Former 49ers linebacker and KNBR color commentator Gary Plummer previews the 49ers opponents every week of the 2009 season on 49ers.com. For this week's "Points of the Game" column, Plummer breaks down the 49ers week eleven opponent – the Green Bay Packers.**
For a few years the Packers struggled under head coach Mike McCarthy, but it looks like they might be back to their winning ways. The Packers play extremely well at home because Lambeau Field is such a difficult environment to play in.
The Packers have great fans, and even as the opponent, I still have memories of my visits there from my playing days. I used to do a TV show after Monday Night games and one year we played there and it was 45 minutes after the game. I had to do the postgame show, that's why I was out there so late after the game. But what still sticks out in my mind was how there was 40,000 fans still in the stadium having a great time, dancing to polka songs. It was really the type of atmosphere you can't get anywhere else in the NFL.
As a player it was one of my all-time favorite places to play, and I hope the 49ers embrace the challenge the same way I did in my career. I just hope they've upgraded the visiting locker room with all the renovations they've done to Lambeau. I remember the visiting locker rooms to be the size of a good-sized kitchen.
I still think the 49ers have been making strides on offense throughout the year. One thing people don't notice is how well Barry Sims has played in filling in for an injured Joe Staley.
Behind Sims and the rest of the 49ers offensive line, Frank Gore was able to have success, rushing for 104 yards on 25 carries against Chicago. Seeing the 49ers run the ball and handle the Bears blitz was a good sign from last week.
That will be important again this week because the Packers, show a lot of different blitzes, especially with outside linebacker Aaron Kampman coming off the edge. There's no doubt in my mind, if I needed one back in pass protection, I would choose Gore.
It's not just the ability that I love about Gore's blocking, it's his desire. In the NFL everyone has ability, it's really about who has more desire. Gore has the desire to be a great blocker. And I think that's one of the things I respect the most about him – he wants to be a complete back – not just a great runner.
Rookie receiver Michael Crabtree continues to amaze me. His catch that wasn't a catch (on the first play of the Bears game), should have been a catch; it was one of the most spectacular catches I've seen in a long, long time. It was essentially one-handed. Sometimes it takes a time for rookies to understand the difference between making sure that you have two feet inbounds rather than just one. He knew what needed to be in field and I think he got it. It was a catch and it was spectacular. He just has to keep doing what he's been doing well. He hasn't scored yet, but it's going to happen.
One of the things he was known for in college football was the yards after the catch. That really hasn't happened yet. It's definitely going to happen and you can see it in how explosive he is. I'm just excited to continue to watch the development between Alex Smith and Crabtree.
Green Bay is playing very well against the pass, so it will be tough for Smith to have a perfect game. Their two corners, Al Harris and Charles Woodson, are playing as well as anyone in the NFL right now and have about 23 years of combined experience in the NFL. Woodson is especially dangerous. He's a guy who they will bring on corner blitzes a lot. He's a big guy. He's physical and talented. And in my opinion, I think he is a complete player.
They've actually used him a lot in matchups against tight ends. I can very easily see them doing the same thing and matching him up against Vernon Davis. If you look back at the Packers last three games, that's what they've done with him on occasion. Woodson's matched up against them and shut them down.
Overall, Green Bay changes up what they do from week to week. Against the Rams, a rushing team, they only lined up with three defensive backs and played in a 3-5-3 formation. It's a little unheard of. It's because of defensive coordinator Dom Capers. He's an innovative guy. They're not playing as much man-to-man. They do a lot of zone blitzing which takes a creative guy like Capers to do. The 49ers could see a lot of that. To beat zone blitzes you have to be very aware and hit your hot routes or do screen passes.
When you're zone blitzing you have defensive linemen like Johnny Jolly or either Cullen Jenkins, dropping into coverage, or Aaron Kampman even. None of those guys do that very well. Teams hope that when they do this they are overloading one side and there are too many guys to block. When they drop the defensive linemen into coverage, they aren't expected to be out there very long. So, if you can pick up the blitz and there happens to be a receiver running towards a zone where one of the defensive linemen is supposed to cover, there's a mismatch. As long as you don't panic against a zone blitz, you can really shred it apart.
The initial pickup is important and the 49ers, especially with Smith's ability to throw on the move. We haven't seen a lot of bootlegs with Smith, but I'd like to see more of them. They are the kind of things that can have a dramatic impact against those zone rushers.
Looking at the 49ers defense, anytime you can get pressure to the quarterback and throw off his timing or force him outside of the pocket, it's going to have an impact much like it did with the 49ers rush against the Bears' Cutler.
But, if you're satisfied with 17 sacks, you don't have a very high standard. So, the 49ers pass rush needs to improve. It should be a great opportunity to improve, facing the Packers who have given up 41 sacks; on pace to give up more sacks than any team has ever given up in the NFL.
Right now, Aaron Rodgers is holding on to the ball for too long. The Packers made an adjustment last week, using a lot more slants and quick outs, getting the throw off quicker. If you look at the stats, Green Bay is one of the best teams in the NFL in terms of yards per catch. Whether you're talking about Donald Driver, James Jones, Greg Jennings, or Jermichael Finley, all of those guys are averaging at least 15 yards per catch. They have more catches of 20 yards or more than any team in the NFL. They are hitting a lot of home runs, but in order to do that, the quarterback is going to take a 7-step drop.
Many of those deep crossing patterns they run take a long time to develop. Rodgers has only thrown five interceptions to go with his 17 touchdowns because he almost is thinking he'd rather take a sack than an interception. Usually that's a good philosophy to have, but it has really affected their ability to protect the quarterback because he is holding the ball so long.
I do expect the 49ers to get a number of sacks this week, especially with Green Bay's line in disarray. The one guy who's played well along the Packers line this year is Scott Wells. He's got a concussion and they're not sure is he will play. Mark Tauscher was brought off the street to come in and help them out. He was just signed after the bye, but then he just injured his knee. It should be interesting to see who they end up starting on the offensive line.
The Packers have struggled to get a real push, in terms of the run game for running back Ryan Grant. He's a one cut and go kind of a running back. He's not like Frank Gore though, a guy who can create on his own. Grant has a 4.2 yard per carry average, but it hasn't been anything spectacular.
So, Rodgers is definitely the guy who makes him go. They've got some really good receivers and their tight ends have been very effective too.
For the 49ers, Matt Wilhelm is a veteran linebacker and might have to fill in for Takeo Spikes this week if Spikes can't go. Wilhelm has been a starter before, from his time playing in San Diego. Greg Manusky was his linebackers coach while they were both in San Diego. If you know what you're doing, you play fast. You're not thinking, you're reacting. He's playing fast right now. If you're hesitating because you're thinking, the play is already by you.
Wilhelm is a lot like Greg Manusky during his playing days. Manusky was a backup who started a few games here and there, but was always ready. Late in Manusky's career, he was with Kansas City when a starter got hurt, he went in and had about 18 tackles in the game. That's what he expects out of Wilhelm who can play all four of the line backing positions. He knows the system that well. He's a very valuable guy to have in this system. The guy who Wilhelm replaced, Jeff Ulbrich was that same guy who was smart enough to play all four positions. The 49ers are very fortunate to have Wilhelm as a backup.
With both teams needing a win, this game should be an excellent matchup.