SAN FRANCISCO – Taking a closer look at the Green Bay Packers’ 34-28 loss to the San Francisco 49ers Sunday at Candlestick Park, in what might have been the teams’ final meeting there before the 49ers move into Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara next season:
Thumbs up: The good news is, Clay Matthews taking flight and whacking 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick delivered actual, tangible evidence that the Packers defense’s tough talk was more than just that. They do indeed plan on taking the fight to opponents and being more aggressive.
The bad news? It was a stupid thing to do, as the Packers linebacker admitted after his unnecessary roughness penalty for his late hit out of bounds proved to be a critical play in the Packers’ loss.
“First off, it wasn’t a very smart play. I had already committed to hitting the quarterback. I mean, I guess I should have figured he was going to step out of bounds, but it’s nothing personal. I went up to him later, and was joking around with him but not a very smart play. That’s kind of the end of that.”
Asked what he was thinking on the play, on which Kaepernick had clearly run out of bounds after a 4-yard gain, Matthews, who spied Kaepernick throughout the game, admitted that all the focus the Packers put on keeping Kaepernick contained after last year’s playoff embarrassment might have factored into his bad decision.
“I was watching him run out of the pocket, obviously I see him go up the sideline,” Matthews said. “I had committed as far as tackling him. Like I said, it wasn’t a very smart play. I probably could have eased off of him but with obviously all the emphasis of him running around, getting him down, I’m sure that weighs on you. But it wasn’t a smart play and we were fortunate enough to have them get their unsportsmanlike as well to force us into another third down, but once again, we didn’t get the stop.”
What the Packers did get, though, was physical. Not only did they not back down when left tackle Joe Staley turned Matthews’ hit – which 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said was “certainly” dirty – into a brawl, but they also stuffed the run up front. Facing perhaps the best offensive line in the league, the Packers started B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly up front, played a ton of base 3-4 defense and contained both Kaepernick (seven carries, 22 yards) and Frank Gore (21 rushes, 44 yards). Only Kendall Hunter’s 23-yard run kept the Packers from an even more dominating performance (34 rushes, 90 yards, 2.6 yard average) than they had.
“I thought they played tough,” coach Mike McCarthy said of the defensive line. “I thought our defense was on the field too long. They lined up and put us in base and threw the ball a bunch on us. The three big guys rushed a lot more than you probably would like, but there was a reason why we wanted an extra guy. We have great respect for the 49ers offensive line."
Thumbs down: McCarthy promised an improved running game, and we did see it – especially on the Packers’ final touchdown drive, when Eddie Lacy ran five times for 26 yards, including his go-ahead 3-yard touchdown run. But the blocking up front and Lacy’s performance was too uneven to consider the running game a success.
Lacy finished with 14 carries for 41 yards (2.9-yard average), although after having his first four carries gain a not-so-grand total of 1 yard, the productivity did improve. The problem was that Lacy also earned himself a spot on the bench with his fumble at the Packers’ 14-yard line early in the second quarter, which led to Matthews’ penalty and the 49ers’ second touchdown.
Asked to assess Lacy’s play, McCarthy replied: “Just OK. He had a horrendous start. I pulled him out of the game and I thought he picked it up in the second half."
It didn’t help that left guard Josh Sitton was flagged for a pair of holding penalties and one illegal hands to the face penalty. The three flags wiped out 20 yards of rushing yardage.
“Starting the game, we didn’t have the production we were looking for,” right guard T.J. Lang said. “We had a couple nice runs that unfortunately were called back because of penalties. We got plenty of opportunities to run the ball today. We just didn’t take advantage enough to make positive plays.”
Lacy did rebound, though, carrying five times for 26 yards (5.2-yard average) during the Packers’ go-ahead touchdown drive, but his lack of productivity early and the fumble prevented his NFL regular-season debut from being more productive.
“I should’ve covered up more and went down,” Lacy said of the fumble. “Whenever you fumble you automatically feel bad because no turnover is a good turnover. But sitting down, I had a chance to calm myself down and regroup and come out and keep playing.
“I learned a lot. The next game, I know what to expect. I know the speed of the game versus the preseason and I just have to keep playing football.”
Play of the day: Jordy Nelson’s 37-yard sideline catch on the Packers’ go-ahead touchdown drive was as good as it gets. With the ball at midfield, quarterback Aaron Rodgers rolled to his left and fired a dart along the sideline, putting the ball outside where only Nelson could get it. Nelson made sure he was in bounds and dead-legged as he reached out to snatch the ball.
“He got out of the pocket a little bit and threw the ball up and gave me a chance to make a play. You won’t get a great ball every time, and that was exactly where he wanted to throw it,” Nelson said. “We’ve got to adjust and make the play. It’s all about making plays and we didn’t make enough of them.”
Asked if he thought the play would have held up on review had the 49ers challenged, Nelson replied, “I think so. I thought my feet were down. It’s one of those things that you plant your feet and just fall. If you’re able to catch it, then you’re in. I’m sure they had all the reviews possible. If not … good.”
Player of the game: Nelson and Randall Cobb played just three snaps apiece in the preseason – all of them in the finale at Kansas City – because of injuries, but they didn’t appear to miss a beat. Nelson (seven receptions, 130 yards, one touchdown) and Cobb (seven receptions, 108 yards, one TD) became the first Packers receivers to put together 100-yard receiving games since they turned the trick against Houston last season. In that game, Nelson had nine catches for 121 yards and three TDs, and Cobb had seven catches for 102 yards.
“I thought Jordy played excellent,” McCarthy said . “. Jordy probably didn't get enough opportunties, particularly the way they were playing us. We wanted to run the ball and get a little more action passing game. I thought we were up and down in that area. But I thought Aaron did a good job making plays. I thought our perimeter group for the most part played pretty good."
In case you missed it:
> Cobb and Jeremy Ross shared punt return duties. Ross, who fumbled on the Packers’ 9-yard line in the playoff game in January, and Cobb each had one return and one fair catch. Cobb’s return was a 16-yarder. Ross took all the kickoff returns and averaged just 13.3 yards on three returns. After the 49ers took a 31-28 lead, Ross brought the ball out from 4 yards deep and was stopped at the Packers’ 9. The Packers went three-and-out and punted.
> Punter Tim Masthay handled kickoffs instead of Mason Crosby and boomed four of the five into the end zone, with three being touchbacks. On his first kickoff, Masthay made a terrific form tackle on Perrish Cox after a 30-yard return.
> The Packers’ hopes of pulling off a Hail Mary to win the game were dashed when Rodgers was pressured on the game’s final play and was unable to throw it to the end zone. After taking over with 26 seconds to play, the Packers put themselves in position with Cobb’s 38-yard catch and a Rodgers spike with 3 seconds left. But the best Rodgers could do after being pressures was a backhanded flip to fullback John Kuhn. “The play was called to throw the ball into the end zone on the final play but the protection obviously broke down and we didn't get that done,” McCarthy said.
> Rodgers made a point of going right back to tight end Jermichael Finley after Finley bobbled a dropped pass into an interception. Finley, who finished with five catches for 56 yards, had a 12-yard touchdown catch after the miscue. “That’s the thing we’ve been working on. We’ve been talking daily about patience, when you face adversity you’ve got to overcome it,” Finley said. “He said, ‘Big fella, I’m coming back to you.’ That gives me confidence and makes me comfortable.”
Inside the game: The game truly is what the cliché says: A game of inches. Early in the fourth quarter, with the 49ers leading 24-21, the Packers faced third-and-10 from their own 20-yard line. The 49ers sent linebacker Patrick Willis on a blitz, and Rodgers recognized the play and threw hot to Finley. But fellow linebacker NaVorro Bowman dropped and sprinted from Rodgers’ left across the formation at the snap to tip Rodgers’ pass to Finley, who was coming out of the right slot. Bowman got just enough of the ball that Finley couldn’t snare it, and the Packers punted.
“He got a piece of it. They had the blitz and he was trapping over there,” Finley said. “He got the ball.”
And if he hadn’t? Finley saw green grass and opportunity.
“Hopefully (it’s) a touchdown,” Finley said. ” It was a big hole.”
Quote, unquote: “There definitely were some heated moments, and we didn’t like the way the season ended last year. We wanted to come out and make a statement, this season – focusing on this year, we wanted to make a statement early and often. And we had our opportunities and we didn’t quite cash in when we should have.” – Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb
Injury report: The only new injury, according to Packers public relations director Jason Wahlers, was that outside linebacker Nick Perry sustained a stinger late in the game.
But the injury that impacted the game came on Friday, when safety Morgan Burnett showed up for work complaining of discomfort in his hamstring, which he’d originally injured on Aug. 23 in a preseason game against Seattle. After feeling fine on Wednesday and Thursday, suddenly Burnett – after playing every single defensive snap last season – was on the shelf. Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings both started at safety and with Casey Hayward (hamstring) also inactive, Jarrett Bush was forced into the lineup in the dime defense. McMillian, Jennings and Bush each gave up touchdown passes.
“All week I felt good,” Burnett said. “(Then) we came in Friday and it didn’t feel so good, so we just tried to play it day by day. Today it kind of felt the same as it did on Friday, so now we’re just playing it day by day.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.