Defining time for Capers, Packers' defense

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- First there was 579, and then there was 412.

The first number -- the total yards the San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick-led offense piled up last January, much of it on the ground, on the way to their 45-31 playoff rout of the Green Bay Packers -- haunted those around Lambeau Field for an entire offseason.

The second -- Kaepernick’s passing yards in the 49ers’ 34-28 victory over the Packers in Week 1 of this season -- showed those in Green Bay that all the work they did in the offseason, all the time they spent devising ways to stop the 49ers’ read-option offense, didn’t help because Kaepernick can throw the ball, too.

What happens in Sunday’s wild-card playoff rematch at Lambeau Field could define Dom Capers’ tenure as the Packers’ defensive coordinator.

“Dom Capers is a competitor,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday. “It’s a very important game to all of us. This isn’t a contest to see who this game’s 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 off of how we’ve performed here in the past. Offense, we need to get better, too. There’s improvement coming off of our last performance that we can be better, and definitely on special teams.”

The 2012 season was bookended by losses to the 49ers, in Week 1 at Lambeau Field and then in the divisional playoff game in San Francisco. This season began the same way with the loss at Candlestick Park.

In those three games, the Packers allowed 1,450 yards combined, and were doomed by their inability to shut down certain players.

In last year’s playoff game, the 49ers rushed for 323 yards, including 181 by Kaepernick (the most rushing yards ever in a game by an NFL quarterback). That prompted Capers and his staff to launch an exhaustive offseason study of the read-option offense only to see Kaepernick turn into a pass-first quarterback in the opener, when 208 of his 412 yards passing went to veteran receiver Anquan Boldin.

“We go back and look at all of it,” Capers said. “So we’ll put together what’s worked well against them and what hasn’t worked well. You evaluate it and then you take the guys you’re going to have out there playing and decide what you think they can do the best.”

The Packers go into the playoffs with a defense that looks more like the 2011 unit that ranked last in the NFL in yards and passing yards allowed than the group that rebounded to finish 11th in both categories last season. Capers’ unit finished this regular season ranked 25th in yards allowed, 25th in rushing yards allowed and 24th in passing yards allowed. At different points during the season, the Packers ranked as high as 11th, third and 20th in those three key statistical categories.

No one has defended Capers more vigorously than veteran linebacker A.J. Hawk, who regularly insists that whatever defensive shortcomings they have are the result of player execution and not Capers’ scheme or play calling.

But Hawk hears the criticism of the 63-year-old Capers, whose unit has allowed 45 and 37 points in each of the Packers' last two playoff losses -- to the 49ers last year and to the New York Giants the previous year. And the eighth-year linebacker understands the importance of Sunday’s game, especially to those on defense.

“He’s even-keeled and tries to stay positive and coach us up so I’m sure in his mind, yeah, it’s a huge game,” Hawk said. “[It’s a] big game for everybody, though.”

Capers will have to manage without four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews, whose second thumb injury of the season has him sidelined indefinitely.

Yet listen to McCarthy talk about that oft-criticized unit, and he exudes confidence in his players and his veteran coordinator.

“I love our defense,” he said. “I love our football team. Throw the stats out the window. We could sit here and roll around in that stuff all you want. You can throw the bad ones at me and I’ll throw the good ones back at you. We’re a playoff football team. Our identity has changed. It’s kind of gone different directions of how we have to go play to win a game. This team’s embraced it, and we know it’s going to take the full game to get it done, and that’s the way we play.”