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Four Downs: Eric Reid, Eddie Lacy Renew Rivalry

Posted Jan 3, 2014

Who will be the key players on Sunday, and what is the most intriguing storyline? We provide two sets of answers.

Closing in on 48 hours before their Wild Card playoff opener on Sunday in Green Bay, the 49ers and Packers have been responding to questions all week.

Now it's our turn. 49ers.com senior reporter Taylor Price and contributor Andrew Pentis provide answers to four key queries about Sunday's game.

Voice your opinions in the comment section below.

First Down: No player is more key than...

Taylor: Michael Crabtree is my pick. The fifth-year wideout was not available for the Week 1 meeting between these teams, but he’s done historically well against the Packers. Crabtree’s best playoff game was San Francisco’s 2012 NFC Divisional Playoff win over Green Bay. Crabtree caught nine passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns. Crabtree remains a favorite weapon of Colin Kaepernick and has shown his competiveness, route-running and sticky hands remain as his best attributes.  When the going gets tough, Crabtree excels on the perimeter. Expect the physical wideout to be involved in both the running and passing game.  In five regular season appearances this season, Crabtree averaged 14.9 yards per reception. That’s 1.9 yards higher than his career average per catch.

Andrew: It's hard to argue against Crabtree, but because the 49ers are deeper in the pass-catcher category these days, the responsibility falls more on Kaepernick. If the 49ers signal-caller doesn't play up to his standard, Crabtree won't have the opportunity to make Crabtree-like plays. That goes too for tight end Vernon Davis, the team's main deep threat, and wideouts Anquan Boldin and Quinton Patton. San Francisco should have every confidence that Kaepernick will get the ball to them. But, even if he doesn't, that wouldn't be the worst thing. He threw for 412 yards in Week 1, sure, but relied more on his legs with a 181 rushing yards this time last year. That's the other reason no player is more key than "Kap." He can win this game in more ways than one.

Second Down: The most intriguing storyline is...

Andrew: How will the weather affect 49ers play-callers Greg Roman and Vic Fangio? Yes, I'd hate to make too much of the weather, the topic most of the media has globbed onto this week. And, as Jim Harbaugh has said, "football weather is any weather." But below-zero temps will have an affect on this game and not for the reasons you might expect. No, it doesn't matter if players wear sleeves. It does matter, as Roman and Fangio said, whether players have footing on the field and whether the wind bats the ball down. If either of the latter two scenarios is a reality come Sunday, it will change the style of game that is played. Maybe Kaepernick's wideouts can't get separation from Packers coverage? Maybe Kaepernick's dart-like throws can't pierce the wind? This isn't just an interesting storyline; it's an important one.

Taylor: How healthy will Carlos Rogers be? The ninth-year pro has started in all 53 games of his 49ers career. Rogers, however, is nursing a hamstring injury and might not be able to play against the Packers. Although Fangio noted that injury wasn’t as severe as the team initially feared, the cold weather conditions at Lambeau Field will not help Rogers’ comfort level. If the veteran is unable to play, San Francisco will rely on its depth at the position. Eric Wright is slated to play as the team’s nickel slot defender in three-receiver sets. Wright will share the role with recently signed cornerback Perrish Cox, who also figures to play extensively in dime coverage schemes. In base coverage, it could be assumed that Tarell Brown would return to the starting lineup opposite of Tramaine Brock.

Third Down: The 49ers will win if...

Taylor: Sometime in the first quarter, Aaron Rodgers must go down and he must go down hard. Channeling my inner Al Davis, the key this week is getting pressure on the Packers elite quarterback. Green Bay’s signal-caller is one of the most talented players in the NFL at any position. His return from a mid-season shoulder injury instantly restored the Packers as Super Bowl contenders.  Rodgers was sacked three times last week in the Week 17 victory over Chicago that clinched the NFC North. Rodgers completed 25 of 39 passes for 318 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Although the Bears were able to pressure Rodgers, he still created plays with his arm from all over the pocket. The play is never over with Rodgers and the 49ers will need to keep that in mind by staying in their rushing lanes. San Francisco has not been able to record a high number of sacks in recent weeks, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t affected the opponent’s passing attack. A collapsed pocket causes a quarterback to throw early or move off his launch point. With that in mind and Rodgers’ play-making ability being one of his best attributes, the key for the 49ers is to sack Rodgers early and often. Putting Green Bay in long down-and-distance situations will go a long way for San Francisco to advance in its “Quest for Six.”

Andrew: I can't disagree with you there, Taylor. You're pointing out the importance of field position, keeping Rodgers and Co. on their side of the field. But I'll go about this a different way. The 49ers will win if... they play impeccable special teams, flipping the field when they need to and, ideally, causing a turnover or pulling off a big return. As we've seen in past postseasons, football's third unit can often be its most impactful. Imagine how much a Bubba Ventrone forced fumble or LaMichael James touchdown return would help San Francisco advance to the divisional round. In the same way, coordinator Brad Seely and his units will need to stifle the Packers'. Remember Randall Cobb's 75-yard punt return for a touchdown in the teams' first meeting since Jim Harbaugh took the helm? It almost got this rivalry off to the wrong start.

Fourth Down: Who should trade jerseys...

Andrew: If only because they likely have the same number of "Xs" in their size, 49ers nose tackle Glenn Dorsey and Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji. There's also the fact that both Dorsey (6-foot-1, 297 pounds) and Raji (6-foot-2, 337 pounds), who both wear No. 90, mix it up at the line of scrimmage. As a result, both of their jerseys will need to be laundered. Neither will be embarrased. Above all, Dorsey and Raji must have a mutual respect for each other. They play tough, hard-nosed football and are as aggressive as they come "at the point of attack." Both players will be counted upon by their teams to stuff the other's running game. And when it's all said in done, they'll have a new shirt that fits, even if it's drenched in snow and sweat.

Taylor: I think two of the top rookies from the SEC should swap unis. Maybe it should take place in the locker rooms and not on the field in the blistering cold. Eric Reid and Eddie Lacy, two of the top NFL newcomers, have earned their respect all across the NFL this season. They’ve been competing against each other for years, so Sunday’s postseason debut shouldn’t be much of a difference. Both players know how to play the game and demonstrate veteran-like knowledge of their respective positions. Reid, for example, has earned the reverence of his veteran-laden defense. Said defensive co-captain Justin Smith, “He’s played really good. That’s the name of the game in this stuff. You can be a hell of a guy and this and that, it’s all about how you perform and he is a hell of a guy. He’s come in; he’s performed and played really well. He had some big shoes to fill and he’s done a pretty good job filling them. I think he’s going to be one of the exceptional players. He is right now, but as he moves forward, I think he’ll be one of the best safeties for sure.” Lacy, too, has received praise this week from the 49ers. So if you put the LSU-Alabama rivalry aside for one moment, both players have earned admiration and should swap jerseys postgame.


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