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Clay Matthews and Green Bay's Outside Linebackers Will Be Keys in Stopping 49ers

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COMMENTARY | Clay Matthews only played 12 games this season and wound up with 13 sacks. He recorded a sack in eight of those 12 games, although he injured himself in the Cardinals game and saw limited action.

If Green Bay is going to stop San Francisco, he and fellow outside linebacker Erik Walden are going to have to play their best, which is to say, play the way they've been playing.

Since returning from that hamstring injury, Green Bay's All-Pro outside linebacker has 6 sacks in four games including last Saturday's playoff win over Minnesota.

In the Vikings game, Walden had one of his best games in a Packers uniform, sacking Joe Webb once and making several other great plays to contain Minnesota's athletic quarterback.

Against Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers ground game, no player is more important than the contain man which, if the Vikings game is any indication, will be Matthews and Walden on their respective sides of the field.

The key to playing the read option is to be sound defensively in terms of responsibilities. Who has the running back and who has the quarterback?

In the first game against the Vikings, the outside linebackers were pinching and crashing hard on the outside. Several times, Matthews made some incredible plays to run down Adrian Peterson from the backside, but Peterson also was able to bounce runs to the outside with no contain.

But when you do that, you're susceptible to boots to the backside, something Webb was able to do with some success early before Green Bay adjusted. No doubt, San Francisco will hope to employ a similar strategy.

Saturday night, the Packers played more contain. Keep the linebackers wide and don't let Peterson get to the corner.

San Francisco doesn't have an athlete like Peterson - after all, who does? Frank Gore isn't going to bounce runs if you seal the interior, but Colin Kaepernick will.

Walden was burned by Joe Webb on an early boot action play where he bit on the run fake inside. After that, Walden was excellent at playing his responsibility and holding the edge.

Walden had a sack on one play and could have gotten credit for another, but it was deemed Webb was a runner, so no sack was given although the play was made behind the line of scrimmage.

In the first meeting with the 49ers, Mattthews absolutely worked San Francisco's Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley for 2.5 sacks. Last week, Clay had 2 sacks and a forced fumble against Matt Khalil, one of the best and most athletic young tackles in football.

Matthews and Walden can reward themselves for playing smart on first and second down if they can contain the edge by putting San Francisco in long third down situations.

That's when outside linebackers earn their money, by pinning their ears back and rushing the passer. What Green Bay doesn't want is for Kaepernick to be in second or third and short where the whole playbook is open to the 49ers.

San Francisco is 0-2 in games when Kaepernick attempts 30 or more passes, which means the plan against San Francisco will be the same as it was against Minnesota: stop the run and make the quarterback throw to beat you.

Luckily for Green Bay, the defensive line play has been much improved since Week 1, and while Green Bay gave up plenty of yards to Adrian Peterson in Week 17, many of those plays were made because Peterson is one of the best to ever live, not because the defense was out of position.

The Packers tackled much better in the re-match with the Vikings as even diminutive corners Sam Shields and Tramon Williams came up to make tackles. It was obvious the defense had taken the whipping by Peterson the week before personally and wanted to prove they weren't a soft unit.

With B.J. Raji playing at an elite level inside and plenty of bodies to rotate in, the interior of the Green Bay defense should be able to get stops inside. It will be up to Matthews and Walden to play smart football and maintain their gap integrity to not let Kaepernick or the speedy LaMichael James get the edge.

Dom Capers also has used rookie outside linebacker Dezman Moses on A gap pressures in sub-packages along with Woodson coming off the corner. Expect Woodson to be playing near the line of scrimmage most of the day to provide a safety net for the outside linebackers, even allowing them to crash at times, leaving Woodson to patrol the edge.

Because Woodson is so capable on blitzes from the slot, it should keep the 49ers guessing as to when he's coming, when he has contain, or when he's going to play coverage.

San Francisco can be diverse in the way they attack a defense, but with a healthy defense for the first time all season, Green Bay can be flexible in the way they fight back against this offense and has the athletes to make San Francisco play left-handed so to speak.

Of course, the best way to do that is to score points and make the 49ers play from behind. In order to do that, Green Bay first has to get stops, something they weren't able to do in September.

It will be up to Matthews and Walden to make Kaepernick uncomfortable in the pocket and to contain him as a runner. If they can, Green Bay should be able to put up enough points to win. If they can't, the pressure will be even greater on Rodgers and the offense to score against the 49ers tough, physical defense.

Green Bay's outside linebackers can take the pressure off their offense if they can keep the pressure on Kaepernick and San Francisco. Only the Cardinals sacked opposing quarterbacks more than the Packers during the regular season. Generating pressure is what Green Bay does and they rely heavily on Matthews and Walden to get it done.

In other words, the Packers are right where they want to be.

Peter Bukowski lives in New York and has been covering sports since 2007. He is an award-winning television and newspaper reporter. Follow him on Twitter @BukoTime

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