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Baranczyk and Christl column: Playing it safe isn't paying off

Jan. 13, 2013
 

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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) is pressured by San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis (52) during the third quarter of the NFC divisional playoff game in San Francisco on Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013. Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

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The Green Bay Packersí offensive mantra over the past two seasons ó and really ever since Aaron Rodgers became their quarterback ó has been to avoid interceptions and, in turn, emerge with a better passing rating than their opponent.

Statkeepers inside and outside the game can provide irrefutable evidence that the teams that commit the fewest turnovers and finish with the higher passer rating win upwards of 70 percent of the time in the regular season and postseason.

The Packers have used that approach to win 26 of 32 games the past two years. Granted, if you go strictly by the stats, theyíve been derailed in the playoffs both years when they lost the turnover battle and either had a worse or no appreciable edge in passer rating.

So one could argue that the proof could be found in the numbers again Saturday night.

But really there was no turnover differential in the Packersí 45-31 defeat at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers. Each team committed one that led to a touchdown for the other. Aaron Rodgersí interception was a third-down pass that traveled 61 yards downfield. It wasnít a high-risk throw; it was the same as a punt.

In Brett Favreís last five years with the Packers, they lost two playoff games when he inexplicably threw interceptions in overtime. He also threw six picks in one of his worst games ever, a lopsided divisional round loss to St. Louis in 2001.

Tired of Favre going down swinging while chasing bad pitches, the Packers have gone to the other extreme and become the anti-Favres. Itís a philosophy that won them a Super Bowl two years ago, but has disarmed them in the playoffs the past two seasons.

In both losses, to the New York Giants last year and now the 49ers, the Packers have played poorly, if not pathetically, on defense. But for a team with a supposedly high-powered passing game, they havenít competed offensively, either.

Last year, the Packersí defense didnít allow the Giants a first down in the third quarter, but their offense countered with just 3 points. This year, down 24-21 at halftime, the Packers punted on three of their first four possessions of the second half and settled for a field goal on the other.

Itís almost as if theyíve played not to lose or at least not to lose those two important stat battles that have produced an endless string of victories against the likes of Blaine Gabbert, John Skelton, Jake Locker and Joe Webb, but now have also led to feeble postseason exits against quarterbacks and teams willing to take chances and play more aggressively.

Alex Smith is living proof that passer rating isnít the be all and end all when it comes to judging quarterbacks. When he was benched for Colin Kaepernick, Smith ranked third in the league behind Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers with a 104.1 rating, including 125.6 with no interceptions against the Packers in the opener.

But Kaepernick was lights out better Saturday than Smith had been in September despite a much more modest 91.2 rating that included a thoughtless interception to start the game.

The defense

Give the 49ers credit. They scouted the Packers well and borrowed from Minnesotaís late-season game plans by attacking the left side of the Packersí defense, only with Kaepernick rather than Adrian Peterson running the ball.

The Packersí biggest issues were the undisciplined play of their outside linebackers, notably Erik Walden, and cornerback Tramon Williamsí unwillingness to fill against the run.

Kaepernickís 56-yard TD was a read option straight out of an Army or Navy playbook. When he put the ball in his running backís stomach, his eyes were on Walden; and when Walden committed a cardinal sin by not staying square to the line of scrimmage, Kaepernick pulled the ball out and took off.

By turning his shoulders when he took on the lead blocker, Walden left a huge hole. Behind him, Williams made little effort to get off a receiverís block and Charles Woodson didnít have the speed to catch Kaepernick. It didnít help that B.J. Raji was caved down at the line and that Brad Jones had to find a way around him after filling against the inside fake, which was his assignment. But the breakdown was outside.

Woodson also looked every bit his 36 years on Frank Goreís 45-yard catch and run on the 49ersí first scoring drive. Clearly, the 49ers schemed to get Woodson in a one-on-one matchup in space.

Another big play that led to a 49ers touchdown was Vernon Davisí 44-yard catch over A.J. Hawk. Thatís an obvious mismatch. Hawk had to expend so much effort in coverage he had nothing left to play the ball. But give him an A for effort. Williams, on the other hand, was in a trail position and simply jogged behind the play after Dezman Moses freed him by picking up the fullback in the flat.

The Packers tried to use Walden as a spy on Kaepernick, but that didnít work, either. With 6:25 to go in the first half, third-and-9 at the Green Bay 24, Kaepernick ran for 15 yards. A spy still has to maintain lane integrity, and admittedly thatís a tough assignment. Walden stayed in the lane rather than center up and wasnít athletic enough to get in front of Kaepernick to make the tackle. Thatís a play that helps explain why Walden was out on the streets three years ago.

Football is all about matchups, and something else that canít be overlooked is the 49ers have the best offensive line the Packers faced all season. Their line handled the Packersí normally stout defensive line and exposed Jones and Hawk for what they are. Theyíre serviceable, but not studs like the 49ersí inside backers.

The offense

Down by three touchdowns with 3:29 to play, the Packers mounted an 11-play drive without throwing a pass more than 12 yards. That series said a mouthful. The Packers canít get teams out of a two-deep zone with their running game, and they wonít throw into one even in desperate times.

Rodgers has the arm to do it. His 30-yard completion to Greg Jennings and 19-yard pass to Jermichael Finley with 4:20 to go in the half were lasers into tight coverage down the middle. But despite having his full complement of receivers, Rodgers averaged a mere 9.9 yards per completion.

The offensive line, particularly inside, played well. DuJuan Harris averaged 4.8 yards per carry. The Packers stole a formation the 49ers had used effectively in the opener, flanking John Kuhn and Ryan Grant wide, to get James Jones isolated on a safety for a 20-yard touchdown.

But the Packers played like they did all year and in the postseason last year. They played the percentages. The end result was the same: No risk, no reward.

Former Press-Gazette sports editor Cliff Christl and former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offer their analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week.

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