Packers go back to school to learn how to defend the read-option

It was one of the more embarrassing defeats in the long history of the Green Bay Packers organization. When the Pack matched up against the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round of the 2012 playoffs, and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw a pick-six to cornerback Sam Shields early in the game, it appeared that Kaepernick's hot streak had cooled precipitously. Not so. One 45-31 final later, the Packers had been served.

Through the game's first 30 minutes, Kaepernick amassed 148 yards passing (though on just 11 completions in 23 attempts) for two touchdowns and that pesky interception. But his real value to the team showed up in the rushing totals; 107 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown, on just 11 carries. Only Ray Rice and Warrick Dunn had more rushing yards in the first half of a playoff game in the last 10 years.

In the second half, Kaepernick stayed on a higher plane. He finished the game with 17 completions on 31 attempts for 263 yards. On the ground, he befuddled the Packers defense even more, amassing 181 yards rushing. No quarterback has ever rushed for more yards in a single game, and to put that final number in its proper perspective, Kaepernick finished with the 14th-highest single-game rushing yardage total in the league's postseason history.

The Packers had no answers for the 49ers' option packages, which led their great defensive coordinator, Dom Capers, to experience a lot of heat this offseason. According to Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Capers barely addressed the option in practices the week before the game, which was a bit silly, as Kaepernick had been riddling the league with it for weeks. Green Bay faces Kaepernick and the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III in the first two weeks of the 2013 regular season, so Capers is taking no chances this time. Not only is the option at the top of his "to-do" list, but he recently took his entire defensive staff to the Texas A&M campus to spend a whole day with the Aggies' coaching staff, and he spent a day with Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Arnada, who was part of the Hawaii staff when Kaepernick played for Nevada. As a result, Arnada was intimately familiar with the ins and out of the Pistol formations Kaepernick ran then and runs now.

"We're going to do more," Capers told Dunne. "We're going to do more than we have because we know the first two teams we play run it. There will be a number of teams that have a little element of it in. How much it takes off, I don't know. It's like everything else. Things go in cycles. Over 28 years, I've seen a lot of cycles in the league."

When the Packers' coaches visited the Aggies, the two staffs spent an entire day drawing up plays and watching film. A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder told Dunne that he had watched the loss to San Francisco, and called it a "perfect storm."

"They hadn't done much of it," Snyder said. "It'd be like any offense you haven't prepared for all week. It makes it difficult. Us as coaches, anytime something like that happens to us, you learn about it. That's what you do."

And that's what the Packers are doing. Outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene met with Illinois State assistant head coach/defensive line coach Spence Nowinsky, and Nowinsky told Greene that the third read in the progressions the 49ers used was the one that kept tripping them up. You read the tackle, then the back, then the tight end.

"The Packers were playing outside of that blocker. When you play outside of that blocker, that's fine. But now you have to set the edge. If the quarterback keeps the ball, he can't run outside of that blocker. With your inside linebacker, outside linebacker and your safety, you have to decide who's going to slide inside and who's going to slide outside."

"You have to make the game of football a half-court game. It doesn't matter what the backfield set is — if it's the pistol or if he's in the gun set strong or weak — you have to take one of the reads away."

Another problem the Packers had, which other NFL defenses are starting to adjust to, is that when you task your pass rushers to pin their ears down on every play, they will often miss those option reads as a matter of course. The Packers have an additional handicap in that their cornerbacks play a high percentage of tight man coverage, in which the defender turns his back to run with his receiver. As a result -- and this happened over and over in the 49ers game -- the running quarterback has a distinct advantage at the second level, because his potential tacklers have to turn back, adjust, and pursue. You give a guy as fast as Colin Kaepernick that much time, and you get what the Packers got.

"In the NFL, you get paid a lot of money to rush the quarterback — going up the field," Snyder told Dunne of the edge-rusher's natural instinct. "That's what these teams want you to do. That's where the creases, the seams are created for the offense. It's just a little bit different mind-set. You have to take a different mind-set into those games and play a little bit more at the line of scrimmage than up the field."

That's one of the many things that makes a well-planned read-option attack so dangerous at any level -- coaches have to put their defenders in positions that are not natural to them, without sacrificing their primary attributes. It's why the current schemes, as practiced by Kaepernick, Griffin, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, and the next generation of NFL quarterbacks, will not fade away as the Wildcat did.

And it's why you'll most likely see more NFL coaches going back to school -- literally and figuratively.

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