In the Green Bay Packers’ season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, it was a case of pick your poison.
The Packers played a heavy dose of zone coverage in the secondary so the defensive backs could have an eye on Colin Kaepernick at all times, while the defensive front stayed true to their lane integrity and contained the quarterback to the pocket.
End result? The Packers stuffed the Niners ground game, holding them to an average of 2.6 yards per carry, but they got diced up through the air, as Colin Kaepernick passed for 412 yards, an average of 9.9 yards per pass.
The read-option, which was the focus of so much offseason attention, was effectively nullified. What wasn’t was the receiving tandem of Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, who found holes in the Packers zones.
Among the biggest culprits were the starting safety tandem of M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian, one of whom was filling in for an injured Morgan Burnett, who was held out of the game after pulling his hamstring in the preseason.
Nickel cornerback Micah Hyde also had his share of issues, subbing for regular slot defender Casey Hayward, out with his own hamstring injury.
Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel does a fine job of detailing many of their troubles on Sunday afternoon in his game story:
Nickel back Micah Hyde lost leverage and couldn’t catch up on gains of 22 by Boldin and 37 by Davis.
McMillian and (Tramon) Williams had a mixup in a classic Cover 2 sideline toss to Boldin for 22. Boldin made a fabulous catch for 22 against Sam Shields and McMillian. There was confusion between Shields and M.D. Jennings on a 30-yard pass to Boldin.
When the Packers took their only lead, 28-24, with 8½ minutes left, Shields and McMillian inexcusably missed the tackle on a 13-yard pass on second and 9 to Boldin that ruptured into 43 and quickly set up the go-ahead TD.
The 49ers drew first blood when their coaches successfully matched Davis on Jennings and the result was a 20-yard score.
The game plan for the 49ers, for the most part, worked. Even the perimeter cornerbacks, Williams and Shields, did a terrific job probably 95 percent of the time.
But it was obvious Kaepernick was going to attack the weak links in the Packers coverage: the young safeties, slot cornerback and the slow inside linebackers. None of them could match the size and strength of Boldin and Davis.
Had the Packers had a healthy Burnett and Hayward, the outcome may have been different.
For any shortcomings they may have, Burnett is always ultra-reliable, while Hayward is a savvy ballhawk. I won’t go out on a limb and say the Packers would have won with them, but the defense would have fared much better.
And the Packers defense will fare better in the future. Burnett will likely replace McMillian in the starting lineup, relegating the exposed safety to special-teams duty. Maybe even Chris Banjo will get a look in due time.
The return of Hayward, meanwhile, will push Hyde to the dime cornerback position, in which he’ll see the field less frequently. While Hyde can blitz and tackle with the best of ‘em, his relative weakness is his ability to cover in space. Jarrett Bush will be forced out defensive duty altogether, except in perhaps a short-yardage role.
The Packers defense will look dramatically different as the season goes on. Eventually they’ll turn the pass rushers loose, unlike their contain assignments against the 49ers.
Combine a better pass rush with better coverage in the secondary, and that will be recipe for success.
Sunday was merely the beginning of the season. There’s 15 more games to go. And the sooner Burnett and Hayward return to action, the better off the Packers defense will be.
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book “It’s Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America,” and editor of Cheesehead TV’s “Pro Football Draft Preview.” To contact Brian, email email@example.com.