GREEN BAY – A.J. Hawk knows the type.
He has been around long enough to have come across a few coaches whose moods swung wildly, the ones who’d tell their players how god-awful they were one day and how wonderful they were the next.
The Green Bay Packers don’t get that from Dom Capers, which is why they have faith in their defensive coordinator that the game plan for Sunday’s NFC Wild Card game against the San Francisco 49ers – a team that has gotten the best of them, in a big way, in the teams’ past three meetings – will put them in position to vanquish their new postseason nemesis and advance in the NFL playoffs.
“I think I’ve told you before that the No. 1 thing I respect about Dom so much is, he’s the same guy every day,” the veteran inside linebacker said Wednesday, as the Packers prepared to play host to the 49ers at Lambeau Field. “He’s not that rollercoaster that you can get with some coaches, you know, [where] win or lose, one day they’re going to come in and they want to jump off the roof of Lambeau, the next day they’re coming in hugging everybody. He’s even-keeled and tries to stay positive and coach us up.
“I’m sure in his mind, yeah, it’s a huge game. [It’s a] big game for everybody, though. I think everybody’s kind of fighting to get that ultimate goal. He’s been in this league so long and he’s been a part of some huge games.”
Indeed, the 63-year-year old Capers has coordinated the Packers’ 2010 Super Bowl XLV-winning defense, coached in the AFC Championship Game in 1994 as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive coordinator; and as a head coach led the expansion Carolina Panthers to the 1996 NFC Championship Game in just their second year of existence, losing to the Super Bowl-bound Packers at frigid Lambeau Field.
But Sunday’s game is a colossal one for him – even though he’s not keen on admitting it – and his defense because of what the 49ers have done to his defenses in the past 16 months. In three games, all 49ers victories, the Packers have surrendered an astonishing 1,450 combined yards, including last year’s NFC Divisional Playoff embarrassment.
In a 45-31 loss, the Packers allowed 579 total yards – fourth-most ever allowed in a postseason game – and watched quarterback Colin Kaepernick rush for 181 yards, the most rushing yards by a quarterback in any game, regular-season or postseason, in NFL history. As a team, the 49ers finished with 323 yards rushing.
Then, in the Sept. 8 regular-season opener, the Packers solved the read-option conundrum – Kaepernick rushed seven times for 22 yards, and the 49ers finished with 34 carries for 90 yards (2.6-yard average) as a team – but couldn’t stop Kaepernick throwing the ball, particularly to Anquan Boldin.
Kaepernick completed 27 of 39 passes for a career-high 412 yards and three touchdowns (129.4 rating), while Boldin caught 13 of 17 passes thrown his way for 208 yards and a touchdown. The 49ers, it is important to note, played that game without top receiver Michael Crabtree, who was on the physically unable to perform list recovering from an Achilles’ injury. And Kaepernick didn’t have another even 300-yard game until the regular-season finale last week.
“Well, we certainly weren’t happy with the results,” Capers said wryly. “To me, what do you do? You go back to work. And you try to correct the things that need to be corrected. You spend time on that and try to get them fixed and try to make sure you get it right the next time.
“Against a team like this, now, this is a talented football team. We got the run part right in the [regular-season opener]. We just, it’s just plugging those holes in the dike. You remember back before the preseason? Everybody’s talking about, ‘Oh, the zone read.’ But they hit us on some passes. To me, it’s all about whatever’s going to take to win the game. I don’t care.”
So, yes, the Packers’ chances of surviving and advancing depend not only on whether quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the offense can put up points against a 49ers defense that was third in the NFL in fewest points allowed (17.0) and fifth in fewest yards allowed (316.9), but whether the Packers defense can rise to the occasion. While their defensive statistics have dropped in recent weeks, the unit has come up with big stops and big plays in comeback victories over Atlanta, Dallas and Chicago that the group wasn’t making earlier this year.
“Dom Capers is a competitor. [But] it’s a very important game to all of us,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “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.”
The Packers enter the postseason having finished tied for 24th in scoring defense (26.8 points per game), 25th in yards allowed (372.3), 25th in rushing yards allowed (125.0) and 24th in passing yards allowed (247.3). And there is no denying that Capers is culpable for some of those struggles, be it his scheme or playcalling.
But injuries (top run-stuffer Johnny Jolly is on season-ending injured reserve, and four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews will miss his second straight game after re-breaking his thumb), insufficient talent on defense (outside linebacker Nick Perry, the team’s 2012 first-round pick, and safety Morgan Burnett, who signed a $24.75 million extension in the offseason, have been particularly disappointing), youth (16 of the 26 players on defense have three or fewer years of NFL experience) and poor execution have contributed, too.
“I say it all the time: Good or bad, it’s not scheme that’s going to win games for you. As a defense, it’s up to us as players to make the plays. So when we’re not playing well it’s us, it’s not him,” Hawk said. “A coach can’t go out there and make tackles for you or get turnovers, he can just put us in the best situation possible.”
And while Hawk said Capers’ players appreciate that he won’t criticize them publicly, he does let them know behind closed doors when they’ve erred.
“If you saw a guy walking around here telling you he’s tough and barking and yelling at everybody, no one’s scared of that guy unless you’re mentally weak. You’ve got to let that guy roll,” Hawk said. “Dom’s the guy (who), he’s intense, and you don’t want to mess up, you want to do so well for him, you want to win for him. He’ll hold you accountable for sure. (But) he’s too good of a guy to throw his players under the bus.”
Instead, Capers tends to take the blame on himself, as he did after the playoff loss, when he said, “I feel awful about the way we played because you want to play your best in that game and we didn't. And I accept responsibility for that. That's my job to make sure that we play better.
But if you’re hoping that Capers is taking this game personally, well, you will be disappointed.
“I try to never do that. I really don’t. I think you make a mistake,” Capers said. “You know what your job is.
“This is a really good football team we’re getting ready to play. Hey, this business is a humbling business. You’ve got to be careful. You’ve got to be careful you don’t all of a sudden feel you’ve got all the answers when everything is going well and everybody’s patting you on the back; you better stay humble and you better stay working the same way. And when things aren’t going your way and everybody’s on you, you work the exact same way. And if you do, you come out the other end, I think, better.”
For better or worse, that is Capers’ approach. He is ultra-motivated to have his defense play well and his team win, and while he may not show it, he remains as prideful and competitive as ever.
“That’s why we’re in this business. It’s the thing that keeps you going,” Capers said. “People ask me, ‘How much longer are you going to do it?’ I’m going to do it as long as I enjoy it. Competitiveness is what I enjoy the most. And I tell the players this: I have to know without a doubt that I’m giving it everything I’ve got. I expect that out of the guys that I work with and work around.
“There’s going to be a lot of variables that you don’t control, and you can’t get caught up in those things and let that affect you. You have to work with the same work ethic, you have to take the same approach. Sure, you aren’t going to win them all, but if I’m not, I’m going to try to find some way to do it.
“I’ve had a lot of highs and a lot of good things happen at every level – as a position coach, as a coordinator, as a head coach. And I’ve had to deal with some tough times, too. And if you hang in there and take the same approach, my experience tells me that you work through that.”
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.