GREEN BAY—In this year’s season opener between the two teams, the Packers defense finally stopped the 49ers’ running game, but quarterback Colin Kaepernick strafed the Packers through the air. Four months later, the two teams will meet again, and the question confronting Dom Capers and the Packers defense is: Can they stop the run without allowing the pass?
“They depend so much on their run game setting the tone; you’re not in predictable situations that you can pin your ears back. You have to try to get them in more predictable situations,” Capers told reporters on Tuesday, as the Packers defensive coordinator previewed the challenge his unit will face against the 12-4 49ers at Lambeau Field on Sunday.
In terms of yardage, the 49ers are not a balanced offense. They are run heavy, with the league’s No. 3 rushing attack and No. 30 passing game. Those numbers, however, are misleading because they don’t accurately portray how the pass game feeds off the run game and the degree to which the 49ers pass game is feared.
“When we’ve pressured him, he’s been athletic enough to avoid the free guy and he’s come out of there for a pretty good gain,” Capers said of Kaepernick, an elusive scrambler who’s gained 524 yards rushing this season. He’s also rushed for four touchdowns.
Just a runner? No way. Kaepernick has thrown for 21 touchdowns and tight end Vernon Davis, who’s caught 13 of those scores, is a matchup nightmare, and that might be especially true for a defense whose outside linebackers were all defensive linemen in college.
“What we look for is guys that can rush the passer, then teach them (how to cover). Yeah, they’re converted defensive ends, so it’s always going to be a work in progress with those guys,” Capers said.
Being without true outside linebacker Clay Matthews worsens the problem.
“We don’t have another guy quite like Clay. You design what you do based on what’s available,” Capers said.
In the 2012 season opener at Lambeau Field, Frank Gore pounded the Packers for 112 yards rushing and the 49ers dominated time of possession by six minutes in posting a 30-22 win that wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate.
Last January, in a divisional round playoff game in Candlestick, the 49ers offense ran wild. Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards out of the read option, Gore added 119 and Kaepernick threw for 263 in what was his coming-out party as an NFL star. The 49ers won, 45-31, in a game that was closer than the final stats would indicate.
It was a game that produced a “579” offseason rallying cry for the Packers, as 579 was the 49ers’ yardage total from that game.
“We spent a lot of time in the offseason on (the read option),” Capers said. “In the (2013) opener, we played the run very well. We weren’t able to get any takeaways in that first game. That’s what you have to do in all big games. It comes down to takeaways, giveaways.”
Kaepernick threw for 412 yards in this year’s season opener, which brings us back to the burning question the Packers defense faces in this fourth matchup between the two teams: Can the Packers stop the run without giving up the pass … or vice versa? Additional coverage - Dec. 31