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Underdog 49ers stifle Packers in season opener

Sep. 9, 2012
 

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Packers-49ers postgame analysis: Mike Vandermause and Wes Hodkiewicz break down Packers' 30-22 loss to the 49ers.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is sacked by Carlos Rogers during Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau Field. Jim Matthews/Press-Gazette

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The San Francisco 49ers came out swinging in Round 1 of the NFL season and staked early claim to best team in the NFC by beating up on the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.

This season-opening matchup featured two of the favorites to win the NFC — the Packers lost only once in the regular season last year, and the 49ers advanced to the NFC championship game. And over the first 60 minutes of the season, the Packers’ highly regarded offense failed to measure up against the 49ers’ equally regarded defense in a San Francisco win that was more convincing than the 30-22 score Sunday might suggest.

“Week 1, it was a big game against two, hopefully, potential playoff teams,” Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. “But it’s just one game. Eight weeks from now, if we’re doing good no one will even remember this loss. So I’m not going to put too much emphasis on this. We don’t have the luxury, we play (Chicago on) Thursday. We’ll learn from it, we’ll move on. Thank God we play so quickly. We have no choice.”

The loss was Mike McCarthy’s first in a regular-season opener since his first season as coach, in 2006, when the Packers lost 26-0 to the Bears. But after the game Sunday, there was no talk of the Packers giving this one away, because they’d been beaten by a 49ers team that played the way it did as the 13-3 surprise of the NFC last year: A dominant defense with outstanding personnel such as impressive second-year outside linebacker Aldon Smith, and a quarterback in Alex Smith who refuses to be baited into a risky throw.

Instead, it was Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers who made the lone, crucial turnover in the game with a fourth-quarter interception that set up the 49ers’ final touchdown, and the Packers who had 10 penalties to the 49ers’ eight.

“It was a tough start to our regular season,” McCarthy said. “We lost to a very good football team today. Looking back on the game, a major emphasis for our football team was to run the triple advantage: (Win) the penalty battle, the turnover battle and the handling and catching of the football. I know for a fact two of the three we did not win today. There were some other elements of the game that did not come out in our favor, particularly run defense and rushing offense.”

Going into this game, there were questions about whether the 49ers would change from their run-oriented and play-it-safe passing game after signing 35-year-old Randy Moss out of retirement and receiver Mario Manningham in free agency. At least in this opener, though, coach Jim Harbaugh didn’t change a bit. Moss and Manningham were hardly factors. Moss’ one play of note was an uncovered 14-yard touchdown pass that any receiver in the NFL would have caught because Packers safety M.D. Jennings blew the zone coverage; Manningham averaged 7.3 yards on four receptions.

But halfbacks Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter helped the 49ers control the ball by combining for 153 yards on 25 carries, and Smith didn’t even come close to an interception in putting up a substantially higher passer rating (125.6) than Rodgers (93.3).

There wasn’t much doubt going into the season the 49ers’ defense was for real. But the Packers had all offseason to prepare for Smith’s do-no-harm charge on offense and still the 49ers put up 30 points.

“(Are they) for real?” Raji said. “Who’s to say? They’re a good team. We didn’t play our best game and we were there right to the wire with them. They’re a good team, and they beat a good team. Give them credit.”

The Packers had a possession to tie the game in the final 3½ minutes, but that went the way most of the game did. The NFL’s leading-scoring offense last season couldn’t make the plays with the game on the line against a defense that finished No. 2 in points allowed last year.

After taking the Packers from their 16 to the 49ers’ 45 and trailing by eight points, Rodgers was forced into a throwaway by rushing linebacker Ahmad Brooks and sacked for a 7-yard loss by Brooks, which burned two downs. Two plays later, on fourth-and-10, Rodgers took a shot to Jordy Nelson on a go route, but cornerback Chris Culliver had tight coverage and knocked the ball away to seal the win.

Overall, the Packers put up 324 yards in total offense, but the 49ers’ defense clearly won the day by rendering the Packers’ run game nonexistent and preventing the Packers from making any back-breaking plays down field. Of the Packers’ 23 points, seven came on Randall Cobb’s 75-yard touchdown return, so McCarthy and Rodgers put up only 16 points of their own.

The Packers tried to run early but got nowhere — Cedric Benson had 18 yards on nine carries — and the 49ers jammed him with only their front seven. That allowed San Francisco to play deep with their hard-hitting safeties, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson, which kept Rodgers from making the big plays that were the Packers’ signature last season. His only long completion was a 49-yarder to James Jones on a scramble and throw in the fourth quarter when the Packers were down by 15 points, and Jones picked up about a third of those yards after the catch.

Smith had one of the 49ers’ three sacks, and his speed as a pass rusher not only flushed Rodgers from the pocket several times but prevented the quarterback from beating the 49ers with his scrambles — Rodgers had five runs for 27 yards. The Packers played most of the second half without a running back, trying to spread out the 49ers by lining Cobb up all over, but it didn’t change the game.

“They got a great defense,” Rodgers said. “You’ve got to give them credit. They’ve got some of the top guys in the league at their position. They made some good plays, good adjustments, disguised some coverages. We didn’t have the opportunity to take a lot of shots down the field, but (when) we did, they made some plays on it. And we missed a couple third downs there we probably should have had to keep drives going.”

pdougher@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @petedougherty.

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