Sunday afternoon’s game at Lambeau Field has a great chance of being the most fascinating game of the weekend, even for those who don’t closely follow the teams involved. Much like during the NFC Divisional Game against the New Orleans Saints, this is a clash of styles on the opposite sides of the modern NFL spectrum. On one side you have the glamourous Green Bay Packers, with Aaron Rodgers in the shotgun and picking apart defenses with a dizzying array of 20- and 30-yard passes. On the other? The San Francisco 49ers, who last year seemed to value possession of the ball above anything, especially yardage totals or aesthetic concerns.
People will look for early indicators on Sunday as to whether the 49ers will “open up” their offense a bit — if added depth in the backfield and on the outside will lead to more risk taking, or if they’ll stay true to last year’s offensive personality, even with guys like Randy Moss and Mario Manningham replacing last year’s now forgotten options.
Conversely, I was wondering whether the Packers might have looked at their pass-happy ways with a careful eye this season, since they were expected to go so far and fell flat at home against the New York Giants the last time they played a game that counted.
At the 49ers’ facility today, I asked Donte Whitner about the other, less vaunted side of the Packers’ offensive arsenal. He didn’t sound too concerned.
Video length: 0:58 (transcript underneath)
BASG: There’s a lot of focus, when you talk about the Packers, on their passing game. What do they bring in the running game?
Whitner: We haven’t really seen much of the running game. I know that they picked up Cedric Benson. He has something to prove, he’s running like a madman. So we’re going to have to prepare for that. We understand that this team wants to throw the football. They don’t expect to come out and beat you running the football. They want to keep you honest, but Aaron Rodgers and their offensive coordinator and head coach, they want to throw the football and put up points and put up yards. That’s what we have to be ready for. So we expect a shootout. We expect them to come in, drop back, throw the football and see … a lot of routes. They have so many things they do on film that we’ll have to have a large package that we take into the game that we feel that we can handle. And we’re going to have to mix it up and play football. Go out there and get some turnovers, play physical and just play 49er football.
During the 2011 regular season the Packers ran on just under 40% of their plays for only 3.9 yards per carry (contrast that with the 49ers, who ran 50.2% of the time and averaged 4.1 ypc). Last season, the carries were split evenly between Ryan Grant and James Starks, with Rodgers running a shade under half as many times as each tailback.
Benson, who takes over for Grant, ran 10 times for 49 yards in the preseason. He’s been a 1,000-yard back in each of the past three seasons, but he also averaged 3.9 ypc in 2011 (so maybe he’ll fit right in with the Packers). While one of the things to watch on Sunday will be how the 49ers’ run defense performs in the absence of Parys Haralson, Whitner and the 49ers aren’t anywhere near as worried about Benson as they are about the arm (and perhaps even the legs, too) of Rodgers.