GREEN BAY—It was one of the worst, maybe the worst, game of Dom Capers’ coaching life.
Nobody does that to a Capers-coached defense, but the 49ers were doing it. They were hanging 579 yards on the Packers. It would be a number that would hang on the Packers defense through this offseason, a number to which Head Coach Mike McCarthy would refer in his address to the media at the scouting combine in February.
“Five seventy-nine is a number that’ll stick in our focus,” McCarthy said.
It’s a number the Packers defense will, no doubt, have in its focus when it travels to San Francisco in September for this year’s season opener.
Nobody lives with the number as Capers does. He’s a numbers man, a coach who has always lived according to his unit’s stats. Here are some of those stats: 1992—No. 1 in takeaways, 1994—No. 1 in sacks, 1996—No. 1 in sacks and third-down efficiency, 1999—No. 1 in points allowed and sacks, 2009—No. 1 in takeaways and run defense, 2010—No. 1 in opponent passer rating.
In ’09, Capers took over a Packers defense that was 24th in points allowed, 20th in yards allowed and 26th in run defense. He fixed it, it got broken again in 2011, and now it’s going through another fix.
The Packers’ young defense made it all the way up to No. 11 in the league last season, but that playoff game in San Francisco and those 579 yards the 49ers gained made it impossible to celebrate the rise up the rankings. It also left Capers the target of intense criticism.
Why didn’t he do something to stop the bleeding? Why didn’t he change schemes? One of his players, Charles Woodson, even questioned the Packers’ tactics against Colin Kaepernick.
What, in fact, did Capers use in trying to stop Kaepernick?
“The whole gamut,” Capers said during an interview this week. “That was the frustrating thing. It wasn’t like we didn’t try a number of things.
“In the first half, it was us rushing and not getting him on the ground. It didn’t matter what they were running. There wasn’t any read-option in that,” he said.
The Packers weren’t the only team in the league that struggled against new-age quarterbacks last season. Kaepernick had success against the Falcons and Ravens in the 49ers’ next two postseason games. RG3’s rookie season even pushed Andrew Luck to the back burner. Russell Wilson was an instant hit in Seattle.
What do they all have in common? They are all equal parts runner and passer. They are the “New Age” quarterback and they have sent every defensive coordinator in the league, not only Capers, to the drawing board this offseason.
In Capers’ case, Kaepernick sent the Packers to Texas A&M to see how Kevin Sumlin and his coaches utilize an athletic quarterback. Sumlin, of course, has “Johnny Football,” a “David” who slayed no less a “Goliath” than Alabama.
“It was probably more value watching what college guys are doing against an athletic quarterback. They did a nice job against Alabama using that style of quarterback,” Capers said.
This is not new ground for Capers. He coached at Tennessee and Ohio State before dropping anchor in professional football. He came into pro football from the triple-option era of college football. One of the attractions of coaching in the pros is he no longer had to worry about the pitch man. Now, he does, again.
“Everything goes in cycles and we have a cycle of young, athletic quarterbacks coming in. Thirty years later, you’re going back and talking about the things you did in college,” he said.
So what is going to be the universal answer to defensing the read-option?
“You’ve got to do more. It’s not like Nevada-Reno running it on every down. I think you just have to have an element in your package, if that’s what they want to do, so your guys are feeling comfortable against it. It’s all about whom you want running with the ball,” he said.
In other words, the solution is practice. Newness creates strangeness and that might be the No. 1 reason the Packers struggled against Kaepernick. It was the Packers’ first real exposure to new-age football, or at least their first exposure since Cam Newton hung 475 on them in Week 2 of 2011.
The more you play against it, the better you’ll get at it, right?