Colin Kaepernick’s performance in leading the San Francisco 49ers to a 45-31 victory over the Green Bay Packers in last year’s NFC's Divisional Round of the playoffs could go down as the breakout game of the budding superstar quarterback’s career.
Although Kaepernick was very impressive as the starter for the final seven games of the 49ers' 2012 regular season, some media and fans still believed Alex Smith was the best quarterback for the 49ers going into the playoffs. Kaepernick’s record-breaking performance against the Packers silenced the doubters.
On the biggest stage of his career to date, Kaepernick made the national spotlight his personal playground. He set a single-game record (regular season or postseason) for quarterback rushing yards with 181, and accounted for a total of 444 yards and four touchdowns in the game.
The Packers had no answer for Kaepernick’s dual-threat, big-play ability. The Packers’ offense had a solid performance, accounting for three touchdowns and 352 yards, but the offense simply couldn’t keep up with the damage Kaepernick did to their defense.
This Sunday, the Packers open their season with a return to Candlestick Park in San Francisco for a rematch of last year’s divisional playoff game. The Packers must play better on all three sides of the ball to reverse the tides for a win Sunday, but it all starts with finding an answer to Kaepernick’s dual-threat game.
Contain Kaepernick in the Pocket
Game-planning to defend Kaepernick is a challenge for every opponent the 49ers face. With his ability to make any throw on the field but also escape the pocket and make a big play with his feet, Kaepernick can break open cracks in even the best defensive game plans.
That said, if the Packers are going to avoid the same fate as last year’s playoffs, they have to force Kaepernick to beat their defense with his pocket passing.
Allowing a quarterback to run for 181 yards, or even anywhere close to that, stacks the odds of winning in the other team’s favor. Of the 18 times a quarterback has run for 110 or more yards in an NFL game (regular season or postseason), that quarterback’s team has won the game 16 times, according to Pro Football Reference’s player game index.
The Packers need to scheme accordingly to emphasize containing Kaepernick within the pocket. Kaepernick does a terrific job of seeing lanes when they become open, has the acceleration to quickly explode into those holes and the speed to outrun defenders in the open field.
The Packers cannot give Kaepernick those lanes. In order to do so, the Packers’ edge defenders must keep the pocket around Kaepernick closed, while defenders at the second level cannot vacate the middle of the field.
What happens when you give away the edge and allow Kaepernick to escape outside the pocket? His 56-yard third-quarter touchdown run from last year’s game is just one example.
The scheme enabled then-Packers outside linebacker Erik Walden (circled in yellow) to hold contain on the edge of the defense, but as Kaepernick faked the handoff to running back Frank Gore, Walden got fooled. As a result, Walden turns inside and gets completely turned around, while Kaepernick (circled in red) is able to take off for open field on the right side of the field.
From there, it all goes back to Kaepernick’s speed. When you give a player with sprinter speed like Kaepernick an open lane to the end zone, he can make you pay.
Walden isn’t on the Packers anymore, but it is important for the Packers to stress the importance of containing Kaepernick to all of their outside linebackers. Kaepernick has his most success running to the right side of the field, so it is especially important for whoever is lined up on that side of the field—likely to be Nick Perry most often in place of Walden—to do his job properly.
It is equally important to have players in position in the middle of the field to stop Kaepernick from cutting straight upfield for a big gain on the ground.
In the divisional playoff game, the Packers gave Kaepernick the middle of the field far too often. Kaepernick made the defense pay on numerous occasions, including on his 20-yard first-quarter touchdown run.
This play happened because of poor schematics by the Packers defense. The Packers put five players on the line of the scrimmage, but no nose tackle over the center and no linebackers in the middle of the field.
Kaepernick needed some protection from his offensive line, but once he got that for a couple seconds, the left side of the pocket opened up. This gave Kaepernick a wide-open field in front of him, and he once again used his speed to make it all the way to the end zone.
Against Kaepernick, a defense cannot afford to commit all of its players to playing the pass. Instead of having five pass-rushers and six defensive backs on the field as the Packers did on the play above, they should replace at least one of those players with a linebacker to patrol the second level as a quarterback “spy.”
At times, the Packers did this effectively. In the following third-quarter example, the Packers used both of their inside linebackers in their base defense, A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, as spies in the middle of the field. The linebackers successfully took away the option to run up the middle while the pocket converged upon Kaepernick to hit him as he threw and forced an incompletion.
It’s not just about where the personnel lines up at the start of the play, however, but what each player’s assignment is on the play.
In the following example, the Packers used a similar alignment at the start of the play, with Clay Matthews at inside linebacker next to Jones. But instead of using Matthews and/or Jones as spies, they brought Matthews on a stunt blitz and Jones on a straight blitz.
Selling out to an aggressive blitz may make plays against a stagnant pocket passer, but it doesn’t work well against Kaepernick and his top-notch offensive line. In this case, both Jones and Matthews paid for their blitzes by getting cleared out of the lane by blockers, leaving a wide-open path for Kaepernick to run for 18 yards.
Eliminating the running threat of Kaepernick must truly be a team effort for the Packers on Sunday. The edge rushers must be able to contain Kaepernick in the pocket, the inside linebackers must be disciplined and in position and the secondary must be prepared to become run defenders if Kaepernick breaks through the defensive front.
Containing Kaepernick isn’t just important to keeping his rushing yards down. The Packers also want to make Kaepernick throw the ball from the pocket rather than on the run.
Kaepernick has shown that he can stand in against pressure in the pocket and deliver big downfield strikes, including on a number of occasions against the Packers last year. Still, the job becomes much tougher for coverage linebackers and defensive backs once Kaepernick is on the move, as it forces every defender on the field to prepare for both passing or running from the quarterback.
Kaepernick is a very good thrower on the run, and can often take advantage of defensive confusion by making passing plays on the run. He did that early in last year’s contest, hitting running back Frank Gore going up the left sideline on a pass that ended up going for a 45-yard gain.
The Packers were able to bring pressure on Kaepernick in the pocket, but they left a lane up the left middle for him to scramble free. He was able to use his quick feet to scramble away from the edge defender on the left side, all the while keeping his eyes upfield to find Gore, who beat Packers cornerback Charles Woodson out to the sideline then upfield to get open for the catch.
Match Up Properly With Running Backs, Tight Ends
The first step for the Packers' defense is keeping Kaepernick in the pocket. If they can do that, the next step is taking away his key weapons.
The Packers catch a significant break this season in that they will not have to go up against Michael Crabtree, who is on the Physically Unable to Perform list with a torn Achilles tendon. Crabtree played a huge role in the Packers’ defeat last season, catching nine passes for 119 yards including two for touchdowns.
On numerous occasions in last year’s game, Kaepernick was able to connect with Crabtree on deep strikes from the pocket, with Kaepernick making a tough placement against coverage and Crabtree getting to the ball with his route-running and quickness. With his No. 1 receiver out of the lineup, Kaepernick may have to force the ball to his wide receivers more than he did last year.
The 49ers will go into their first game with only one wide receiver, Kyle Williams, who has caught a pass from Kaepernick in a meaningful game. While he should be able to make plays right away with new additions Anquan Boldin and Quinton Patton, the Packers should make him prove it.
In order to do so, the Packers need to take away Kaepernick’s running back and tight end options in the passing game. In last year’s game, the two biggest passing plays of the game were the above 45-yard completion to Gore and a 44-yard deep strike up the seam to tight end Vernon Davis.
The completion to Davis was another result of Kaepernick exposing a schematic flaw in the Packers defense. Davis was able to run up the seam inside of Packers cornerback Tramon Williams, leaving Williams at a bad angle to get in on the play. Davis ended up in a one-on-one with Hawk, who tried unsuccessfully to keep up with the faster tight end downfield.
That was Davis’ only catch of last year’s game, but with Crabtree out of the equation, expect Kaepernick to look Davis’ way more frequently this year.
If the Packers are going to use man coverage like they did in last year’s game, it is important to consistently get desired matchups with Davis. Given Davis’ athleticism, it is imperative to get a safety matched up with Davis on each play who can run with Davis downfield.
The Packers should apply that same practice to rookie tight end Vance McDonald, an athletic playmaker who could quickly become another go-to target for Kaepernick. They should also beware of the 49ers’ running backs as receiving options, especially Gore and LaMichael James, and assign linebackers to cover them and take away those options.
Against many modern offenses, NFL defenses tend to dial up heavy pressure in the front and load up on defensive backs in the back of the defense, often leaving openings in the middle and at the second level. Against Kaepernick, the Packers would be smarter to stick to defensive roots.
The Packers should take their chances with giving the 49ers receivers, including Boldin, single coverages. This allows the Packers to use up to four pass-rushers, a linebacker spy and a deep safety on each play, while matching up a linebacker with each running back and a defensive back with each tight end.
Bakhtiari, Blockers at Their Best
The focus of what the Packers must do better falls upon their defense because of Kaepernick’s success in last year’s game, but one should not forget that the 49ers are also arguably the NFL’s best defense. They are going to test the Packers’ offense in every way, especially on their offensive line.
The Packers’ already-shaky offensive line became a major area of concern when left tackle Bryan Bulaga suffered a season-ending torn ACL. The Packers will need their offensive line, especially rookie Bulaga replacement David Bakhtiari, to be at their best against one of the NFL’s elite defensive fronts.
Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks make up arguably the NFL’s best outside linebacker duo, and they are likely to give Bakhtiari and right tackle Marshall Newhouse some trouble in this game. Inside, the Packers need guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang to be at their best against talented inside pass-rushing linemen Justin Smith and Ray McDonald.
The Packers’ offensive line actually had a good day in last season’s playoff loss, allowing just one sack for the entire game. That said, the Packers offensive line is one that gave up 51 sacks last regular season and has not improved tangibly in terms of personnel.
The Packers need their entire offensive line, but especially their rookie left tackle, to step up their game and play well against a 49ers defense that can wreak havoc at its best.
Establish The Ground Game
Another key to success on Sunday will be the Packers’ ability to establish a running game that was inconsistent even at its best last season.
The Packers actually had a solid day running the ball against the 49ers’ typically dominant run defense, gaining 6.5 yards per carry in the divisional round loss. That said, they only carried the ball 16 times in the game, and the only running back to take carries in that game, DuJuan Harris, is out for the season this year.
The Packers have a superstar quarterback in Aaron Rodgers (more to come), but against a defense that ranked third in yards allowed per game and second in points allowed per game last season, their offense needs to be multi-faceted.
The Packers will be relying on at least one of their three running backs, but specifically rookie Eddie Lacy, to step up and force the 49ers to take the Packers’ running threat seriously.
NFL’s Best Quarterback
ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski certainly drummed up attention when he commented that Kaepernick could be “one of the greatest quarterbacks ever,” (h/t Sports Illustrated) but even Jaworski ranks Rodgers as the No. 1 quarterback in the NFL.
An elite quarterback like Rodgers always gives his team the chance to win any game. While Rodgers is not the running threat that Kaepernick is, he is the most consistent passer in the league. His ability to orchestrate drives typically works even against defenses as strong as the 49ers’ unit, while he has the arm strength and movement skills to turn any play into a big play.
If the Packers are going to win this game, they need Rodgers to play up to his billing as the NFL’s best quarterback (and up to his five-year, $110 million contract extension too).
Rodgers played a solid game against the 49ers last season, completing two out of every three passes (26 of 39) for 257 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. Still, the Packers never expect Rodgers to be the second-best quarterback on the field, which he was thanks to Kaepernick’s performance in that game.
The Packers should look to establish a ground game to open up passing lanes for Rodgers, but if this game comes down to the wire, it will be up to Rodgers to make the big plays as a passer to help his team win the game.
When playing a team as talented on both sides of the ball as the 49ers, one cannot afford to make crippling mistakes such as turnovers. Avoiding those mistakes could play a key role in whether the Packers can get the season off on the right foot with a victory.
One area where the Packers especially want to avoid mistakes is on special teams, where a mistake became one of the game’s turning points in last year’s loss.
The Packers had a 14-7 lead and had forced their second consecutive punt when Jeremy Ross muffed a punt at the 9-yard line, giving the 49ers the chance to recover the ball in prime position. From there, the 49ers scored in just three plays, tied the game and never again trailed in the contest.
Turnovers and mistakes, however, could cost the Packers the game on any side of the ball. Interceptions and fumbles could cost the Packers on offense, while the defense must avoid missed assignments and blown coverages to prevent the aforementioned Kaepernick from duplicating his playoff debut performance.
All screenshots were taken from archived footage of last year's 49ers-Packers game on NFL Game Rewind. Illustrations were added by the author.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.