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No defense as Packers sink even lower

9/9/2013

SAN FRANCISCO -- This wasn't the Green Bay Packers' defense that was made to look foolish against the read-option in the NFC divisional playoff loss at Candlestick Park back in January.

No, this was much worse.

This was coordinator Dom Capers' defense, circa 2011.

At least the last time around against the San Francisco 49ers, the Packers could say quarterback Colin Kaepernick caught them off guard with the read-option offense.

This time, in losing to the 49ers for the third time in 12 months, they simply could not stop a quarterback who, for the most part, stayed in the pocket. They couldn't stop a receiver, 32-year-old Anquan Boldin, who, although with a new team, was no secret weapon. And they couldn't handle a tight end, Vernon Davis, who controlled the middle of the field.

Two years ago, Capers fielded the worst passing defense in the NFL. That defense gave up 299.9 passing yards per game and a whopping 4,798 through air for the season. The numbers from Sunday's 34-28 loss to the 49ers in the regular-season opener were almost as ugly.

Kaepernick threw for 412 yards and three touchdowns. He completed 27-of-39 passes. After rushing for an NFL-quarterback record 181 yards in the playoff game, Kaepernick gained only 22 on the ground on Sunday.

He didn't need his feet to beat the Packers.

He used his underappreciated arm.

"Well, they obviously made too many big plays," Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. "Or we gave up too many big plays to better put it."

Boldin, who was acquired in an offseason trade from the Baltimore Ravens, caught 13 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown in his debut for the 49ers. Davis caught six passes for 98 yards and had the other two touchdowns.

Together, they worked the middle of the field, where the Packers were missing starting safety Morgan Burnett and slot cornerback Casey Hayward, both sidelined with hamstring injuries.

And they took advantage of the Packers' decision to play a high volume of zone coverage, which was key to Capers' plan to stop the read-option that allowed Kaepernick & Co. to put up 579 yards in the playoff game.

The 49ers had seven zone-read option rushes for 10 yards on Sunday, according to ESPN Stats & Information. So in that regard, it was a small victory for a Packers' defense that allowed 176 yards on 16 zone-read rushes in the playoff game.

"I thought we did what we wanted, obviously kept the quarterback in front of us," Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. "And we stopped the run. First thing you always want to do is stop the run. Obviously, it opened up other things, but it's a good team. We knew they were going to make some plays. We were just trying to limit them."

Boldin's highlight-reel plays were numerous. There was the 10-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter and the one-handed grab he made in the red zone in the third quarter to set up one of Davis' touchdowns.

But the epitome of the Packers' defensive breakdowns came when Boldin got free for a 43-yard catch and run in the fourth quarter. On the second-and-5 play from the 49ers' 25-yard line, Boldin was lined up in the slot right. Across from him was Packers linebacker Nick Perry. At the snap of the ball, Perry dropped to cover the flat. Boldin ran up the seam and caught a perfectly thrown ball from Kaepernick. Packers cornerback Sam Shields missed a tackle at the 49ers' 45-yard line and Boldin was off and running.

"He's a tough guy to get down," Shields said. "He's not a little guy. I did what I can to try, and he threw off my tackle."

Boldin finished off the Packers with his final catch, a 15-yarder against Williams on fourth-and-2 from the Packers' 36-yard line with 3 minutes left in the game. By that time, Williams' frustration was evident. He was visibly upset that Boldin appeared to push off on the play.

"It was bad," Williams said. "It was right in front of the referees though. You can judge it. In clutch times, you've got to make that call. Period."

This game was not about one bad call or a no-call. Nor was it about the botched ruling by referee Bill Leavy that gave the 49ers an extra down, although that didn't help.

Rather, this was another example of the Packers' greatest weakness -- their defense -- exposed.

"We came here to win the game," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said when asked if there was anything encouraging about Sunday's performance. "I don't know who the hell you think we are. We lost a game we were capable of winning today."

So one game into the season, the Packers' defense was left to answer some of the same questions it faced when last season ended.

"One thing I will say about this defense," Matthews said, "I feel like we put it all out there. I mean, you see the emotions of these guys in this room. It's devastating, but it's good to have this, as far as a loss is concerned. So we'll rebound from this. We'll come back."