San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick runs for a first down during the NFC divisional round of the playoffs on Jan. 12 in San Francisco. / File/Gannett Wisconsin Media
Colin Kaepernick revealed last week the chaos that the San Francisco 49ers’ read-option created for the Green Bay Packers’ defense in their divisional-round playoff matchup last season.
Kaepernick gashed his way to an NFL-playoff rushing record for quarterbacks (181 yards) in the 49ers’ 45-31 win, and as the game wore on, he heard the Packers sniping at each other about assignments.
“It got to a point where we could hear (the Packers) arguing while we were in our huddle,” Kaepernick told SI.com. “ ‘You’re supposed to do this,’ or ‘You have to do this, then the other.’ At that point, our offense was like, ‘It’s over.’ As soon as you start turning on your teammates, you’re not going to be productive. You know you have them in the palm of your hands.”
Several Packers defensive players asked Saturday about Kaepernick’s observation gave the impression they didn’t know what he was talking about.
“(The 49ers) were talking more trash than anything,” defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said of what he heard. “It was a real mouthy group; (Kaepernick) is, talks. But it’s football.”
Still, the outcome suggests Kaepernick wasn’t making it up. The Packers’ defense was not ready for the heavy dose of read option that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh gave them after having a first-round playoff bye.
Leading up to the game, several scouts from their rivals in the NFC West Division said the 49ers actually ran the option only a few snaps a week in the regular season. Watching the same game video, Dom Capers, the Packers’ defensive coordinator, scheduled limited time to practice against the read option.
So when Harbaugh went heavy on the read option and it produced, it’s not difficult to see the Packers questioning one another’s assignments.
But the Packers’ approach to the read option changed this offseason. With Kaepernick and Washington’s Robert Griffin III scheduled as the Packers’ first two opponents, one of Capers’ primary projects this offseason was to study the read option. He and his assistants visited Texas A&M’s coaching staff and talked to Wisconsin’s coaches for tips.
Beginning with individual player workouts, Capers and his staff have been teaching their plan to their players. They worked on it periodically in offseason practices, and on the second day of training camp, they used a good part of a jog-through period rehearsing read-option assignments, though they haven’t practiced against it in live 11-on-11 drills.
“We’re going to game plan better for it,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “We’re going to have certain calls for certain things. That’s the key thing, we weren’t on the same page (against the 49ers).”
The Packers won’t reveal any specific changes, but several players said a key to defending the read option is eliminating one of the quarterback’s options. In the pistol read option, the quarterback lines up for a short shotgun snap, then either hands the ball off to a running back up the middle or fakes the handoff and runs wide on his own. He then usually has another running back or slot receiver as a pitch option.
“You’ve just got to be gap sound,” Pickett said. “You have to take away something and you have to be decisive, you can’t wait around. You have to take away the dive or take away the pitch. You have to pick your poison.”
Another potential tactic is to hit the quarterback on every read-option play, even if he hands off or pitches the ball. That could dissuade opponents from using the read option because of the injury risk to their franchise quarterbacks. Even without the read option, quarterbacks such as Kaepernick and Griffin can do great damage scrambling, which offers protection because of the slide rule.
“I think it’s a great philosophy myself,” Williams said of hitting the quarterback on every read-option play, “because guys don’t want their quarterback to keep getting hit. Eventually they’re going to be like, ‘We can’t keep running this, our guy is getting hurt or taking too many licks.’ At the end of the day, you have to protect your player.”
Even the possibility of those hits could convince some coaches to use the read option infrequently during the regular season. Maybe just enough so defenses have to spend valuable practice time on it.
“We’ll work for it, get ready for it,” Pickett said, “but they might come out and not even do it. (The 49ers) didn’t show it all year (last year).”
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.