Defense produces complete performance
Dom Capers didn’t sound off with any rally cries to avenge the previous Green Bay Packers’ defenses that failed to stop Colin Kaepernick leading into Sunday’s showdown with the San Francisco 49ers.
Instead, the 65-year-old defensive coordinator centered his message more on the past three weeks than the last three years. The mandate was simply to finish.
The defense has bounced back since an underwhelming performance in last month’s regular-season opener in Chicago, but its inability to finish games is what had left the Packers in the middle of the pack statistically despite dominant first-half showings in wins over Seattle and Kansas City.
That trend changed Sunday against the 49ers and Kaepernick, the dynamic quarterback whose athleticism used to throw Capers’ units for a whirl. This time, the Packers contained him to a 55.4 passer rating and held San Francisco to less than 200 yards of total offense for the entire game.
In holding San Francisco to only 72 total yards and zero points in the second half, it marked the first time this season the Packers finished a game stronger than they started (124 yards and three points in the first half) and held an opposing offense to less than 200 total yards in the final 30 minutes.
“We had a big emphasis all week about finish,” Capers said. “I think that was on our guys’ mind in the fourth quarter, finishing the game. I liked the way we finished the game because we finished with the stats that were very similar to what our stats were after nine series in the Kansas City game where they ended up with 196 yards and 3.9-yards per play. That’s kind of a blueprint. That’s what we have to do.”
Prior to Sunday, the Packers had allowed more than twice as many passing yards (569) in the second half than the first (219). While that's understandable with opponents playing from behind — Green Bay has outscored opponents 54-26 in the first half so far this season — it’s still way too much production for Capers’ taste.
The Packers could have made a statement in last Monday’s 38-28 win over Kansas City after allowing only 94 total yards, including 37 passing, in the first half. Instead, the defense conceded more than 200 passing yards and 21 points in the second half with most of the production coming in the fourth quarter.
The 49ers might have inadvertently helped the Packers by deferring the opening coin toss Sunday. Although Green Bay’s offense wasn’t hitting on all cylinders, outside linebacker Mike Neal said the opening 12-play, 80-yard scoring drive helped set the tempo and the 49ers "went away from what they do best."
In trying to get Kaepernick comfortable, the 49ers completely abandoned the run game and seemed to play like they were down by three touchdowns instead of one. Carlos Hyde had only nine touches for 22 yards in the loss after averaging 20 touches and 100 total yards per game over the last three weeks.
The Packers will take it. Since giving up 189 rushing yards to Chicago, they’ve allowed 271 yards in their last three wins (90.3 yards per game). It’s gone a long way in Green Bay jumping 10 spots to 21st in NFL run defense after a putrid performance against Matt Forte set them back in Week 1.
“I feel like if you go out and stop the run early that it influences teams,” Capers said. “There’s a lot of teams that will get impatient with the run, so Hyde ended up with only eight rushes for 20 yards, which I thought was very big. What that enabled us to do was dictate a little bit more from a down and distance standpoint to where we could get after and pressure Kaepernick.”
With no backfield threat, the Packers’ rushers were able to pin their ears back. Kaepernick's ability to create plays with his feet was neutralized behind a barrage of six sacks and 12 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.
The confidence Kaepernick showed in his first two wins over the Packers in the 2012 playoffs and 2013 opener was gone. He looked shell-shocked with many of his throws off the mark. When he managed a nice throw to Vance McDonald in first quarter, his tight end dropped what might have been a first down.
The 49ers punted two plays later. It was one of five drives where San Francisco had a chance to take the lead early on. The closest its offense came to the end zone was a Phil Dawson 33-yard field goal with 4 minutes, 25 seconds left in the second quarter.
“We had a good game plan coming in,” cornerback Casey Hayward said. “We knew some of the things they might try to do and they did some of those things.
“This week I think we had a complete game minus one drive. But I think our goal was to finish the game off. Last year, we had sometimes when we had them up three points (scores) and they end up scoring 17 in the fourth quarter or something. This game, I think we did a good job.”
In the end, the 49ers managed only 196 yards off Capers’ defense after averaging 363.5 in the their last three victories over the Packers. The performance boosted the Packers to eighth in total defense (312.0 yards per game), second in sacks (17) and a tie for third in scoring defense (17.8 per game).
The promising part for the Packers is they’ve done it primarily without the help of safety Morgan Burnett (calf strain) and defensive lineman Letroy Guion, who made his regular-season debut Sunday after missing the first three games due to suspension.
Linebacker Clay Matthews continues to play all over the field. The depth at outside linebacker not only allowed him to shift inside against the 49ers, but also freed him up to spy Kaepernick at times. That’s a notion the Packers could have only dreamed about in their past meetings with the 49ers.
Every outside linebacker who took a defensive snap Sunday against San Francisco left Levi’s Stadium with at least one sack. The defensive line, now full with Guion’s return, held up the few times it faced Hyde and hardly allowed Kaepernick any lanes to break into.
“I feel like if we all keep working and keep getting better every week, we can be a dominant defense in this league,” Guion said.
Now can the Packers string together more complete performances? Their next challenge comes in the form of the St. Louis Rams, who picked up an emotional 24-22 win over the previously undefeated Arizona Cardinals on the road Sunday behind rookie running back Todd Gurley (146 rushing yards).
Offense traditionally has set the tempo in Green Bay, but the defense enjoyed the limelight in shutting down San Francisco from start to finish.
“Sunday's game against the 49ers was clearly our best defensive performance of the year,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “It's something that we can build off of.”
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