From Frank Gore to Patrick Willis to Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews , you know all the big names who will have key roles in this playoff showdown between NFL heavyweights. Here are six players who will be key performers on Saturday night at Candlestick Park that were not when these teams met in Week 1.
RB/KR LaMichael James: James was inactive for the season opener in Green Bay and remained that way through the first 12 games of the season, making it appear that 2012 would be a redshirt year for San Francisco’s second-round draft choice. Then backup running back Kendall Hunter tore his Achilles tendon during a Nov. 25 victory at New Orleans, opening not only a roster spot for James, but also a role for him in San Francisco’s offense after disgruntled running back Brandon Jacobs was ineffective backing up Frank Gore in a Dec. 2 loss at St. Louis. Jacobs was later suspended, then released at the end of the season. James made his NFL debut Dec. 9 against Miami, returning the opening kickoff 34 yards. He has been dangerous returning kickoffs since, averaging 29.8 yards on his 14 returns, including a 62-yarder late in the fourth quarter at New England that swung the momentum back to San Francisco in that game. James gives the 49ers an element of explosiveness as a returner that the Packers didn’t see in September, and he also provides the same as Gore’s new backup. Hunter had 41 yards rushing as a complement to Gore against the Pack in September, and that role now belongs to James, who is cat-quick and can make defenders miss in the open field. The Packers are sure to see James returning kicks, getting some carries and perhaps a few passes coming his way out of the backfield, and he could make a difference.
DL Ricky Jean Francois: Jean Francois saw little action and finished with zero tackles against the Packers in the opener, but that’s highly likely to change in the rematch. A fourth-year veteran, Jean Francois has been a sturdy and valuable member of San Francisco’s defensive line rotation the past three years, but it had most always been in a complementary reserve role until Justin Smith, the team’s All-Pro starter at right tackle, suffered a partially-torn triceps early in the third quarter of San Francisco’s Dec. 16 game at New England. Jean Francois stepped in for Smith in that game and had a pivotal sack of quarterback Tom Brady late in the fourth quarter, just the second sack of his career. Jean Francois finished with four tackles in the game, then came up huge starting in Smith’s place the final two weeks of the season. Jean Francois had a career-high 10 tackles against Seattle on Dec. 23, then had seven tackles and his third career sack the next week in the season finale against Arizona. While he’s no Justin Smith, the 295-pound Jean Francois is stout against the run and has been surprisingly effective providing pressure on passing downs. Smith is expected to return against the Packers wearing a protective brace, but his effectiveness and the amount he’ll be able to play are in question. Regardless of Smith’s role, Jean Francois’ role is certain to be increased from the season opener, and he could become a key factor, particularly if Smith is unable to remain in the game because of his injury.
WR A.J. Jenkins: To say that Jenkins’ rookie season has been a disappointment wouldn’t be an understatement. The Niners’ first-round draft pick did not play in the season opener against the Packers, but at least he was in uniform – the only week during the team’s first 11 games that Jenkins wasn’t on San Francisco’s inactive list. When valuable reserve receiver Kyle Williams was lost to a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 25, Jenkins moved up on the depth chart, but he did not play despite being active the next week at St. Louis, then never saw a pass come his way in sparse action the next two games before being inactive again in Week 16. Jenkins then dropped the only pass that came his way this season in Week 17 against Arizona. But with Williams and No. 2 wideout Mario Manningham – San Francisco’s second-leading receiver this season – both lost on injured reserve, Jenkins and Ted Ginn Jr. are the only wide receivers on San Francisco’s roster behind starters Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss. Ginn, who had just two receptions for 1 yard this season, seems to have fallen out of San Francisco’s passing-game plans completely. That could mean an opportunity for Jenkins to get on the field and do some damage against the Packers, particularly if the game becomes a shootout and/or the 49ers fall behind and have to pass. Jenkins is athletic, can get open and can do things with the ball in his hands. If he’s left in single-coverage, the 49ers could go his way, and Jenkins could become a secret weapon that the Packers – or anybody else – aren’t expecting and don’t really know much about.
RT Don Barclay: When these teams met in Week 1, the Packers had standout Bryan Bulaga, their 2010 first-round pick, at right tackle. Bulaga, however, was lost to a season-ending hip injury at midseason. The Packers tried their starting left guard, T.J. Lang, at that spot, to mixed results. When Lang went down against Minnesota in Dec. 2, the coaches had no choice but to give Barclay a shot. An undrafted rookie out of West Virginia, Barclay looked like just another hard-working, no-talent guy during the first couple weeks of training camp. Barclay, however, found his footing, made the team and has wound up playing far better than anyone could have expected. He’s given up five sacks in his six games, according to ProFootballFocus.com. While he’s been up-and-down in pass protection, he’s proven to be an effective run blocker. Barclay will be challenged by Ray McDonald, who must feel left out on a defense full of Pro Bowlers. The 49ers’ starting left end had an outstanding game in Week 1, with three hurries and three run stops. Terribly underrated, he’s PFF’s ninth-ranked 3-4 defensive end. He’s got a combined 40 sacks, hits and hurries. That’s nine more than the other starting end, the highly regarded Justin Smith.
RB DuJuan Harris: The Packers, even with all of last year’s offensive fireworks, entered this season knowing they had to build a decent running game. To that end, they signed free agent Cedric Benson, who was coming off three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Benson would be the starter, with James Starks (an X-factor during the 2010 Super Bowl run), Alex Green (a 2011 third-round pick) and Brandon Saine (a promising second-year player) in reserve. None of those players figure to be a factor on Saturday night, with Benson on injured reserve, Starks having missed the last few games and Green having fallen out of the rotation. Instead, it will be two guys who weren’t on the roster until December. Harris was signed to the practice squad on Oct. 24, promoted to the active roster on Dec. 1 and has emerged as the No. 1 back. Old warhorse Ryan Grant, who the Packers bypassed this summer in favor of Benson, was signed on Dec. 5 and provides another look. An undrafted rookie out of Troy in 2011, the 5-foot-7 1/8 Harris rushed for 42 yards in five games for the Jaguars last year. He was released during camp this summer, claimed off waivers by Pittsburgh and released again a few days later. He took a job selling cars until the Packers signed him to the practice squad. Incredibly for a team that has shown an overwhelming preference for big backs over the years, the shifty and surprisingly powerful Harris has emerged as the featured back the last two weeks. Barring a turnover, there’s little reason to believe the Packers will go in another direction. He had 87 total yards against Minnesota in Week 17 and 100 in the rematch against the Vikings last week. Harris has excellent vision, doesn’t shy away from contact and gets to top speed in a hurry. That acceleration has made him a nice option in the long-forgotten checkdown game. He hasn’t fumbled in 56 touches.
CB Casey Hayward: The Packers’ second-round pick was one of the SEC top ballhawks at Vanderbilt and showed that nose for the ball throughout training camp. Still, the Packers — so worried about the Niners’ run game — started the aggressive Jarrett Bush at cornerback in Week 1. Since playing just three snaps in that game, Hayward has assumed a key role in the secondary as the nickel (slot) cornerback. In fact, Hayward played so well in the slot that veteran Charles Woodson, the game’s best slot defender for several years, was relegated to safety upon his return last week from a broken collarbone. Hayward led all rookies with six interceptions and was named to the Pro Football Writers Association/Pro Football Weekly all-rookie team this week. Hayward plays with uncommon poise and instincts for a rookie. According to ProFootballFocus.com’s film study, Hayward has allowed a 31.1 passer rating — the best in the league by a considerable margin. In limited action, he broke up a team-high 24 passes (by the coaches’ count). He did not commit a penalty. Importantly for this game, Hayward has shown he won’t shy away from contact — a must for the nickel role in Dom Capers’ scheme. The Packers stuck mostly to their base defense in Week 1 and got chewed up by Alex Smith and the Niners’ passing game. If Capers adjusts and plays more nickel, Hayward will have a major role as a line-of-scrimmage run defender.