Fifteen Reasons To Come In Off the Ledge
by Mike Conklin
September 9, 2012
There is no denying that Packers lost their opener in disappointing fashion. In many ways they looked like the inferior team when matched against the 49ers on Sunday. They were kept off balance on both offense and defense for most of the day, and the 49ers maintained the upper hand almost the entire game. It was not a stellar performance.
One game does not determine the course of an entire season, however. While many questions remain, upon further inspection there are several reasons for optimism that may be gleaned from this loss:
The defense should get better. When the Packers first switched to the 3-4 defense, it took them several games before they really came together. With the infusion of young talent, this season has a similar feel. D.J. Smith is still a young player, Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy are learning on the job, M.D. Jennings and/or Jerron McMillian are being thrown into a prime time role, and even Charles Woodson is at a position he has never really played full-time before. It only stands to reason that there may be growing pains the first half of the season, but the unit should improve over time.
There are always surprises in the first week of the season. Each team rolls out a variety of unscouted looks, and sometimes teams are able to catch their opponents off guard. In some ways, the 49ers had a different approach in this game than they had shown previously on film. They utilized their wide receivers differently than any time in recent vintage, and the Packers didn't seem to have an answer. It is possible that the Packers fell victim to some of those first week surprises, and it is unlikely that type of thing would happen again later in the season as teams put more of their looks down on film.
The sky is the limit for Randall Cobb. Cobb was a force to be reckoned with all over the field. He lined up in the backfield, led the team in receptions, made tough catches, and was a factor on special teams. After making 25 receptions during the entire season as a rookie, he racked up nine in the first game. He was electric at times, gaining an eye-popping total of 230 yards including returns. He is another arrow in Mike McCarthy's quiver, and should continue to be a valuable weapon as the season unfolds.
In the NFL, defenses often start out faster than offenses. This used to be an old adage that was proven true for years, although it does not seem to be as prevalent in recent years as it once was. Even so, if there is still any truth to this theory it may help explain why the 49ers defense, which is already one of the strongest in the league, was able to keep the Packers offense in check. Offenses are intricate, and are based on timing and rhythm. On some level it would make sense that it may take time for offenses to find a groove early in the season, while defenses rely more on quick reactions. And in the Packers' case, it can't help that Rodgers didn't get much time with Finley and Jennings for much of training camp.
It was an unusually officiated game, to say the least. This is not to say that the officiating was the reason the Packers lost the game, but it seemed to be a factor that hurt the Packers in key moments, particularly during the first half. There were some iffy calls (or blatantly missed calls) that kept the Packers off balance, and even seemed to get under their skin at times. In a game that featured inconsistent officiating, the Packers committed ten penalties after only racking up 76 during the entire 2011 season. While referees should never be an excuse for a loss, at times they can provide an obstacle that makes it difficult for a team to click on all cylinders. The Packers seemed to allow this to happen, but it is unlikely that a team that is known for a high level of mental preparedness will allow something like this to knock them off their game the same way again.
He's baaaaaaaack. Clay Matthews was a beast. He was a one-man wrecking crew, and his 2.5 sacks represented 42% of his sack production for the entire 2011 season. Throw in a key holding penalty he drew, plus one or two others that may have been called in other circumstances, and it looks like he has recaptured the form we had seen in previous years. That is not good news for opposing offenses.
Marshall Newhouse wasn't dominated by elite players Justin Smith and Aldon Smith. Without the benefit of going back and watching the game again, it appeared that Newhouse held his own for the most part. Justin Smith's name wasn't called much, which is impressive considering that he was the 17th rated player on the Top 100 list the NFL released during the offseason. Although he did commit a false start penalty, he wasn't called for holding at all. Considering the top talent Newhouse was facing, at first blush he appeared to acquit himself well.
Tim Masthay is a weapon in the field position battle. The Packers were forced to punt six times, which tied for the second most in Masthay's career. Four of those six punts ended up pinning the 49ers inside their 20 yard line, and he was also able to uncork a 60-yard punt as well. One of his kicks was a classic coffin corner punt, and ended up skipping out of bounds at the 4-yard line. When the Packers offense has a bad day, Masthay has the ability to keep the team in the game.
The 49ers may offer the best defense the Packers play all year. San Francisco has an elite defense, and it is easy to see why. They are almost impossible to run against, they pressure the quarterback, they have great linebackers, they create turnovers, and most importantly they tackle extremely well on a down-by-down basis. Aaron Rodgers hardly ever saw a wide open receiver, and yards after the catch were very hard to come by. It was a very difficult test for the first week of the season, but it should only serve them well as they move on to the rest of their schedule.
The defense actually showed signs of being able to get off the field. Although it may not have seemed like it at times, the 49ers only converted two out of nine third down attempts. It is only one game but that translates to a 22% conversion rate, which nearly cuts last year's average of 43% in half. The Packers also racked up four sacks on the day, which is a feat they only achieved twice in the entire 2011 season. For a growing defense, these are good signs.
The special teams held their own against the league's best. As we wrote previously, the 49ers appeared to have a distinct advantage in special teams coming into this game. After finishing last season with the best special teams ranking in the NFL, the 49ers were not decidedly better than the Packers on Sunday in this regard. The Packers were able to match the 49ers punch for punch. David Akers was able to convert a 63-yard field goal, but Randall Cobb responded with the big punt return. The special teams battle may have ended in a draw, but if there was a winner at all it was likely the Packers.
James Jones showed why the Packers like to keep him around. Fans never seem to tire of James Jones trade rumors, but the Packers see value in keeping the sixth-year wide receiver on the team. He led the team in receiving yards, and during one stretch in the fourth quarter he made three consecutive catches for 68 yards and a touchdown. His subtle stop-and-start moves during his 49-yard reception were very effective, and he offers a skill set a little bit different than any other receiver on the Packers roster.
There were no major injuries. It seems like every year a few teams lose a player to a major injury in the season opener. Remember when Ryan Grant was lost in the first week in 2010? Although the Packers had to play most of the game without C.J. Wilson and their run defense was likely affected, it does not appear to be a major injury. More importantly, none of their key players appear to be any worse for the wear.
The Packers still have players in their back pocket they didn't use. Alex Green has shown glimpses of being a very good receiver out of the backfield, and can be effective in the screen game. Donald Driver is a valuable security blanket on third downs. D.J. Williams was an intriguing player during training camp. Casey Hayward looks like a keeper who will only get better with seasoning. Mike Daniels wasn't even activated. Neither was Davon House, who still has a chance to show some of the things that made him the frontrunner in the cornerback derby before his injury. Erik Walden and Mike Neal are serving suspensions, although Walden will be back next week. Each of these players is likely to contribute in a meaningful way at some point this season.
It's not how you start; it's how you finish. If there is anything the Packers should have learned last year, this is it. It doesn't matter how a team performs in September. It matters how they perform in January. The Packers really only need to play well enough to make the playoffs, then build to a crescendo late in the season going into the playoffs. If that is how the season turns out, nobody will remember what happened against San Francisco in Week 1.
Photo Credit: Green Bay Press-Gazette