GREEN BAY, Wis. — The swords banged and rattled in Green Bay, sounds of an early battle for the soul of the NFC.
The Niners are a team with soul, while the Packers have bargained theirs away. The pass-catch game now possesses them. Five guys running patterns, that sums up the Green Bay offense. When it’s clicking, it can be murder. When you get everybody covered, like the 49ers did on Sunday at Lambeau Field, the whole thing can go to ashes.
“Knowing that [Green Bay] is the hotshot team, the best in the last couple of years,” said LB NaVorro Bowman, “to come in here and beat them sends a huge statement all across the league.”
For San Francisco, the statement opens with the biggest roughneck secondary we’ve seen in years. Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown on the corners, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson handling duties at safety. All of them are tacklers, contact experts. They add punctuation to things. They rough you up as they’re slapping on the handcuffs.
And that type of surveillance gives Jim Harbaugh the flexibility to do a lot of interesting things with his up-front defense. Green Bay learned that early. In the first quarter, on a 3rd-and-11 situation, the 49ers launched seven men at the quarterback. Max-blitzing Aaron Rodgers can be a suicide gig … that nitro release, the quick look-in patterns he feeds. But San Fran’s downfield web held up fine and Rodgers was taken down by Rogers.
“Our secondary got it done all day long,” said Ahmad Brooks, a 259-pound linebacker who spent the day blowing in from the DLE spot. “When you can cover it gives time for the pass rush to get there. And it goes the other way … the strong pass rush takes heat off the defensive backs.”
“Lots of heroes along the defensive front,” Harbaugh said. “We played a gap short the whole game but were still able to do a job on their run game.”
Harbaugh’s “gap-short” means he and coordinator Vic Fangio went with two defensive linemen — Justin Smith and Ray McDonald — as his base front, then played all kinds off shell games and flim-flammeries with his linebackers and extra defensive backs. The goal was to limit the number of things Rodgers saw available downfield, but the key was his undersized defensive front being able to handle the push from the Packers' offensive line that averages about 6-4, 313 pounds. No sweat. The push never came.
“Our front did its job really well,” Goldson said. “Being able to keep the box light and stop the run — that was big time. Then there are lots of things you can do on the back end that defend the passing game.”
The current Packers RB corps reminds you of the old Woody Bennett, Tony Nathan days in Miami. I can close my eyes and see Marino, after his 30th or 40th throw, running a token trap or a dive play to Bennett or Nathan or Ron Davenport, who maybe would bang out a few feet. A donation. Then Marino would get back to winging.
For Green Bay, it’s heavy-legged veteran Cedric Benson as the keynote back. A plodder. He has no burst. He’d find a yard or two. A long journey was four. You wonder if at some point head coach Mike McCarthy grabbed his mike-piece and messaged up to his people in the booth, “OK, who else we got?”
“We got problems, Michael.”
Fox’s Troy Aikman said during the telecast that McCarthy wasn’t worried about the run stats, the yards-per-carry, that he planned to run the ball no matter what just to ensure some semblance of offensive balance. Eventually, McCarthy ditched that idea, too.
“They were like, ‘Forget it,” said Rogers, whose sack was one of three 49ers takedowns on the day. “They went to the four and five wides and just started chucking the ball.”
Postgame, Harbaugh gushed about Bowman, a third-year man who kept popping up in strange places and spoiling the Packers' playbook. In the fourth quarter, Green Bay had moved to within 23-15 and had possession when Rodgers thought he was seeing another 49ers blitz. Instead, Bowman reversed back into coverage as the quarterback unloaded one over the middle. Bowman picked it off.
“He didn’t expect me to be there, so he didn’t throw it too hard," Bowman explained. “Sometimes it’s just mental football. On that play it was. A lot of times guys just get sucked up into the line and just stay there. I didn’t bite on the run.”
One play later, San Francisco was in the endzone again.
And when it was over we again learned there are no guests on that 49ers' defense, and that the Packers probably own their flimsiest ground force since 2005 — a year of Brett Favre dropping back on every play and a team-best 582 rushing yards from someone named Samkon Gado.
“[The 49ers] are tough up front,” said Rodgers, who led Green Bay on the ground (27 yards). All of it escape yardage, get-aways. Flights from pursuit.
“They’ve got a great front seven,” he said. “We had some good looks to run the ball on the first couple drives, but we didn’t get a whole lot done.”
The 49ers, in the first skirmish of the war, got plenty done.