Here is my Friday column previewing the 49ers-Packers game.
Jim Harbaugh has to understand Clay Matthews isn’t bluffing.
Matthews wants to take out Colin Kaepernick. Every Packer does. Matthews said so. If the 49ers run the read-option, the Packers will try to hurt Kaepernick.
They’d be nuts not to. It’s legal. It’s smart. Knocking him out is the Packers’ best chance to win, and the read-option play is the best opportunity to knock him out. On a read-option, the offense leaves one pass rusher unblocked. The read-option is supposed to trick the rusher, he doesn’t know if the quarterback or the running back has the ball.
But the Packers’ rushers may not care who has the ball. They may just take out Kaepernick while he’s handing off on the option-read, while he’s still pretending to be a runner. Sure, Frank Gore may take the ball and gain 15 yards. But if Kaepernick goes down, the game would be over. Colt McCoy cannot beat the Packers. Sorry, Colt.
The 49ers should not run any read-option plays against the Packers. There is no reason to expose Kaepernick to unnecessary bodily harm. He can put up 30 points against the Packers’ defense as a traditional drop-back quarterback. The 49ers scored 30 points last year in Green Bay with Alex Smith at quarterback.
If the 49ers fall behind on Sunday, maybe they can use the read-option in the red zone. That’s the only time. They’re subpar in the red zone, so the read-option may be their best option down there. They could use it in the red zone because if the Packers focus on Kaepernick, Gore could burn them for a touchdown up the middle.
But is it worth the risk to run the read-option at all? The Niners have no chance of making the playoffs without Kaepernick.
So, let’s assume the 49ers protect Kaepernick, and he barely uses the read-option, and he doesn’t get knocked out of the game. Can they still possibly lose?
When the 49ers lose, they get bullied. Offenses run the ball right into Justin Smith and Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. These runs usually aren’t big-gainers – the 49ers’ front-seven is excellent – but the commitment to a balanced offense is key.
The 49ers’ defense tries to make the opponent one-dimensional – passing only – and last season the Packers’ offense was happy to oblige them, to submit. Green Bay rushed 22 times in two games against San Francisco. Forty-Niners’ defensive coordinator Vic Fangio called those two performances “basketball on grass.” Not a compliment.
Basketball on grass – or ballet on grass, however you want to call it – is not how you beat the 49ers. Running the ball is what the Vikings did on September 23, 2012 when they unexpectedly beat the 49ers 24-13. Remember, you have to bully the 49ers, be the more physical team. The Packers have to run the ball about 25 times on Sunday or they have no chance.
Let’s assume the Packers commit to their rush attack. If they can average a measly 3 yards per carry – doable – Aaron Rodgers can use the play-action pass. He needs the play-action pass or he’s a sitting duck.
The 49ers also have to be prepared for Rodgers’ quick, three-step-drop passes. Rodgers delivers the ball as fast as any quarterback, maybe faster, and his slot receiver, Randall Cobb, gets open almost instantly. Carlos Rogers will have trouble with him.
I just laid out two scenarios where the Packers can beat the 49ers. Do I think either will happen?
The Packers’ offensive line stinks. Green Bay can’t consistently grind out 4 yards per play like the 49ers’ offense can because the Packers’ can’t keep defenders out of the backfield.
The Packers’ offensive tackles – 21-year-old rookie LT David Bakhtiari and 24-year-old, second-year RT Don Barclay – can’t hold up against the 49ers’ edge rushers, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. It’s a matchup of scrubs versus All-Pros. Rodgers needs the run fake to momentarily distract the pass rush and buy time to get the ball down the field. Even that is unlikely to save him, especially on third-and-long when everyone knows it’s a pass. The 49ers’ pass rush will be all over him. Talk about Kaepernick getting hurt, Rodgers will be ducking and covering.
The 49ers will win 30-27.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at email@example.com