SAN FRANCISCO -- After a couple hours of sleep and a quick turnaround on the West Coast, I got to thinking in the early hours of Sunday morning.
(Scary, I know.)
What if the Green Bay Packers' divisional playoff loss wasn't just a matter of scheme, the issue I focused on in the game column. What if the San Francisco 49ers really were that much bigger, faster and stronger than the Packers? What would that mean for the makeup of this team moving forward?
In two games against the Packers this season, the 49ers amassed 509 rushing yards. That’s 100 yards more than Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson gained in his two regular-season matchups against the Packers. Meanwhile, the Packers managed 149 rushing yards and largely abandoned the traditional running game in both games against the 49ers. Their running backs took a total of 20 carries in those affairs.
Certainly, the Vikings and 49ers were two of the NFL's most powerful running teams in 2012. We should acknowledge that before overreacting to their Packers' struggles against them. Still, there were other indicators of physical inferiority Saturday night.
49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick gained all but 3 of his 181 rushing yards before contact, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Saturday night, I took that revelation more as an indication that the Packers were too often out of position against him. But it could also be a function of their team speed and/or strength. The 49ers' offensive line deserves credit for opening lanes that Kaepernick could run through untouched. It would be understandable if they were a step behind arguably the NFL's fastest quarterback. But for him to be untouchable? I'm not sure Kaepernick -- or any NFL player -- deserves that much credit.
The 49ers pressured quarterback Aaron Rodgers despite using an extra rusher on only two of his 43 drop backs. Rodgers was under duress on 11 of those plays -- defined as any time he was forced from the pocket, had his throwing motion altered or faced a defender with a clear path in his line of sight -- and completed only two passes in those situations. In other words, the 49ers' four (or less) beat the Packers' five at a pretty decent rate.
In the midst of discussing the Packers' schematic shortcomings Saturday night, cornerback Charles Woodson suggested the team needs to more closely emulate the 49ers' composition.
"I look at this team that we just played," Woodson said, "and they're a big, fast team. I think as far as our team is concerned, I don't know what happens here going forward, but maybe we got to get bigger and faster."
The Packers will spend part of the offseason discussing the extent to which they should react to something that, despite their protestations, sure looked like a physical overmatch. That doesn't mean the 49ers were meaner or tougher than the Packers. Size, weight and speed are different assets. But does it mean the Packers need bigger and faster linebackers to take away the outside running game? Perhaps. Should they consider bigger offensive linemen? Do they need more physical run support from their cornerbacks?
The 49ers might have the NFL's best combination of big, fast and strong personnel. The Packers can't rip up their entire personnel structure to react. There are work-arounds to most any deficiency. Scheme must be part of the conversation but, based on what we saw this season, it can't be the entire solution.
Note: The final Free Head Exam of the 2012 season will post Monday. (Sniff.)