Capers' Last Stand?

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his unit have had their share of ups and downs. Sunday's playoff game at Lambeau Field could be a defining time. Said coach Mike McCarthy, "The defense needs to play its best game of the year."

Dom Capers was his even-keeled, philosophical self on Friday afternoon. If he was feeling any added pressure for the big playoff matchup, it hardly showed.

"Not any more than I always do," said the Green Bay Packers' defensive coordinator. "You always feel your job is to get your guys ready to play against whoever you're playing against and play the best that they can. But there's always a sense and a feeling that once you start the playoffs, everybody is 0-0 and it's a new season and, hopefully, you've got a group of guys you have experience with that you just aren't having a bunch of new people."

No team over the past two seasons has exposed the Packers' defense quite like the San Francisco 49ers. In the past two meetings between the teams — last postseason and this year in the regular-season opener — the 49ers have rolled up 1,073 yards and 79 points. In the Jan. 12 divisional playoff game, Colin Kaepernick ran for a quarterback-record 181 of the 49ers' 323 rushing yards. In this season's Sept. 8 game, he threw for a career-high 412 yards.

Two games. Two different methods. Same embarrassing result.

Can the Packers' defense find some answers for its latest playoff matchup with the 49ers this Sunday?

Or will it be the third strike of maybe Capers' final out?

Packers coach Mike McCarthy addressed the importance of this game for Capers and his defense on Wednesday.

"Dom Capers is a competitor but this is a very important game to all of us," said McCarthy. "This isn't a contest to see who this game is more important to. We're a football team. We know that one area needs to play to the other and so forth. But the defense needs to play its best game of the year. We need to improve on how we've performed here in the past. Offense, we need to get better, too. There's improvement coming off our last performance that we can be better and, especially, on special teams. So, this is an accountable bunch. You have the chance to go back and correct the week before's game in Chicago, which we did, but this is playoff football. Everybody understands that our production needs to jump up here."

This season for the Packers' defense has been a microcosm of its five-year history under Capers. There have been plenty of ups and downs. After seeing the run defense rise as high as No. 3 in the NFL (Week 7), it feel precipitously — all the way down to No. 25 (allowing 125 yards per game) by season's end and 28th in yards per attempt (4.6) over the last nine games. The pass defense has been spotty, though it has returned to some turnover-producing plays of late (seven interceptions over the past five games). The pass rush numbers are respectable (44 sacks) if not always impactful.

In any case, the 49ers, shooting for their fourth straight win over the Packers in just about 16 months, have found ways to make the Packers' defense look foolish.

"You know, you take one thing away, you've got to be able to play all phases," said Capers, addressing the last two meetings with the 49ers in particular. "You feel like, ‘Hey, coming out of the game a couple years ago, we said that we've got to play the run better.' Everybody was talking about the physical part of things. I like the way we played physically in the opening game. I think (Frank) Gore averaged 2.1 (yards per rush) or something like that and Kaepernick 3.1. But, obviously, they hit some big pass plays. So, we've got to find that right combination where we play both the run and the pass."

Anquan Boldin, in his 49ers' debut on Sept. 8, caught 13 passes for 208 yards against the Packers. Boldin was a bit of an unknown to the Packers, coming over from the Baltimore Ravens, as was Kaepernick and the read-option in the previous playoff contest. The 49ers' offensive schemes have proved to be difficult for the Packers' defense to prepare for.

"You have to be prepared for unscouted looks, stuff that you haven't seen before," said nose tackle B.J. Raji. "They do a good job with their formations, making you think one thing and it's something else. Their offensive line has the ability to come at you with power and go lateral so that kind of makes it tougher. You've just got to play what you see.

"We like to think we have a better plan. But like anything in football, you have to be ready to execute and execute to the best of your ability. That will ultimately determine the outcome. It's not necessarily what you have in place."

The Packers will not have in place two of their best defensive players — Clay Matthews (broken thumb) and Johnny Jolly (injured reserve) — making the challenge even tougher. Both players had a big impact in the season opener. The Packers will rely on younger players in their spots this time around.

Also noteworthy is that the Packers will not have safety Jerron McMillian (waived Dec. 3), linebacker Erik Walden (free agent signing with the Indianapolis Colts in the offseason) and safety Charles Woodson (released in the offseason). McMillian had a poor outing in a starting role in the season opener and Walden and Woodson played significant roles in the playoff game last postseason.

The weather, too, with forecasted temperatures for below zero during the game, could be an X-factor. It had not been an issue in three previous meetings (two in San Francisco and one in Green Bay) between the teams.

"We're really focused on what we've been doing the last four weeks. It's been a different season for us," said McCarthy. "So, we're in tune with how can we improve as we enter this second season of football. We have a good plan. Obviously, we've played these guys in the past, you have common tape that just for personnel reasons guys can look at the tape and see themselves competing against the player they're going to be competing against this week. But schemes change. Where you lean within your playbook changes, and obviously you have to be a little more creative in the playoffs. You want to put your best foot forward."

Capers' tenure as defensive coordinator in Green Bay (since 2009) has been longer than that of any other team he has served the same role. He previously served three years with the Pittsburgh Steelers as defensive coordinator (1992-94), two years with the Jacksonville Jaguars (1999-2000) and two years with the Miami Dolphins (2006-07).

Last year, Capers came under some fire after the playoff debacle at San Francisco but was strongly backed by McCarthy. Players have also voiced their support for Capers this year through some tough times. The results probably reflect more on the Packers' personnel than Capers, but fair or not, Sunday could be a defining moment.

"I think over the last month we've made some progress in the areas we needed to make progress in terms of taking the ball away and making some key plays at some key times in the game which we weren't doing for a good part of the season," continued Capers from his opening comments in this story. "So, I'm hoping that can carry over.

"There's two ways you handle adversity," he later continued. "You either bow your neck and fight through it and if you do you'll be stronger coming out the other end. I'm hoping that's the case with us. We had to battle our way through some tough times, and you've seen our team battle now, we've had to come back in three games to give ourselves a chance to be where we are right now. Sometimes, it's not what you've accomplished it's where you've come from to accomplish it. And then the appreciation factor, how hard it was to get here. That we've got to really make sure that we take care of business."


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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com


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