GREEN BAY—Three games in 365 days has provided plenty of fuel for the Packers-49ers rivalry, and the fire got another dose of gasoline on day 366 that Mike McCarthy quickly tried to extinguish.
"Clay Matthews is not a dirty player, by no means," McCarthy said, referring to Jim Harbaugh's comments earlier Monday to San Francisco media regarding Matthews' late hit out of bounds on 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Harbaugh labeled the hit a "cheap shot" and a "clothesline," and he called out Matthews for his actions during the sideline scuffle with offensive tackle Joe Staley after the play.
"That young man works very hard on being a tough guy," Harbaugh said of Matthews. "He'll have some repairing to do on his image after that slap.
"If you're gonna go to the face, come with some knuckles, not an open slap."
McCarthy didn't have much interest in getting into it.
"I have no idea what his intent is," he said, referring to Harbaugh. "I addressed Harbaugh's comments in the team meeting, and as always we'll stay above it."
He did not excuse Matthews for the penalty, however. It led to a misapplication of offsetting penalties that gave the 49ers another third-down try, which referee Bill Leavy admitted was a mistake and resulted in a touchdown. The league has also since stated that the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Staley was an error, too, and shouldn't have been called.
"I thought it was a bad decision by Clay," McCarthy said. "I think he was overzealous. I know he left his feet, …
"Playing hard. I think it's football. I think much is blown out of proportion. Clay played very well in the game. That was one of his couple bad plays."
Other Packers had many more, which were of greater concern to McCarthy. The return game and safety play weren't up to par, as the Packers dealt with poor field position all game and San Francisco's Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis combined for 306 yards receiving, mostly in the middle of the field.
Safeties M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian "can play better," said McCarthy, who felt a big factor in their struggles was that starter Morgan Burnett (hamstring) took his share of practice reps on Wednesday and Thursday before landing on the injury report late in the week and unexpectedly missing the game.
"With these guys making the shift on Friday, things weren't as clean as you would probably like," McCarthy said. "I think it kind of carried over to the game. We were a step slower than we needed to be on anticipation of some of the routes."
He also felt rookie running back Eddie Lacy was a little slow in getting going, though he felt Lacy got more comfortable in the second half, after sitting out the last 11 minutes in the second quarter following a costly fumble.
"Eddie needs to detail his work, whether it's the runs, the protection," McCarthy said. "Our young guys, it was their first game, and he was one of them. I don't want to say he was nervous, but he just needs to clean some things up."
Lacy had five carries for four yards at the time of the fumble before adding nine carries for 37 yards and a 2-yard TD in the second half. He ran five times for 26 yards on the scoring drive.
"My goal for him is to be a three-down player and to keep him in there and keep him playing," McCarthy said. "Because when he's in there, he's a fine young football player, but the details, that's the difference between winning and losing in this league."
On Sunday, the difference was the final eight minutes, after the Packers had taken a 28-24 lead on Lacy's TD run. The 49ers had an 80-yard drive for a touchdown and a 50-yard march for a field goal sandwiched around a Packers three-and-out that started on the Green Bay 9-yard line after another poor return.
It was the offense's fifth three-and-out on a feast-or-famine day that also saw the Packers put together touchdown drives of 80, 62, 69 and 76 yards.
McCarthy chalked up the inconsistency to less-than-sharp preparation during the week, among other issues with a once-again young roster. He told the team on Monday what veterans on more experienced teams he's coached have always preached to the rookies.
"You get paid for Monday through Saturday. Sundays are for free," McCarthy said. "We need to do a better job Monday through Saturday to make sure we're sharp and ready to go for Washington." Additional coverage - Sept. 9