The University of Wisconsin had just finished its spring football practices, and Dave Aranda was in a bit of a rush. He had a 135-mile drive from Camp Randall Stadium to Lambeau Field ahead of him, and as he pulled onto Monroe Street around 8 o’clock that morning, he was excited. While he made sure he didn’t get himself a ticket in the speed trap locals know as Rosendale, the 36-year-old new Badgers defensive coordinator had to get to Green Bay as quickly as he could. There was so much to learn.
Little did he know how much he would teach.
Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers had invited him to spend the day watching film and talking football, and because Aranda had long admired Capers’ scheme, he was hoping there might be some Xs and Os he could borrow. And there were – Aranda used one of Capers’ base quarters coverages in Saturday’s 45-0 victory over UMass, and he’s got a few third-down pressure packages tucked away in the playbook for when the Big Ten Conference season kicks off.
But it wasn’t long before the conversation shifted, and the 63-year-old Capers was the one asking the questions.
“We started to watch some of that tape from the playoff game in San Francisco and the Super Bowl,” Aranda recalled Wednesday evening.
After all, there in Capers’ third-floor office was someone with as much insight into how to stop San Francisco 49ers dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick as anyone.
“When he called, I had kind of forgotten the fact that he’d been playing against Nevada-Reno and a number of those kinds of teams when he was at Hawaii and Utah State,” Capers said of Aranda, who was an assistant for four years at Hawaii and spent last season at Utah State before accompanying new Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen to Madison. “He’s a bright guy. I’d known of him in the past; we have some common friends. He called and wanted to come up and visit. I said, ‘Yeah, come on up.’ So we started out (talking about the Packers’ 3-4) and through the course of conversation, I figured out (his history (against Kaepernick), so then we spent time talking about what they did.”
Aranda’s visit was only part of the Packers’ offseason commitment to being ready for what they’d failed to prepare for in January: Kaepernick running the read option. In the 49ers’ 45-31 NFC Divisional Playoff victory at Candlestick Park – where the team will meet again in Sunday’s regular-season opener – Kaepernick had run for an NFL-quarterback record 181 yards while also completing 17 of 31 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns.
The Packers had appeared wholly unprepared for the zone-read, that day, and with good reason: The 49ers had decided during their first-round bye to use it extensively, and the Packers – after having a hard time with it when Minnesota backup quarterback Joe Webb and halfback Adrian Peterson had done it on a limited basis six days earlier – weren’t expecting it. According to Capers’ offseason study of the 49ers, of all the read-option snaps they ran last year, half of them came in their final three games: Their victory over the Packers, their NFC Championship Game victory over Atlanta and their Super Bowl XLVII loss to Baltimore.
By Aranda’s visit in May, the Packers not only knew they’d be opening the season against the 49ers, but they were already well into their due diligence on unlocking the secrets to defending such plays. Coach Mike McCarthy had sent Capers and the defensive staff on a fact-finding road trip to Texas A&M in March, but in Aranda, Capers had someone who’d schemed for Kaepernick three times – and beaten him twice.
In 2008, Kaepernick ran 18 times for 139 yards and a touchdown (7.7-yard average) against the Rainbows, but almost half of those yards had come on Kaepernick’s 61-yard first-quarter touchdown run. After that, the Rainbows did enough to slow Kaepernick down in a 38-31 victory.
In 2009, Nevada came away with a 31-21 victory, and Kaepernick had TD runs of 2 and 38 yards while running 13 times for 114 yards (8.8-yard average).
And in 2010, Hawaii handed Kaepernick and the 19th-ranked Wolfpack their first loss, 27-21, while the defense shut Kaepernick down. He ran 11 times for only 30 yards (2.7-yard average) and completed only 14 of 26 passes with two interceptions.
Although Aranda dismisses his the suggestion that the Packers will be putting his lessons to good use on Sunday – “I don’t know, to be honest, how much I really helped,” he said Wednesday – it’s clear when Aranda starts talking about the keys to defending zone-read plays, he not only knows of which he speaks, but he’s passionate as all get-out about stopping them. (For hard-core Xs and Os types, he thoroughly broke down his philosophy in a story a few years ago.)
“I think any time there’s something new, you have questions,” Aranda said. “Some of the questions I was going to him with were about defending pro-style offenses. I wanted to know what they are looking at, what is the next step, what do/don’t those offenses want to see, how much risk can you take to be aggressive – there’s a million questions. Those were the type of questions he had about the zone-read.
“I don’t want to minimize it, but I think when something’s new there are so many questions, but what you really want to know is, ‘What’s the best thing to do? What’s the worst thing to do?’”
And against Kaepernick, the Packers did the worst thing: Their defensive ends/outside linebackers jetted upfield – remember how lost now ex-Packers outside linebacker Erik Walden looked that night? – instead of patiently reading their keys. And the Packers weren’t alone; even the Ravens, who did a good job of putting hits on Kaepernick on each read-option play, misplayed that portion of the defense.
“I’m not speaking for Green Bay, but speaking overall NFL, when you look at last year, when you look at how college teams defending that pistol/zone-read, their ends would slow-play the read,” Aranda explained. “You look at the NFL last year, all those defensive ends are running up the field, even Baltimore, after the lights went out (at the Louisiana Superdome), San Francisco started running the pistol, and (the Ravens) were trying to fly up.”
The other issue, Aranda said, is that defenders decided that hitting the quarterback became paramount. (That very topic became a point of contention between Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews and 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh on Wednesday.)
“There’s an attitude of, how can you run the quarterback in this league? You’re going to get him hit,” Aranda said. “So the end result, guys (on defense) are flying up the field and hitting them. There’s a change of pace there, but overall you’re looking for the squeeze and slow play. You want a gray picture where you can play two things and gain numbers. So it’s not 4-on-3 but 4-on-4. Those are the things that’ll be interesting to see.”
Just as the quarterback having three options – running the ball himself, handing off to the back or pulling the ball on play-action and throwing it – to confuse the defense, the defense can return the favor by muddling the picture. To Aranda, that’s vital.
“You do want to hit the quarterback, but I think you want to gray out the picture more than anything. You don’t want to give the quarterback a clear read,” Aranda explained. “I would equate it to playing coverage in the NFL. The majority of teams will play two high safeties. Most of them never show a one-high (look). They may rock a safety down, or if they show (a one-high look), they always disguise, they never show it straight up. To me playing, a one-high safety is like running the defensive end up the field against the zone read. The quarterback knows exactly what is happening.”
For Capers, it all sounded like a bizarre flashback to his early coaching days in pro ball, first with the USFL’s Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars and then the NFL’s New Orleans Saints in the early 1980s after college stints at Tennessee and Ohio State. It’s also clear that he paid attention to what Aranda told him.
“I can remember going into the first staff meeting and going, ‘Well, we can’t do that.’ And they said, ‘Why not?’ I said, ‘Who’s got the quarterback? Who’s got the pitch?’ And they said, ‘You don’t have to worry about that anymore. You aren’t in college football anymore,’” Capers recalled. “Well, 30 years later, you’re going back and talking about the things you did in college. And that’s why people are doing it. A lot of the exotic stunts and those kind of things that you might use to pressure the quarterback, it calms that stuff down a little bit.
“I just think (it’s a matter of) working on it and guys getting a feel for it. If teams are doing that and the quarterback’s running, you just can’t pin your ears back and rush the passer, like a lot of guys get paid to do in this league. You have to reel that in a little bit.”
In fairness, the Packers’ defensive problems in their last meeting with the 49ers weren’t solely with the read-option. You don’t get up 579 total yards – fourth most in a playoff game in NFL history – without making other mistakes, too. Of Kaepernick’s 181 rushing yards, his seven read-option runs went for 99 yards, including a back-breaking 56-yard touchdown, but he also scrambled five times for 75 yards (including a 20-yard first-quarter touchdown) and a quarterback draw that gained 9 yards. (His other three attempts were a fumbled snap and two kneel-downs.) Halfback Frank Gore also rushed 23 times for 119 yards and a touchdown, some of it coming on zone-read plays.
As a result, it’s hard to predict just how many read-option plays the Packers will see Sunday. Perhaps it’ll only be a handful of snaps. But however often Harbaugh dials up such plays, the Packers will at least have a clue what to do.
“We’ve definitely talked about it. Coaches addressed the elephant in the room from Day 1,” defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. “We know what we’re capable of. That’s the biggest thing. Obviously, those guys made plays, but we definitely do our job, particularly on defense. That's a big emphasis going into this game."
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.