Packers need defensive epiphany to beat 49ers

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Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, January 5, 2014

GREEN BAY—Maybe Old Man Winter can do for the Green Bay Packers’ defense what five seasons of instruction from the same coaching staff and nine years of player procurement under the same general manager have not.

The Packers will meet the San Francisco 49ers this afternoon at Lambeau Field hoping their unimposing defense can just be competitive.

Hope, as we know, has a way of flickering out fast in the National Football League postseason.

Mike McCarthy, Dom Capers and the team’s fan base understand that. It was just three years ago that the Packers entered the playoffs flexing their muscles confident the defense could stand up against any opponent.

That 2010 defense had a budding monster of a nose man in B.J. Raji, a hard-charging interior rusher in Cullen Jenkins, a ferocious tackler-blitzer in Desmond Bishop and a young dominator in Clay Matthews.

In the back end, Tramon Williams was playing as well as any cornerback, Nick Collins was in the midst of a third straight Pro Bowl season, Charles Woodson remained rugged and useful from the slot and Sam Shields was the effective rookie nickel back.

Capers, the ultimate numbers man, often has cited opponents’ passer rating has an excellent gauge of defensive strength in a game slipping farther and farther from running the ball.

In 2010, the Packers led the NFL in opponents’ passer rating at 67.2. Then, in four playoff games culminated by victory in the 45th Super Bowl, they permitted a rating of 67.7.

Today, Green Bay sits 25th at 95.9, the product of an average rush, too many coverage breakdowns and not enough talent overall.

Take it back 17 years, to 1996, when the Packers’ defense of Reggie White, LeRoy Butler and many other high-level starters stifled opposing quarterbacks to ratings of 55.4 in the regular season and 45.8 in the postseason en route to Super Bowl glory.

As far as the run defense goes, well, it has been a mess since midseason.

In 1996, the defense coordinated by Fritz Shurmur allowed two 100-yard rushers and two 100-yard receivers in 19 games.

In 2010, the Capers-led unit gave up three 100-yard rushers and four 100-yard receivers in 20 games.

In 2013, Capers and the exact same defensive staff have yielded eight 100-yard rushers and eight 100-yard receivers in 16 games. Seven of those big rushing days and six of those big receiving days have come in the last nine games.

“We’re a playoff defense…we’re in the playoffs,” said Joe Whitt, the fifth-year cornerbacks coach. “We haven’t played as well as I hoped we would; that’s just the reality of it.

“But we can right any wrong by playing well down the stretch. We haven’t shown it, but we have to do it.”

From the outside, the odds of a defensive turnaround appear slim.

“It’s just a bland brand right now,” an executive in personnel said. “They play hard, in general. They are well-coached with what they have. They just don’t have the speed and play-making capabilities.

“I just don’t feel they have the big-time playmaker. There’s nobody on the ‘D’ that I fear from a protection standpoint. They had Matthews. There was something about that guy. There was a real fear. Now they don’t have the fear factor.”

When the Packers last met San Francisco, it was opening day. Emotions always run high for the opener, but the Packers also were motivated by the pair of beatings they absorbed from the 49ers the year before.

In the intervening seven months, general manager Ted Thompson put together a taller and heavier roster after the Packers failed to pass the eyeball test against the 49ers and others in 2011-’12.

Meanwhile, the players fumed about being labeled soft, at least when compared with the NFL’s power teams.

The Packers lost that afternoon four months ago at Candlestick Park, but their level of intensity on defense was as high as it had been in a long time.

In a strangely conventional football game, the Packers stood toe-to-toe against Frank Gore and possibly the game’s best offensive line. After Gore quietly controlled the tempo of the 2012 games with 231 yards in 39 carries (5.9 average), he could gain just 44 in 21 (2.1).

When the Packers slammed down the read option and effectively contain-rushed quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the hard part was over. Or so they thought.

The coverage breakdowns that enabled the 49ers to complete eight passes for 20 yards more (five to Anquan Boldin) did them in.

If Gore surpasses 100 yards, it’s hard to imagine the Packers having the ball long enough to win a shootout. Stopping Gore will be that much more difficult because Johnny Jolly and Matthews, the two emotional ringleaders of the defense in San Francisco, are out.

C.J. Wilson will get many of Jolly’s snaps when the Packers are in their 3-4 defense, which was 66.2 percent of the time Sept. 8. Because of a high ankle sprain, Wilson has played just six snaps in the last five games.

Minus Matthews, Mike Daniels becomes the Packers’ best pass-rushing threat. They can’t afford to waste him on too many run downs, so the 305 pounds of rookie Josh Boyd will be tossed into the breach as well.

Last Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals held Gore to 14 yards in 13 rushes. The Cardinals’ formidable front seven smashed the 49ers three times on failed short-yardage runs and their outstanding speed at inside linebacker largely cut off Kaepernick’s scrambling.

Weaknesses were evident in the 49ers’ attack. Mauling guards Mike Iupati and Alex Boone are susceptible to quickness. Center Jonathan Goodwin, 35, doesn’t get much movement anymore and is slower to the second level. They miss lead-blocking fullback Bruce Miller.

If only the Packers’ defense had Arizona’s personnel. The truth is, they’re not even in the same strata.

There was no defense being played in the NFC North this season. Not since Game 7 against Cleveland has Green Bay seen a potent defense. That fact alone argues against the possibility of a high-scoring game here and places even more burden on the Packers’ defense to permit no more than 17 to 21 points.

A pair of assistant coaches for recent 49ers’ opponents said San Francisco’s offensive line will try to bully Green Bay.

“Sure,” said Mike Trgovac, the Packers’ defensive line coach. “That’s kind of what they’re built on. That’s kind of Jim’s (Harbaugh’s) nature. They try to say, ‘We’re going to be in this and we’re going to block you.’”

In the first meeting, the Packers played a heavy box against the run, maintained discipline against the read option and tried to cover as best they could.

Well, they couldn’t cover. In fact, they haven’t been able to cover the 49ers in all three defeats.

In each game, offensive coordinator Greg Roman put out motions, formations and route combinations that directly led to blown coverages. M.D. Jennings, Casey Hayward and Woodson had terrible missed assignments in the 2012 games, and A.J. Hawk lined the defense up improperly on the 49ers’ one long run this year.

“What we have to do is play the pass better,” said Capers. “We have to make sure we don’t give them yardage in big chunks.”

Including the postseason, the ‘96 Packers allowed an average of 2.4 gains of 20 yards or more. In 2010, the Packers yielded 3.3. This year, the defense has given up 4.8.

“We have to do it the right way — every down,” Whitt said. “That’s what we haven’t done. We can’t drop a guy going across. We can’t misfit a gap.

“You can do it against the Cleveland Browns, or whatever. It doesn’t matter. When you play San Francisco, the good teams, you make a mistake, it matters. That’s what we can’t do.”

Scouts say 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree isn’t all the way back from his Achilles injury. Still, he’s far better than Kyle Williams, who had to play 55 snaps Sept. 8, and Marlon Moore, who played 16.

Both of them were released near midseason.

Strangely, the 49ers’ deep threat is tight end Vernon Davis. In the last three games, he made Jennings, Woodson and Hawk look just awful.

“You don’t have an appreciation for how muscled up (Davis) is until you stand next to him,” a defensive assistant for a recent 49ers opponent said. “Absolutely he can block. He is a tough, physical guy.”

Morgan Burnett sat out the opener and replaces the departed Jerron McMillian, who missed four tackles that day. It’s a plus even though Burnett leads the team in missed tackles and, like the other safeties, still is looking for an interception.

Burnett will be paired with one of the two free agents, Jennings and Sean Richardson. Charlie Peprah, the other safety three years ago, was more effective.

The physical challenge presented by the 49ers doesn’t just include the line and Davis. Boldin might be the most intimidating presence of any wide receiver in the league.

Boldin tests the fiber of every cornerback. Two coaches used the verb “punked” to describe the way in which defenders are rammed by the 225-pound Boldin as he tries flipping them onto their backs during running plays.

Shields and Boldin have gotten into it more than once.

Given the forecast, it should be brutally cold and the track won’t be fast. In the frozen January night, bodies tend to meld together, lanes close and tackle-to-tackle rushing yards often are harder to come by.

One can see big men like Ryan Pickett, Mike Neal, Andy Mulumba and Raji spoiling for a fight and making it tough on the indomitable Gore once again.

But what about Kaepernick? There is no Matthews to harass, spy or chase him down this time.

Brad Jones and Hawk are slow by NFL standards. Compared to some wide bodies, Pickett and Raji offer little in range and pursuit.

Kaepernick killed the Packers 12 months ago by running. He could zip right by them once again off broken plays on a semi-icy surface.

Trgovac enunciated the dilemma faced by the Packers when he said, “We’ve got to help our DBs out a little bit more. Obviously, you can’t just let this kid run all over the place. You can’t just let him sit back in the pocket, either.”

Capers blitzed 32.5 percent in September and generated moderate pressure. This time, he won’t have No. 52.

Despite all the problems on defense, Mike McCarthy oozed with confidence all week. The Packers, the coach said, had a “very good practice” Friday because “it was windy, which I thought was great.”

“I like where we are as a football team,” said McCarthy, who loves building up his squad come playoff time.

Left unsaid by McCarthy was how much did the 49ers benefit the same day from their practice in the 60-degree pleasantness of Santa Clara?

The Packers’ record reads 8-7-1, but they might be closer to a 6-2 type of team. At least that’s what their mark was with Aaron Rodgers, and with Randall Cobb back to bedevil the 49ers’ weakened secondary it could be enough to carry the day even against a defense superior to Green Bay’s.

The ways in which a defense can affect a game diminish every year and with every rule change. The Packers, as presently configured, can only hope they’re on trend.

Bob McGinn is the longtime Packer beat writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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