Niners prepare for a new Packers team
GREEN BAY, Wis. — The San Francisco 49ers can toss their film from the season opener against Green Bay in the trash for as much good as it will do now.
Cedric Benson is gone, and the Packers' running game is now powered by DuJuan Harris and Ryan Grant — neither of whom was on the roster Dec. 1, let alone back in September.
Randall Cobb, whose 75-yard punt return gave the Packers a fleeting chance late in the 30-22 victory by San Francisco, is now one of Aaron Rodgers' favorite receivers.
And a defense that may as well have been holding rookie orientation for all its newcomers is now a savvy, stingy bunch of veterans.
“A lot's happened,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “We're a different football team. We're a different football team than we were four weeks ago.”
The Packers (12-5) play San Francisco (11-4-1) on Saturday night in an NFC divisional game after beating Minnesota in the wild-card round.
San Francisco has had its share of changes this season, too, the most significant being coach Jim Harbaugh's decision to stick with Colin Kaepernick after Alex Smith recovered from his concussion.
But that's nothing compared with the Packers, who've had so many injuries and lineup changes that defensive coordinator Dom Capers was watching film of the season opener Sunday partly to remind himself of who was — and wasn't — on the field back then.
More than a dozen starters or projected starters have missed a game or more with an injury, including: Charles Woodson, who played Saturday for the first time since breaking his right collarbone Oct. 21; Greg Jennings, who missed eight games with a torn muscle in his groin; Clay Matthews and Jordy Nelson, who missed four games each with hamstring injuries; and Benson, who played only five games before a season-ending foot injury.
Change has been the only constant on the offensive line the second half of the season, with the Packers on their fifth starting lineup. Same in the secondary, where three players started at right corner over the last seven games.
That kind of upheaval would doom most teams, but the Packers have managed to thrive. Somewhere amidst the chaos, they not only found solutions, they found themselves.
“Everybody starts the season and has an idea and vision of who you want to be,” McCarthy said Sunday. “But the reality of it is, you go through a 16-week season, there's a lot of things happen. There's injuries to different players, players coming in, players going out. I think all those things factor in to who you really are and who you think you are.”
The biggest difference the 49ers will see is in the running game. Green Bay managed a measly 45 yards on the ground in the opener, and Rodgers and Benson were the only two ball carriers. Rodgers, not Benson, led the Packers.
It took the pint-sized Harris to bring Green Bay's offense into balance, a speedy and elusive back whose surprising power gives defenses fits. After cracking the 100-yard mark three times in the first eight games, the Packers have done it in five of the last seven.
Defensively, the Packers may not have as many takeaways as they did last season, but they're far more consistent and aren't likely to get burned by the same thing twice. Or three times in the case of Adrian Peterson. After bulldozing Green Bay for 409 yards in the first two games, Peterson was held to just 99 on Saturday night.