The San Francisco 49ers survived some... interesting... officiating to defeat the Green Bay Packers 30-22. It's a little hard to decide exactly how to interpret the game, given the way the game was being called. Many of the flags were thrown very late, making it a little more difficult for the players to tell precisely what they were getting called for and the calls weren't necessarily consistent. Packer Randall Cobb also scored on a 75 yard punt return that certainly looked like it should have been called back for a block in a back.
Still, everyone in the NFL has to deal with replacement refs and this didn't reach the levels of absurd calls that marred the Cardinals - Seahawks game. On a practical level, this is something a team has to overcome and the questionable touchdown didn't end up affecting the outcome. Well, unless you were giving up a lot of points in a wager.
What did the 49ers learn about themselves? While Aaron Rodgers still had 303 yards passing, the bend-but-don't-break defensive philosophy limited the Green Bay offense to 2 touchdowns and no field goals. They got good pressure on the quarterback. They shut down the run, though the Green Bay rushing attack is a little suspect. For the bulk of the game, they prevented big plays and kept Aaron Rodgers checking down for short passes. They kept a high powered offense fairly contained for the bulk of the game. They even got a rare interception off Rodgers. The 49ers can feel pretty good about their defense.
Offensively, it's a little harder to tell. The Packers were simply awful on defense last year. They were spectacularly bad against the pass last year. The 49ers could have simply been exploiting a really bad defense. That said, things were very encouraging. Alex Smith completed 15 passes to wide receivers, suggesting that going out and getting Randy Moss and Mario Manningham is working out. Michael Crabtree looked a little sharper, too. Alex Smith has no excuses with an improved receiving corps and he didn't need excuses today.
Interestingly, Randy Moss was used sparingly today. Are they limiting his snaps looking towards keeping him fresh for the 16-game grind? They also didn't throw deep to Moss. Moss got his 4 receptions on short-to-medium routes and he looked fine doing it. Does Moss still have that deep speed? They're saving that for someone else. And, realistically, the 49ers were in control for most of the game. They didn't need to open up the bag of tricks just yet and may be waiting for a tighter game to fully unleash Moss.
The running game was particularly impressive. Accounting for the Packers defense is still a good idea, but the most promising wrinkle was back-up RB Kendall Hunter averaging 4.6 yards/carry, looking good as a frequent sub. Much as they were using Moss somewhat sparingly, Frank Gore did his damage on 16 carries. This also looks very promising, especially with Brandon Jacobs still inactive with a bum knee.
Special teams would also be looking pretty good, were it not for that controversial punt return. A 63-yard field goal. 3 punts downed inside the 20. Even if there was holding, that punt return is a problem.
For the Packers, alarm bells should be going off right and left for that defense. Perhaps the only nice thing you can say about the defense is their pass rush was decent. They had 4 sacks and 6 hits on the quarterback. The Packers gave up 5.8 yards/rushing attempt. They had zero passes defended. Essentially, the Packers got carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey by a team that wasn't previously known as an offensive juggernaut. Now, Smith didn't pass for the 300 yards the Packers were averaging last year, but the 49ers were in the lead and spent more time running the ball down Green Bay's throat than they did passing. Either San Francisco is much improved, which is possible, or the Packers made no defensive progress in the off-season.
Offense was a mixed bag against what is possibly an elite defense. The running game was non-existent. Playing from behind, Cedric Benson only carried the ball 9 times and on those 9 caries he could only manage 18 yards with 4 yards being his longest run. Elite defense or no, that's just sad. The only ground game was Rodgers scrambling. It almost reminds one of Marino's Dolphins. We'll see if Benson fares better against weaker competition, but as a running back not known as a receiver, this is a real point of concern.
While 303/2/1 would normally be a pretty good line for a quarterback, Rodgers didn't really move the Packers into field goal position and they only scored twice from an offensive set. He only had two completions over 20 yards. Rodgers was effectively bottled up and controlled for most of the game. That's unusual and not good when it's certainly possible they'll be meeting the 49ers in the playoffs again.
The go-to receiver seemed to be Randall Cobb. Yes, the same Cobb with the questionable punt return. Cobb had 9 receptions. The thing is, he only had 77 yards on those 9 receptions. Most of those were short dump-offs and check down throws. To his credit, he caught all 9 passes thrown in his direction, but you get the feeling that was part of the 49ers game plan.
Rodgers had a good quarterback rating from hitting the check down under pressure, but if he's going to be the entire offensive, he needs more strikes further down the field.
Special teams might be the lone bright spot with that questionable punt return. The kicking game seemed adequate.
Basically, the Packers need to answer some questions quickly. They play the Bears on Thursday, who have a good defense and were very explosive on offense today.
The 49ers face the Lions next week, another team with an explosive offense and a defense that might be a little suspect.