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San Francisco, here they come

by Mark Daniels

As they say in the pool hall, it's time to stop talkin' and start chalkin'.  The Green Bay Packers embark on the 2013 journey Sunday, first stop just happens to be the last stop on the 2012 tour, Candlestick Park in San Francisco against the reigning NFC Champion 49ers.  Head Coach Mike McCarthy put the team through it's one and only padded practice of the week on Thursday, they'll have a final shells workout Friday and pack their bags for only the second road season opener in McCarthy's tenure. That it comes against the team that humiliated the Pack last January makes it one of the marquee matchups on opening weekend.

The Thursday injury report didn't change, Jarrett Bush remains limited with an ankle issue but McCarthy expects his Special Teams captain to be there Sunday.  Casey Hayward was ruled out with his hamstring pull on Wednesday.

Inside the locker room after practice, Clay Matthews held court and stood by his comments made earlier this week that the Packer plan against read option quarterback Colin Kaepernick is to hit him and hit him often.  That prompted 49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh to inquire to the league about what he perceived to be comments coming from Green Bay that went beyond bulletin board material, almost insinuating echos of that little bounty trouble in New Orleans a while back.  The exchange has a lot of attention on how the officials will deal with an option quarterback and if he will be afforded the same "protections" as a pocket passer.   Kapernick threw a bit of gas on the rivalry Wednesday when he simply said "Yes" to a question about standing by his comments this summer about how the Packers were fighting among themselves in frustration in the playoff dismantling. Which leads me to my audio piece for today.  I went to a trio of veteran players and asked them about the understated confidence of the team.   The Packers rarely shoot their mouths off, there's very little chest thumping. Since winning the Super Bowl three years ago, the guys would rather walk the walk first, then talk the talk, if even only in a whisper.  The reactions to this topic come from the following, Tramon Williams, Josh Sitton and John Kuhn:

Audio: Tramon Williams, Josh Sitton, John Kuhn.  

Not to the nuts and bolts of the Packers and 49ers.  I'm doing the matchup portion of the blog a day earlier than normal because I'm heading to San Francisco Friday morning for special weekend coverage on air and online.  

When the Packers have the ball.

Cough drops they are not, the Smith Brothers have a way giving opponents a head cold.  Defensive end Justin Smith and linebacker Aldon Smith may be the best same side combination in the league. Even at senior status, Justin is such a hard working, powerful player, he can tie up tackles and let Aldon stunt around him for sacks.  It worked 18 times last year until Justin got hurt and Aldon went quiet.  The fact they'll be coming at rookie David Bakhtiari is his first pro game might be a bit unsettling for Aaron Rodgers.  Watch for the Packers to dedicate a tight end or back on the left side for help.  The entire SF linebacking corps is impressive, Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman inside and Ahmad Brook on the left flank.  They are all fast, attacking players.  The secondary lost Vernon Gholston to free agency, but they drafted LSU's Eric Reid who will start Sunday.  Carlos Rogers and Tarrell Brown on the corners are better tacklers than they are cover men.  To cool down the Smith brothers rush, Eddie Lacy and the running backs will have to be effective.  Aaron Rodgers will have all his weapons for the first time and he will find favorable coverage matchups, be it Jermichael Finley like the pre-season, or the wide receiving trio on the perimeter.  The re-shuffled offensive line will be key, opening holes or allowing time against one of the stingiest defenses in the league.

When the 49ers have the ball.

I'm not sure how much more read option talk I can handle. For all that's been written and said already, I really don't think we'll see that much of it Sunday.  Sure, Kaepernick will tuck it in Frank Gore's gut, pull it out and take off, but my guess is the 49ers will be more conventional that most people think.  Kaepernick has had a full training camp as the number one guy after taking for the concussed Alex Smith down the stretch last season.  It's made a difference.  Harbaugh said this week that Colin has become involved in the planning process and it should help on the field.  What also helps is giving it to Gore, still very productive at the age when many backs start the rapid decline.  The 49ers front is big and powerful, three of the five are former number one picks, Joe Staley at left tackle, Mike Iupati at left guard and right tackle Anthony Davis.   The Packers beefed up their numbers on the DL and the rotation should keep them all fresher against a really good line. Haven't mentioned the receivers yet and tight end Vernon Davis is the key.  He'll be placed in the favorable matchup situations, lining up in the slot and even out wide.   Bet he looks for rookie Micah Hyde.  The wide outs have been in a state of flux with injuries, most notably to Michael Crabtree.  Even before the injury, San Francisco traded for Baltimore's Anquan Boldin and the physical but not fleet veteran is their top threat.   This is a big game for Matthews, Nick Perry and Brad Jones.  Most of the option plays were run away from Clay, with good reason.  The Pack's secondary should match up well in the air game.  If Kaepernick is hurried, and not allowed to escape, the Pack can make plays, like Sam Shields did to open that playoff game.  Let's just keep track of how many actual read option plays are called.

The Special Teams.

David Akers had a Mason Crosby like season last year and the Niners cut loose the veteran in favor of another vet, Phil Dawson.  Andy Lee is a superior punter but Tim Masthay is no slouch.  Running back LeMichael James will handle returns because Kyle Williams has ascended into the starting offensive lineup at wide receiver.   My guess is Jeremy Ross will get first dibs on returns for the Pack.  Early in every NFL season, big plays occur early on special teams because the rosters are finally settled and the return and cover teams have practiced very little together.  On the road, a big return could help swing momentum.  Randall Cobb has scored on a return in each of the last two season opening games, an NFL first for a player entering the league.   If Ross is ineffective, maybe Cobb will make it a hat trick.

The Pick

The Packers have a quiet confidence about them but I just haven't seen enough of the first teams in August to get a read on how well they'll function over 60 minutes.  It'll be an emotional day, first game of the last season at Candlestick.   Super Bowl losing teams have traditionally struggled the following season, but I don't see that happening with this San Fran bunch.   I'll take the Niners in a hard fought 30-26, victory.