Third-Down Failures Stick With Capers Most

Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers' offense had an answer for everything in posting a 579-yard destruction of the Packers. But what left the Packers' defensive coordinator irked after reviewing the video was his unit's inability to get off the field, particularly on third-and-long.

Dom Capers, even by his highly organized standards, could not have been more ready for this session with the media. Before anyone among the large gathering packed in the hallway outside the Green Bay Packers' locker room could ask the first question, he spoke up.

Using a sheet of paper colored with highlighter stripes as his reference guide, he broke down the deciding plays from the Packers' 45-31 divisional playoff loss at San Francisco. His opening comments took nearly 4 minutes. Giving up 579 yards takes some time to explain.

"The game started about as good as it could start with Sam Shields' interception for a touchdown," said the defensive coordinator, "and really the next series is when our problems started. As I go through the game, our problems were more on third down than anything else."

While Capers' season-closing chat with reporters on Wednesday covered a variety of topics — namely his coaching future, personnel matters on defense and Colin Kaepernick's multidimensional ability — he kept coming back to an inability to get off the field as the big reason his unit failed so miserably.

"You don't ever expect this type of thing, but I've been around the league long enough to know that when you're in a big game like that and you don't make the plays, the momentum gets rolling against you and you have a hard time in those situations," said Capers. "That's kind of what happened to us. When you get teams in third-and-10, third-and-13, third-and-15 in this league, you've got to find a way to get off the field. It gets amplified a little bit when you've got a quarterback that can run around and buy time because that gives a chance to uncover, which happened on that first long play (a 45-yard completion to Frank Gore)."

Kaepernick's 56-yard touchdown run on a read-option play — where he went untouched to the end zone — was the biggest play of the night, however, breaking a 24-24 tie in the third quarter. But even before that, the 49ers' second-year quarterback had done his damage. Of his 181 rushing yards (an NFL record for a quarterback), 107 came in the first half.

"I think that when you're playing a quarterback like this, you've got to adjust your rush lanes because that hurt us early in the game," said Capers. "Like I say, the second series we have the holding penalty (on Tramon Williams), which gives them a first down. Then we're in a two-deep zone and he scrambles around and just dumps the ball to Gore, who ends up running for 45 yards. Then we had really excellent coverage on the third-and-8 down there, and when you're playing against this quarterback, it's a lot like when you're playing against (Adrian) Peterson, you can't get people at different levels of your defense, because he scrambled out and scored a touchdown. That was kind of a common theme in the first half. The adjustment we made was we went to the spy technique and tried to spy him and he ended up juking us on the spy call. We just had a hard time getting plays made on third down. I don't care who you're playing in this league, if a team converts, I think, five or six third-and-longs on you, you aren't going to do a very good job, and that's what happened to us."

Capers insisted he made other adjustments besides using a spy to keep an eye on Kaepernick. At halftime, he talked to his unit about rush-lane distribution. He even sent extra rushers at Kaepernick, like when Casey Hayward came from his slot cornerback position with a blitz, but Kaepernick turned the rookie's missed tackle into a 19-yard gain just before the two-minute warning.

"I think you saw when we pressured him, we were free one time and we missed the tackle coming off the edge," said Capers. "The next time we came around, they chipped us and he pulled the ball down and ran for 20 yards. When that happens a couple of times, it makes you a little more reluctant to start bringing people and pressuring him, and you play a little more straight up. We went to playing a little more straight up and they threw the seam route on us to (Vernon) Davis."

Davis' 44-yard reception over the top of linebacker A.J. Hawk came on a drive that the 49ers extended with a third-and-2 conversion on a 16-yard completion to Michael Crabtree. Two plays after Davis' big catch, the 49ers scored on a 2-yard Gore touchdown run to open up a 38-24 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter.

By that point, the 49ers had converted a third-and-10, a third-and-8, a third-and-12 (which went for a touchdown), a third-and-9, and a third-and-10. Kaepernick used his feet on four of five of those conversions, either scrambling or getting away from a pass rush to complete a pass like he did on the 45-yarder to Gore in the first quarter.

"Our issues in the first half weren't as much the zone-read play as they were the quarterback scrambling and running against us and not being able to get off the field on third down," said Capers.

All told, the 49ers were 8-for-13 on third down, good for a 61.5 percent conversion clip. Those first downs played a big role in contributing to an overwhelming time of possession advantage (38:01 to 21:59).

Only the Detroit Lions in a Dec. 9 game at Lambeau Field had a better third-down conversion rate (11-of-17, 64.7 percent) against the Packers. For the regular season, the Packers 38.1 percent rate was good for 15th in the league, up 11 spots from their 2011 ranking.

"It wasn't like we sat there and just tried to do the same thing," summed up Capers. "We did try to adjust. Again, I came back, and believe me I looked at this tape a ton of times. You've got to make plays on third down and not give these guys a chance to reload again."

49ers on third down vs. Packers

Third-and-2, SF 28-yard line, 11:41 remaining (first quarter) — Kaepernick pass incomplete to Crabtree, but Williams called for defensive holding.

Third-and-10, SF 33, 11:28 (first quarter) — Kaepernick finds Gore for a 45-yard completion (29 yards come after the catch). Said Capers of the play: "Kaepernick scrambles and throws the ball over the top of us."

Third-and-8, GB 20, 9:09 (first quarter) — Kaepernick runs 20 yards for a touchdown. Said Capers: "We had good coverage, so it was more of a rush-lane problem."

Third-and-2, SF 21, 6:49 (first quarter) — Kaepernick runs for 13 yards.

Third-and-eight, GB 40, 3:27 (first quarter) — Kaepernick pass incomplete to tight end Delanie Walker.

Third-and-12, SF 47, 12:33 (second quarter) — Kaepernick passes to Gore for 3 yards, stopped by Brad Jones. On the ensuing punt, Jeremy Ross muffs the return and the 49ers recover at the 9-yard line.

Third-and-12, GB 12, 11:04 (second quarter) — After the Ross fumble, Kaepernick passes to Crabtree for a 12-yard touchdown (9 yards come after the catch).

Third-and-1, GB 39, 7:58 (second quarter) — LaMichael James runs up the middle for a 14-yard gain. Said Capers: "They hit a trap play there."

Third-and-9, GB 24, 6:25 (second quarter) — Kaepernick scrambles for 15 yards before getting flagged for taunting, which is enforced between downs. Said Capers: "We call a call that we put in during the course of the game because we were having problems with containing the quarterback. We had a guy assigned to the quarterback (Erik Walden) and he got juked and they picked the first down up on that."

Third-and-10, SF 42, 1:41 (second quarter) — Kaepernick runs for 18 yards. Said Capers: "We blitzed them and they blocked it up and pulled the ball down."

Third-and-10, GB 27, 0:35 (second quarter) — Kaepernick runs for 9 yards. The 49ers call their last timeout with 3 seconds left to set up David Akers 36-yard field goal to end the half.

Third-and-8, SF 37, 12:07 (third quarter) — Kaepernick passes incomplete to Davis.

Third-and-2, SF 15, 3:36 (third quarter) — Kaepernick throws to Crabtree for 16 yards. Said Capers: "We tried to go to a little bit more of a three-deep zone because of the zone-read play and then they run the stretch on A.J. (Hawk) for 44 yards up the field (three plays later). On that play, we've got to get a better break over the top."

Third-and-15, GB 32, 6:15 (fourth quarter) — Kaepernick passes to Crabtree for 14 yards (13 yards come after the catch). On the next play (fourth-and-1), the 49ers go for it and B.J. Raji is called for encroachment.

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at

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