There has been emphasis by teams across the NFL to stop the read-option. Perhaps none more so than the Green Bay Packers, who were scorched by Colin Kaepernick the night their season ended in the divisional round of the playoffs last January.
Kaepernick played maestro for a 49ers offense that racked up 579 total yards against Green Bay's defense that had no answers. But after a full offseason of working on preventing San Francisco's star quarterback from getting outside the pocket's edges, it's a good bet they have found a way to neutralize designed quarterback runs.
When the two teams meet again Sunday, the Packers will do everything they can to force Kaepernick to beat them from the pocket. They will likely copy what the Ravens did in the Super Bowl by hedging a defensive end or outside linebacker and making sure he hits Kaepernick every chance he gets.
With the injuries to Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham, San Francisco's lone threat at receiver with any track record is Anquan Boldin. Kyle Williams should get the most snaps opposite Boldin, but expect a heavy rotation including Marlon Moore and rookie Quinton Patton as well.
That makes Vernon Davis the most important player in the 49ers' passing game.
How he fares against Green Bay's secondary could go a long way toward deciding the outcome of the heavy weight matchup between two of the NFC's more dangerous teams.
"I feel like me and Colin, we're on a different level than where we were last season," Davis said. "You have to think about it. A quarterback steps in, it takes some time to really learn his receivers…that's predicated on timing."
After Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith as the starter in Week 10, Davis averaged less than two catches per game for the remainder of the regular season. He notched one reception or fewer in five of the last six regular season games. His six-catch game against the Bears in Kaepernick's first start was the outlier at the time.
It's clear there was an adjustment period to the new signal caller. Smith was the only quarterback Davis ever had. It took the former sixth-overall selection in 2006 three seasons before emerging as a player worthy of his draft status. It's no surprise he didn't hit the ground running with Kaepernick leading the offense following the hot start after one week.
Fortunately for San Francisco, they were lucky enough to earn the No. 2 seed in the playoffs after the Minnesota Vikings edged the Packers in the regular season finale. Kaepernick and Davis had a bye week to get on the same page.
But things didn't quite work out in the early going of the divisional round matchup. Kaepernick dropped back to make his second pass of the game, scrambled, looked for Davis in the left flat and was intercepted by Sam Shields. He returned it 52 yards for a touchdown, capping a dreary beginning to Kaepernick's postseason career.
On his next possession, Kaepernick would finish off an 80-yard drive with a 20-yard touchdown scamper and the rest was history.
But Kaepernick's 444-yard night only saw one catch from Davis. It was an explosive 44-yard gain in the third quarter that led to a Frank Gore touchdown. Davis found himself isolated against middle linebacker A.J. Hawk on a seam route down the right side. His lone catch on five targets came on a mismatch with an outside linebacker. Charles Woodson did a commendable job in coverage.
The Packers adjusted from Week 1, when Davis made two of his three catches against reserve corner Jarret Bush, including a touchdown.
Things turned around for Davis as the 49ers advanced through the playoffs. He combined for 11 catches and 110 yards in the NFC title game and Super Bowl. That momentum led into a great training camp for the Kaepernick-Davis connection.
What changes will we see from the Packers Sunday?
Those injury problems bode very well for Davis.
"Not sure," Davis said when asked about what he expects from the Packers' defense. "These guys, I'm pretty sure they will try anything. They're very creative over there."
They will have to be.
Green Bay replaced Woodson with third-year safety M.D. Jennings, an undrafted rookie that made the team in 2011 out of Arkansas State. Jennings replaced Woodson in the starting lineup in the last nine regular season games before he returned to play in the 45-31 loss in San Francisco.
Jennings played well in Woodson's stead, allowing just nine catches on 22 targets in coverage. Quarterbacks had a 69.3 rating when throwing in his direction.
"M.D. and Jerron (McMillian) have taken a lot of reps, a lot of football throughout the preseason," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy told reporters Friday. "We're confident we have a number of different personnel groups so we're ready to go."
McMillian, a second-year player, would get thrown into the fire against Davis if Brunett can't play. The fourth-round pick also helped fill Woodson's shoes while dealing with his collarbone injury. He started the season well, but struggled in the second half. His worst game of the season was Week 17's loss in Minnesota.
"They would try to bang me up a little bit and put Charles Woodson on me whenever they were in man-to-man and just try to take me away down field," Davis said about the two matchups with Green Bay in 2012.
"Whenever I take off, whether I had a seam route or there was a route where I was going directly down the middle of the field, they would have A.J. Hawk drop back. Or have a DB looking at me. They switch it up."
Without Hayward, the Packers seem less likely to match Davis up with a corner and will likely rely on different zone looks with linebackers playing underneath and the safeties playing up top.
Burnett will be a game-time decision. Should he remain out, Davis would be going against two smaller and inexperienced safeties at the back end of Green Bay's secondary trying to contain one of the game's most explosive tight ends.