So fearful of losing contain on Colin Kaepernick in light of his 188 rushing yards in the playoff game, the Packers last week rushed the passer with practically a singular focus on keeping him in the pocket.
"I wouldn't even consider that rushing the passer," outside linebacker/defensive end Mike Neal said. "It's not hard to rush the passer if you're not able to rush the passer. We were told to contain him and that's pretty much what we did."
That's the give and take when facing quarterbacks like Kaepernick and Washington's Robert Griffin III, who the Packers will try to keep in check on Sunday at Lambeau Field. It worked to an extent last week, with Kaepernick limited to 22 yards on seven rushes.
Neal, according to ProFootballFocus.com, played 48 snaps against the 49ers, 25 of which were spent "rushing" the passer. According to Neal, he was turned loose just one time. On that play, Neal rushed from right outside linebacker and got his mitts on Kaepernick but couldn't get him down. It was a perfect example of why defensive coordinator Dom Capers took such a cautious approach — and why he might do so again. When Neal couldn't make the play, Kaepernick ran for 15 to convert a third-and-9.
"There's different styles of rush," Capers said. "There's an out-of-control rush – go get the quarterback. When you do that, there's going to be a lot of seams in your defense. Happened to us a little bit in the playoffs where we were too out of control and you saw Kaepernick had 72 yards rushing on just scrambles. So, it doesn't make any difference what kind of coverage you have if you're doing that. There's times when you're playing a guy like that that you're going to take more of a controlled rush to where you want him to feel the pressure but you can't be making moves and flying up the field and having him come out and run for 18 yards."
That's why the Packers' outside linebackers spent so much time bull rushing rather than using speed around the corner or trying an inside move.
"You always want to go full speed in everything you do but you have to have awareness of how wide seams are getting in the pass rush lanes and maintain the ability to come back in a seam that has widened," said outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene, who recalled his matchups against Randall Cunningham and Steve Young. "Between you and I, there's a seam. If you go this way and I go that way, then that seam widens. As you rush, we want you going full speed but you need to have situational awareness that when gaps widen that if you're too wide, you can't cover."
With 815 rushing yards last season, Griffin set an NFL record for a rookie quarterback. A dual-threat performer, Griffin became the first player in league history with a 60-yard rushing touchdown and four 60-yard passing touchdowns.
"Their athleticism is something that is rare and you have to account for that, particularly when you're in coverage," safeties coach Darren Perry said in comparing Kaepernick and Griffin. "They thrive on the big play and we've got to make sure that we keep the ball in front of us. When we get opportunities to make plays on the ball, we need to (turn) those opportunities into turnovers."
TURNOVERS KEY FOR TURNAROUNDS
Turnovers are the biggest factor in determining who wins and loses. No news there. Look at last week, when the Packers had two giveaways, no takeaways and lost 34-28 at San Francisco.
Who knows what happens if Tramon Williams can hang onto Kaepernick's pass on the second play of last week's game for what might have been a pick-six.
Or, when the Redskins lost 33-27 to Philadelphia. Washington lost the turnover battle 3-2, with its giveaways turned into 17 points en route to a 33-7 deficit.
"Anytime you've got four turnovers in eight drives, usually good things don't happen," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said, including a safety in his turnover count.
Under coach Mike McCarthy, the Packers are 1-14 when they fail to record a takeaway.
Maybe some home cooking will help: Over the past four seasons, the Packers have forced a league-high 78 turnovers in home games. They've forced at least two turnovers in 23 of those 32 games, with a 22-1 record. They also are a league-best plus-45 in turnovers at home during that span.
While the Packers have 23 more interceptions than any team in the league since the start of 2008, causing fumbles has been an ongoing problem.
"First and foremost, you've got to get the guy down but you've got to know when to take your shot," outside linebacker Clay Matthews said. "A turnover's huge. For the first tackler, you've got to get him secured, wrapped up and then go after the ball. When you're truly a special talent, you can do all of them at the same time. We obviously didn't come up with the turnovers last week. It's something that we've emphasized this week – something we've emphasized as a defense all together is not giving them the ball and then turning the ball over. We'll be getting after it this week."
Doing it against the Redskins will be a challenge, despite what last week's three giveaways suggest. In 2012, Washington turned over the ball just 14 times. That set a franchise record; the old record was 16, set in the strike-shortened 1982 season. Washington joined the 2011 Packers among just nine teams since the 1970 merger with no more than 14 turnovers in a season.
On the other side of the ball, the Redskins scored 113 points off of 31 takeaways last season, their most points since 1995. Can they make that kind of key play against the Packers? While they had two critical giveaways last week, the Packers are coming off three of the best seasons in franchise history with a team-record 14 in 2011 and 16 apiece in 2009 and 2012. The Packers are 27-5 under McCarthy with no turnovers and 25-11 with one.
After getting crushed by the 49ers' running game in the playoffs, the Packers slammed the door shut in that area last week.
Unfortunately, it didn't make a big difference in the grand scheme of things. The 49ers went 8-of-13 on third down in the playoff game, including converting five times on third-and-long. Last week, San Francisco converted on 9-of-18 third-down plays.
While it wasn't as bad as in the playoff game, the 49ers moved the chains on several situations that should have been in the Packers' favor. On third-and-3 through third-and-7, Kaepernick was 4-of-5 passing for 56 yards, four first downs and a touchdown. On third-and-8 through third-and-10, he was 2-of-2 passing for 42 yards, two first downs and a touchdown.
In all, on third-and-4 through third-and-9, the 49ers went 7-for-10, with six first downs through the air and another on a scramble. On third-and-11-plus, Green Bay's defense got off the field on all four occasions. Kaepernick completed 2-of-4 passes for 25 meaningless yards on checkdowns.
Green Bay enters the game ranked 23rd in third-down defense. Third down also will be an emphasis for Washington's offense. The Redskins are 30th in the league after converting just 20 percent of their third-down plays last week.
"You have to make plays when you have your opportunities," Capers said. "There were a few things that we did very well, but we didn't make any interceptions, we didn't get any fumble recoveries, we let them convert too many third downs, and that was it in a nutshell. Every week it comes down to who makes two, three, four plays. You look at the game Monday night (against) the Eagles, the first three series they turned the ball over and next thing you know they're way up at halftime. That's the nature of this game. But yet you can't ever relax because the Redskins in the second half threw the ball up and down the field and got back into the game."
THE OTHER SIDELINE
— How about ageless linebacker London Fletcher? Fletcher, who entered the league as an undrafted rookie out of Division III John Carroll in 1998, will play in his 242nd consecutive game on Sunday, putting him one behind Bill Romanowski's NFL record for a defensive player. And this will be Fletcher's 201st consecutive start. Derrick Brooks holds the record for a defensive player with 208. Among current players, Eli Manning's 136 consecutive starts are a distant second.
"He's doing great," Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said during a conference call on Wednesday. "He's like a coach on the field. He's done a great job since I've been here. It's amazing that a guy 38 years old that can play at the level he does."
Fletcher, who was December's NFC Defensive Player of the Month and an All-Pro for the second consecutive season, had 13 tackles in Week 1 against Philadelphia.
"Just a great player," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "I had a chance to be with him in the Pro Bowl. Class act, very instinctive player. It's amazing how these guys, what they're able to do with their bodies in the later stages of their career. He's in great shape. He's basically the quarterback of their defense. You can see in the Monday night game, you could tell he was handling the defensive calls. It looks like there's a lot of trust there as far as the responsibility he's given as far as communicating the defenses and trying to keep them in clean defenses."
— Another week, another big challenge for the Packers' offensive tackles. Washington's outside linebackers are Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan, who were first-round picks in 2009 and 2011, respectively.
Just how good are they?
"I'd say they're pretty good," Shanahan said during his conference call. "Is this a setup question? I was going to compare them to your guys' (outside linebackers). You've got some great outside linebackers and I feel we do, too. If you're going to run the 3-4 scheme, you better have some outside linebackers. If not, you're in for a long day."
Orakpo missed most of last season after tearing a pectoral in Week 2. He had 28.5 sacks in his first three seasons. Kerrigan had a sack last week after leading the squad with 8.5 last season.
"They're an excellent pair," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. "They present challenges to you. They are relentless, they get after you. They're what you look for, from a defensive standpoint, in outside rushers."
Orakpo will spend most of the day lined up over rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari. He had two sacks when he faced the Packers in 2010.
"He's a good player. He's got a lot of Clay-like pass-rushing abilities," Bakhtiari said.
— Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall needs one interception to become one of five active players with 40 career thefts. The others: Ed Reed, Charles Woodson, Champ Bailey and Asante Samuel. Hall returned a fumble for a touchdown last week against Philadelphia. He's one of seven players in NFL history with at least four fumbles returned for scores.
— If the Redskins score at least 27 points, they will have done so for six consecutive regular-season games. They haven't accomplished that feat since the 1990 and 1991 seasons.
— Last season, Washington led the NFL with 266 rushes for at least 4 yards, and it also led the league with 85 runs of 10-plus yards. By contrast, Green Bay's defense ranked 25th in the league last season by allowing 4-plus yards on 45.0 percent of opponent rushing attempts. Against San Francisco last week, however, the Packers cut that percentage to a sixth-ranked 29.4 percent.
Was last week just a fluke for a unit that's ranked in the bottom quarter of the league in yards per carry since setting a franchise record for rushing yards allowed in 2009? And, as a counterpoint, can the Packers' defense do more than just stop the run?
"Well, I certainly hope so," Capers said. "The only indication I have is during preseason, I thought we played the run very well in the preseason. I like the way we started last week playing the run. The physical question has come and I don't think there was any question about the physicality of our guys to step up in there, and I've never had any question about it. But you've got to be able to play both phases of the game, and what we have to do is we have to get back to taking the ball away the way we have here for a number of years. That's kind of the basis of our philosophy, to stop the run and take the ball away. We did No. 1, we didn't do No. 2."
— With a win, the Packers would earn their 50th home-opening victory in franchise history. That would make Green Bay the only club in the league with at least 50 wins in home and road openers. Green Bay boasts a league-best 26-2 record in its last 28 regular-season home games dating to Week 10 of 2009. That includes a 20-1 mark in the Packers' last 21 at Lambeau Field.
— Here's a meaningless but interesting number: During Shanahan's stints as a head coach, from 1992 through 2008 and 2010 through today, his teams have scored 7,911 points. The only team with more during those years? Green Bay, with 7,914.
— Last week, the Packers were destroyed by veteran receiver Anquan Boldin. They'll see another cagey veteran on Sunday with Santana Moss. He needs 147 receiving yards to become the fourth player in franchise history with 7,500. Plus, he needs 15 receptions to become the ninth active player to his 700.
— The Packers own an 18-14-1 lead in the series, including postseason. The series started in 1932, with the three-time defending champions beating the Boston Braves 21-0. The next year, the Braves became the Boston Redskins.
In 1936, with the Redskins on the move to Washington for the following season, the Packers beat Boston 21-6 for the NFL Championship. The game was moved to the Polo Grounds in New York by Redskins owner George Preston Marshall. Don Hutson hauled in a 48-yard touchdown pass from Arnie Herber early in that game, which gave the Packers their first title since 1931.
The Washington Redskins earned the lone playoff victory of the series, 16-3, over the Packers in 1972. To this day, the Packers' players blame that loss on coach Dan Devine, who stubbornly continued to run into the Redskins' five-man front.
"You can't against that doggone thing," former center Ken Bowman said recently. "The way you beat it is you flare the halfback out of the backfield and it's pitch and catch because there's nobody out there to cover him. We kept trying to get him to just flare MacArthur Lane out of the backfield and pitch it to him and let him run down the sideline but (Devine) wouldn't do it. I remember John Wilber was the right guard for the Redskins. Years later, I got together with him and he was laughing his butt off. ‘We only put the 5-1 in to scare you guys and throw you a little curve, and the second you started passing against it, we were going to go back to a 4-3.' The fourth quarter, they're still in the 5-1 because we're not passing."
— The most famous game of the series was played in 1983, with Green Bay winning a Monday night shootout 48-47 when reigning league MVP Mark Moseley missing a 37-yard field goal on the final play.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau in a fresh story on this game in the upcoming Packer Report Magazine, no team in the NFL since time of possession started being recorded in 1976 scored more points per minute in any game.
— Eddie Lacy became the third rookie running back to start for the Packers since the 1970 merger. The others: John Brockington in 1971 and Brandon Jackson in 2007. Unbelievably, according to the Elias Sports Bureau via the Packers' Dope Sheet, Lacy became the first Packers running back to score a touchdown in his first career game since Ralph Earhart. Lacy's run was from 2 yards; Earhart scored from 72 against the Boston Yanks in 1948.
— Behind Griffin and Alfred Morris, whose 1,613 rushing yards was third-most in NFL history by a rookie and set a team record by any runner, the Redskins averaged 169.3 rushing yards per game. That was the first time the Redskins led the league in rushing since 1933.
"I think Mike Shanahan's always had a guy that runs for over 1,000 yards," Capers said. "Morris was very productive for them last year. They can do an awful lot of things. They've got a big, physical running back to run downhill on you, they've got a quarterback that's mobile, so he can certainly keep the ball and run with it."
— Lost amid the hullabaloo over his hit on Kaepernick and the comments of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is the fact that Matthews played a tremendous game. Matthews had one sack and two tackles for losses. Greene had him down for four quarterback hits. Pro Football Focus had Matthews for five run stops, tops among 3-4 outside linebackers.
"Great player. Clay, he's a talented guy that has a motor," Griffin said during his conference call. "Anybody with that immense amount of ability that plays every snap like it's his last is a dangerous guy. We'll be aware of him. You've always got to respect your opponent, and I respect Clay Matthews as a player, and that's all you can say. My team respects him as a player, and that's the way we have to go out about."
— The Redskins' 53-man roster includes 24 players who they drafted or acquired as college free agents and 12 players signed as unrestricted free agents. The Packers' roster includes 42 players acquired through draft or college free agency and just one (Ryan Pickett) signed as an unrestricted free agent.
— On 100 percent of their second- and third-down plays against the 49ers, the Packers lined up with one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers, according to league personnel data.
— Shanahan boasts a career record of 175-132, including postseason. He's eight wins from tying Bill Parcells for 10th in NFL history and one win ahead of 12th-place Mike Holmgren, who was nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame earlier in the week.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Or, the best thing that was said that we couldn't work into a story this week.
Matthews, on facing a read-option quarterback for the second week in a row: "It just goes to show that the game plan the coaches put in, it really worked. But there's two parts to that — obviously, stopping them throwing the ball, as well. This week is no different. We need to make sure we've got some pass rush after him as well as our DBs on the back end covering and tackling. We need to make sure we're aggressive and we shut down that read-option right off the bat."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.