more on the technique aspect and being athletic and make blocks that way,” Lang said. “Obviously we’re not a power-run scheme here. With how much spread we do, how much zone we do, how much passing we do, we play to our strengths, which is being fundamentally sound and using our athleticism to get in front of guys and make blocks.”
Still, Lang – and the rest of the Packers team – recognizes that the physicality of San Francisco’s play is one of their strengths and that it is important for the Packers to match the intensity of their opponent.
“Their front seven, they've got a lot of Pro Bowlers on their defense and for good reason,” Lang said. “They're very good, smart, tough players. But when we're playing our good football, we play just as physical as anybody else does. That's the attitude that we have. And when you go against a group that plays physical, hard-knock football, the biggest thing is to make sure you're matching their effort, their intensity the whole game. If we try to do that, if we match their effort as best we can, I think we have a good chance.
Sarah Barshop covers the Packers for ESPNWisconsin.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/sarahbarshop.