Packers different than team that lost to 49ers
By NANCY ARMOUR
The Associated Press | January 07,2013
San Francisco defensive tackle Justin Smith wears a brace on his injured elbow during practice in Santa Clara, Thursday. Smith has been cleared for contact and the 49ers expect him to play next week.
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) Saturday night in an NFC divisional game after beating Minnesota in the wild-card round. The 49ers are early 3-point favorites.
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 obstacles that you have to get through. 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.
“I don’t think we had our identity at that point,” Rodgers said. “We were trying a lot of different things.”
The running game still wasn’t clicking when Benson got hurt, and the Packers had only minimal success with Alex Green and James Starks.
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.
“(Harris has) done a good job and he keeps getting better each week,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “He’s an instinctive runner. So more often than not, you just let him run. You point out what should be done, but he has the right instincts and he usually makes something good happen.”
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.
“I think we can attack you in different ways,” Capers said. “I think we’ve got more athletic ability on our defense this year than we had. I think these young guys have given us more athletic ability, more speed, more pass rush ability.”
Green Bay finished the regular season with 47 sacks, fourth-best in the NFL, and had three more Saturday night. It limited Minnesota to 10 points, the eighth time in the last 11 games the Packers have allowed 20 points or fewer.
“We’ve established our brand of football and that’s what we’re taking to San Francisco,” McCarthy said. “We’re not going to sit here and start making up things and trying to chase ghosts and worrying about schemes that are out there. We’re going to stay focused on the things that we do.”
“We really like who we are as a football team.”
Notes: TE Jermichael Finley’s hamstring injury does not appear to be serious. ... WR Donald Driver was a healthy inactive for what could have been his final game at Lambeau field, and McCarthy said the veteran has been “a class act” about his reduced role. “He’s a pro’s pro,” McCarthy said. “We’ve had conversations of late here, with part of what’s going on with him being active and inactive, and he’s handled it very well. He’s an excellent teammate.” ... Despite Woodson’s nine-week layoff, Capers said they didn’t have him on a rep count. “I certainly didn’t see any reason to bring him off the field,” Capers said. “I thought he was doing all the things we’d asked him to do.” ... Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum indicated Jeremy Ross would continue to split return duties with Cobb. “We’ve got two returners,” Slocum said.