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Week 1 NFL previews

The NFL season traditionally kicks off on the weekend of the US Open finals - on the rare occasion that the weather doesn't intervene in New York. The men's final has long been scheduled to begin after the host broadcaster's coverage of the early NFL game. Anyway, enough about the tennis. The best NFL judge I know is my old colleague Andy Richmond, @bickley14. This year he has combined forces with a couple of guys well known in the world of sports trading to produce a very impressive NFL site - NFL Insight.

Best of all, opening weekend features my favourite clash - the 49ers against the Packers.....

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San Francisco 49ers @ Green Bay Packers Preview

A game to light-up and ignite the first weekend of the season and a clash between two sides that had regular seasons that promised plenty but ultimately fell short of the ultimate prize of victory in the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The Packers almost certainly feeling their post season blow out the most as they went 15-1 in the regular season before going one-and-done in the post season. Despite going 15-1 and 13-3 the Packers and the 49ers both know that they need to improve again this year especially in certain areas of their games and playing staff.

The 49ers, who boasted one of the NFL’s stingiest defences last year, appear to have fulfilled their needs by adding playmakers on offense. The Packers still have concerns in their secondary, but somehow have found a way to better an offence that was one of the most explosive in NFL history. With Packers QB Aaron Rodgers directing the offence, the Packers, winners of 13 straight regular-season games at Lambeau Field, led the league in scoring with an average of 35.0 points the fifth-best in NFL history. While Rodgers routinely frustrated defences, setting the NFL single-season record with a 122.5 passer rating and franchise records with 4,643 yards and 45 touchdown passes, his own defence made Packer fans (myself included) sweat. Green Bay allowed 4,924 passing yards – the most in NFL history and a poor pass rush contributed to the secondary’s struggles, as the Packers’ 29 sacks ranked 27th.

That defence still looks to have some questions marks against it on Sunday – linebacker Desmond Bishop will be missing after he tore a hamstring in pre-season and it’s still unclear who will start at cornerback in tandem with Tramon Williams – it will be one of the facets of the game that will be worth watching closely, how will the Packers secondary perform this season, quite frankly the only way is up but it’s a problem that doesn’t quite look “fixed” yet.

Defence was certainly not a problem for San Francisco last season but there was always the feeling that their conservative offence would ultimately come up short especially as QB Alex Smith had one of the worst receiving corps in the NFL to work with, indeed that unit came up with just one reception in the NFC title game loss. Smith himself had his best year in the NFL – he threw for a career-high 3,150 yards and 17 touchdowns last year, and his five interceptions were tied for the third-fewest in NFL history with a minimum of 400 attempts. To give Smith some help, San Francisco found some receivers with more than a few big games on their resumes. The 49ers added the 35-year-old Randy Moss after a year out of football along with Super Bowl XLVI hero Mario Manningham. They signed another former Giant in Brandon Jacobs and drafted Oregon’s LaMichael James to boost the depth at running back behind three-time Pro Bowler Frank Gore, though Jacobs is uncertain for the opener after suffering a knee injury in the preseason. Even if he can’t, San Francisco feel like an offence that averaged 23.8 points a year ago – 11th in the NFL – that is poised to improve.

Defensively nothing has changed the 49ers return every starter from a defence that was second in the league in scoring at 14.3 points per game. Running on the San Francisco defence is not easy and last season they went through the first 14 games without conceding a rushing TD and allowing a league-low 77.3 run yards per game and three total rushing TDs. It’s likely though that running the football won’t figure that highly on the Packers gameplan and they will be looking to air the ball out the majority of the time to one of the best receiving units (in depth terms) that the NFL has ever seen, although the addition of Cedric Benson at RB means that the Packers will be able to use him as a foil to keep the 49ers defence honest.

Green Bay have won nine straight regular-season games over San Francisco since 1990, tied for the longest active winning streak by any team versus a single opponent – but does that statistic tell all of the story?

The short answer is no and if you break down all the units and who has the edge then the advantage is marginal and this will provide a good test for both teams and a guide to their potential this year, so here’s some thoughts and ideas on where the game will be won or lost.

Slowing the Packers down is key and we can expect San Francisco to play the ball-control game in an attempt to keep the ball out of the hands of Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers and his explosive group of receivers. Look for 49ers HC Jim Harbaugh to ask his team to grind it out with a strong running game and keep the chains moving with a controlled passing attack. If San Francisco can control the clock as well as win the turnover battle, it has a good chance of coming out on top and keeping the points total within the line.

For all their deficiencies the Packers defence is a very aggressive one that wants to pressure the pocket with a big blitz package. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers is one of the best when it comes to bringing pressure from all angles with safety blitzes, stunts and linebackers coming off the edge. This approach puts a lot of pressure on their cornerbacks to avoid getting beat deep and that was something that they had problems with last year. The 49ers are not known for their deep strikes but with that upgraded receiving package that area of the game provides one of the key match-ups.

At QB Rodgers is well among the elite group in the league and arguably the best quarterback in the NFL today. The game has slowed down for him and he does an excellent job of reading defences and going to the best receiver after seeing what is there – he’s excellent at not forcing passes. He can extend the pocket and make explosive plays after being flushed and does an excellent job of hitting small windows and leading his receivers away from the defender and his back shoulder throws are a thing of beauty. His opposite number Alex Smith has been more of a slow burner but will have derived lots of confidence from last season – unlike Rodgers he is being asked to be more of a game manager than a difference-maker, avoiding mistakes while letting his defence and running attack win the game. His decision-making skills have improved each year and he needs to show continued growth and it should be remembered he is playing with what looks to be an improved deck this year certainly among the receivers and I wonder how he will cope with that likely expansion of the gameplan.

San Francisco have one of the best linebacking groups in the NFL with explosive edge rushers in OLBs Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks and tackling machines in ILBs NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. These four are very active and all have an excellent nose for the ball and it’s vital that the Packers O line picks up these four and sustain their blocks. Having a veteran centre like Jeff Saturday on the field will be vital for the Packers and it will be his job to recognise stunts and blitzes and be the coach on the field.

This is a tough start for the 49ers their best shot at winning the game will be to control the clock and create turnovers as the longer Rodgers and the Packers offensive unit are on the field the more they will hurt San Francisco. Green Bay are a well-oiled machine on offense and have a defence that features an aggressive, take-charge attitude. The Packers have few holes and are extremely hard to beat at home and giving up less than a TD probably underplays their strengths.

Read more of their work at NFL Insight.

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