After all the waiting and anxiety, Packers vs. 49ers is finally in the books. Many games billed as a marquee matchup, especially early in the season, fail to meet expectations. This was not one of them. Unfortunately, Green Bay came out on the losing end of a close, hard fought battle. Needless to say, there are more than a few takeaways.
The Packers receiving corps is just fine without Greg Jennings, if everyone stays healthy
While many like myself believed the Packers would not be slowed by the departure of veteran receiver Greg Jennings, it was a purely theoretical assumption until the offense took the field in week 1. After Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson each produced over 100 yards and a touchdown (not to mention significant contributions from Jermichael Finley), the early returns are very positive for Green Bay. The Packers haven't even exploited James Jones yet, who Rodgers only targeted two times Sunday. The 49ers, possessors of one of the league's top defenses, struggled all afternoon to keep up with the Packers' myriad of pass catchers. Barring injury, it appears Green Bay will once again be a tough matchup for opposing secondaries.
The key, of course, is staying healthy. Last season, Both Jennings and Nelson missed significant time yet the Packers' offense rarely stumbled. The team can no longer afford multiple prolonged absences, as Jarrett Boykin is the only other dependable reserve receiver on the roster.
Jeremy Ross can't be trusted on kick returns
Heading into the training camp, the concern regarding return man Jeremy Ross was ball security, not decision making. While the former hasn't entirely been disproven, Ross' poor decisions and hesitation cost the Packers valuable field position. It's sometimes necessary to take risks on special teams. However, one cannot be reckless with their returns. Ross' worst offense was ignoring a stop sign from John Kuhn. This occurred after he waited an extra second before running the ball out of the end zone. Unsurprisingly, the return barely passed the 10 yard line.
Fixing kick return isn't as simple as replacing Ross, however. As discussed earlier, Randall Cobb is too valuable to risk injury on special teams. Micah Hyde is another possibility, but he's currently playing in a starter's role on defense in Hayward's absence. The Packers, who brought Joe McKnight in for a work out following the final preseason game, might have to look outside the roster for the answer.
The depleted Packers defense struggles against the pass, but they've adjusted for running quarterbacks
As was the case in last year's playoffs, Colin Kaepernick beasted Green Bay's defense Sunday afternoon. This time, however, it wasn't the run defense that he exposed. Shorthanded by Casey Hayward and Morgan Burnett's absences, the Packers' defense gave up a career-high 412 passing yards to Kaepernick on a 69% completion rate. However, the versatile quarterback rushed for only 22 yards on seven carries as the Packers' new defensive approach rendered his scrambles mostly futile.
Taken in total, the defense's performance by no means can be classified as a "win." However, it does appear as though defensive coordinator Dom Capers and the coaching staff have figured out a way to contain athletic, running quarterbacks. That'll only take the Packers so far, as defending the pass is essential to success in the NFL. But if you expect Hayward and Burnett's eventual return to spur increased effectiveness against the pass, which is likely, then the Packers' defense took a step in right direction Sunday.
David Bakhtiari met expectations
David Bakhtiari was beaten a few times on Sunday, usually at the hands of outside linebacker Aldon Smith. Beyond that, however, Bakhtiari's play was fairly clean, an exceptional achievement considering the quality of the opponent.
Matching up with San Francisco's pass rushers is about as unlucky a draw for a rookie tackle in his first start as possible, yet Bakhtiari kept Aaron Rodgers upright for most of the game. Grading with the circumstances and his lack of experience in mind, Bakhtiari put together a solid performance. Like most rookies, he should improve significantly week to week as he acclimates to the speed of the NFL. Should the Packers and 49ers meet again this season, Bakhtiari will be a much tougher assignment for San Francisco's pass rushers.
Evan Dietrich-Smith might be the weak link on the offensive line
While he wasn't the Packers' worst offensive lineman Sunday (that dubious honor belongs to Josh Sitton), Evan Dietrich-Smith was a close second. The 49ers' defensive linemen regularly stood up and blew past Dietrich-Smith, exploiting his size and strength deficiencies in both pass rush and run defense.
Dietrich-Smith is a heady player who has slowly built himself into an NFL caliber offensive lineman. He's due plenty of credit for his development, but Dietrich-Smith is no Scott Wells. He'll struggle against physical defenders, and, in cases like Sunday's game, force the Packers to pass more frequently. 2013 is a contract year for Dietrich-Smith, and while he's likely to sign another, it may not be as a starter.
Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Co. He has previously written for Lombardi Ave, College Hoops Net, LiveBall Sports, and the List Universe. He is also currently a senior writer for Beats Per Minute, an indie-music webzine. Follow him on Twitter: @JBHirschhorn