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Playing Good Cop/Bad Cop In Green Bay

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This late hit by Clay Matthews on Colin Kaepernick was one of the turning points of the game. Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images.
This late hit by Clay Matthews on Colin Kaepernick was one of the turning points of the game. Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images.

The Green Bay Packers’ loss to the San Francisco 49ers is well in the books, but the debates from the game rages on. Here’s a good cop/bad cop view of the topics.

Subject 1: Mike McCarthy’s decision to not decline the illegal formation

The situation: With 9:51 remaining in the second quarter, the Packers held the 49ers on a third-and-1, resulting in fourth and inches inside the Packers’ 5-yard line. San Francisco was flagged on the play, however, for an illegal formation. Mike McCarthy accepted the penalty, giving the 49ers another shot on third down and six.

                To be fair, McCarthy later said he thought the 49ers picked up the first down, and that’s the reason he accepted the penalty. Still, this is a great topic for debate, so we’re going to pretend he made the decision knowing it was fourth down.

                Good cop: I’ve got five huge reasons why this was the right decision, and they all create massive running lanes for Frank Gore. Had McCarthy declined the penalty, the 49ers would have had a fourth-and-inches situation with an ultra aggressive head coach, the best, most physical offensive line in the league and a great running back. You’re basically banking on a fumbled exchange or conservative move by Jim Harbaugh. I wouldn’t bank on either.

                Bad cop: Your defense has been preparing for this offense for the entire offseason. You finally stop them, then give them another chance on third down? The Packers run defense was great all day, holding the 49ers to a 2.6 rushing average. And don’t forget, the Packers had just stood their ground on third-and-1. If San Francisco goes for it on fourth down, you’ve got a chance to make a huge stop. The 49ers would come up with no points after driving to Green Bay’s 5-yard line, a huge momentum swing. The Packers were underdogs on the road. Sometimes you’ve got to swing for the fences to come up with the upset.

                The verdict: I wouldn’t be too upset with either choice here, but I lean towards accepting the penalty. There’s no way Harbaugh doesn’t go for it on fourth and inches. I know the Packers run defense was great and they had just stopped a run on third and one. But do you really think given two chances to grind out one yard, that line and Frank Gore couldn’t do it? Even if you do hold, you’re starting out the next drive on your own 5-yard line. Against San Francisco’s front seven, that’s a dangerous starting point for even an offense as might as Green Bay’s.

Subject 2: Clay Matthews’s late hit on Colin Kaepernick

The situation: In the third-and-6 resulting from situation number one, Colin Kaepernick scrambled from the pocket after finding no open receivers. With Clay Matthews in pursuit, Kaepernick headed out of bounds, bringing up what should’ve been fourth down and a couple. Matthews, however, launched himself at Kaepernick when he was already out of bounds, drawing a personal foul penalty. Joe Staley retaliated, drawing a flag of his own. The penalties offset. It should have remained fourth down, but the referees incorrectly replayed the down, in which Kaepernick threw a touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin.

Good cop: It’s been a while since anyone considered the Packers’ defense tough. But ever since it was decimated by Kaepernick and the 49ers last January, the defense has been extra scrutinized for being soft. Nailing Kaepernick on this play not only helps send a message that this defense is not soft, it also makes Kaepernick think twice about keeping the ball on a read option. Case-in-point – Kaepernick only rushed seven times, four of which were scrambles, for 22 yards. On one read-option play, Kaepernick triple clutched trying to make up his mind whether to keep the football or hand it off. He seemed much less willing to take off and run.

                Bad cop: What is the most important part of a football game? Points. By hitting Kaepernick late, Clay Matthews essentially gave the 49ers four of them. You can talk about how the hit sent a message and all that, but there’s no way to know whether that actually limited how many points San Francisco scored the rest of the game. Given how easily they marched up and down the field on the Packers, I don’t think it made much of a difference. You want to send a message? I’m perfectly fine with that. But do it when the ball is in play and when it doesn’t give your opposition new life after a stop on third down.

                The verdict: I don’t care how the offsetting penalties should or should not have been called. (Not to mention the Packers were lucky Staley retaliated at all. Had he not, San Francisco would’ve got a first down instead of another shot on third down.) The bottom line is that without the late hit, the 49ers are faced with fourth down and two or three, not close enough for even Harbaugh to go for it. After all the aftermath of the Matthews hit, the 49ers scored a touchdown. To recap – with the hit, the 49ers get seven points, without it, they get three. Worst of all, the defense’s leader and best player was the one committing the violation. You don’t want to send the message to the rest of the defense that it’s OK to commit these kinds of foolish penalties.