GREEN BAY – As much attention as has been paid to the read-option and Colin Kaepernick’s success with it on Saturday night, Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers believes it was the San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s scrambling ability – more so than the option plays – that did in hisdefense.
“Our issues in the first half weren't as much the zone-read play as much as they were the quarterback scrambling and running against us and not being able to get off the field on third down,” Capers explained Tuesday, during the final assistant coach media availability session of the season, three days after his defense surrendered an NFL quarterback record 181 rushing yards to Kaepernick in a 45-31 NFC Divisional Playoff loss.
The 49ers converted seven of their 10 third-down situations in the first half, finishing 8 of 13 on the game. In the first half, Kaepernick and the 49ers converted a third-and-2 with a Tramon Williams holding penalty; a third-and-10 with a 45-yard catch-and-run by Frank Gore; a third-and-8 with Kaepernick’s 20-yard touchdown run; a third-and-2 with a 13-yard Kaepernick read-option run; a third-and-12 with a 13-yard Michael Crabtree touchdown catch; a third-and-1 with a 14-yard LaMichael James run; a third-and-9 with a 15-yard Kaepernick scramble; and a third-and-10 with an 18-yard Kaepernick run.
“Our problems are more on third down than anything else,” Capers continued. “We get him in third-and-8 and he runs in for the touchdown. We had good coverage on the third-and-8, so it was more of a rush-lane problem. The next two series, we get off the field on a third-and-8, we get off the field on a third-and-12. Then we have the muffed punt and we take them to third-and-13 on a muffed punt and they run an under route to Crabtree and score on it – on a third-and-13.”
The 13-yard run by Kaepernick on the read-option was the only time he got the Packers with it in the first half, and on the play, both outside linebacker Erik Walden, who was assigned to spy Kaepernick, and safety Morgan Burnett blew the containment and got sucked in on the right tackle side as Kaepernick blew right past.
“We had a guy assigned to the quarterback and he got juked,” Capers said.
Toward the end of the half, Capers sent rookie cornerback Casey Hayward on a blitz, and while he came “flat-free” in Capers’ parlance, Hayward missed Kaepernick, who took off for a 19-yard gain with the Packers in man coverage to jump-start a drive that ended in a field goal to snap a 21-21 tie. On the previous play, Kaepernick had been stopped for only a 3-yard gain on a read-option run when inside linebacker Brad Jones played it correctly.
The killer read-option run by Kaepernick, of course, was his 56-yard run to give the 49ers a 31-24 lead. Both Walden, the left outside linebacker, and Jones go after running back Frank Gore after the fake handoff, leaving Kaepernick to run untouched to the end zone.
After the game, 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said the game plan called for more read-option plays than they’d run in recent weeks – a nearly 50/50 split – while several Packers players expressed surprise that San Francisco ran so much of it.
Asked Tuesday if the defense was properly prepared for Kaepernick and the read-option, head coach Mike McCarthy basically said that the 49ers gave his team so much to prepare for defensively and suggested that it was an area where losing out on the first-round bye really hurt his team.
“It’s like a lot of things schematically. When you watch San Francisco’s offense, it’s a high volume schematically offense,” McCarthy said. “We were definitely challenged schematically. Basically on the option play, did we spend enough time on it? Obviously we didn’t, because we didn’t handle it very well.
“But we also were a team that was coming off probably two playoff games (the regular-season finale at Minnesota and the NFC Wild Card game), coming off a six-day week. I already looked at (last) Wednesday’s practice and the adjustments you make because of the health of your team and things like that. You can’t go backwards, but we did not handle it, and that’s the facts of the matter.”
Said Capers: “It certainly was much more in this game than what we'd seen them do. I'm sure Atlanta, having this film to work off of, they're going to respond to it.”
After the game, safety Charles Woodson lamented that the Packers didn’t make any second-half adjustments, but according to Capers, he did adjust: After watching Kaepernick gain huge chunks of yardage by scrambling against man coverage, he switched to playing more zone. The result: A 44-yard deep ball to Vernon Davis with A.J. Hawk in coverage, for example.
As for the suggestion that the Packers needed to spy Kaepernick, Capers confirmed that they did on many occasions. The issue, according to defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, was that Capers’ options for the job were limited. Only one player on the defense was best suited for the role.
“I think that's going to be a big offseason focus on us, as well. I ran into that problem with playing Michael Vick and being in that (NFC South) division,” Trgovac said, referring to his time as the Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator against the then-Atlanta Falcons QB. “You have to make sure you have a guy who can do that. He has some savviness and enough speed to catch him.
“The problem is Clay is probably the best guy to do that. When you do that, you kind of take him out of the rush and you don't want to do that. Clay can actually do that very well, but you really don't want to take him out of rushing. We didn't do that to begin with and then we switched it at the end doing it because we obviously didn't get it done the other way."
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.