Monday, September 9, 2013

In Case You Forgot...

The 49ers began their season in 2012 with a game against the Packers in Green Bay, and then played them again in San Francisco in the 2nd round of the playoffs. Both times, the results were the same: Resounding 49ers victories where they controlled the tempo of the game. But the two wins were accomplished with two different Quarterbacks leading the way. The victor of the first game, Alex Smith, is now gone from the 49ers, having been dealt to Kansas City. The second game was completely stolen by Colin Kaepernick, who took over for Smith midway through the season, took the 49ers all the way down to the Super Bowl, and took off from there.

Kaepernick has, since the Super Bowl, become quite the sensation, drawing heaps of attention around the league about his style of play, the Read-Option offense he runs, and how much success he stands to have once coaches around the NFL figure out how to properly defend the Read-Option. The Packers, who were victimized by Kaepernick to the point of embarrassment last January, appeared to be particularly outspoken about the liberties they could take with Kaepernick once he begins to run his plays. One reason the Ravens had success against Kaepernick early in the Super Bowl was that they simply started to hit him on every play. Clay Matthews, III and his hair specifically said that the Packers had to hit him early and often if they were going to have success. Jim Harbaugh responded by asking for a rules clarification, because it seemed to him like his Quarterback was deliberately being targeted. This may or may not have been true, but in reality, what did it matter until it actually happened?

In the end, the Packers did hit Kaepernick. They hit him plenty, and Clay Matthews, III even started a near-riot by hitting Kaepernick late and out of bounds in the 2nd Quarter. They hit him, but they couldn't stop him. Just in case people had forgotten, Kaepernick reminded everyone on Sunday that he's not just a gadget QB who runs around alot to make plays happen. He can hang back in the pocket and fire the ball downfield with the best of them. The Packers didn't allow Kaepernick to get outside and run all over the place, so instead, Kaepernick just beat them with his arm, throwing for 412 yards and 3 Touchdowns as the 49ers once again beat the Packers to open their season, 34-28.

This game played out as a testament to just how good Kaepernick can be, and also was a sign that his solid performance down the stretch last year was no fluke. After misfiring on his first two passes, Kaepernick caught fire on the 49ers 2nd possession. Though his receiving options might have appeared limited, with both Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham out, Kaepernick still spread the ball around without much difficulty, slinging bullets in to newcomers Anquan Boldin and Vance McDonald, as well as old reliables like Vernon Davis and Bruce Miller. The 83-yard drive featured a pair of 3rd down conversions—a 49ers specialty, particularly against the Packers—and finished where it was supposed to: in the End Zone, courtesy of a post corner pass to a virtually wide-open Vernon Davis for the 49ers first score of the season.

The Packers, however, served notice that they weren't going to go down quietly. After their first drives featured a bunch of running plays that didn't go anywhere, they let Aaron Rodgers make the plays, which he can do as well as anyone, and with lightning quickness, the Packers shot down the field for the tying score. After a 49ers punt, the Packers went back to the ground game, but rookie Eddie Lacy fumbled, giving the 49ers great field position and a golden opportunity to regain the lead.

The 49ers appeared to have squandered this particular opportunity, having found themselves a yard short of a 1st down, but instead of declining a penalty that would have led to 4th down inside the Packers 10, the Packers opted to make the 49ers replay 3rd down. This, of course, set the stage for the play that everyone's talking about today: Clay Matthews, III's egregious late hit on Kaepernick on 3rd down. This appeared to be the perfect storm of bad; Matthews had already talked about hitting Kaepernick during the week, and on this particular play had launched himself at Kap and clotheslined him well after Kap had stepped out of bounds. But Kaepernick would give Matthews no satisfaction, he hopped right up and clapped his hands. His teammates, however, felt differently. In the kind of reaction that's really a testament to how much Kaepernick's teammates love him and respect him, a gang of San Francisco players, led by Offensive Lineman Joe Staley, flew in to get a piece of Matthews. After a near-riot ensued and the dust cleared, the late hit on Matthews was offset by Staley taking on Matthews. Then, of course, the referees screwed up the enforcement of the penalty, giving the 49ers a 3rd crack at 3rd down, and the 49ers did what they usually do on 3rd down against the Packers: Convert. This time, they not only converted the 3rd down, they scored, on a play that the 49ers had executed in a similar situation last January. Last time, Kap hit Crabtree on a quick slant and Crabtree darted into the End Zone. Sunday, Kap went to his new favorite target, Anquan Boldin, and Boldin did the rest for his first 49ers Touchdown.

The 49ers then had a golden opportunity to break the game open a little bit. After swapping punts, Aaron Rodgers started to string a drive together until Jermichael Finley couldn't handle a pass and instead had it slip through his hands into the waiting arms of Safety Eric Reid. For Reid, a rookie making his NFL debut, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Brought in to replace the departed Dashon Goldson, Reid was all over the field on Sunday, and certainly looks up to the task of filling the Pro Bowler's shoes. Unfortunately, the 49ers couldn't capitalize on the turnover and Rodgers responded by leading the Packers down for the tying touchdown just before the half.

The 2nd half started with another solid 49ers Touchdown drive. With the run game more or less squelched, Kaepernick continued to beat the Packers through the air, primarily to Boldin. In a rather methodical 6+ minute drive, the 49ers moved downfield and scored on Davis' second Touchdown of the afternoon. But once again, the Packers allowed the 49ers to get no further ahead, and eventually responded with yet another tying score, this one from Rodgers to Jordy Nelson.

As the game moved to the 4th Quarter, the 49ers appeared primed to strike once again. Kaepernick continued to just feed the ball in to Boldin with ease. But every time he tried to run, he was usually snuffed out. With the ball inside the Green Bay 20, Kap rolled out to run, but got flattened by Matthews in the kind of annoying play that allowed him to flex his muscles and make more stupid commercials. Having stalled, the 49ers had to settle for a Field Goal, which wasn't ideal given that this game was looking every bit like the shootout people had forecast. It looked even worse when the Packers finally got their run game started. Lacy, who had more or less been on the bench since his early fumble, started and finished a drive that saw Rodgers hit a pair of long passes to put Green Bay in position to take their first lead of the game with 8:26 to play in the 4th Quarter.

So, here we were again, down by 4 points and in desperate need of a Touchdown in response. And before the paint had dried on the Packers lead, it was gone. It took 3 plays for the 49ers to get in position, the key one being a deep pass from Kaepernick to Boldin that covered 43 yards. Kendall Hunter followed that play with a 23-yard run. 2 plays later, it was the 49ers Old Reliable, Frank Gore, pounding the ball in for what would ultimately be the winning score.

Only ahead 31-28, the 49ers needed to get tough on both sides of the ball in order to keep Green Bay from coming back. The Defense did their part, forcing the Packers into a 3-and-out deep in their own territory. Then, following the punt, Kaepernick and Gore set out to put the game away. It came down to a 4th down play in Green Bay territory. Last year, the 49ers were able to fake the fading Packers into an Offsides penalty. This time, it didn't work. But undaunted, the 49ers still went for the win and it paid off, as Kaepernick's final pass of the day fittingly went right to Boldin, sending Kaepernick over 400 yards for the day, Boldin over 200 yards and allowing the 49ers to milk the clock down, kick a Field Goal and give the Packers time for but one desperation heave that Rodgers couldn't even get off. And so, though it might have been a bit too close for comfort, the 49ers still came out with a tone-setting victory.

The 49ers will be a headache for everyone they face all season if Kaepernick plays as well as he did yesterday. The fact that he didn't run the ball very much is indicative of that, because that was what everyone was banking on him doing. More than a few people mentioned that yesterday was Kap's first career 300-yard game, which is true, at least when the regular season is concerned. It's easy to forget, because the 49ers ultimately lost the game, but Kaepernick did throw for over 300 yards in the Super Bowl. Running is only a part of his arsenal, and yesterday should serve as a reminder to everyone that even if he's forced into being a pocket passer, he's got the tools to be a winner. There's going to be hell to pay for anyone who forgets that. Even if his receiver options are "limited," as they appeared to be yesterday. You know, before Anquan Boldin reminded everyone that he's still able to catch anything he can get his hands on and Vernon Davis reminded everyone that he's still an elite receiver in his own right.

After the game, Kaepernick was quoted as saying "If intimidation is your game plan, I hope you have a better one." Nothing rattles this guy. This will be important next week when the 49ers journey north to see their dear friends, the Seahawks.

No comments: