3 things to watch Sunday vs. 49ers

Here are three things to keep an eye on during the Week 4 game

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Curious Case of Kaepernick

First, he beat the Packers with his feet. Then, Colin Kaepernick beat them with his arm. When it looked like the third time might be the charm for Green Bay, he executed a 14-play drive to set up Phil Dawson's 33-yard field goal to beat the Packers in the 2013 playoffs.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound quarterback seemed bound for stardom under the watchful eye of Jim Harbaugh, plowing through the Packers en route to back-to-back appearances in the NFC title game (2012, 2013) and Super Bowl XLVII.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen? The 49ers’ bubble burst this offseason when Harbaugh was dispatched to the University of Michigan. Meanwhile, Kaepernick is stuck in neutral and coming off the worst statistical performance of his career in last Sunday’s 47-7 loss in Arizona, where he completed just 9-of-19 passes for 67 yards with four interceptions.

Afterward, Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu called San Francisco’s passing game “simplistic,” allowing defenders to anticipate routes. Whatever has worked against the Packers — Kaepernick produced more than 1,200 yards in three wins — just hasn’t translated to the rest of the NFL.

Kaepernick still a threat to Packers

It should be a prime opportunity for Green Bay’s defense to turn the tables on the beleaguered quarterback, whose 71.1 passer rating ranks 37th out of 40 quarterbacks this season. Kaepernick remains a threat out of the read-option (23 carries for 138 yards this season), but too often abandons his progressions and pulls the ball down if his first read is covered.

The defense is well-versed in defending the read-option and should be able to better combat Kaepernick with linebacker Clay Matthews now roaming the middle of the field.

“He falls in line with every team we’ve played that has had a little zone-read,” said defensive coordinator Dom Capers, whose defense has started the season against Chicago’s Jay Cutler, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Kansas City’s Alex Smith. “When you go against Kaepernick, that’s part of their scheme. He’s a big guy who’s very fast, so you have to be prepared for him keeping the ball.”

The 49ers’ best shot could turn out to be hard-charging Carlos Hyde (6-foot, 235) against the Packers' 27th-ranked run defense. The second-year back has picked up where Frank Gore left off, rushing 54 times for 262 yards and two touchdowns this season.

Free roll

Running back Eddie Lacy and receiver Randall Cobb are dealing with injuries. Tight end Andrew Quarless was placed on temporary injured reserve this week. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga is still weeks away from returning from a torn meniscus. Yet, the Packers are averaging more than 30 points per game and have fashioned another top 10 offense regardless.

A lot of it has to do with the play of Aaron Rodgers, who has been magical in his ability to draw rushers offside and catch defenses with too many people on the field. It’s been a staple of the Packers’ scheme for years, but Rodgers seems to be generating a lot more explosive gains off the free plays. This year, the Packers have declined six offside penalties in favor of more than 200 yards.

“There’s been an added emphasis every time that I’ve coached against this guy and people jump offsides,” 49ers coach Jim Tomsula said. “That tape, I’ve got a tape that’s probably close to a game tape long of him getting people offsides and whipping that ball down the field.”

It doesn’t look promising for receiver Davante Adams to play through his aggravated ankle injury, but Lacy, Cobb, veteran James Jones and rookie Ty Montgomery give Rodgers and Green Bay’s remodeled offense a sufficient amount of weaponry.

Packers-49ers: How we're picking it

Mass exodus

If Kaepernick regains form, the 49ers’ defense still may have a hard time keeping up with Rodgers after losing coordinator Vic Fangio and several key contributors to what once was considered one of the NFL’s toughest defenses.

They replaced Fangio with former Cleveland Browns and New York Jets coach Eric Mangini’s take on the 3-4, but the overall quality of the defense has nosedived. Three players — defensive end Justin Smith and inside linebackers Patrick Willis and Chris Borland — retired this offseason.

Cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox left in free agency and all-pro outside linebacker Aldon Smith was released in August after his third arrest for driving under the influence. Their other starting outside linebacker, Ahmad Brooks, has played in the 49ers’ first three games, but pleaded not guilty to sexual battery this week after allegedly groping an unconscious woman at former teammate Ray McDonald’s house in December.

Perhaps the defense’s best player, Navarro Bowman, is coming off reconstructive knee surgery. San Francisco ranks 26th in total defense after the first three weeks of the season. Only the winless Chicago Bears have allowed more points (105) than the 93 the 49ers have allowed.

There are remnants of the 49ers’ once-dominant defense, but the mystique is lost.

— and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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