Behind Enemy Lines: Inside the 49ers

Niners Digest's Chris Biderman breaks down the 49ers ahead of Sunday's Wild Card game at Lambeau Field. How has Colin Kaepernick's second season as the starter panned out? Will the read-option return on Sunday? Can the Niners stop Eddie Lacy with their front seven? Those answers and much more.

Colin Kaepernick was brilliant against the Packers in last year's playoffs and in Week 1 of this season. The rest of his body of work seems rather mediocre. How has he played this season, and is he on the uptick entering the playoffs?

Chris: Outside of Week 1, Kaepernick struggled for most of the season's first half, but once his weapons became healthier, so did his numbers. During the team's six-game winning streak to end the regular season, Kaepernick has had a passer rating of 100 or better in five games. And after throwing for 200 yards just twice in the first 10 games, he eclipsed that mark four times in the last six. 

Michael Crabtree's return has paid the most dividends, although he was also without Mario Manningham for the first eight games. Manningham has since gone on injured reserve after suffering a setback in the same knee he tore his ACL and PCL last December. With Crabtree opposite Anquan Boldin, the 49ers have their best receiving duo since Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens in 2000. Boldin's 2012 postseason was well documented. Throw in Vernon Davis and an argument can be made the two best pass-catching trios in the NFC will be squaring off at Lambeau on Sunday.

Over the six-game run, Kaepernick has an NFL best 10-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He finally beat the Seahawks after two rough performances in Seattle to give him some confidence. The biggest difference in the offense since Crabtree came back from his Achilles tear has been on freelanced plays after the initial play breaks down. Per our friends at Pro Football Focus, Kaepernick completed just 36.8 percent of his passes with a quarterback rating of 50.9 when under pressure. Since Crabtree's return five weeks ago, he's completing 55 percent of his throws under pressure with a 95.4 rating.

Speaking of Kaepernick, he obviously killed the Packers with the read-option in the playoffs. Can you talk about the evolution of the read-option this season? Are the 49ers doing much with it? Do defenses have a handle on a scheme that was supposed to take the NFL by storm? Or did the Niners put it in mothballs for the regular season, knowing they had bigger fish to fry, so to speak, in the playoffs?

Chris: It sure seems like offensive coordinator Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh did everything they could to hold off on using the read-option during the regular season. The reasoning behind using it so sparingly is two-fold: First, Roman has always liked to keep certain plays off tape to save them when he needs them the most (see: last year's playoffs). Second, without Alex Smith as his backup, San Francisco was extra careful in making sure Kaepernick wasn't taking any big hits and risking his health. They realize they would have a much harder time returning to the Super Bowl with Colt McCoy under center.

The other side of the situation is Kaepernick's improvement as a passer. It's come slowly in his second season, but his ability to progress through reads has improved, especially with the return of his favorite target in Crabtree. The 49ers might have impeded Kaepernick's progress as a passer if they continued to rely so heavily on gadget running plays. Taking the read-option off the table for the majority of the regular season has forced the first-year starter to improve his fundamentals as a passer. But he still has significant steps to take in that regard.

If you look at the numbers, the Niners look relatively mediocre. They've outgained their opponents by about 7 yards per game. Offensively, the passing game hasn't been that good and they've been bad on third down. But the defense is stingy as ever. So, does that six-game winning streak show a team that's peaking?

Chris: The overall yardage numbers are a little misleading. Although the 49ers are 24th in the league in yards offensively, they come in at No. 11 in scoring (25.4 points per game). They jumped out to big leads early in many of their wins and the yardage allowed has come late, when the defense has taken its foot off the gas. But over the last two weeks, they have allowed 300-plus yards to Matt Ryan and Carson Palmer, which is definitely an area of concern heading into Sunday's game against Aaron Rodgers

Part of their struggles on third down stem from a stubbornness to open up the playbook and lack of execution. The 49ers were downright awful on third downs before Crabtree's return and have improved since. But they struggled in short-yardage situations against the Falcons and Cardinals to finish the regular season. Against Atlanta, they were intent on trying passing plays out of heavy sets on a few third-and-1s and got stuffed by Arizona's No. 1 run defense in similar situations last week. 

In terms of offensive yardage, the 49ers showed a similar trend toward the end of last year's regular season before exploding in the playoffs, when they tallied 579, 373 and 468 yards against the Packers, Falcons and Ravens in the Super Bowl.

Beyond the big names, what makes the 49ers' defense such a powerhouse? Can the Niners' defense stop Eddie Lacy without bringing a safety to the line of scrimmage?

Chris: The 49ers' defense has been good because it doesn't overcompensate for anything. They have been able to stop the run with just seven the box while being sound against the pass without having to blitz. It's a very balanced approach. All the talent at each level doesn't hurt, either.

As far as stopping Lacy, that is yet to be seen. They did a good job in Week 1, holding him to just 41 yards while forcing a fumble. But the rookie has been very good since and went the rest of the season without putting the ball on ground. Typically San Francisco is given trouble when teams match its physicality, and Lacy is certainly capable of doing that. It will be up to the defensive line to prevent Packers blockers from getting to the second level, allowing NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis to make plays. 

A lot of the talk at the team's headquarters this week has been about Green Bay's balanced offense, which has been far more one-dimensional the last three times the teams have played. To me, that balance gives the Packers a much better chance at a win compared to the last three matchups.

Trust me: The Packers' coaches won't be reading this, so how do the Packers — who have lost three games to the Niners in about 16 months — win this game?

Chris: Along with being balanced offensively, the Packers' defense will have to play a great game against San Francisco and tackle very well. With another year of experience under Kaepernick's belt, Roman has to like his chances against Dom Capers' defense again, especially without Clay Matthews setting the edge against read-option plays.

Beating the 49ers starts with taking away the run and making them one-dimensional, putting a lot of pressure on Sam Shields and Tramon Williams to blanket Crabtree and Boldin to prevent another big day from Kaepernick through the air. Having Morgan Burnett back after being out in the first game will be helpful in covering Davis, as well. The 49ers targeted his replacement, Jerron McMillian, early and often in that game and were very successful. 

The conditions are a variable that could have a major impact on the game. Kicker Phil Dawson has been very good for San Francisco all season, setting a franchise record with 27 consecutive made field goals before missing a chip-shot (with the laces in) last week against the Cardinals. Any blocked or missed kicks could go a long way toward a Packers win, as would any defensive or special teams touchdown. A huge day from Rodgers wouldn't hurt, either.

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