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Baranczyk/Christl analysis: Rodgers solid, but can't keep up with Kaepernick

Jan. 6, 2014
 
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick runs past Green Bay Packers linebacker Andy Mulumba during the fourth quarter of Sunday's NFC wild-card playoff game at Lambeau Field. H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick runs past Green Bay Packers linebacker Andy Mulumba during the fourth quarter of Sunday's NFC wild-card playoff game at Lambeau Field. H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media

The team with the better quarterback won three of four games over wild-card weekend. The one exception was San Franciscoís victory over the Green Bay Packers.

So how was it that the 49ers were able to do what Kansas City, Philadelphia and Cincinnati couldnít do ó overcome their disadvantage at the gameís most important position?

Judging them strictly as passers, the difference between Aaron Rodgers and Colin Kaepernick was as big as any of the other QB matchups. But Kaepernick possesses a rare skill set that narrows the gap considerably when you compare the overall playmaking ability of the two.

After all, this was the third straight game in which Kaepernick outplayed Rodgers.

The Packers consider a pass of 16 yards or more and a run of 12 yards or more to be an explosive play. Kaepernick produced eight: Five passes and three runs. Rodgers produced three: A 19-yard pass to Jordy Nelson, and 26- and 25-yard passes to Randall Cobb.

In the past three meetings between the teams going back to last yearís playoff, Kaepernick has a 31-16 edge in explosive plays, including 21 to 15 throwing the ball.

The Packers take such a risk-averse approach offensively that they simply havenít made enough plays in the playoffs the past three years to stay alive. Sure, theyíve lost to three better defensive teams. But all they needed to win Sunday was 24 points.

In last yearís playoff loss to the 49ers, the defense was dreadful. That said, the Packers were down only 24-21 at halftime and then punted on three of their first four possessions of the second half and settled for a field goal on the other. Two years ago against the New York Giants, the Packers trailed 20-10 at halftime, and the defense forced two three-and-outs in the third quarter. But the offense failed to capitalize, settling for a field goal and giving up the ball on a fourth-down sack.

In those three playoff games, Eli Manning and Kaepernick produced 29 explosive plays to Rodgersí 16. Andrew Luck without his best receiver, virtually no running game and a less than mediocre offensive line threw three interceptions Saturday, but also produced 12 explosive plays and won.

Rodgers didnít play poorly or turn the ball over. As usual, he kept numerous plays alive with his feet, including a remarkable completion to Cobb on a go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. Micah Hyde and others could have made plays that might have won the game and didnít.

But if Rodgers is your Michael Jordan, he has to play like Michael Jordan in the playoffs for you to win.

In all fairness, Rodgers took three shots downfield in the second half ó two to James Jones and a third-and-23 heave to Nelson ó and all three balls could have been caught, although not easily. On all four of his sacks, Rodgers also had time to get rid of the ball. But, again, on his behalf, this was a game in which the Packers badly missed Jermichael Finley.

With the 49ers sitting back with two safeties deep, one of the best counterattacks is the tight end up the seam.

Finley isnít Vernon Davis, but he has a similar skill set to stretch the field. Andrew Quarless doesnít. Finley also could have served as Rodgersí security blanket dragging late across the middle when nothing else was open.

Whatís more, with Finley posing a threat in the middle, the 49ersí inside linebackers, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, couldnít have played the run as aggressively.

Offensive line

Most of the time, the 49ers were rushing four and able to put heat on Rodgers. Against the run, they lined up with their safeties back and only seven in the box and never felt compelled to change.

If the Packers werenít going to take chances throwing down the middle, the only other way to force the 49ers out of that two-deep look would have been to run the ball even more effectively. But the Packers werenít good enough up front to turn the 49ersí strength into a weakness.

Too often, Eddie Lacy had to juke and shrug off would-be tacklers at the point of attack. And with the line unable to root out the defensive linemen, the 49ers were able to do what they do so well: fly to the football and gang tackle. The Packers were getting a hat on a hat, but they werenít able to consistently turn or buckle the 49ersí front wall.

Maybe another answer would have been to play James Starks more. Part of what makes Lacy so good is his patience. But Starks averaged almost 2 yards per carry more than Lacy, and maybe that was because heís an impatient runner. Starks hits the hole and gets north-and-south faster, and the 49ers didnít have as much time to get off their blocks. But as it was, Lacy played fewer snaps than he has in any game in more than a month, according to Pro Football Focus.

The defense

In the trenches, the Packers played toe-to-toe with the 49ers. The defensive line played maybe its best game since October. Mike Daniels forced the 49ers to double-team him. Wily old vet that he is, Ryan Pickett dialed it up for a big game.

Andy Mulumba and Nick Perry did a good job of contain on the edges.

But the Packers lack speed on defense and didnít have an answer for Kaepernickís scrambles. The question has been raised: Why not spy him?

The answer: Kaepernick runs a 4.5 40. The Packers donít have anybody on defense who runs that fast other than Sam Shields.

The two positions that really separate the two defenses are safety and inside linebacker. The 49ersí safeties, Donte Whitner and Eric Reid, play like two bloodthirsty jackals. Bowman and Willis combined for 18 solo tackles, more than twice as many as A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones.

Injury factor

The Packers have one true playmaker on defense, Clay Matthews, and he was in street clothes. Then they lost maybe their second-best defender, Sam Shields, on the first series. Davon House replaced him, and the 49ers picked on him like a bad scab.

Three years ago, the Packers finished with 15 players on injured reserve, but found better players to replace most of them and won the Super Bowl. This season, they also finished with 15 on IR, but were a beaten-down team at the end.

They put forth a good effort, but were in a gunfight with a knife.

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