Revamped Packers defense awaits 49ers

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Four months ago, the Packers didn’t look like a team destined for a great season. Beaten by the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1 at Lambeau Field, the 30-22 final score wasn’t indicative of just how one-sided the game really was.
With Green Bay’s win over the Minnesota Vikings in the opening round of the playoffs, the Packers earned a chance to face the 49ers again and are hoping to prove that they’ve become a much better team since early September.
“I would like to think we changed,” nose tackle B.J. Raji said. “We really didn’t have our identity then. Most good coaches say it takes about four weeks to find your identity as a team. It was a good game and they beat us, but I think we’re a different team now.”
It’s not uncommon for an NFL team to have a few different players on the field in the postseason than it did early in the regular season, but Green Bay’s defense has gone through many changes.
At the time, the Packers were starting Jarrett Bush at cornerback. After a lackluster performance by Bush in that game, he was not only removed from his starting role but also taken out of nearly every defensive package. Bush played as many snaps against San Francisco as he did in the final 15 games combined. Since then, Sam Shields has ascended as the starter and performed well, while Casey Hayward’s stellar season at cornerback has him in contention for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
“We’ve played an awful lot of rookies, and those rookies now are not rookies any longer,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Sunday. “They’ve got some experience. I think back to that game and we had a number of guys where it was their very first time they’d been out there.”
Other rookies who played Week 1 included outside linebacker Nick Perry, Green Bay’s first-round pick who was starting opposite Clay Matthews. Perry is no longer a part of the defense, being placed on injured reserve after six games. He’s been replaced in the starting lineup by the rotating duo of Erik Walden and undrafted rookie Dezman Moses.
Rookie defensive lineman Jerel Worthy and second-year linebacker D.J. Smith were also starting when the Packers and 49ers last saw each other, with both now unavailable due to season-ending injuries.
“I think we’re quite a bit different team now,” Capers said. “Hopefully we’re a little more battle-tested with the guys we put on the field. Hopefully they’re a little more confident in our schemes and what we want to do.”
It’s not just personnel that’s changed Green Bay’s identity, though. Back in September, the Packers were coming off a season in which their 15-1 record did not represent how poor their defense had been. It was a defensive group in Week 1 that perhaps thought it could once again get by with creating turnovers at the expense of giving up a lot of yards, as it had done with mixed results the previous year.
With the exception of a few blunders along the way, the Packers have since become a much more assignment-conscious defense, allowing far fewer big plays due to miscommunication.
“We’re a better team now; that’s the bottom line,” veteran defensive back Charles Woodson said. “I think we’re a team right now that you can say is battle-tested. We’ve been in some tight ballgames and we’ve been able to pull them out. We feel like this week, going into a tough environment against a good team, that we’re ready for it.”
Green Bay’s defensive preparation the first time around with the 49ers was focused on quarterback Alex Smith. Preparing for Smith included seeing very few deep pass plays, and instead expecting a calculated game-management type of quarterback. But Smith has been out as San Francisco’s starter since Week 8 when an injury brought in second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Like Smith, Kaepernick does not throw many interceptions or take a lot of risks in the passing game. That’s about where the comparisons end. Kaepernick has more rushing yards in seven starts this season than Smith had in his past five years combined.
“You have to be ready for all the quarterback reads, the quarterback keeps,” Capers said of preparing for Kaepernick. “This guy we’re getting ready to play, you’ve seen him keep the ball and go 80 yards, so he has those kind of capabilities.”
The Packers’ offense isn’t that drastically different now than it was in Week 1. Aaron Rodgers has certainly not been benched as the starting quarterback and his group of wide receivers is still top notch. But coach Mike McCarthy’s offensive play-calling has had significantly more running plays as the season has progressed.
In the first meeting with the 49ers, Green Bay had only 14 runs and a season-high 44 passes. Of those 14 runs, five were called as passing plays that Rodgers ended up scrambling for positive yards on. By the end of the season, the Packers had run the ball on 43 percent of their total offensive snaps.
“I think everybody starts the season and has an idea and vision of who you want to be,” McCarthy said. “The reality of it is, there’s a lot of things that happen – there’s obstacles that you have to get through, there’s injuries to different players. Players coming in, players going out. I think all those things factor in who you really are and who you think you are.”
One of those offensive injuries was to veteran running back Cedric Benson, who was lost for the season after an injury in Week 5. McCarthy later tried James Starks and Alex Green as the featured running back, but he recently turned the ground game over to 5-foot-8 undrafted first-year player DuJuan Harris.
None of those changes, however, should confuse the Packers for a team that isn’t at its best when Rodgers is able to air it out downfield. Rodgers again topped the NFL in passer rating and touchdown-to-interception ratio while leading the league’s fifth-highest scoring offense.
“We’re going to stay in tune to who we are as a team,” McCarthy said. “The first game (against San Francisco) is definitely something we’ll use as far as our game-planning and go back to the matchups and so forth, but they’re a different team, too. I mean, everybody is.
“We’re not going to sit here and start making up things and trying to chase ghosts and worrying about schemes that are out there. We’re going to stay focused on the things that we do.”

Follow Paul Imig on Twitter.