Failure's Not an Option for Packers' Defense

Is stopping the read-option really as easy as everyone doing their job, as the Packers have insisted throughout training camp? The challenge seems considerable based on sheer X's and O's and the versatility of the man running the show, Colin Kaepernick. We go in depth on the hottest topic leading into Sunday's game.



Those are the underlined numbers from the Green Bay Packers' playoff loss at San Francisco last season.

Behind Colin Kaepernick's 181 rushing yards — most by a quarterback in playoff history — the 49ers slashed, gashed and trashed the Packers' defense to the tune of 579 yards in a 45-31 blowout.

Fairly or not, that night will forever be a black mark on defensive coordinator Dom Capers' career. From the opening minute to the end of the game, his defense never had an answer for Kaepernick, whether it was quarterback scrambles or the read-option.

Just about every time Capers has met with the media since that night, he's been asked and asked again about the read-option.

Asked the final question about it outside the Packers' locker room on Friday, Capers said with a laugh, "I'm ready to play the game."

For public consumption, the Packers' coaches and players on defense says there's nothing magical in limiting Kaepernick's running ability. If everyone does their job, they insist, the defense will be fine.

"You just have to be disciplined in your assignments and take care of your job," Capers said.

Of course, there's likely more to the Packers' game plan than simply playing disciplined to ensure that there's a defender in every gap. Of course, there's no reason for the Packers to discuss whatever wrinkles they've come up with over the last several months.

The challenge is considerable. Defenses at the collegiate level, which have seen the read-option expand and evolve over the course of several years, haven't come up with any reliable answers. Defenses at the professional level not only have to get up to speed quickly, but they also have to account for a quarterback — such as Kaepernick — who can throw the ball much better than just about every quarterback in college.

Speaking specifically of the read-option, the challenge is about math as much as X's and O's. In a traditional running scheme, the defense has an 11-10 advantage because the quarterback isn't a factor. With the read option, the numbers are reversed. Not only does the defense have to account for the quarterback, but they have to do it with one fewer defender.

"With traditional approaches, the quarterback knows before the play whether he will either hand the ball off or keep it," wrote's Chris Brown in a brilliant piece at "In the read-option, the quarterback, typically aligned in the shotgun, will "read" the movements of a particular defensive player, one the offense has specifically chosen not to block. It's based on this player's actions that the quarterback makes his decision — hence the (redundant) term "read-option."

After getting destroyed by Kaepernick, Charles Woodson was critical of Capers' adjustments, and Capers came under a torrent of criticism from fans. In fairness, the 49ers barely ran the read-option before that playoff game.

Asked on Wednesday if the 49ers had been saving the read option for the playoffs — which would be logical in using it as an element of surprise and ensuring that Kaepernick wasn't beat up entering the playoffs — or if they found a bit of magic in the playoffs and rode it to the Super Bowl, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said only, "I don't really go into the thinking that much or the schematic plan that was … we had run it before. It wasn't something that was new."

Not new, but close to it. During the regular season, the Niners lined up in the pistol 70 times out of 969 snaps and ran the read-option 29 times, according to's Bucky Brooks before the Super Bowl. In their first two postseason games, it was almost 50 percent pistol and 26 read-option snaps.

The Packers, not surprisingly, failed their exam in the playoffs. They hadn't seen a read-option snap all season, so there was no reason to prepare for it during the regular season, and the Niners hadn't put a bunch of it on film.

Kaepernick heads upfield against Matthews. Robert Hanashiro/USA Today Sports

Brown put it best: "Unlike college defensive coaches, who got to watch the read-option slowly evolve over the past 15 years, NFL coaches were, almost overnight, asked to ace a 400-level read-option course, including all the mutations that took years to develop at the college level."

The Packers took some college-level courses during the offseason, including the trip to Texas A&M, plus Capers' meeting with Wisconsin's defensive coordinator (who coached against Kaepernick while Kaepernick was at Nevada) and outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene's meeting with Illinois State's Spence Nowinsky.

"I think all of your intel out there, everything can assist you (in) hopefully increasing your vision and understanding of the mentality of the attack with the zone, read option stuff," Greene said. "You take all of that stuff and you file it away and you come up with the best game plan."

Those meetings, the Packers' coaches insist, showed that they didn't have to reinvent the NFL defensive wheel for a scheme that was reinventing the collegiate offensive wheel.

"I think people are making too big a deal of it," Capers said earlier in training camp. "Yeah, you've got to have a certain element in your package. Generally speaking, you can't be wild and be running cross-blitzes and all those kind of things against it, because if you do that, this guy can hit a crease and make big plays on you. Hey, we've got our package that we've played here for four years; you just have to have a certain package where you say, ‘Hey, if they run that and the quarterback's going to run the ball, we've got something that guys feel comfortable with.'"

On Friday, Packer Report talked to Greene, inside linebackers coach Winston Moss and defensive line coach Mike Trgovac. To a man, their answers were the same in how the read-option pertained to their position group.

"We need to execute," Greene said. "We just need to execute. We just need to properly execute the game plan. I know that's easier said than done because they have players and we have players and we're not robots and we're going to make a mistake here and there. We try to play perfect but we don't. We're human, we err, but we're going to try to execute Dom's game plan."

Added Moss: "With anything or any concept, everybody has to do their job first. You have to be able to play with great discipline. You've got to tackle well. You've got to make sure our principles are sound in that we can leverage the ball-carrier, whether it's Kaepernick (or a running back). Do a great job of leveraging him and, as best we can, try to take the ball away as quickly as possible by turnover or by downs."

This time, the Packers figure to be more prepared. They'll have better personnel on the field, too, with the return of last year's first-round pick, Nick Perry, and the addition of this year's first-round pick, Datone Jones. Jones not only saw the read-option in games against powerhouse Oregon, but he saw it on the practice field against his own offense.

"You've got to be perfect with your defense," Jones said. "It's not a one-man thing. There are 10 other guys. It comes with a team effort. Everyone on the defense has to be perfect. No one can get greedy. Everyone has to be in their gap and make sure they're doing the right thing."

The combination of being ambushed by a scheme they hadn't seen and hadn't spent enough time preparing for, and then the greed as the defenders got more and more frustrated, turned into a perfect storm. Or, from Green Bay's perspective, an imperfect storm.

The 49ers are much more than the read-option, of course, as Capers has reminded everyone since the spring. In fact, it hardly would be a surprise if the 49ers run just a few snaps of it on Sunday. After all, it's Week 1 and Kaepernick needs to stay fresh for the long haul. The Niners have other ways to move the ball. Frank Gore is an elite back, regardless of scheme, and Vernon Davis is the best tight end in the game. Kaepernick is a true dual-threat quarterback. Against the Packers, he averaged a whopping 15.5 yards per completion and rushed for more than 70 yards on scrambles.

Because the Niners can run it and throw it, it puts the defense in a bind. Under Capers, the Packers prefer to play nickel, which means two defensive linemen and five defensive backs instead of three defensive linemen and four defensive backs. Because the 49ers like to run the ball, it would make sense to add more beef to the defense. On the other hand, with Kaepernick's running ability, 197 pounds of Micah Hyde might be a better option than 338 pounds of Ryan Pickett.

Beyond personnel, Kaepernick's scrambling ability limits Capers' blitz package and it takes the starch out of the pass rushers, who must be cognizant of rush lanes so they don't create a huge void for Kaepernick to sprint through.

 "I think there'll be a certain element just to try and keep you on top of things," Capers said during the offseason. "Let me give you an example. When I first came into the league, I had been at Tennessee defending The Bear (Bryant) with the wishbone and at Ohio State defending Oklahoma. I can remember going into the first staff meeting and going, ‘Well, we can't do that.' And they said, ‘Why not?' I said, ‘Who's got the quarterback? Who's got the pitch?' And they said, ‘You don't have to worry about that anymore. You aren't in college football anymore.' Well, 30 years later, you're going back and talking about the things you did in college. And that's why people are doing it. A lot of the exotic stunts and those kind of things that you might use to pressure the quarterback, it calms that stuff down a little bit."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at

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