Bill Huber of Packer Report and Chris Biderman of Niners Digest go Behind Enemy Lines as part of our in-depth coverage leading up to Sunday's season-opening showdown. In Part 1, it's San Francisco's offense against Green Bay's defense.
CHRIS BIDERMAN: In both matchups last year, the 49ers were able to hurt the Packers with the running game. Green Bay finished the season ranked 25th against the rush. How has it addressed that this offseason?
BILL HUBER: Practice, practice, practice.
Never mind the read-option stuff for a moment. The Packers devoted huge chunks to the running game on a daily basis at practice. The longest scrimmage periods of the day were team-run periods, which were 80 percent running plays with an occasional play-action pass mixed in. Almost every day, there were half-line drills in which a tackle, guard, center and guard, along with some combination of fullbacks and tight ends, lined up against the defensive line, two inside linebackers, an outside linebacker and a safety. There was no question what was coming. It was all about being physical and beating the man in front of you.
Those drills should pay dividends on both sides of the ball. The run defense was excellent in the preseason with the first unit.
Personnel-wise, the Packers seem well-equipped. Two key additions are Nick Perry and Johnny Jolly. Perry, an outside linebacker, was last year's first-round pick. He missed the final 10 games after needing wrist surgery. He's big, strong and physical. Jolly, a defensive end, was suspended for the past three seasons and served a stint in prison because of his drug addiction. When he last played in 2009, the Packers fielded the NFL's best run defense. Stunningly, he had an excellent training camp and, had you not known any better, you never would have guessed he was kicking off three years worth of rust.
As for the read-option, in particular, and athletic quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick, in general, the Packers continue to get more athletic on defense. Charles Woodson, a great leader and playmaker but a declining athlete, is playing for Oakland. First-round pick Datone Jones adds an athlete to the defensive line.
It's interesting: For public consumption, defensive coordinator Dom Capers has downplayed the impact of the pistol/read-option and the amount of work his staff did on it during the offseason. Capers and the rest of the coaching staff went to Texas A&M for a day to meet with the Aggies' coaching staff, and Capers met with Wisconsin's defensive coordinator, who faced Kaepernick during Kaepernick's days at Nevada. During camp, the defense worked against it only in jog-through situations. Not one live snap was run during 19 training camp practices.
Really, the start of this season is incredibly fascinating. Will defensive coordinators, with all offseason to prep for a scheme that was sort of sprung on everybody last year, have the answers? Is it really just a matter of everyone doing his job and playing disciplined, as Capers maintains? Or will the read-option attack confound them, just like it's confounded their counterparts on the college level?
CHRIS: The Packers were one of the better teams against the pass last year. With another year of experience for for the secondary, do you see them taking the next step and becoming an elite unit?
BILL: Absolutely, because they have outstanding cornerback depth and the potential for a superior pass rush.
First of all, the defensive backs know how to get the ball. Since Capers took over as coordinator in 2009, the Packers' 103 interceptions lead the league by a mile. New England is a distant second with 86. Green Bay finished first with 31 in 2011 and 30 in 2009, and was second with 24 in 2010. The Packers have the only 30-interception seasons in the league during Capers' tenure.
As a rookie last year, Casey Hayward had six interceptions. Sam Shields, who had the pick-six in the playoff loss, had five interceptions in 12 games (including playoffs). Tramon Williams had two interceptions last season but 19 over the previous four.
The Packers, as hard as it may be to believe for the fans, finished fourth in sacks last season. The problem was the pass rush disappeared against good opponents. With the addition of Jones, the second-year improvement of Mike Daniels and the return of Perry, the Packers should have plenty of options to get to the quarterback.
CHRIS: How have rookies Datone Jones and Micah Hyde looked in training camp and do you envision them having significant roles on the defense this season?
BILL: Jones got off to a great start until he injured his ankle on his first snap of the preseason. That was a big setback, and he made almost no impact in the final three preseason games. The Packers don't need him to line up at end in the base defense. They just need him to push the pocket, make the quarterback feel uneasy and get some sacks. If and when he'll be able to do that this season remains to be seen.
Hyde, a fifth-round pick out of Iowa, had an excellent preseason. He lacks elite speed, which is why he slipped so far in the draft, but he just knows how to play the game. When lined up at the nickel spot, it was almost like watching Charles Woodson flying up in run support or blitzing the quarterback. He's a fearless tackler with a nose for the football.
Honestly, I have no idea what his role will be on Sunday or beyond. The nickel is Hayward's spot, though Hayward barely played in the preseason due to hamstring injuries and might not be ready for the Niners. If Hayward is back, it's possible Hyde gets thrown into the dime spot, which is sort of a hybrid safety/nickel/linebacker position, but the Packers hadn't shown that wrinkle during camp or the preseason.
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