Fans return, cornerbacks tested: What could have been with Rodgers as 49ers host Packers

·9 min read

It’s hard to believe the last time fans filled Levi’s Stadium was over 20 months ago during the NFC Championship game.

“It’s crazy how long it’s been,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said this week. “So I know the guys are really pumped and really pumped to have the fans out there.”

That should make for a lively atmosphere Sunday night when the Green Bay Packers (1-1) come to Santa Clara in a rematch of that blowout that sent the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Playing in front of empty stadiums was one of the many odd aspects of the 2020 season, on top of all the injuries San Francisco dealt with, and being sent to Arizona to spend the final five weeks of the schedule due to the county’s COVID-19 restrictions.

The 49ers during Sunday night’s prime time affair will bring back their 75th anniversary throwback uniforms with drop-shadowed numbers and white pants with red and black stripes. It’s the home version of their popular all-white throwbacks that returned in 2019 which are still in the rotation and will be used for two road games this season.

Sunday night’s uniform is the same the team wore during its last Super Bowl win following the 1994 season, when Steve Young won game MVP with six touchdown passes, three of which went to Jerry Rice. They’ll be worn in three other home games: Oct. 4 against the Colts, Nov. 15 against the Rams and Dec. 19 versus the Falcons.

Suffice to say, there should be no shortage of energy in the building given all these factors — uniforms included. The 49ers opened the year 2-0 with road wins in Detroit in Philadelphia, and a victory over Green Bay could solidify their return as an NFC power three weeks into the season.

San Francisco is one of the five undefeated NFC teams entering the weekend. Two others are division rivals, the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona Cardinals, as the NFC West has the best combined record in the NFL at 7-1. The 49ers’ next three weeks should offer a good idea of where the team stands. After the Packers, they host the Seahawks (1-1) and travel to play early MVP candidate Kyler Murray with Arizona (2-0).

Those three games come ahead of the 49ers’ Week 6 bye, which will give the front office a chance to evaluate the roster ahead of the Nov. 2 trade deadline. That’s notable for multiple reasons for San Francisco.

Questions at cornerback

The 49ers over their next three games will face four receivers who ranked in the top 20 in catches last season: Packers star Davante Adams and Cardinals’ All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins (tied for second with 115), Seattle’s Tyler Lockett (100, seventh) and D.K. Metcal (83, nineteenth).

Which means San Francisco’s cornerbacks will be stressed. The 49ers last week played with out their expected starters entering the season. Jason Verrett was lost for the year Week 1 with an ACL tear while Emmanuel Moseley sat out for a second straight game with a knee sprain.

Veteran Josh Norman and fifth-round pick Deommodore Lenoir held up well enough against the Eagles’ 22-year-old wideouts DeVonta Smith and Jalen Reagor, but these next three weeks should be far more challenging with Adams, Hopkins, Lockett and Metcalf on the docket.

The good news: Moseley is expected back after getting a full week of practice for the first time this season. He missed time during training camp with a stint on the COVID-19 list and a tweaked hamstring before the knee injury. Norman is expected to line up on the other side after making his debut last week. He was flagged for two pass interference penalties but otherwise played well as the defense limited Philadelphia starter Jalen Hurts to 190 yards. The Eagles scored just 11 points.

“(Norman) has great energy,” defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said this week. “He’s great on the sideline with the guys. He’s a true vet, true leader, it’s been awesome being around Josh and he’s just fit in with our guys really well and he’s done a great job for the couple of weeks that he’s been here.”

Norman is a unique character. He’s been philosophical and reflective during his two sessions with reporters since coming to San Francisco a week before the regular season. He was peppered with questions Thursday about being the oldest member of the 49ers’ defense and the thought he’s beyond his prime at 33-years old.

“That’s life,” Norman said about having skeptics. “Where would we be if we didn’t have doubters? Where would we be if we didn’t have haters? Would Adam have eaten the apple? Would we have sin in the world today?”

It’s not often the Old Testament is brought up during NFL press conferences. But that’s the route Norman went, using God’s command of mankind not to eat the forbidden fruit as a comparison to the doubters who aren’t sure if he can hold up against some of the NFL’s best receivers.

Surely the 49ers will have a better idea four weeks from now. And the front office will have to decide if Norman is equipped to remain a starter for the rest of the season, or if a trade is needed to fortify the position the same way the team added at receiver by trading for Emmanuel Sanders midway through their Super Bowl run in 2019. Sunday night against Adams, whom Norman called a “special cat,” could offer clues.

Aaron Rodgers and what could have been

Hours before drafting Trey Lance, Shanahan called Packers head coach Matt LaFleur about the availability of the reigning MVP who had publicly demanded out of Green Bay.

Of course, the Packers weren’t about to trade Aaron Rodgers anywhere, let alone an NFC rival that dominated them with a combined score 74-18 during their two meetings at Levi’s Stadium during the 2019 campaign, including the NFC title bout.

Shanahan was quickly rebuffed and the 49ers never considered putting together a package for Rodgers after dealing three first-round picks to move up for Lance.

“You hear enough stuff and I think everyone knew what was going on at that time that it didn’t seem like it was worth the call,” Shanahan said. “But I know how we would’ve felt if it was going to happen and we didn’t call. So, you call, you get a quick answer which what was what you’re expecting and then you move on.”

The 49ers being interested in Rodgers was hardly a surprise. They checked in on Matthew Stafford before he was traded to the Rams and invested three first-round picks in Lance to eventually supplant Jimmy Garoppolo, who has handled the team’s interest in replacing him as well as could be expected.

“That’s just kind of how the offseason goes,” Garoppolo said. “Teams are always trying to look for something new, something better and that’s just kind of the nature of the beast, I guess.”

Garoppolo has said he’s focusing on playing well while letting the future take care of itself. He saw that approach work first hand for Tom Brady during his time in New England, which led to Garoppolo getting traded rather than supplanting the super star.

The difference, of course, is Garoppolo is not Brady. Far from it. But as long as the 49ers keep winning and he doesn’t turn the ball over, he’ll have a chance to keep Lance at bay. Lance didn’t get in the game last week after playing four snaps in Detroit. That could change given San Francisco’s injury situation heading into the weekend.

Rag-tag running back corps.

The 49ers lost their two starting running backs during their first two weeks of the season. Raheem Mostert went down for the year with a knee injury in Week 1 and Elijah Mitchell, who started in Philadelphia, came out of that game with a shoulder injury and didn’t practice this week, though he was spotted at Friday’s walk through.

If Mitchell can’t play, the 49ers will likely call on rookie Trey Sermon, who was inactive Week 1 and was concussed on his only carry of the Eagles’ game. JaMycal Hasty suffered a high ankle sprain and is expected to go on injured reserve.

The team this week signed Jacques Patrick off the Bengals practice squad, who could be available Sunday, while newcomer Kerryon Johnson is a candidate for promotion from the practice squad after signing a week ago. Former Jaguar Chris Thompson also signed to the practice squad this week. Trenton Cannon is another option after he received one carry last week and played well on special teams, making a strong tackle on kickoff coverage.

As Shanahan said, the team could head into Sunday night with Mitchell and Sermon atop the depth chart, or they could have a whole new group at running back. And all the running backs have varying skill sets, which was an added challenge for Shanahan and his offensive staff this week.

“There is a part of just preparing what you can call and what you cannot call with certain people,” offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel said this week. “Because it’s a short time span from when they got in the building. So you want them to operate full-speed and be fair to them and let them play fast. So you think through it, make sure that schematically you don’t do anything that challenges their brain too much because their job is to carry a football and not get tackled. And it’s hard to do that when you’re thinking too much.”

With the uncertainty at running back, it might not be a bad idea to get All-Pro tight end George Kittle and second-year receiver Brandon Aiyuk more involved in the passing game. Kittle had just four catches for 17 yards in Philadelphia while he was being prioritized as a run blocker. Aiyuk out-snapped Trent Sherfield, 38-24, after the two split time in the opener. He made one catch to convert a third-down on the decisive second-half touchdown drive.

Getting those two involved could take the burden off Deebo Samuel, who led the NFL in receiving over the first two weeks with 282 yards on 15 catches.

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