The teams: The Green Bay Packers (12-6 in 2012) vs. the San Francisco 49ers (13-5-1).
The time: 3:25 p.m. CDT Sunday.
The place: Candlestick Park, San Francisco.
The TV coverage: FOX – WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMSN (Ch. 47in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 11 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in booth and Pam Oliver on the sideline.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 80-42 (including 6-4 in the postseason) in his eighth season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. The 49ers’ Jim Harbaugh is 27-9-1 in his third year as the 49ers’ coach and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series 30-26-1 and also own a 4-2 advantage in postseason play. The 49ers are 17-11-1 all-time in San Francisco against the Packers, but Green Bay has won 13 of the past 16 meetings, including playoffs. Of course, that history doesn’t matter as much as this: The Niners have won each of the past two meetings – a 30-22 victory at Lambeau Field on Sept. 9, 2012 in the regular-season opener last year, and a 45-31 NFC Divisional Playoff victory on Jan. 12.
The rankings: The Packers’ offense finished the 2012 regular season ranked No. 13 overall, including No. 20 in rushing and No. 9 in passing. Their 11th-ranked defense finished No. 17 against the run and No. 11 against the pass. The 49ers’ 11th-ranked offense finished No. 4 in rushing and No. 23 in passing. Their third-ranked defense was No. 4 against the run and No. 4 against the pass.
The line: The 49ers are favored by 4.5 points.
The injury report:
Packers – CB Casey Hayward (hamstring) is out. S Morgan Burnett (hamstring) and ILB Brad Jones (hamstring) are questionable. CB Jarrett Bush (ankle) is probable.
49ers – RB LaMichael James (knee) and CB Nnamdi Asomugha (collarbone) are questionable.
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Protection racket: Eleven offensive tackles went in the 2013 NFL Draft before Colorado’s David Bakhtiari, but none of them will be protecting the blind side of the NFL’s highest-paid player and arguably the league’s best quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. That is Bakhtiari’s charge after veteran Bryan Bulaga suffered a season-ending knee injury during the Aug. 3 Family Night Scrimmage. While Bakhtiari has been a mature-beyond-his-years 21-year-old since he set foot in Green Bay – well, except for that practical joke Rodgers and the line played on him in St. Louis last month – that doesn’t mean he won’t experience growing pains along the way.
In Aldon Smith, Bakhtiari will be facing an athletic sack specialist who has recorded 33.5 sacks in 32 career games, including one 10-yard sack on Rodgers in last year’s regular-season opener (although he didn’t have one in the playoff game). He will also have to deal with some challenging stunts and twists where Smith plays off interior lineman Justin Smith in an effort to confuse the linemen. While Aldon Smith can line up on either side, he figures to be over Bakhtiari most often.
“We've obviously watched all of his plays as a left tackle," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said of Bakhtiari earlier this week. “He's a good, solid rookie, it looks to me. He's got some good size. He's got some good athleticism. They wouldn't put him in there if they didn't believe he could do the job.”
Stock options: Harbaugh spent much of the week openly politicking for better protection of quarterback Colin Kaepernick on read-option plays, as if the subject hadn’t been discussed and dissected enough after what happened in last year’s playoff game, when Kaepernick ran for an NFL quarterback single-game record 181 yards. The Packers, as everyone knows, devoted plenty of time this offseason to figuring out how to better defend such plays, taking a field trip to Texas A&M, having defensive coordinator Dom Capers pick the brain of University of Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and making sure they had their scout-team offenses run plenty of read-option plays in practice throughout offseason practices and training camp.
But truth be told, the read-option was only a portion of the 49ers’ game plan last January, and it’s possible that it’ll only be a sliver of what they do Sunday. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the 49ers ran the read-option on just 16 of their 75 offensive snaps in the January playoff game and gained 176 yards. Of those, 99 came on Kaepernick’s read-option runs, including his 56-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Running backs Frank Gore (who finished with 23 carries for 119 yards, some of which came on read-option runs) and James also were productive.
So while the Packers clearly needed to prepare for it this time around – given how utterly unprepared they were the last time – it can’t be their obsession.
“The big thing with us is making sure we’re sound in our gap. They run some read-option plays, and the big focus on us would be on the double team. The two guys that are away from it are making sure they take their cutback lanes,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac explained when asked what his guys must do against the read-option. “But they do so much more than that. That (the read-option) is not even a quarter of their offense.”
Secret agent: The Packers’ new backup quarterback, Seneca Wallace, spent only a week with the 49ers, so his knowledge of the 49ers’ playbook is minimal. But third-stringer Scott Tolzien, the former University of Wisconsin starter, is now on the Packers’ practice squad after spending the past two seasons as the No. 3 in San Francisco. While film dissection by the Packers’ coaches and advance scouts would reveal most of the inside information that Tolzien could divulge about the playbook, he could still give the defensive coaches some useful information in terms the 49ers’ checks and audibles, as well as their hand signals. According to 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, those are the kinds of things the 49ers will have to be smart about.
“I could say something pretty clever like, uh, ‘Once they think they got all the answers, we change the questions,’ and that may or may not be true,” Roman told CSNBayArea.com. “But I'm not going to say that.”
For his part, Tolzien downplayed whatever information he planned on sharing, but he did give a detailed scouting report to the quarterbacks and McCarthy didn’t exactly hide the fact that his coaches were pumping the new guy for information.
“It's important for any player who comes to the Packers to meet all the coaches,” McCarthy coyly told Bay Area reporters. “I'm sure Scott and the players are having conversations in the locker room. We tend to leave that room to the players. I'm sure there's insight there."
Said Roman: “Scott was a very good player while he was here, and I'm sure they're picking his brain. (But) it won't have any impact on the game.”
Kicking themselves?: The Packers and 49ers took decidedly different approaches with their struggling kickers last year. Green Bay stood by Mason Crosby through thick and thin – and an alarming number of missed field goal attempts – while San Francisco decided to spend its playoff bye week conducting a kicking competition between scuffling David Akers and free-agent signee Billy Cundiff.
In the end, both the Packers and 49ers wound up in the same place: With their guys keeping their jobs.
This offseason, though, the teams’ plans diverged again. The 49ers simply moved on from Akers, signing ex-Cleveland Browns kicker Phil Dawson instead. The Packers, meanwhile, signed ex-University of California kicker Giorgio Tavecchio to compete with Crosby throughout the offseason and training camp, and even added a third kicker, Zach Ramirez, at the 11th hour to provide even more competition. But after his bad Family Night Scrimmage and one practice where he missed three straight kicks, Crosby was atop his game.
“Mason was very consistent for the last probably two-thirds, three-quarters of training camp. He’s kicking the ball really well,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “From a technique standpoint, I think he’s where he needs to be. That’s the biggest indication. Then, it’s just making field goals. You look at what he did through practice into games and see the consistency.”
The only change there might be is on kickoffs, where Slocum wouldn’t rule out having punter Tim Masthay handle the job.
“We have Mason and Tim that can kick off,” Slocum said. “Ideally, you pick a guy and stick with him, but we’ve got two guys that can kick touchbacks. Mason’s been really good on his kickoffs. We’ll look at that Friday when we finish all of our work this week.”
Seeking Hyde: With Hayward sidelined, Packers rookie fifth-round pick Micah Hyde figures to get the call as the third cornerback in the team’s nickel defense. He’ll line up in the slot while Sam Shields and Tramon Williams man the outside islands. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Hyde spent 84 of his 156 preseason snaps in the slot and notched seven pressures on his 20 blitzes. He also played well against the run and graded out well against the pass when he was in the slot, too. According to PFF, Hyde played 71 snaps in coverage and was targeted 13 times, allowing eight receptions for 111 yards (57 yards came on one play) and a touchdown (114.6 rating). But when playing in the slot, his numbers were significantly better (39 snaps, seven targets, four receptions, 37 yards, 71.1 rating).
“He’s a rookie that’s done awful well,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He’s had his opportunities, he’s made plays. I like his demeanor. I don’t think that anything’s too big for him. He played at Iowa and had success there, and he’s stepped right in and has played both outside at corner and inside at nickel. When he’s had his opportunities, he’s made plays. I look forward to watching Micah play. I’m glad we have him.”
It will be interesting to see how the 49ers move the ball through the air. They’ll play without No. 1 receiver Michael Crabtree, who suffered a ruptured Achilles’ tendon and is on the physically unable to perform list. He was a Packers killer last year (16 receptions, 195 yards, two touchdowns). They’ll also be without third receiver Mario Manningham, who had four catches for 29 yards in the opener last season but missed the playoff game. That leaves veteran Anquan Boldin, Kyle Williams, Quinton Patton and Marlon Moore as their pass-catchers, along with tight end Vernon Davis.
While quoting Tombstone earlier in the week, Rodgers insisted that this game isn’t about revenge. That seems only half right. While a victory wouldn’t make up for the season-ending spanking they took in the NFC playoffs, at least the Packers would redeem themselves a bit and would know that they’re capable of beating this team in the event that they meet again in the postseason. The guess here, though, is that the Packers aren’t quite there yet. Maybe a rematch in the playoffs will go a different way, after the rookies and young Packers improve. For now, it’s hard to pick against the 49ers. 49ers 27, Packers 24. (Last season’s record: 11-7)
– Jason Wilde