Colin Kaepernick made headlines Sunday night after the 49ers’ 34-28 rout of the Packers with a postgame message for Clay Matthews and his defensive squad.
“If intimidation is your game plan, I hope you have a better one” Kaepernick said after the game.
What was Green Bay Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers’ game plan Sunday afternoon? After Kaepernick gashed the Packers for a quarterback-record 181 yards on the ground through 16 plays—seven of them through the option for 99 yards, the remaining nine designed runs—in the divisional round of the playoffs in January, the Packers devoted most of the offseason to studying the read option and the pistol formation. Capers even took his entire coaching staff to College Station, Texas to meet with Texas A&M staff for insight. The message throughout the entire offseason was clear: the Packers defense would not be burned by the read option again.
And this past Sunday night? The read option was almost nowhere to be seen. In what now seems to be an epic misdirection, Kaepernick took to the air for a career-high 412 yards. Of San Francisco’s 75 total plays, only 34, or 45%, were on the ground. Of those, 27 were designed runs by 49ers running backs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. Kaepernick only ran seven times, for 22 yards.
49ers left tackle Joe Staley said he thought the read option was “just a wrinkle in [the 49ers’] offense.” “We have various ways we can move the ball,” Staley continued.
Do they ever. Kaepernick found new offensive weapon Anquan Boldin 13 times for a total 208 yards and Vernon Davis six times for just under 100 yards, despite worries that the air game would be crippled by the loss of receivers Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham to injuries.
The Packers would like you to think that the 49ers were limited to 34 team rushing yards because the defense planned for that, and the 49ers had to make adjustments. “The emphasis was to stop the run,” coach Mike McCarthy said in a postgame conference. “For the most part, I thought we achieved that.”
The truth is the Packers’ defense weren’t prepared for the 49ers’ real game plan: an aerial assault. Kaepernick came out with the pass from the beginning, looking for wide receivers Kyle Williams and Vernon Davis on his first two plays from scrimmage and coming up incomplete. The 49ers then called a timeout, and on his third play of the night Kaepernick, from the shotgun formation, scrambled (not as a result of the option) for eight yards. Three-and-out 49ers.
When the 49ers came back out for their second drive, after a loss of 7 on a designed run by back Kendall Hunter—whose running style is unsuited to the read option to begin with—Kaepernick went back to the air. The 49ers ran twelve more plays in a drive that culminated in a 20 yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis. Seven of them were passes. None of them were rushes by Kaepernick.
Would Green Bay’s defense have done a better job of containing the 49ers if their game plan had centered on the pass? Let’s consider the divisional playoff game, after which, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, two Green Bay players admitted they had practiced “next to no read-option during the week leading up to the loss”—spending their time, then, preparing to defend the pass. In that game, cornerback Sam Shields was thrown at eight times and allowed only three catches, for 39 yards. Only seven of those yards came after the catch.
Starting at the right corner position when the Packers played in the dime package this past Sunday, Shields—who has taken an elevated leadership position on the secondary with the departure of Charles Woodson and the injuries of breakout star Casey Hayward and veteran safety Morgan Burnett—was thrown at seven times. Of those, he allowed five catches, for a total of 69 yards.
Those are worrisome numbers, but the root of the problem—whether it’s because the Packers defense failed to plan for a shootout, or because of the loss of veterans and spate of injuries in the secondary—is still unclear. The one bright spot in Shields’ performance is that, despite giving up 69 yards (most of them to Boldin), he only allowed 29 yards after the catch.
Why was Kaepernick able to complete over half of his 27 passing attempts to only two receivers, Boldin and Davis? During training camp, Wes Hodkiewicz reported that with Shields’ improvement in recent years and left corner Tramon Williams’ demonstrated leadership, the Packers were feeling confident enough in their cornerback situation that they were able to move away from Capers’ shutdown corner philosophy and play the zone.
“I told the group that I didn’t want to match this year,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said during training camp. “I want to go left and right and make sure that you have the ability to handle the guy that comes to your side.”
The problem, of course, with playing the zone instead of man coverage is that big holes can open up. And when Kaepernick has Joe Staley on his left, he has the time to spot those holes and make big plays. Eight of Kaepernick’s passes were for more than 20 yards; three went for more than 30. Those eight plays notched 199 total yards.
Green Bay may want to consider a move back to man coverage. There’s a reason that some of the most successful secondaries in the league employ shutdown corners such as Darrelle Revis with the Jets and, now, the Buccaneers.
One more positive takeaway (no ironic pun intended, as the Packers forced zero turnovers on the day) from the Packers defense? Clay Matthews is more fired up than ever, and is embracing his leadership position (and recent payday!). He reportedly met with Packers coaches over the offseason to share his ideas on what the defense could do to improve, and he had eight tackles (three for a loss) and a sack. Kaepernick may say he’s immune to Matthews’ intimidation, but many quarterbacks would rather not be on the receiving end of a lunge from Clay. In fact, the Packers line looked as strong as the secondary looked leaky—they had 76 tackles on the night, almost 30 more than the 49ers.