Preview: 49ers at Green Bay Packers

Despite the big win last week, it would be easy for the Green Bay Packers to suffer a let down. The 49ers have an outstanding defense, and it won't be easy to run the score up against them. If the 49ers can keep the score close, and then come up with a big play or two, they could easily pull off the upset. 

The league rankings, by yardage, from NFL.com:

Team Run Offense Pass Offense Run Defense Pass Defense
Packers 12 11 4 6
49ers 22 25 3 29

Those rankings are fair, except as to the 49ers pass defense. They are not that bad, and are actually one of the better units in the NFL. Their opponents have attempted 338 passes against them, currently tied for 3rd most in the league, but they've only allowed 9 TDs and grabbed 11 INTs. Though their INT stats are inflated by the 5 INTs surrendered by QB Jay Cutler last week. On the other hand, the Packers have 13 INTs on the season and only 4 of those came from Cutler.

RB Ryan Grant should not be expected to do much on the ground against the 49ers excellent run defense. The Packers have played a collection of mediocre to awful run defenses this season, with the notable exception of the outstanding Vikings run defense. In his 2 games against Minnesota, he combined for 81 yards on the ground and he wasn't given the ball often, though the Packers were playing from behind. The bigger problem is that C Scott Wells may miss the game due to a concussion, and rarely used G Evan Dietrich-Smith may take his place. He'll be lined up NT Aubrayo Franklin, who's having an outstanding season as the anchor of their run defense. It's hard to see how Grant will have a big game.

The Packers' passing attack has struggled lately. Rodgers threw 3 INTs against the Buccaneers, and the offensive line has allowed 10 sacks in the past 2 games. WR Greg Jennings was limited last week by a knee contusion, which appears to be bothering him again this week, though he isn't listed on the injury report. The news that RT Mark Tauscher will return, in a rotation with rookie RT T.J. Lang, is good since it keeps RT Allen Barbre on the bench. I wish they would bench LG Daryn Colledge too. The inexperience of Dietrich-Smith won't help here either. The 49ers have only managed 17 sacks this season, but the pass protection hasn't held up against any team. For example, the Buccaneers have only managed 11 sacks in their 8 non-Packer games, but they had 6 sacks against them two weeks ago. The return of TE Jermichael Finley should add some firepower, but it seems unlikely Rodgers will have a big game either. Unless the pass protection finally shows up, and he has time to throw.

RB Frank Gore has a gaudy 5.2 yards/carry this season, but his success rank according to Football Outsiders is only No. 27 overall, which indicates he's a boom-or-bust back. He's tied for 2nd in the NFL with 3 carries over 40 yards, but he's only averaging 78 yards/game. If the Cowboys couldn't run against the Packers last week, I doubt the 49ers will do much either.

But Gore is also a dangerous receiver: he's 2nd on the team with 26 receptions. Their leading receiver is TE Vernon Davis, but he's been unpredictable this season. His big games came against the Vikings, Texans, and Titans, but he's been held to 51 yards or less in the other 6. Also, those big games came against teams with poor to awful pass defenses. WR Michael Crabtree has been productive in his last 3 games, but his lengthy holdout must mean he's still learning the offense. Former No. 1 overall pick QB Alex Smith has emerged from Mike Nolan's doghouse and regained the starting job. He was outstanding in relief of QB Shaun Hill four weeks ago, but his QB rating the last 2 weeks has been under 70, despite playing against the awful Bears and Titans pass defenses. The Packers have held their opponents to a QB rating of 76.2. Still, the 49ers should have some success throwing the ball, so long as they can protect Smith.

The X-factors of the game are penalties and special teams. Though the Packers still lead the league with 74 penalties, the 49ers are not perfect either, and they've had 60 penalties. The Packers continue to have the worst special teams in the NFL, currently ranked No. 32 by Football Outsiders, but the 49ers aren't great either, ranked at No. 22 overall. P Andy Lee is having another outstanding season, he currently has a net average of 41.7 per punt, which is hiding how awful the rest of the 49ers special teams have been. Neither area is a place where the 49ers should expect a major advantage.

A key to the game will be whether the Packers' pass rush can sack the QB. When the rush was getting to QB Tony Romo last week, their offense did nothing. But once their protection improved in the 4th quarter, their offense was able to move the ball. If they can't protect Smith, I don't know how the 49ers can expect to score. But the Packers can't expect anything more than 2 or 3 good drives against the 49ers defense. 

It should be a low scoring game, but the Packers' advantages on offense should give them the victory. Packers 20, 49ers 10.

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