The 49ers face a tall order as they open the 2012 NFL season against the Packers Sunday. Green Bay has arguably the best quarterback playing the game right now in Aaron Rodgers. As is the case with many of the great QBs, Rodgers can pick a defense apart, taking whatever they give him. For this reason I think that the 49ers linebackers could be the key to the game.
The absence of NaVorro Bowman was glaring in week three of the preseason. Larry Grant, while a capable backup, is just that: a backup. Grant often looked lost in coverage and Peyton Manning exploited it numerous times. While Bowman is a much better player, I still expect Rodgers to look for mismatches in the short-to-intermediate areas of the field.
San Francisco likes to play the run and rush the passer. The team is known for giving up the underneath routes, being content to rally and make the tackle for short gains. However, a linebacker who's out of position can find himself chasing down a speedy back or receiver who has a step on him...turning a short pass into a longer gain.
The 49ers are at a relative disadvantage here, or could be, with second-year outside linebacker Aldon Smith starting as the every-down player opposite Ahmad Brooks. This will be a huge test for Smith when asked to drop back into coverage, mostly on first and second down. One would have to give the advantage to Rodgers here due to experience.
The other potential issue is depth at the linebacker spot. As mentioned, Larry Grant vs. Aaron Rodgers is not something I want to see. I have a similar lack of confidence in the 49ers only backup outside linebacker, Clark Haggans, who will have been on the team for just one week at the time of the game. Let's pray there aren't any injuries.
I would expect a healthy dose of nickel defense vs. the Packers spread looks. They do like to line up a fullback and run the ball though, and the 49ers will no doubt play their base 3-4 against these formations. Look for Rodgers to throw some play-action passes from their "run" look offense. It will be up to the 49ers linebackers and secondary to limit the big play.
Getting off the field is key for the 49ers defense as well. The team needs to control the clock and get Green Bay to play slower football, which favors the 49ers stout defense and run-game. Justin Smith, while a beast, also needs to be fresh in the second half if the game is close.
I have no doubt that the 49ers coaches will be preparing the players for everything they should see on Sunday. Let's just hope they're able to execute and not give up many/any big plays.
For more on the San Francisco 49ers, join the discussion over at Niners Nation. You can also check out everything we have to offer at SB Nation's NFL hub.