By Matt Williamson | ESPN Insider
A major storyline going into the Green Bay Packers game with the San Francisco 49ers was how Green Bay's defense would deal with the 49ers' read-option running attack led by Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers gashed the Packers' defense in the playoffs last season to the tune of 323 yards on the ground in 45-31 victory. Even though the Packers lost 34-28 on Sunday, did they find a blueprint to slowing down the read-option?
Early in the game, the Packers' edge defenders, most notably Clay Matthews, showed that they would attack the read-option with great vigor instead of slow-playing it and being reactive, as they were in the playoff game last season. It was clear that Green Bay dedicated a lot of film and practice time to defending this play, whereas last season it looked like they had no clue what to do against the read-option. Matthews made a massive impact on this game. He crashed the read-option and set the tone by hitting Kaepernick out of bounds, even if it cost his team 15 yards. Matthews is too dynamic an athlete and changes directions in space too well without having to slow down to leave him unblocked, which this play often calls for. The 49ers ran very little read-option after seeing this.
Not only did Green Bay diagnose and eliminate the read-option very well, but the Packers also were superb against the running game overall. Even without the read-option, San Francisco features a very diverse and physical ground attack. Kendall Hunter broke a long run midway through the fourth quarter out of a stacked backfield with extra heavy offensive personnel, but overall the 49ers had only 90 yards on 34 carries. San Francisco used an awful lot of heavy personnel groupings with often just one wide receiver on the field. In turn, the Packers rarely went to their sub packages, but instead, focused their base 3-4 on stopping the vaunted San Francisco running game. B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly really stood out against what I feel is the best offensive line in the NFL. Those three dominated the middle of the field against the run.
The formula to play the run first and foremost worked, but the sacrifice was leaving Green Bay's overmatched secondary in compromised positions time and time again. Kaepernick looked much more familiar with Vernon Davis and Packers' linebackers were no match for Davis, who the Niners lined up in the backfield on occasion, thus matching him up on linebackers in his routes. They also sent him deep where he displayed his rare speed for the tight end position. But it wasAnquan Boldin who was San Francisco's best weapon today in his debut performance as a 49er.
Boldin was simply outstanding on Sunday and showed again that he is open even when he is covered. Kaepernick threw laser beams to Boldin in very tight spots where only his man could get the ball and Boldin routinely put on an acrobatic show to haul the ball in. Boldin did a fantastic job of sitting down in the zone coverages the Packers were playing and the Niners did a nice job of designing routes against man coverage (particularly rub routes) to give Boldin the small crevices he needed to succeed. Boldin also delivered a bone-crushing block on Jarrett Bush during a Kaepernick scramble, which certainly endears him even further to his new coaches and teammates, to go along with his 208 receiving yards.
The Packers may have slowed down the 49ers' rushing attack on Sunday, but their secondary was no match in either zone or man for Boldin and Davis. This 49ers offense proved on Sunday that it's not fluky or gimmicky and that it be potent through the air (412 yards passing for Kaepernick), even with Michael Crabtree sidelined. This offensive coaching staff didn't force the run after realizing that Matthews & Co. had an answer for their great running game, but did still feed Frank Gore the ball 21 times while utterly dominating the time of possession and keepingAaron Rodgers off the field. Kaepernick is very much a star in the making and if he continues to play mistake-free football, San Francisco should be well on its way to another Super Bowl run.