Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers clearly learned valuable lessons between January 12 and September 8 of this year.
After watching his defense give up 323 rushing yards, including an NFL record 181 to quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Capers leaned on a number of outside resources to ensure the atrocities of last January’s playoff disaster in San Francisco wouldn’t carry over to Green Bay’s season opener against the 49ers Sunday.
He sent his entire defensive staff to Texas A&M for a crash course on the read option. Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda was invited to Green Bay for additional brain-picking.
Viewed through the lens of the run defense, Capers’ adjustments worked in Week 1. The Packers lost, but San Francisco needed 34 rushes to gain only 94 yards. The read option was a non-factor. Green Bay shaved nearly five yards a carry off their defensive average from January, and Kaepernick the runner was effectively neutralized (seven rushes for 22 yards, long of 15).
Capers deserves credit for the drastic improvement in stopping the run and containing Kaepernick as a scrambling quarterback.
Instead of playing strictly man-to-man coverages, which Kaepernick feasted on as a runner in January, Capers asked his secondary to play a much higher percentage of zone. By forcing all 11 of his defenders to have eyes on the quarterback, Capers successfully negated the wide open scrambling lanes that come when members of the secondary turn their back to the football in man coverage.
In addition to more zone coverages, pocket containment from Capers’ pass rushers was an obvious sticking point in the Packers game plan. Rarely was Kaepernick pressured on Sunday, but it’s certainly possible much of that pocket clarity came from Green Bay’s decision to be conservative with the rush in exchange for keeping the 49ers mobile quarterback in the pocket.
Keep in mind, Kaepernick rushed for 75 yards and a touchdown off scrambles in January, including three for 53 yards on third down.
However, the same changes that aided in containing the running aspect of Kaepernick’s game actually fueled his dominance throwing the football Sunday.
The Packers have never been a good zone secondary under Capers, and the absences of Morgan Burnett, the leader of the secondary, and Casey Hayward, who might be their most instinctive cornerback, crippled Green Bay’s ability to handle even a depleted 49ers receiver group. Kaepernick devoured the zone, mostly thanks to the toughness of veteran Anquan Boldin (13 catches, 208 yards) and Vernon Davis, a mismatch for any safety, cornerback or linebacker the Packers currently possess.
Combining a struggling secondary with a neutered pass rush provided the perfect storm for Kaepernick to throw for 412 yards and three touchdowns.
When throwing from the pocket, Kaepernick completed almost 70 percent of his passes for 350 yards and two touchdowns, per ESPN Stats and Information. He relentlessly attacked down the field, connecting on eight of 15 passes that traveled over 15 yards in the air for 212 yards and a score.
The Packers, who used a multitude of spies and disciplined rushing lanes to keep Kaepernick inside the pocket, tallied just two sacks (one of which came when Johnny Jolly escorted Kaepernick out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage) and three quarterback hits despite the 49ers throwing 43 times Sunday.
In essence, Capers traded stopping the run for an increased vulnerability against the pass, and Kaepernick responded by taking his secondary to the woodshed.
It’s a tradeoff many defensive coordinators will have to make when facing Kaepernick this season. He’s equally dangerous running and throwing the football, and most defenses will struggle to take away both aspects on a given Sunday.
Capers learned that lesson the hard way Sunday. He dared Kaepernick to beat him with his right arm instead of his legs, and the 49ers quarterback responded in kind. The Packers handled the run, but defensive carnage by the hand of Kaepernick was still the end result.
Zach Kruse is a 25-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covered prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.