The vision of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick striding toward the first-down marker will forever be ingrained in the minds of Green Bay Packers fans, as soon as they thaw out.
The Carolina Panthers are hoping for a different playoff memory Sunday when they face Kaepernick and the 49ers in an NFC divisional-round game at 1:05 p.m. at Bank of America Stadium.
Kaepernick ended the Packers’ season with his legs for the second season in a row last weekend. After rushing for a quarterback-record 181 yards in a 2012 playoff victory over Green Bay, Kaepernick ran for a game-high 98 yards on seven carries in a 23-20 wild-card victory, capped by an 11-yard scramble on third-and-8 to set up Phil Dawson’s game-winning field goal.
But the only running Kaepernick did in a November loss to the Panthers was for his life.
Kaepernick had arguably the worst game of his career in the 10-9 loss on Nov. 10 in San Francisco, passing for a career-low 91 yards and running for 16 yards on four carries. The Panthers sacked Kaepernick six times, the most of his three-year career.
“We were able to do some things and make it tough on him. I don’t expect that this time,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said this week. “All you really have to do is watch the way he’s played down the stretch. We caught them at a good time and it turned out to our benefit.”
Actually, the 49ers entered the Week 10 game against the Panthers on a five-game winning streak, having won by an average of 34-12 during the stretch. But the Panthers, with the NFL’s second-ranked defense, put the clamps on the defending NFC champions by playing mostly their base 4-3 scheme.
A review of the coaches film from the first meeting showed the Panthers were able to generate pressure from their four-man front. At the same time, Carolina’s defensive ends maintained their outside gap responsibilities to contain Kaepernick and limit his scrambles.
The film review showed:
• The Panthers relied on a four-man rush on 21 of San Francisco’s 31 passing plays (includes sacks and scrambles).
• They blitzed nine times.
• They used one three-man front, with defensive end Greg Hardy dropping into coverage in the flat.
• Of the Panthers’ six sacks of Kaepernick, three came via the blitz and three from the four-man front.
“I thought our guys played aggressive up front. We played disciplined,” Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “The coverage was good enough to get him to hold the ball at times.”
As he has for most of the season, McDermott was creative with his alignments for Hardy. Against the Niners, Hardy aligned as a stand-up end, a defensive tackle, a drop-in-space defender and in his customary, three-point stance at end.
Hardy was credited with three tackles and no sacks, but he disrupted the game in ways that didn’t show up in the stats. He beat Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley early in the game, forcing Kaepernick to step into the rush of defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, who sacked him.
In the second half, a slanting Hardy dropped Kaepernick for a 6-yard loss on a zone-read play that was the only called run for Kaepernick.
Kaepernick’s other three runs were scrambles for 5, 1 and 16 yards.
Kaepernick burned Green Bay on several scrambles when the Packers’ defensive backs had their backs turned to him in man coverage. But the Panthers benefited from their zone coverage, which allowed the linebackers and defensive backs to keep an eye on Kaepernick.
“That’s what zone gives you. It gives you some vision on what’s going on in the backfield, hopefully not too much,” McDermott said.
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn made the tackles on Kaepernick’s two short runs.
The Panthers got caught in a blitz on Kaepernick’s only long run, on the final play of the third quarter. When right tackle Anthony Davis picked up blitzing linebacker A.J. Klein, Kaepernick had a running lane in the middle of the field.
Kuechly slipped on the play, allowing Kaepernick to pick up a few extra yards.
McDermott said the Panthers did not employ a “spy” in the first meeting, deciding not to use a linebacker to shadow Kaepernick.
They didn’t need to.
“I know we went out there and beat them six or seven weeks ago. I’m sure they’re a better football team,” McDermott said. “I’d like to believe we’re a better football team, as well.”
Kaepernick will have more targets than he did in November, when wideout Michael Crabtree was out with an Achilles injury and tight end Vernon Davis left in the second quarter with a concussion and did not return.
But Rivera said Kaepernick remains the X-factor.
“The one thing you can’t prepare for is the unexpected, in terms of what he can do,” Rivera said. “We saw it against Green Bay. They blitz him, he pulls the ball down and runs for the first down. We’re going to have to be disciplined. We’re going to have to do our assignments.
“We can’t have those kinds of breakdowns, where somebody comes down underneath and he pops outside.”
If the Panthers want a blueprint, the Week 10 film isn’t a bad place to start.
Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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