Fans have seen what San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick can do to a defense, but, as the Minnesota Vikings prepare for their regular season opener at Levi’s Stadium, it will be their first look at Kaepernick.
Kaepernick wasn’t yet the starter the last time the Vikings and 49ers met in 2012, but he will be on center stage for the Vikings defense Monday.
One player who does know Kaepernick is Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. As a member of the Panthers, he saw what Kaepernick was capable of and said he’s a dual threat.
“His arm and his legs – he’s got both,” Munnerlyn said. “He actually put me out of the playoffs a couple of years ago when I was in Carolina. He’s a dangerous threat. He can scramble, he can get the ball out pretty fast and he’s got a pretty good arm. People don’t know that he can throw the ball a mile. You’ve got to stay in coverage, keep guarding your guy and keep plastered to your receiver.”
The biggest key that Kaepernick brings to the game is his ability to run the read option. One of the first to use the formation extensively, the read option has the quarterback determine whether to hand off the ball or keep it depending on what the defensive ends do on the play. If they crash down on the back, he keeps it. If they stay on the outside, he hands it off and they use the vacated running lane to get steam moving forward.
The pressure will be on starting defensive ends Everson Griffen and Brian Robison to keep Kaepernick in check and in the pocket. The read option preys on the instincts of the defensive ends to be successful, so the Vikings know they have to play fundamentally sound as a unit.
“We have to rush smart because he takes advantage of guys out of position,” Robison said. “The bottom line is that it can’t just be one guy. It has to be four guys rushing their lanes and making sure we know where he will try to escape and making sure that all four guys are rushing smart, not coming in too high or going in too early.”
The Vikings will be seeing the read option again when they play Seattle in December, but the Russell Wilson version is different from the one Kaepernick runs. The 49ers version is done with more trickery and motion than simply a two-decision possibility. The Niners run a complicated system of their read option, but it is critical that the Vikings not get sucked in by fakes and ploys and stick to what their brains tell them and not necessarily what their eyes see.
“The way they run it is a little tricky,” Griffen said. “They try to hit you with a lot of eye candy and try to make you get out of your gaps. Our biggest thing is to focus your key. Your key is going to take you to the ball, let your key take you to the play and make the play where your key takes you. It’s all about the keys.”
The biggest problem defenders have with Kaepernick’s version of the option is that it looks so easy to defend when you’re watching it from a distance on game film. It’s a completely different story when the play is 15 feet away from a defender coming at full speed.
“To me, the zone read is not that difficult when you look at it on tape,” Robison said. “It’s actually pretty simple when you look at it on tape. The challenge is, when you get out there, you try to see too much at times. That’s what gets guys in trouble. What we have to do is just play our keys and make sure every person is where they need to be at the right time. If we can do that, hopefully we can shut him down.”
Although Kaepernick has the passing ability to win games, he is at his best when he is mixing in a healthy dose of the run. The key for the Vikings defense in general and defensive ends in particular will be to take away his run option and make him more one-dimensional than he likes to be.
The best way to accomplish that will be for all three levels of the defense to perform their roles and swarm to Kaepernick in their designated assignments. Freelancers get burned against a quarterback like Kaepernick and the Vikings are being drilled by Mike Zimmer and his staff to maintain their lane integrity and not open up soft spots or running alleys.
“We’ve got to make him beat us with his arm and not his legs,” Griffen said. “You just got to have smart rushes. We have to rush as a group, not as an individual. We’ve all got to put in our mind that we have to rush him as a group. We’ve got to contain him in the pocket and force him to get the ball out of his hand quick to help our (defensive backs).”
As the read-option enters is fourth season is being operated as more than a just a one-play gimmick here or there, defenses are adjusting to it. Much in the same way the Wildcat was an effective formation until defensive minds figured it out, they’re catching up to the tendencies and tip-offs quarterbacks give when they’re going to keep the ball or give it off to a back.
But, Munnerlyn said seeing will be believing for his Vikings teammates. It’s one thing to see it on film. It’s another to see it coming at you. Defenses are getting closer to having an answer to it, but they aren’t there yet and Kaepernick will give the Vikings all they can handle.
“I wouldn’t say it’s getting easier,” Munnerlyn said. “You’ve just got to go contain him. With Colin Kaepernick, it’s kind of tough. He’s been running it for so long. He’s got the experience of how to read the D-end and give it away if the D-end comes up to him. It’s definitely a difficult thing to defend, but every man on defense does his job and doesn’t try not to do somebody else’s job, we can stop him.”