Can Colin Kaepernick bounce back Sunday against the team he twice bounced from the playoffs?
The 49ers quarterback’s legs were the biggest factor in both postseason wins against Green Bay, so much so that the Packers spent the offseason that followed their first encounter traveling the country to figure out how to stop a read-option attack.
Kaepernick set an NFL rushing record for a quarterback in that game with 181 yards and two touchdowns. The following year at frozen-over Lambeau Field, he ran for 98 yards.
Despite Kaepernick’s mastery over the Packers, however, no one in Green Bay seems quite as worried about Sunday’s matchup.
For one, Kaepernick is coming off the worst game of his career and no longer is seen as the phenom who set the NFL landscape ablaze in the 2012 playoffs. There also are mixed views about the 49ers’ continued use of the read option. Inside team headquarters, it’s seen as a way of putting Kaepernick in his comfort zone. Outside, some wonder whether it’s been a handicap to the quarterback’s overall development and is a reason he has struggled as a pocket passer.
The Packers also believe they are better equipped to catch Kaepernick should he try to take off this time.
“We have different personnel,” nose tackle B.J. Raji told the Green Bay Press-Gazette. “We’ve got some guys who can run around. We’ve got some athletic deers out there that can run. So me, personally, I’m not as worried as in the past.”
Outside linebacker Erik Walden, who was notably victimized by Kaepernick in the first playoff encounter and who came to symbolize Green Bay’s struggles with the read option, now plays for the Colts.
Since their last meeting with the 49ers, the Packers have added longtime Bears and Panthers defender Julius Peppers at one outside linebacker spot. Nick Perry will man the other.
Another change is that Green Bay’s best defender, Clay Matthews, is playing inside linebacker instead of outside linebacker. That is, the 49ers can’t simply run in the opposite direction of Matthews anymore, and he’s in a position to act as a “spy” who tracks Kaepernick’s every move.
“We’re expecting to see him blitzing from the middle linebacker position and still doing what he does best and playing off the edge and blitzing off the edge,” running back Reggie Bush said. “Sometimes it looks like he kind of freelances a little bit, too. So we just always have to be conscious of where he is on the field. Obviously, he’s a huge playmaker for them.”
One of the advantages of running an offense with read-option elements is it forces opponents to prepare for it, something the Packers, who played on Monday, must do on a short week of practice. The 49ers, meanwhile, have not been shy about mentioning their opponent’s previous struggles against athletic quarterbacks. They want Green Bay to worry about all the ways Kaepernick can hurt them.
“We’ve watched a lot of Green Bay tape because we play them this week,” offensive coordinator Geep Chryst said. “He threatens them both in the run and the pass.”
The question is how much read option the 49ers plan to run on Sunday.
Under Jim Harbaugh, the team used it sparingly in the regular season before breaking it out more boldly in the playoffs. In 2013, Kaepernick’s first full season as starter, the 49ers ran the read option on 13 percent of running plays, according to Pro Football Focus.
When they played Green Bay in the season opener that year, Kaepernick ran for only 22 yards. With the Packers’ defense preoccupied with the read option, he instead threw the ball for a career-high 412 yards, 208 of them to wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
This year, the percentage of read-option runs has grown to 24 percent. For one, the team is more confident in its backup quarterback, Blaine Gabbert, than it was in Gabbert last year and Colt McCoy the year before that. One of the downsides to the read option is it exposes the quarterback to more hits and injuries.
There’s also a sentiment that Kaepernick’s strength is running with the ball and there’s no sense keeping that ability hidden. Despite the lopsided score in Arizona, for example, the 49ers ran the read option 10 times for 69 yards, including on Kaepernick’s 12-yard touchdown, San Francisco’s only score of the game.
“He does have a unique skill set when it comes to the read game,” Jim Tomsula said. “And quite frankly, we want the defense to have to protect the read game. If they are protecting that guy carrying out his play fake, then that’s somebody less that’s down in there when we hand the ball off. And if they are not, then we need to be able to pull it and keep them in that way. That’s how I see that read game. I hope that answers your question. That’s as honest as I can say it.”