Defense battles but still has shortcomings

Colin Kaepernick didn't set any records on Sunday, but his 98 yards on seven carries proved crucial. AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- On this day, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers thought his defense did enough.

In Sunday's NFC wild-card playoff game at Lambeau Field, the Packers held the San Francisco 49ers to merely 23 points -- their lowest output in four meetings over the past two seasons. Four times on Sunday quarterback Colin Kaepernick led the 49ers into the red zone, and three times the Packers held them to field goals.

But, of course, Dom Capers' defense can never seem to do enough against the 49ers, who knocked the Packers out of the playoffs for the second straight season with a 23-20 victory in front of 77,525 frozen fans who braved 5-degree weather at kickoff that only got worse as the game progressed.

Several members of the Packers' offense took the blame -- among them Rodgers, who said he did not play his best game; and receiver Randall Cobb, who beat himself up over not getting into the end zone when Rodgers escaped a sack and found him for a 25-yard gain to the 49ers' 9-yard line. The Packers settled for a field goal that tied the game at 20 with 5:06 remaining when a touchdown would have forced San Francisco to score a touchdown rather than the kick the game-winning field goal as time expired.

"Defense holds them to 23 points, we should win that game," said Rodgers, who completed 17 of 26 passes for 177 yards with one touchdown and no interception while facing heavy pressure for much of the game.

Rodgers may be right. But if the early playoff exits the last three seasons have taught the Packers anything, it's that more often than not their defense has held this team back.

In this case, that's not an indictment on Capers, whose plan against the 49ers may have been one of his best.

"I have to give credit to Dom because he called a heck of a game," Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. "I'm sorry we weren't able to execute for him."

The 63-year-old veteran coordinator, if he indeed returns next season, is in desperate need of more playmakers. Capers' contract situation remains unclear, although he may have been in the final year of his contract.

"If Dom's under contract, I expect he'll be back," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "He's been a vital part of our defense, too. We won the Super Bowl with Dom and our entire coaching staff."

Count Williams among those who made his share of plays on Sunday. He came up with a second-quarter interception when Kaepernick tried to float a pass down the sideline. Williams returned it 17 yards, at the end of which he tried to run over the 49ers quarterback.

"I guess you could say it was a message," Williams said. "But we needed some momentum at that point, and we got it."

Even the Packers' best defensive performance in three tries -- all losses -- against Kaepernick wasn't enough. On the game-winning drive, Kaepernick scrambled for 11 yards on third-and-8 from the Packers' 38-yard line when Capers dialed up an all-out blitz. Late in the first half, Kaepernick scrambled for 42 yards to set up a Frank Gore touchdown.

It wasn't the record-setting 181-yard rushing performance Kaepernick turned in against the Packers in the playoffs last season, but 98 yards on seven runs was too much.

Maybe the Packers were playing with house money after getting into the playoffs despite playing nearly eight full games without Rodgers because of his broken collarbone, but it also should serve as a reminder that success can be fleeting.

"These opportunities are pretty special, and you've got to make the most of them," Rodgers said. "It's nine years [in the NFL] for me now. Blessed to play that long and would love to play another nine if possible, but this is an opportunity we let slip through our fingers."

Which is what happened to rookie cornerback Micah Hyde on the final drive, when he read Kaepernick's eyes and saw he was going to throw to Anquan Boldin in the left flat. On second-and-10 from the Packers' 31-yard line with 4:14 left, Hyde made a leaping attempt at an interception, but the ball went through his hands. At worst, he would have given Rodgers a short field. At best, he might have returned it for the go-ahead touchdown.

"It was a catch I should've made," Hyde said. "I make those catches all the time in practice. It's just a difficult catch I should've made."

When asked about his team's defensive performance, coach Mike McCarthy: "We were probably one play away. We were one play not good enough."

General manager Ted Thompson, however, will have to ask himself how many players away his team is from having an impact defense. His best player on that side of the ball, linebacker Clay Matthews, was sidelined with a broken thumb, while starting cornerback Sam Shields and starting outside linebacker Mike Neal were lost to knee injuries on Sunday's first drive. At one point, the Packers had to play rookie defensive end Datone Jones at outside linebacker, something the first-round draft pick never did in the regular season.

Those were among the issues on Sunday, but it doesn't explain why the defense nose-dived in the second half of the season. It would appear Thompson overestimated several of his positions on defense, inside linebacker and safety chief among them.

Two years ago, Thompson used his first six draft picks on defensive players. Last year, he took Jones with the 26th pick in the draft.

It wasn't enough.

"I think it's always been close," Williams said of the Packers' defense. "It's just been so inconsistent."