Packers defense may hold key against 49ers
By Tom Silverstein, Journal-Sentinel
~January 7th, 2013
GREEN BAY – When the Green Bay Packers stormed through the NFC playoffs like a Russian icebreaker two years ago, the play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his talented receivers was largely credited for their success.
But for those with good memories, Dom Capers’ defense was just as responsible, if not more so, for the Packers sweeping through Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago on the way to Super Bowl XLV.
After coordinating a defense that gave up the most yards in franchise history last season, Capers may have the ball back in his hands as the Packers prepare for the divisional round of the playoffs this year.
It took a supreme effort from his group to hold down Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in a 24-10 wild-card playoff game at Lambeau Field Saturday night, and the performance could not have come at a better time given the offense’s second-half struggles.
As the Packers prepare to face the San Francisco 49ers Saturday night, most of the attention will be on the matchup between Rodgers and the NFL’s hardest-hitting defense. But as Mike McCarthy and Capers know, the 49ers throw painful body punches with their offense, too.
“So much of this game is a matchup game, how you match up with different people,” Capers said Sunday after the Packers held Peterson to 99 yards rushing, 104.5 yards under his previous season average against them. “If you consider your opponent physical, then you better rise to the occasion and be physical yourself.”
That is not exactly the way you would describe the Packers in a 30-22 season-opening loss to the 49ers at Lambeau Field. San Francisco lined up extra tight ends, linemen and fullbacks and proceeded to have its way with Capers’ defense.
The worst of it came when 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh brought 6-6, 350-pound Leonard Davis and 6-3, 308-pound Daniel Kilgore into the game in the fourth quarter and used them as tight ends on a first and 10 at the Packers 23.
Running back Frank Gore ran behind a wall of blockers before shaking off a pathetic upper body tackle attempt from safety Morgan Burnett at the 4-yard line and a late hit from cornerback Tramon Williams in the end zone. That was the 49ers’ definition of being physical.
“Their style, you’re going to see them in more big-people, multiple-tight-end sets,” Capers said. “They’ll bring in multiple linemen. They’ll run personnel groups that most teams only run in goal-line situations and they’ll run them first-and-10.
“So you have to be prepared for that. They do a nice job of mixing the play-action pass in there. When you have multiple tight ends and guys with the speed of (Vernon) Davis, he’s like a tight end in a wide receiver’s body.”
Before the Packers consider anything else on defense, they must stand in and at least forge a stalemate with a 49ers offensive line that averages 6-5 and 317 pounds. The closest thing the Packers have faced to the 49ers, fortunately for them, is the Vikings’ physical offensive line and the dynamic Peterson.
Capers will need his front three of B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and C.J. Wilson to play at a similar level as last Saturday night because the group they’ll face this Saturday night will be well-rested and looking for a fight.
“I think it’s the strength of their team,” Capers said. “They’ve invested a lot of high-level picks there. They’re very physical. They use a lot of different combinations of personnel.
“That’s where everything starts for them, the physical aspect of running the football. I think they have one of the very best offensive lines in the league.”
After the victory over the Vikings, Pickett lamented the fact that the Packers had allowed Gore 112 yards on 16 carries in the opener, and vowed the Packers defense was capable of matching strength with the 49ers. In fact, he said he was looking forward to the matchup.
“They’re pretty physical,” Pickett said. “But our front seven is physical.”
On the way to Super Bowl XLV, Capers’ defense held all three NFC opponents under 100 yards rushing despite facing the fifth, 12th and 22nd best running teams in the NFL that season. The Vikings finished No. 2 in rushing and the 49ers No. 4 this season.
The difficult part for Capers this week is that he’ll be facing a different quarterback from the one his group faced in Week 1. Athletic and strong-armed Colin Kaepernick took the starting job from veteran Alex Smith in Week 11 and led the 49ers to a 5-2 finish.
Kaepernick threw 10 touchdowns and just three interceptions during that span and just as importantly kept drives alive with his outstanding running ability. Harbaugh has retooled the offense so it can run the kind of read-option plays Robert Griffin III used in Washington.
Kaepernick has rushed 42 times for 304 yards (7.2 average) and two touchdowns and fumbled six times with one lost during that seven-game span. This will be his first playoff game, but he was around to watch Smith during the 49ers’ run to the NFC Championship Game last year.
The Packers feel fortunate they were able to face an option-type quarterback in Minnesota’s Joe Webb, but Webb does not have the passing skills Kaepernick does.
“It’ll definitely help us with Kaepernick; they ran some of it with Alex Smith prior to our first game,” McCarthy said. “You’ll look at all those components. They’ve had an extra week to prepare, so there’ll be some new wrinkles as there always is, but at the end of the day, we’ve established our brand of football and that’s what we’re taking to San Francisco and that’s what we’re taking to San Francisco to win.”
After correcting its earlier mistakes against Peterson Saturday night, the defense showed it could slow down the best running back in the NFL. This week, the challenge will be keeping the score down in case the 49ers’ defense puts a stranglehold on McCarthy’s offense.
It won’t be easy, but it’s the surest way for the Packers to take back the NFC.
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