Packers defense ‘needs to play its best game of the year’ to beat 49ers

Inside linebackers A.J. Hawk (50) and Brad Jones (59) and the Packers defense finished the season ranked 25th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed.

Matthew Emmons/Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

GREEN BAY, Wis. — More than 1,000 yards of offense, 79 points and two victories. Those dominant numbers belong to the San Francisco 49ers in their previous two meetings with the Green Bay Packers. First it was the NFC divisional round game in January 2013 that ended the Packers’ Super Bowl hopes, then it continued in Week 1 this season with more evidence that the 49ers have had the upper hand.

While Green Bay will certainly need Aaron Rodgers and the offense to be productive in Sunday’s wild-card matchup at Lambeau Field, that hasn’t been the main problem in the two most recent showdowns with San Francisco. It’s the Packers’ highly scrutinized defense that needs to do a significantly better job this weekend than it has in its past two chances against the 49ers.

"The defense needs to play its best game of the year," coach Mike McCarthy said.

Dom Capers’ group surrendered 323 rushing yards to San Francisco in last year’s playoff game. Colin Kaepernick set a quarterback record by rushing for 181 yards, while running back Frank Gore added 119 yards. The zone-read gave Capers’ defense such fits that Green Bay’s coaching staff dedicated a big chunk of its offseason learning how to stop it. Then, with Capers feeling confident that he was prepared to not let that happen again, Kaepernick’s aerial assault of 412 passing yards in Week 1 had the Packers’ defense wondering yet again what they can do to contain the 49ers’ offense.

"For the most part, we did stop the run pretty well last time, but they torched us through the air," linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "We’ve got to find a way to kind of stop both of them. I don’t know. I don’t have any secret answer for you or any special potion. But we’re working on it. We’re making sure everyone has everything right, and we’re all playing together, basically."

Though Kaepernick had great success in the passing game in Week 1, Green Bay held him to just 22 rushing yards while also only giving up 44 rushing yards to Gore. In that game, however, the Packers had both outside linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive lineman Johnny Jolly healthy and on the field. Matthews had a particularly good game in stopping the run. In Sunday’s rematch, neither Matthews nor Jolly will be available.

"Those guys (Matthews and Jolly) are unreplaceable-type guys," Hawk said. "Not only what they bring physically and mentally, but their passion and energy, too."

Matthews’ absence means more snaps for Mike Neal, Nick Perry and rookie Andy Mulumba. Though he hasn’t played as many overall snaps as the other two, Mulumba has been the best run-stopper of that group. Since Jolly was placed on injured reserve on Dec. 22, Capers has decided to primarily play in sub-packages, often using just two defensive linemen. That limitation could be an additional challenge for Green Bay in trying to keep Gore and Kaepernick from running wherever they want.

"I have no idea what’s in Dom’s head or what he’s trying to run," veteran Ryan Pickett said when asked if having to play more inexperienced defensive players has affected what Capers can draw up. "I think he makes the calls and we’re just playing ‘em. It’s Week 18, we’ve been playing too long, there’s no rookies anymore. We don’t even talk like that."

Beginning with Gore, the Packers’ run defense was very good early in the season. After Weeks 6 and 7, Green Bay was ranked No. 3 in the NFL stopping the run. The Packers were so good in that area that they were on pace to be the best run defense in franchise history. But by Week 13, Green Bay had fallen all the way to No. 26 in the league. It didn’t improve over the final month of the regular season, either, as the Packers finished the year ranked 25th.

"We’ve got to stop Frank Gore," defensive lineman Mike Daniels said. "The 49ers pride themselves and being big, tough, physical, pound the ball. We came and we answered that (in Week 1), and we did a great job of doing it. We just have to continue that mentality that we can do this. ‘This is what we do, this is our identity as a tough, physical football team.’"

At age 30, Gore finished this season with 1,128 rushing yards. It was the seventh time in the past eight seasons that Gore has eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards. And from what Green Bay has seen on film, Gore is showing no signs of slowing down.

"You just watch him, it’s amazing," Pickett said. "He finds the smallest creases and he gets through them. The guy is tough. He’s a hard runner, he’s always falling forward. We’ve got our work cut out for us."

"In my opinion, he’s one of the most underrated backs in the league, it seems," added nose tackle B.J. Raji. "The media never really talks about him, but if you look on film, his instincts, he’s squeezing through gaps that are a few inches wide. It’s amazing to watch."

The Packers’ defense has struggled this season. There’s no denying that fact, with league rankings that include being 24th in both points allowed and in passing yards allowed. Making matters more difficult for Green Bay is how the 49ers’ offense have taken advantage of it as much — or more — than any NFL team over the past calendar year.

"I love our defense," McCarthy said. "I love our football team. Throw the stats out the window. We could sit here and roll around in that stuff all you want. You can throw the bad ones at me and I’ll throw the good ones back at you. We’re a playoff football team. Our identity has changed."

When Pickett recently watched the tape from the Week 1 matchup, he said "it seemed like it was two years ago." For the Packers to win Sunday, their defense will have to show that they’ve learned from everything that’s gone wrong the past two times against San Francisco.

"It’s not a redemption thing or we’re going to take back what they took from us," Hawk said. "Yeah, they’ve beat us, so they can say whatever they want. They kind of have the crown over us. They’ve beat us, but the good thing is Sunday is a new day for everybody."

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