While the final box score might not include historical numbers such as "579" and "181," the Green Bay Packers' 34-28 defeat at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers again showed that the major hurdle for Green Bay in getting back to a Super Bowl still rests on the defensive side.
The Packers gave up 494 yards in Sunday's Week 1 rematch, including 412 passing to 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and failed to cause a turnover. The defense also struggled in the game's biggest moments, especially down the stretch after Green Bay had taken a late lead.
One game of any season—and particularly the first—is hardly a big enough sample size to draw definitive conclusions about much of anything in the NFL. But a second straight letdown against the 49ers is enough to question whether or not the Packers will be good enough on the defensive side of the football to compete in a conference where offense is king.
The 49ers have clearly established a superiority over Dom Capers' unit. Over the past two meetings—Sunday's six-point win and the 45-31 romp in the NFC divisional round last January—the 49ers are averaging 536.5 yards and 39.5 points.
For all of the progress made stopping the run Sunday, the Packers simply couldn't handle an onslaught of passing efficiency from Kaepernick.
With the 49ers averaging just 2.6 yards a carry (94 yards on 34 carries), Kaepernick fueled the offense with his rocket right arm. The second-year starter completed 27 of 39 passes and averaged over 10 yards an attempt. His passer rating of 129.1 was the second-highest of his career, while the 412 passing yards set a new career high.
In both of his starts against the Packers, Kaepernick has accounted for a ridiculous 878 yards—including 675 passing and another 203 rushing. He's also thrown for five touchdowns and run for two more. While the Packers took strides in containing Kaepernick the runner Sunday (seven rushes, 22 yards), it's clear that Capers and the defensive staff still have no concrete plan for beating him as a complete quarterback.
Without much doubt, the loss of cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Morgan Burnett to hamstring injuries hurt the Packers Sunday. Rookie Micah Hyde was exposed on a few situations while filling in for Hayward, and neither M.D. Jennings nor Jerron McMillian looked ready to assume Burnett's role as the secondary's captain.
In a potential rematch, Green Bay would be much better suited to compete against Kaepernick in the passing game with Hayward and Burnett healthy.
However, so many of the Packers' previous ills were on display against the 49ers.
Green Bay created just two sacks (including one where Johnny Jolly simply forced Kaepernick out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage) and three quarterback hits. While Capers' message to the pass rush might have centered around keeping Kaepernick in the pocket, the Packers still need to be better at creating pressure and discomfort against top passers.
The middle of the field was once again an area where the 49ers feasted on the Packers secondary Sunday. On numerous occasions, San Francisco had free-running receivers against the interior of the Green Bay defense. Veteran Anquan Boldin was a handful the Packers simply couldn't match, as the former Baltimore Ravens receiver caught 13 passes for 208 yards and a score.
Tight end Vernon Davis was just as troublesome. Without the Packers possessing a defender who matched up physically, Davis went for 98 yards and two touchdowns as he terrorized Green Bay's young safeties.
But maybe most importantly, the Packers failed in winning the game's biggest moments.
Overall, the 49ers converted nine third downs Sunday. One came on Davis' third-down catch that extended San Francisco's clock-chewing drive late in the fourth quarter. On a fourth-down play later in the drive, Kaepernick found Boldin for what was essentially a game-clinching conversion.
Even when the Packers seemed to grab momentum, the defense delivered another letdown.
Eddie Lacy's two-yard touchdown with 8:32 left in the fourth quarter gave Green Bay its first lead at 28-24. Yet just five plays and less than three minutes later, the 49ers were back in the lead after an 80-yard march that saw Frank Gore score from one-yard out.
In fact, after each of Green Bay's four scoring drives, the 49ers eventually countered with a score of their own.
The Packers might have gained confidence in the offensive side from Sunday's performance, as very few teams are capable of scoring 28 points and nearing 400 yards of total offense against a talented 49ers defense. But the offense has never been a huge concern in Green Bay, especially with Aaron Rodgers leading the show.
Green Bay has been outed in the playoffs each of the past two seasons because of defensive meltdowns. The New York Giants scored 37 points and racked up 420 total yards in the 2011 divisional round. Last season, the 49ers went for 45 and 579—playoff highs for the Packers franchise.
Sunday's rematch against the 49ers didn't provide the evidence of an overall progression on defense. The Packers were still outclassed on that side of the ball by a team that will likely be playing deep into postseason in the NFC.
For Green Bay to get over the hump, the defense simply has to be better than it was Sunday and in each of the past two Januarys.