The Green Bay Packers open their season Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers in the Bay Area, and four Packer rookies will see significant playing time on offense and defense. Defensive end Datone Jones, running back Eddie Lacy, and offensive tackle David Bakhtiari are all slated to start, while cornerback Micah Hyde will replace Casey Hayward (hamstring) as the Packers nickel defensive back.
Bakhtiari replaces injured Bryan Bulaga at left tackle, who initially replaced Marshall Newhouse prior to the 2013 season. Newhouse allowed 21.5 quarterback sacks in the last two seasons as Rodgers’ primary blind-side protector, and Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said he has faith in the rookie Bakhtiari. “He has played every snap (in training camp), and what he is able to do is all on film”, McCarthy said. “He is playing an all-pro player, and he has to play his role and his position”.
49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith will primarily lineup against Bakhtiari on Sunday. Smith, the 49ers’ first-round selection in the 2011 NFL Draft, has recorded 33.5 sacks since entering the league—most ever for a player in their first two seasons.
Hyde, one of two Packers fifth-round selections in April, has impressed Packers coaches and players throughout the preseason. “From day one, he hasn’t really behaved like a rookie”, McCarthy said. “He picked up the (defensive) scheme instantly, he is very natural, and he has made plays in every game and scrimmage. There were not many practices where you walked off the field not feeling good about number 33”.
Jones, the Packers first-round selection this past April, played one snap before spraining his ankle in the team’s preseason opener against the Arizona Cardinals, and he played sparingly in the preseason finale versus the Kansas City Chiefs. In the Packer’s 45-31 divisional round playoff loss at San Francisco in January, according to San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers “confused” the Packers defense with the 49ers’ use of the zone-read option. Kaepernick threw for 263 yards and ran for an additional 181 yards, while accounting for four total touchdowns.
The Packers are hoping the 6’4, 285-pound Jones is the answer to successfully defend the 49ers’ zone-read offensive scheme. “Their (offensive) creativity schematically is good, but anytime a runner is going against the defense, the goal is to hit the opponent”, McCarthy said about defending Kaepernick. “How far it’ll go, we will see. Everyone is prepared for it, they are trying to advance it, and that is the beauty of Sundays”.
49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said in a Wednesday conference call he isn’t worried about a potential dead end for dual-threat quarterbacks in the NFL. “Were they not here before?”, Harbaugh asked. “I really have always seen athletic quarterbacks in the NFL. Will it stay for the foreseeable future? I don’t have a crystal ball, so I don’t know”.
Rookie running back Eddie Lacy will face quite the NFL debut challenge in San Francisco on Sunday as well. Starting in place of injured offensive back DuJuan Harris, the Packers are hoping Lacy can help improve the offensive running game—and keep 49ers inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman off of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
In the 49ers two victories over the Packers last season, Willis and Bowman combined for 30 total tackles, one sack, three defended passes, one interception, and one quarterback hit. “They are definitely one of the best”, McCarthy said regarding the 49ers inside linebacker duo. “They are very similar, they look alike. They have the ability to recognize routes, they read and diagnose, they are excellent tacklers, and good pressure players”.
Playing the defending NFC Champions at their home stadium is no easy task for any NFL team, but McCarthy said at the end of the day, Sunday is only step one of 16 in the 2013 journey. “Every team is different, every season is different”, McCarthy said. “Your identity and personality is formed throughout the first quarter of the season. The way you go through a season, it forms a certain identity. We are trying to see how the identity of this team shakes out”.
The Packers and 49ers kickoff Sunday at San Francisco at 3:25 CST on FOX. Check your local listings for television coverage.
OTHER NEWS AND NOTES: Packers safety Morgan Burnett (hamstring) and Brad Jones (hamstring) both experienced soreness on Friday morning and are questionable for Sunday’s game, according to McCarthy. With the possibility of M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian starting at safety for the Packers, McCarthy said they have “played a lot of football”, and they are “confident” and “ready to go”.
If Jones is a no-go for Sunday, Robert Francois will fill-in at inside linebacker. McCarthy said Francois is a “different linebacker” from when he first arrived in Green Bay in 2010. “Rob Francois is a tough, hard-nosed football player”, McCarthy said. “We can play him inside and outside, he is smart and tough player for us, and I love having him on our team”.
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