By Cam Inman, Contra Costa Times –
GREEN BAY, Wis. — It’s the matchup we’ve been waiting for — and waiting — and waiting.
Nearly eight months since they figured — but failed — to meet in Lambeau Field for the NFC Championship, the 49ers and Green Bay Packers match up Sunday to open their seasons and embark on Super Bowl-contending runs.
“Everyone had us picked to play in the NFC Championship game,” 49ers running back Frank Gore said.
The Packers, of course, failed to return last season to the NFC title game, which instead the 49ers hosted in an eventual overtime loss to the New York Giants. How many times has Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the reigning league MVP, looked back on that abrupt exit?
“Zero. Our mindset is to be 1-0,” said Rodgers, who’s won all four of his season openers since succeeding Brett Favre.
Here are keys areas to watch in this season-opening clash:
1. Can the 49ers’ pass defense hold up against Rodgers?
The 49ers will face the five quarterbacks who threw for the most yards last season, and they’ll get an early indication of their capabilities when they encounter Rodgers’ pass-heavy attack.
Don’t look for the 49ers to frequently blitz Rodgers. Instead, they’ll keep enough defenders in coverage to disrupt pass routes and disguise schemes. Left tackle Marshall Newhouse will need help blocking Justin Smith and Aldon Smith.
After receiving the 49ers’ largest contract this offseason, outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks will need to put pressure in the face of Rodgers, whose blind-side concerns are with the so-called “Smith brothers.”
2. Will Gore run well enough to chew up time?
Avoiding an offensive shootout will be paramount to the 49ers’ chances, and a great way to accomplish that is with Gore and their power-run game.
Yes, the 49ers added receiving options. That presence should pull defenders away from the line of scrimmage, thus allowing Gore and other rushers gaps to shoot through against a Packers defense missing linebacker Desmond Bishop.
Gore, 29, is coming off the second-most productive season of his career (1,211 yards rushing). “He’s still has the ability to take a long run and he’s a lot more powerful man than people realize,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
3. Who will win the turnover battle?
Both the 49ers and Packers shared the league lead last season by forcing 38 turnovers. Both tout quarterbacks who had the NFL’s best interception percentages last season. So which way will the ball bounce?
The 49ers’ practices typically have started with takeaway drills, such as snaring high-speed passes as potential interceptions, and stripping ball carriers for fumble recoveries. They’ve even practiced how to cradle those loose footballs on the ground.
4. Will Kyle Williams rebound as a punt returner?
This should sound familiar: Because of Ted Ginn Jr.’s inability to practice with a leg injury, Kyle Williams likely will be pressed into service as the 49ers’ punt returner. That scenario played out dismally in the NFC Championship game, when Williams botched two returns that sparked the Giants’ 20-17 overtime triumph.
Williams didn’t muff any of the seven punts he fielded in the exhibition season. His aggressive style of sprinting under punts, however, could yield more tense moments. But Brad Seely, the 49ers’ special teams coordinator, approves of Williams’ methods, adding: “That’s the way we want him to go play. We want him to go after it.”
5. How will the 49ers’ revamped receiving corps fare?
If the 49ers find themselves in a shootout, they are better equipped at the receiving position that last season, so long as Randy Moss and Mario Manningham prove capable complements to Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis.
Moss has eight touchdown catches in eight career games at Lambeau Field, and Manningham found the end zone in the Giants’ divisional-playoff win last season in Green Bay.
Rookies A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James, the 49ers’ top two draft picks, could be viable options but they might not even make the 46-man active list. James has a better shot to suit up as a backup punt returner.
6. How susceptible is the Packers’ defense?
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers is one of the most respected in the business, and he has a lot of talented players to align. But there’s a reason the Packers spent their first six draft picks on defenders.
Leading those rookie reinforcements is outside linebacker Nick Perry, who could prove a nice complement to middle linebacker Clay Matthews. Gone from that linebacker corps, however, is Desmond Bishop (hamstring tear).
Questions exist in the secondary outside of cornerback Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson, who’s moved to safety on base downs but still could see time at cornerback.
All of which leads to a follow-up question: Is Alex Smith willing to test the Packers with deep throws and risk the 49ers’ second-longest, interception-free streak ever (159 consecutive regular-season passes)?