As they sifted through the good, the bad and the ugly of their third loss to the San Francisco 49ers in a calendar year, the Green Bay Packers had a lot to think about Monday – from an up-and-down use of the no-huddle on offense, to poor decisions in the return game on special teams, to their inability to contain veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin on defense.
But what was still gnawing at the Packers the most 24 hours after their 34-28 loss to the 49ers at Candlestick Park was this: Despite shutting down San Francisco’s read-option plays and bottling up quarterback Colin Kaepernick on scrambles, the Packers still gave up an eye-popping 494 yards of total offense Sunday. While it wasn’t the 579 yards they surrendered in their Jan. 12 NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the 49ers, it was still a troublesome number because of the way the 49ers arrived at it: By Kaepernick torching them through the air.
After rushing for an NFL quarterback record 181 yards and throwing for 263 in the playoff game, Kaepernick had just 22 rushing yards on seven attempts but completed 27 of 39 passes for a career-best 412 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions (129.4 passer rating)
“Obviously there was so much focus on Kaepernick running with the ball and the read-option, and those type of things,” said Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers Monday, after spending much of the offseason focused on Kaepernick’s running in the playoffs.
“I thought our guys did an excellent job on that yesterday and in terms of the quarterback scrambles. Now, he didn’t gain significant yardage running with the ball, which we know he’s capable of doing. When you’re playing a quarterback that has those kinds of talents and can move around and has a strong arm, you’ve got to be able to do both. We played one phase well, we didn’t play the other phase well enough.”
There’s an understatement. Boldin was on the receiving end of most of Kaepernick’s completions, catching 13 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown. Capers even put two defenders on Boldin and he still made plays, including on his 10-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, a 22-yard catch on third down on the 49ers’ touchdown drive to start the third quarter and a 43-yard catch-and-run to set up the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“When you’re playing a team like San Francisco, which is obviously a talented team, it comes down to your execution has to match their execution,” Capers said. “I thought our guys fought hard, but at critical times in the game – and most of these games come down to that, the third down situations – we just didn’t execute well enough.
“We just have to go to work and make sure if we’re committing (multiple) people on a guy that he doesn’t catch the football. The toughest series was the series after we went up and they hit the back to back big plays. That’s when you want to be at your best, and we weren’t at that time.”
Indeed, after the Packers took a 28-24 lead with 8 minutes 26 seconds left in the game, the defense let the 49ers drive 80 yards in just five plays to reclaim the lead at 31-28. In addition to Boldin’s 43-yard catch on that drive, running back Kendall Hunter got loose for a 23-yard run, the 49ers’ longest gain on the ground all game. Including Kaepernick’s rushes, San Francisco finished with 34 attempts for 90 yards, a 2.6-yard average.
“It wasn’t like we didn’t have things up and ready,” Capers said. “We just didn’t execute with the kind of efficiency you need.”
The defense wasn’t alone though.
Kick returner Jeremy Ross, who muffed a punt at his own 9-yard line that led to a momentum-shifting 49ers touchdown in the playoff game, returned three of seven kickoffs, and because of short returns, poor blocking or penalties, the Packers started those three drives at their own 4-yard line, their own 22 and their own 9.
“It wasn’t a great day for us in the kickoff return phase. Decision-making was part of it,” McCarthy said. “I thought our kickoff return blocking unit did not do a very good job. We will do a better job of that this week.”
And while the Packers’ no-huddle offense scored four touchdowns, the unit also had five three-and-out series and turned the ball over twice, leading to a 17-minute deficit in time of possession.
“It was kind of feast or famine,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “We had five three-and-outs and two turnovers and then we had four touchdown drives.
“They’re an outstanding defense. Ideally you’d like to move the ball every time you have it. That’s a little unrealistic, but you definitely want to minimize the number of three-and-outs you have.”
Still, the defense was the group with the greatest regret. Playing without starting safety Morgan Burnett (hamstring) and starting nickel back Casey Hayward (hamstring), the Packers were forced to start Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings together at safety and move Jarrett Bush into the dime group along with nickel back Micah Hyde, a rookie fifth-round pick. With Hayward likely sidelined until after the Week 4 bye, and Burnett’s status uncertain, the Packers could be playing with the same group next Sunday against Washington and quarterback Robert Griffin III.
They will also be counting on rookie running back Eddie Lacy, who had an up-and-down day; defensive end Datone Jones, who was largely invisible in his 18 snaps as one of the two down linemen in the dime; and young tackles David Bakhtiari and Don Barclay, who acquitted themselves better than many of their young teammates.
“I know a couple of our guys, particularly younger guys, just didn’t handle the start of the game particularly well,” McCarthy admitted. “It was a great atmosphere for us. I wish we would have played better. I thought we played through adversity throughout the game to get the lead there, (at) 28-24. And then really the last eight minutes of the game was our biggest disappointment as a team. We need to learn from that. We looked at that sequence as a football team and it will be an emphasis for us as we move into Washington.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.