Are the Green Bay Packers Better Prepared to Contain the 49ers' Read-Option?
Every remaining member of the Green Bay Packers defense should know each total.
Since January, the numbers 579—representing the most total yards ever given up by a Green Bay defense in the postseason—and 181—the rushing yards allowed to Colin Kaepernick, and the most in NFL history by a quarterback—have been re-hashed at length to summarize the historical failures of the Packers in last season's NFC divisional round loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
No player on Dom Capers' defense should need a reminder of either number as Green Bay prepares for Week 1 of the 2013 season. A trip to face Kaepernick and the 49ers symbolically awaits in the opener.
On Sunday afternoon in San Francisco, the Packers will finally get a chance to test the progress they've made against a 49ers offense that outclassed and embarrassed the entire defensive unit back in January. And as you'd expect, at the heart of the San Francisco attack is still Kaepernick's ability to run the show using the read-option.
If there was any one team in football who needed to dedicate an offseason's worth of time in getting better at defending the look, it should have been the Green Bay Packers.
And dedicate they did. An offseason of re-training was focused around a back-to-school visit to the roots of the read-option. The draft was used to stockpile assets against the look. Valuable practice time was set aside to make sure there would be no repeat of January's disaster come Sept. 8 in San Francisco.
The Packers should be better prepared to defend the read-option. But have they done enough?
The wounds from Kaepernick slicing and dicing the unprepared and overwhelmed Packers in the divisional round are certainly still fresh.
While not all of his 181 rushing yards came out of read-option looks, Kaepernick still provided the lasting image of Green Bay's 2012 season when he bolted off the right side of the defense for a 56-yard touchdown in the second half. Linebacker Erik Walden, or the "read" man on the play, was left helpless to stop the play happening in front of him.
Once in the end zone, Kaepernick kissed his biceps—a fitting tribute to how easy the 49ers trucked the Packers for most of the night.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, the 49ers rushed for 176 of their 323 yards using the read-option. The offense averaged a staggering 11 yards per option play (176 on 16 attempts), while picking up seven first downs and tallying six runs of 10 or more yards. Kaepernick ran seven times out of the read-option and totaled 99 yards (14.1/carry) and a touchdown.
Source: ESPN Stats and Information
Admittedly, Capers and the Packers had very little exposure to the read-option ahead of the divisional round. Alex Smith was the quarterback during San Francisco's Week 1 win over Green Bay, and Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks were still evolving on offense in Week 3. Other than a few snaps from the throwing-deficient Joe Webb in the NFC Wild Card round, Green Bay's defense was still mostly a read-option virgin when it stepped onto the field against the 49ers last January.
San Francisco was clever in disguising the look, too. Kaepernick's ability in the read-option was mostly kept under wraps during the regular season, only to have head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman spring it on the Packers defense in the postseason.
ESPN Stats and Information recorded only 26 instances during the regular season in which Kaepernick used the read-option. Over seven starts, that averaged out to just over 3.7 times a game. In fact, over the final three regular-season games, the 49ers used the read-option just 12 times.
In the playoffs, Capers was blindsided by the volume and speed of the attack. The plan couldn't have worked out any better for the 49ers, who then rode the coattails of Kaepernick's read-option mastery to the doorstep of a Super Bowl championship.
The element of surprise, at least in read-option form, shouldn't be a problem for the Packers in Week 1.
Back in February, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy revealed that his entire defensive staff had made a one-day trip to visit Kevin Sumlin and the Texas A&M program, according to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. As a member of the Big 12 and then the SEC the past two seasons, the Aggies possess knowledge in both defending the read-option (see: Robert Griffin III, Baylor) and running it on offense (Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel).
McCarthy also indicated that other college coaches had traveled to Green Bay to help the Packers learn the tricks of the trade.
"It’s something from an education, preparation standpoint that we will grow as a staff and be better prepared for in the future," McCarthy said, via Silverstein.
Included in that education was new Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, per Jason Wilde of ESPN Milwaukee. A former assistant coach at both Hawaii and Nevada, Aranda brought Capers valuable information about facing Kaepernick, who played collegiately at Nevada.
Aranda's advice was simple: Make the picture "gray" for the quarterback. Without a clear read at the point, the numbers shift back in the defense's favor.
"Overall you’re looking for the squeeze and slow play," Aranda said. "You want a gray picture where you can play two things and gain numbers. So it’s not 4-on-3 but 4-on-4."
The defensive staff used its offseason crash course to start installing preparations for the read-option as soon as the players returned to work in the spring. According to linebacker Clay Matthews, via Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, the Packers wasted no time in putting their education to practice.
“I can tell you right now, we started from Day 1 in OTAs when we came back in the offseason working on this read-option, pistol, fake offense for lack of a better term,” Matthews said.
Green Bay has also centered its focus on getting as many hits in on Kaepernick as possible. Matthews told "Mike & Mike" of ESPN Radio that the rules governing the protection of quarterbacks are mostly thrown out in the option look, via Rob Demovsky of ESPN:
One of the things that the referees have told us is that when these quarterbacks carry out the fakes, they lose their right as a quarterback, a pocket-passing quarterback, the protection of a quarterback. So with that, you do have to take your shots on the quarterback, and obviously they’re too important to their offense. If that means they pull them out of that type of offense and make them run a traditional, drop-back, pocket-style offense, I think that’s exactly what we’re going for.
How often Green Bay attacks Kaepernick at the expense of a free running back is another discussion, but it's clear the Packers have prepared the entire offseason to make sure the quarterback isn't doing the heavy lifting. And if he is, that he's paying for the adventure.
But just as important as prep time is the actual execution once the lights come on. The Packers will hope additions made to the defensive side—in addition to the progression of a few younger players—can improve the execution phase of stopping the read-option.
Datone Jones, a versatile, athletic defensive end with a perfect body mold for holding the edge of a 3-4 defense, was drafted out of UCLA with Green Bay's first-round pick in April. While he has battled an ankle injury throughout camp, Jones should be in line to receive a number of important snaps in his first NFL game Sunday.
I asked Matt Miller, Bleacher Report's lead draft writer, to comment on what drafting Jones meant for Green Bay's ability to stop a read-option offense.
"The goal of adding versatile, speedier defenders like Datone Jones is that they'll be quicker in getting to athletic quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick," Miller said. "The Green Bay Packers' plan is to hit the quarterback early, often and hard. To do that, you need speed and power—which is why Jones was their first-round pick."
Jones spent most of his college career defending option-heavy offenses such as Pac-12 powerhouse Oregon.
The Packers hope Jones will have plenty of additional help, mostly in the form of 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry and fourth-round safety Jerron McMillian.
Perry, who runs well even at 265 pounds, should be a perfect mix of speed and power on the edge. He missed last season's playoff game in San Francisco, but he's now healthy and more comfortable in playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
While Walden struggled at holding the edge and squeezing down on the read-option last January, Perry should be a much better fit for combating Kaepernick and the 49ers.
"Perry must set the edge and not allow any runners to get outside of him," Miller said. "This might be Kaepernick, Frank Gore or even Vernon Davis coming across the formation as a blocker. Perry must step up to take on these players crossing his face."
The same can be said for Mike Neal, who the Packers have transitioned into a hybrid end-linebacker this summer. His athleticism and strength could be a big reason why Green Bay asked Neal to become a more versatile player.
There will likely be times Sunday when Neal is in the game and the 49ers attempt to use him as the "read" man on the edge.
Are the Green Bay Packers better prepared to stop the 49ers' read option in Week 1?
McMillian is another integral part of stopping the read-option, even if he is splitting time with M.D. Jennings. A physical safety that can move in space, McMillian represents an important chess piece for Capers. He played sparingly against the 49ers last January, but he'll be expected to take on a bigger role as a second-year player.
If the Packers do their job up front in terms of lane and gap responsibilities, defensive backs such as McMillian will need to be the ones making stops near the line of scrimmage.
"I'm a big proponent of secondary players being tacklers versus the read-option," Miller said. "The front seven effectively dictates where the ball will go in a read-option play, meaning the back four must make the play on the ball."
Expect Micah Hyde, a fifth-round rookie who will likely see most of the slot snaps with Casey Hayward (hamstring) on the shelf, to also be an active part of Green Bay's secondary against the read-option. Hyde proved to be a willing tackler in the preseason, especially near the line of scrimmage.
The Packers haven't just rested on an increased knowledge base and more capable players, either. According to Demovsky, Capers spent a portion of every training camp practice working his defense against the read-option.
Come Sunday, there should be little to no excuse for any member of the staff or defense to be under-prepared for the same looks that terrorized that side of the ball eight months prior.
McCarthy on read-option: "I know we're going to see it early and often. If I was playing against us, I would test the Green Bay Packers."— Jason Wilde (@jasonjwilde) March 20, 2013
Some have theorized that the read-option is nothing more than a passing football trend; a more exciting cousin to the Wildcat offenses that suffered a quick NFL death. The hypothesis rides the assumption that NFL defensive coordinators, given several months to dive into film study and prep time, will find a way to smash this fad before it takes root in the professional game.
The read-option likely has a much longer shelf life in the NFL, given the trend of athletic, big-armed passers and how the look tilts the scales in favor of the offense in terms of numbers. No longer is the quarterback an unaccounted-for member of the offense; the read-option forces 11-on-11 football.
Certainly, the Packers will be Week 1's "Exhibit A" for how much defenses have caught up to the read-option. Green Bay spent an offseason's worth of time learning the tricks of the trade and stocking up on talent in preparation of facing arguably the most dangerous read-option quarterback in the game.
Without much doubt, the Packers are better prepared to contain Kaepernick and the 49ers now than they were back in January. Execution Sunday is the last phase to ensuring the memories of "579" and "181" stay in the past.
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