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Top 10 Spotlight: 49ers vs. Packers

Posted Sep 5, 2013

49ers.com ranks the 10 most intriguing storylines heading into San Francisco's season opener against Green Bay on Sunday.

The 49ers open the 2013 regular season with a postseason rematch against the Green Bay Packers. San Francisco defeated Green Bay to open the 2012 regular season on the road and defeated them once more in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. Both teams enter the new season with Super Bowl aspirations and will look to get off to a good start with a win over a quality opponent.

We rank the top 10 storylines to track for this 49ers-Packers matchup.

10. Kicking It

Close games always come down to kicking. So it makes sense to examine the kicking combatants – Phil Dawson with the 49ers and Mason Crosby with the Packers. Dawson has been solid in the preseason, making 9 of 11 kicks. Dawson, a 15-year veteran, has put in extensive work at Candlestick Park to learn as much as possible about his new stadium. He should be ready to perform on Sunday. Crosby, on the other hand, is coming off a preseason kicking competition. After a rocky 2012 season, Crosby had to battle back for his job and reportedly took a pay cut to remain with the Packers.

9. Slot Defense vs. Randall Cobb

He lined up in the slot. He lined up in the perimeter. He even lined up in the backfield. Third-year Packers receiver Randall Cobb is the ultimate chess piece for Green Bay’s offensive attack. With the departure of veteran Greg Jennings via free agency, Cobb is slotted to appear in two-receiver sets opposite of Jordy Nelson. Should the Packers go three-wide, which is highly likely based on their pass-first track record, Cobb will move to the slot and James Jones will line up on the perimeter. Cobb’s presence in the slot presents a challenge for the 49ers defensive backs. The play-making wideout will be the responsibility of 49ers starting cornerback Carlos Rogers, who slides inside in San Francisco’s nickel personnel package. The other interesting aspect of the nickel defense is which 49ers cornerback will line up on the perimeter. Nnamdi Asomugha has been named as the No. 3 cornerback, but he’s nursing a collarbone injury. Fangio expects him to be ready to play barring a major setback.

8. Return Duties

Kyle Williams could be the one to handle San Francisco’s punt return duties to open the 2013 season. With LaMichael James nursing a knee injury from the preseason finale, Williams is the logical choice to do so. He even said as much to the media this week. Although Williams has been penciled in as a starting wideout on San Francisco’s depth chart, he still has NFL experience in the return game. The 49ers could also lean on cornerback Perrish Cox to handle punt returns and Patton, the rookie wideout, to handle kick returns. The return game aspect will be one to watch on Sunday as the 49ers look to adjust responsibilities in the absence of James.

7. Rookie Watch

After claiming former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Chris Harper, the 49ers now have eight rookies on the 53-man roster. Jim Harbaugh spoke highly of NFL newcomers this week and expects them to contribute in Week 1. Long snapper Kevin McDermott will be under the biggest microscope after beating out 14-year veteran Brian Jennings to earn a coveted specialist job. In addition, Corey Lemonier and Quinton Patton will look to build on their successful preseason performances. Lemonier, a third-round draft pick, totaled 2 sacks. Patton, a fourth-round selection, scored two touchdowns in two preseason appearances.

6. Blocking Clay Matthews

Green Bay’s defensive pressure starts with Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews. The fifth-year pro has totaled 42.5 sacks in his career and is looking to start his campaign in a major way. The challenge of limiting Matthews’ production falls on the shoulders of two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley. When the teams faced in 2012, Staley had an up-and-down game, allowing 2.5 sacks in the season opener. Staley, however, rebounded in the postseason to keep Matthews out of the backfield in a dominant 49ers win. Staley has slimmed down in recent years to handle the speed rushes of players like Matthews. Furthermore, the 49ers left tackle said his No. 1 goal is to start the season on the right note. The challenge of blocking Matthews provides that opportunity.

5. Willis' Health

The 49ers finished the preseason relatively healthy. Six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis reportedly fractured his hand prior to San Francisco’s opening preseason game but was spotted at practice prior to the preseason finale against San Diego. Willis’ health is a concern for the 49ers, but defensive coordinator Vic Fangio expects Willis to be ready to play against Green Bay. The absence of San Francisco’s defensive All-Pro defensive leader allowed the team to further evaluate young inside linebackers on the roster. As a result, Michael Wilhoite, Nate Stupar and Nick Moody all made the 53-man roster. With Willis’ scheduled return, the 49ers will be solidified in the middle of the defense once again with Willis lining up next to fellow All-Pro NaVorro Bowman.

4. Davis/Boldin Watch

Who will be targeted more, Vernon Davis or Anquan Boldin? Both appeared to be Kaepernick’s go-to targets this offseason. Davis is looking to expand his role in San Francisco’s passing game and has continued to grow his chemistry with his young quarterback. The 49ers tight end has performed well historically against the Packers. In four games, Davis has 16 receptions for 351 yards (21.9 yards per reception) and four touchdown catches. Boldin, on the other hand, figures to be San Francisco’s top wide receiver target for Kaepernick. Boldin has enjoyed a productive offseason with the 49ers and was hardly used in the preseason. The 49ers know what they have in the 11-year veteran and will look to unleash his physical brand of football in Week 1. Interestingly enough, the Packers are one of eight NFL teams yet to surrender a touchdown to Boldin. That could change on Sunday.

3. Hey, Rodgers!

Aldon Smith facing David Bakhtiari is one of the biggest matchups in Sunday’s season opener. One of the most disruptive pass-rushers in 49ers history will face a rookie left tackle. Bakhtiari, a fourth-round draft pick out of Colorado, will handle the starting duties now that Bryan Bulaga is lost for the season with a torn ACL. The rookie will be treated to a supreme NFL challenge right off the bat. Bakhtiari will be tested against Smith, the man with 33.5 sacks to his name in just two seasons. Green Bay’s blind-side protector’s production comes into focus when considering the amount of times former league MVP Aaron Rodgers drops back on a weekly basis. Green Bay’s passing game is helped with Rodgers’ underrated scrambling ability, but he’ll look to do his damage from the pocket and not on the run.

2. Frank's Tank

How much is left in Frank Gore? The Packers are about to find out. San Francisco’s all-time rushing leader enters his ninth season hungry as ever. Gore, 30, was used sparingly in the preseason. He carried the ball four times for 56 yards in two games. Gore’s preseason was highlighted by a 52-yard run against the Kansas City Chiefs. By all indications, Gore’s focus and determination remains top-notch. In two games against Green Bay last season, Gore rushed 39 times for 231 yards and two touchdowns. In eight seasons, Gore has scored touchdowns on Opening Day five times, including seven total scores (six rushing, one receiving).

1. Pistol Prevention

Colin Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards in San Francisco’s playoff win over Green Bay. It was the highest single-game rushing total by a quarterback in NFL history, and it immediately sent respected defensive coordinator Dom Capers back to school. The Packers defensive coordinator met with college coaches, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin among them, to learn more about zone-read schemes. The Week 1 matchup against the 49ers dual-threat quarterback will be the first test for Green Bay, a proud defensive unit eager to bounce back from two losses to San Francisco in 2012. The 49ers did not show any pistol offensive plays in the preseason with Kaepernick under center. Even so, the third-year quarterback finished the preseason completing 15 of 23 passes for 171 yards and two touchdown passes. Kaepernick was not sacked, and he didn’t throw an interception. He only rushed once for a 6-yard gain.


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