To finally beat 49ers, Packers know defense must step up

The SportsXchange

GREEN BAY, Wisc. -- Mike McCarthy made a profound statement by saying quarterback Aaron Rodgers had "probably his finest hour as a Green Bay Packer" with his late-game heroics at Chicago last weekend.

Two days later, the head coach issued another eye-opening statement.

When asked specifically about coordinator Dom Capers and the importance of the impending wild-card playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday for Capers' struggling defense and perhaps his future with the team, McCarthy had this retort Wednesday: "Dom Capers is a competitor. It's a very important game to all of us. This isn't a contest to see who this game's more important (for). We're a football team. We know that one area needs to play to the other and so forth. But, the defense needs to play its best game of the year."

Strong words in that latter sentiment may speak to what else may be on the line other than the rejuvenated Packers' trying to get to the second round of the playoffs for the fourth straight year.

With the offense for Green Bay (8-7-1) back to optimum strength with the return of Rodgers and receiver Randall Cobb for the thrilling NFC North-clinching win at Chicago in Week 17, the challenge is clearly on the defense to rise to the occasion.

The Packers are meeting the 49ers (12-4) for the fourth time in 16 months. The common thread in Green Bay losing each of the previous three meetings is a letdown by the defense.

The 49ers won those games by scores of 30-22 at Green Bay in the 2012 season opener, 45-31 at San Francisco in the divisional round of the 2012 playoffs and 34-28 back at San Francisco to start this season.

What's more, the 49ers gashed the Packers for yardage totals of 377, 579 and 494 yards in those games, respectively.

"They're a talented group," Capers said about the current San Francisco offense, which finished the regular season ranked third in rushing but 30th in passing and 24th for overall production.

"They have very good skill on this team," Capers added. "They have (Michael) Crabtree back now to go with the addition of (Anquan) Boldin at receiver. Vernon Davis is a rare guy (at) tight end. They've got one of the best offensive lines in the league and a young quarterback (Colin Kaepernick) who is very talented. Frank Gore (is) a physical runner. So, they have a lot of weapons."

As much as Kaepernick has endured an up-and-down first full season as San Francisco's starter behind center, the Packers have made him look like a perennial league MVP in the teams' last two meetings.

In Kaepernick's breakthrough performance in the playoffs last January, he set a league record by a quarterback with 181 rushing yards, coupled with 119 yards on the ground from Gore.

After Capers and his staff spent a big chunk of the offseason trying to solve the mystery that was defending the read option executed so well by Kaepernick that the Packers weren't prepared to defend in the postseason, the 49ers threw another curveball.

San Francisco went heavy on the pass in the Sept. 8 season opener at Candlestick Park. Kaepernick went to town against a Green Bay defense missing top safety Morgan Burnett and playmaking nickel back Casey Hayward, both of whom were out with hamstring injuries.

Kaepernick completed 27 of 39 passes for a career-high 412 yards and three touchdowns.

Green Bay's ability to bottle up Gore and Kaepernick in running situations in that game didn't matter in the final outcome.

"They depend so much on their run game and their run game setting the tone," Capers said. "They have a big, physical offensive line. If you can run the ball, then it opens up your play-action passing game. It doesn't put as much pressure on the (offensive) line to sit and pass protect because you're not in as many predictable situations where people (on defense) are just going to pin their ears back and come.

"I think one of the keys (Sunday) is not let them get the good mix of the run and the pass where they keep you off-balance. You have to be able to get them in more predictable situations."

The conundrum for Capers this week in drawing up another game plan for the 49ers is trying to predict how they will want to try to play on offense in the latest rematch. With Kaepernick at the controls, they have dominated going with the run in one game and then with the pass in the latest game.

"Obviously, we've watched the last three times we've played them," linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "For the most part, we did stop the run pretty well last time, but they torched us through the air. So, we've got to find a way to kind of stop both of them. (But) I don't know. I don't have any secret answer for you or any special potion, but we're working on it. We're making sure everyone has everything right and we're all playing together, basically."

Green Bay will have Burnett on the back end for this game, but the Packers will be without their defensive leader. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who had team highs of 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in the regular season, is sidelined indefinitely after reinjuring his surgically repaired broken right thumb in the Week 16 loss to Pittsburgh.

That takes away the Packers' best pass rusher to potentially disrupt Kaepernick in the pocket and also one of their more assignment-sure players for being disciplined against the run.

The Packers may stick with undrafted rookie Andy Mulumba, who had their only sack in the win at Chicago, at Matthews' right-side spot. Nick Perry, who lost his starting job on the left side to Mike Neal in recent weeks, has been effective when shifted to the right side but seen diminished playing time of late, in part because of a lingering foot injury.

The maligned Capers is hopeful his defense, which finished the regular season ranked 25th against the run and 24th against the pass, will finally have an answer for the 49ers based on one positive aspect.

Green Bay tied for 21st in the league with just 22 takeaways, but it has produced 12 in the past five games.

In the previous three games against the 49ers, the Packers had all of one takeaway - an interception by cornerback Sam Shields that he returned 52 yards for a touchdown in the first series of last year's playoff game.

"What we have to do is play the pass better," Capers said. "We have to make sure we don't give them yardage in big chunks. We weren't able to get any takeaways in that first game (this season).

"One of the things that's been encouraging about our defense over the last four weeks (is) we've taken the ball away more and in critical situations. That's what you have to do in all of the big games, but especially when you get in the playoffs. It normally comes down to that takeaway-giveaway (ratio). When you get your opportunities, you have to convert those opportunities."

--QB Aaron Rodgers isn't on the injury report this week for the first time since he sustained a broken collarbone Nov. 4. Rodgers played for the first time last Sunday after missing seven games, rallying the Packers to a dramatic 33-28 win at Chicago for the NFC North title. Rodgers goes into the wild-card game against San Francisco on Sunday with a 5-3 record in the playoffs. He ranks third in NFL history with a passer rating of 103.6 in the postseason.

--WR Randall Cobb received a positive report on the health front following his celebrated return to action in the 33-28 comeback win at Chicago to end the regular season last Sunday. Cobb, who had missed 10 games because of a broken right tibia he suffered in mid-October, was on the field for 37 of the offense's 78 snaps - the coaches were hoping to get him out there for about 20 snaps. Cobb had two receptions in the game, both for touchdowns, highlighted by his 48-yard catch-and-run play on a deep throw from Aaron Rodgers on fourth-and-8 with less than a minute left to decide the outcome.

--ILB A.J. Hawk led the team in tackles for the second straight season with 153, two short of his career high attained as a rookie in 2006. With eight tackles in the regular-season-ending win at Chicago last Sunday, Hawk ascended to the No. 1 spot in the team record book for most career tackles with 1,025, surpassing John Anderson's 1,020 from 1978-89.

--K Mason Crosby has 69 points in 10 playoff games and goes into the wild-card game against San Francisco on Sunday needing only five points to break kicker Chris Jacke's team record of 73 in postseason play.

--ILB Brad Jones (ankle) is looking to be ready for the 49ers. Jones, a starter, was held out of the regular-season-ending victory at Chicago last weekend because of a recurring ankle injury. The team didn't practice Wednesday but estimated Jones to be a limited participant on the first injury report this week. Jamari Lattimore started in Jones' absence against the Bears on Sunday.

--OLB Mike Neal (abdomen) wouldn't have practiced had the team been on the field Wednesday. With the only practices of the week slated for Thursday and Friday in advance of the wild-card playoff game against San Francisco on Sunday, it remains to be seen how involved Neal will be. The team has been careful the last several weeks about making sure he's healthy enough on game day to play. Neal has been the primary starter at left-side outside linebacker the second half of the season.

--OLB Nick Perry (foot) was considered to be a non-participant had the team held a practice Wednesday. The Packers will hold practice Thursday and Friday ahead of their wild-card playoff game against San Francisco on Sunday. Perry has been dealing with the foot injury since he sustained it in mid-October and relegated to a backup role behind Mike Neal the last two games.

--NT Ryan Pickett (knee) was estimated to be a limited participant with the team not having practice Wednesday. The veteran starter, who has endured knee soreness the last several weeks but hasn't missed a game, should be fine for the wild-card playoff matchup with San Francisco on Sunday.

SERIES HISTORY: 65th meeting. Packers lead series, 34-29-1. The familiar interdivision foes will play for the fourth time in the past two seasons. The 49ers have dominated the recent play, winning the last three games since the 2012 season opener by an average final score of 36-27. After knocking out Green Bay 45-31 in the second round of the playoffs at San Francisco last January, the 49ers prevailed 34-28 in the rematch at Candlestick Park to start this season Sept. 8. The Packers hold a 4-2 edge over San Francisco in the postseason, including wins in both meetings at Lambeau Field - 25-15 in a wild-card game in the 2001 season and 35-14 in the divisional round in Green Bay's Super Bowl-winning 1996 season.
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