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Challenge awaiting Saturday in debut
Jeff Saturday is the NFL's luckiest center.
For his first 12 seasons, Saturday worked with quarterback Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. Now entering his first year with the Green Bay Packers, Saturday is linked with another passer who seems destined for the Hall of Fame — Aaron Rodgers.
The two have become friendly enough that Rodgers and Saturday engaged in their first game of backgammon Thursday afternoon inside the team's locker room. The winner?
"He took me down," a laughing Saturday said.
Saturday's task in Green Bay's season opener is far more serious. Saturday must make sure the interior of San Francisco's formidable defense doesn't get to Rodgers or completely stymie the Packers' running game.
For the most part, Saturday will be responsible for handling 49ers nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga in Sunday's game on FOX (4:25 p.m. ET kickoff). At 6-foot-2, 295 pounds, Saturday is accustomed to facing larger defensive linemen. Sopoaga, 6-2, 330, is no exception. He's also six years younger than the 37-year-old Saturday.
"He's a heck of a nose guard," Saturday said of one of San Francisco's most underrated defenders. "He does a good job of keeping his shoulders parallel and using his hands. He keeps you at length and tries to throw you late to come back and make tackles."
Saturday, who has familiarity with 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio from the time both were in Indianapolis (1999 to 2001), expects Sopoaga will play him straight up as well as shade. Saturday also said the 49ers like to shift Ricky Jean-Francois and Justin Smith into the guard-center gaps to create matchup problems to free standout inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman from blocks.
"I'm sure working with (Mike) Singletary for those years didn't hurt two inside guys like that," said Saturday, referring to the former 49ers head coach and Hall of Fame linebacker. "Both have great athletic ability and are putting it to use. Willis has done it for number of years; Bowman is coming on now."
"They remind me of the (guards) I came in with, Jake Scott and Ryan Lilja, years ago in Indy," Saturday said. "You've got two good guys beside you. They know the offense and calls as well as the center. They like being involved in all that. It's been fun being next to young guys who are on the cusp of being well-known through the NFL."
Rodgers told FOXSports.com that Saturday has made a "seamless" transition to Green Bay's offense. Saturday said it wasn't quite that smooth.
"I've had to get back in the (playbook) some," said Saturday, who was signed in March to replace departed free agent Scott Wells. "I still don't know everything exactly. I have to sometimes look over and ask Sitton, 'Hey, what's (Rodgers) talking about right here?' But those guys have been really good and helpful pulling me along when I need it.
"It's like everything. It's football. It's basic fundamentals. But there are so many different little nuances to the offense. A lot of times you can't learn it until you're out there live and really getting into the game."
Saturday is eager for his first regular-season opportunity with Rodgers, whose professionalism reminds him of Manning.
"He commands the offense," Saturday said. "If there are plays in practice that aren't going well, he'll look at you and go, 'Hey, I'm not going to do it. This isn't going to happen.' I respect guys like that who know what they want to do. You want that guy being your quarterback."
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