Go to Gore on the ground from the get-go
The Packers could not stop Frank Gore in the season opener between the two teams, which the 49ers won convincingly 30-22 thanks in no small part to Gore’s ability to gash the Green Bay defense and both set and maintain the tempo of the game with his grinding runs and power bursts. Gore ran over the Packers for 112 yards on just 16 carries, averaging 7.0 yards a pop, and he was pivotal in putting the game away with 79 yards rushing after halftime. That helped the Niners protect a 16-point lead and keep the football away from the Green Bay offense as the Niners held a six-minute advantage in time of possession. San Francisco’s determined plan to keep Gore fresh throughout the season – his 258 carries this season were the fewest of his career for any year in which he played 15 or more games – brings him into the playoffs robust and healthy and eager to add to his legacy with a championship run. Gore’s 1,214 yards rushing this season ranked fifth in the NFC and represented the second-highest total of his career, but he averaged just 3.7 yards per carry in five December games as the San Francisco offense seemed to struggle with its identity instead of establishing its bread-and-butter bell cow. The Niners need to get back to that from the beginning in their rematch with the Packers.
Follow familiar blueprint for disrupting Aaron Rodgers
The 49ers came up with this successful design in the season opener, when they kept extra defensive backs on the field most of the game to fill the passing lanes while keeping consistent pressure on the All-Pro quarterback without having to take many risks with blitzes. The Niners generally made life uncomfortable for Rodgers throughout the game, and although he finished with solid numbers – 30 of 44 passing for 303 yards and two touchdowns – those stats belied his true impact and the success Green Bay’s offense had most of the game against an aggressive San Francisco defense, which helped the 49ers build a 23-7 lead entering the fourth quarter. The Niners sacked Rodgers three times and hit him on at least twice as many occasions, and that pressure forced Rodgers to pull the trigger quickly on a pass that resulted in a NaVorro Bowman interception deep in Green Bay territory midway through the fourth quarter. That led to the clinching TD after the Packers had crept within eight points. The Niners know how to stop the Green Bay offense, because they’ve already done it by containing Rodgers, and while the Packers may have learned from the opener and will look to exploit other areas, San Francisco can begin with what worked before and build upon it against a terrific QB who can be made vulnerable after being sacked a NFL-high 51 times this season.
Stretch the field and spread the offense with Crabtree, Moss and Davis
Alex Smith had a fine day against the Packers in the opener, completing 20 of 26 passes and recording a passer rating of 125.6, but those 20 completions resulted in just 211 passing yards and Smith had only one completion of more than 20 yards. Isn’t this, ultimately, why the 49ers made the switch to Colin Kaepernick at quarterback? Kaepernick was given the job Smith never did anything to lose because of the play-making explosiveness he brings to the offense and his ability to hit the deep passes that Smith couldn’t make on a consistent basis. So now’s the time to take full advantage of the switch, with a Packers defense that has played well against the pass susceptible to play-action throws if San Francisco can establish the run early. Kaepernick has built a strong rapport with No. 1 wideout Michael Crabtree – who had 35 catches for 538 yards and 4 TDs in five December games – and he has shown the ability to burn single coverage for long gains. And with Randy Moss and tight end Vernon Davis, the Niners have to guys who know how to get behind a defense and make plays down the field. It’s elimination time now, and the Niners need to take their shots. If Kaepernick’s big arm was the decisive factor in making him San Francisco’s playoff QB, now’s the time to see what it can do.
Joe Staley vs. Clay Matthews
While the rest of the 49ers left the turf at Lambeau Field looking good in September, Niners’ left tackle Staley walked away looking bruised and battered with blood on his face and tape across an oozing gash on the bridge of his nose. It was a metaphor for and a physical reminder of the beating Staley had taken in his personal matchup with Pro Bowl speed rusher Matthews, who beat Staley around the left edge and with bull rushes for 2½ of the four sacks allowed by the Niners in Green Bay. Staley wasn’t necessarily embarrassed by Matthews, and the resilient Niners tackle rebounded nicely from the shaky opener and allowed just five sacks in San Francisco’s final 15 games to earn Pro Bowl honors as a NFC starter for the second consecutive season. Matthews also is going to the Pro Bowl, for the fourth consecutive season to begin his career, after finishing fifth in the NFL with 13 sacks despite missing four games to a hamstring injury. He presents imminent danger for the 49ers rushing from Kaepernick’s blind side, where he’s a threat to harass San Francisco’s young QB into mistakes and possible turnovers. Kaepernick’s deep drops and deep throws tend to keep a QB in the pocket longer, putting that much more pressure on Staley not to let his struggles against Matthews in the opener become a problem for the 49ers again.
Put the clamps on resurgent Green Bay running game
Even with their backfield bolstered by the debut of top free-agent signee Cedric Benson, the Packers went nowhere on the ground in the opener, and that allowed the 49ers to make Green Bay’s offense one-dimensional and quickly take control of the game. Benson, brought in to be Green Bay’s featured back after three consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons in Cincinnati, was completing stuffed by the 49ers, gaining 18 yards on nine carries, and the Packers finished with a paltry 45 yards rushing – 27 coming on scrambles by their quarterback. But Green Bay’s rushing game has come a long way since then, and has come on strong particularly over the past month with some unlikely faces leading the way. Benson is now on injured reserve, and each of Green Bay’s top four running backs in the opener no longer are in the picture as factors for the Packers. Instead, Green Bay brought back former leading rusher Ryan Grant and brought in unknown DuJuan Harris, an undrafted rookie in 2011 who had been cut by two teams and was selling cars when Green Bay picked him off the free-agent scrap heap in October. Neither Harris nor Grant was on Green Bay’s active roster until December, but since then they have become a nice 1-2 complement in the backfield, and the diminutive but powerful Harris – now the team’s featured back – had 187 total yards from scrimmage in the Packers’ past two games. They will provide elements the 49ers didn’t see in the opener, and like always, San Francisco’s defensive plan and design begins with stopping opponents on the ground.
Win the turnover battle
Sounds simple. This is a key for every team in every game. But it takes on increased significance for the 49ers and Packers, who both were takeaway machines in 2011 – when they tied for the NFL lead with 38 takeaways each – and remain aggressive defenses filled with opportunistic ballhawks who can change the complexion of a game – and the outcome – with a timely turnover. The Niners and Packers also ranked 1-2 in the NFL last year in turnover differential with an astounding differential of plus-52, and while they ranked next to each other at 8th (San Francisco, plus-9) and 10th (Green Bay, plus-7) in turnover differential this season, both teams remain very good at protecting the ball with just 16 turnovers each in 2012, which tied for second-fewest in the NFL. With a veteran quarterback who protects the ball so well (Rodgers) and a young QB (Kaepernick) who takes more risks and is more susceptible to mistakes, turnovers take on even more significance in this game. Rodgers’ interception was the only turnover in the opener, and it turned out to be one of the biggest plays of the game, turning the tide in San Francisco’s favor to stay. Any turnovers in this game, with such good teams of relative overall strength, could prove to be a great equalizer and become a huge factor in deciding the outcome.
Superiority on special teams
If this game comes down to a field-goal attempt at the finish, neither of these teams could feel too comfortable about being the team doing the kicking. Both coming off fantastic 2011 seasons, when they combined for 306 points as two of the NFL’s premier kickers, San Francisco’s David Akers and Green Bay’s Mason Crosby struggled this season to the point that both teams seriously considered bringing in new players at the position. The 49ers actually did, but Akers held off a practice challenge the past two weeks from recently-signed Billy Cundiff. Crosby went through an ugly 12-for-24 stretch late in the season, and Akers missed a serious of pivotal kicks all season, two of which cost San Francisco’s victories, and he missed 44- and 40-yard attempts as recently as the Niners’ season finale. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a kicker decide the outcome Saturday night – one way or the other. Beyond that, both teams have good – or better than good – punters and return specialists and coverage units who get the job done consistently, putting the Niners and Pack on relatively equal footing in this area. Akers’ three field goals – one of them from a NFL-record distance of 63 yards – and Randall Cobb’s 75-yard punt return all proved consequential in the opener. Special teams could have the same kind of bearing in the rematch, and like it did in the opener for the Niners, sway the outcome in one team’s favor.