Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers celebrates after running in a touchdown in the first quarter against the Green Bay Packers during the NFC Divisional Playoff Game at Candlestick Park on January 12, 2013 in San Francisco, California. (PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES)
SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Patrick Willis can imagine just what all those defensive players from the Green Bay Packers must have been thinking.
Dang, Colin Kaepernick is faaaaaast.
That Kaepernick is speedy shouldn't be a surprise. He ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash when he came out of the University of Nevada. But there's something different about Kaepernick's speed when it's coming at you live than when you see it on film, or even in practice.
Willis, San Francisco's all-pro inside linebacker, remembers thinking the same thing last year when Kaepernick was acting as the scout team quarterback in 49ers practices. Back then, Kaepernick would mimic the upcoming opponent, someone like Sam Bradford or Eli Manning. But every now and then, the defenders would see something special.
"He would mostly just drop back. But every now and then, he'd scramble," Willis said. "Just to see him in practice and the way he moves in practice, and then to see when he gets in a game - it's almost like he's faster."
Now it's the Atlanta Falcons' turn to try to figure out a way to slow Kaepernick in Sunday's NFC Championship Game. A start would be watching the tape of San Francisco's 45-31 win against Green Bay and, well, doing something completely different.
The Falcons are already at work.
"We're going to go out there well-prepared," Atlanta safety William Moore said Wednesday. "Keeping the quarterback in the pocket, we have to go in there and keep contain on him.''
Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards - a record for a quarterback - as he weaved through and sprinted past the Packers defense. When the Packers tried to stop him on the ground, Kaepernick threw for 263 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The second-year quarterback now has the 49ers back in the NFC Championship Game for a second consecutive year and is garnering the type of attention and excitement the 49ers haven't seen about a quarterback since Steve Young. Kaepernick is on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week - "It's an honor," he said - and has inspired a new internet fad called "Kaepernicking," an ode to his kiss-the-biceps touchdown celebration.
San Francisco has won six of its eight games since coach Jim Harbaugh named Kaepernick his starting quarterback over Alex Smith, who had just won NFC offensive player of the week honors when he suffered a concussion in early November. As the Chicago Bears, New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots (among others) can attest, Kaepernick has given the 49ers a dimension they lacked with Smith. Harbaugh has implemented some of the "pistol" offense Kaepernick ran so well at Nevada with the read-option concepts other NFL teams are using with multi-talented quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.
It's working now for Kaepernick because of his speed, his accurate and strong arm, and an offensive line and running game that prevents opponents from focusing solely on him.
"I really don't know if there's too many coordinators around the league right now that really know how to stop it yet. It's really a trick 'em type of offense. Like its trick 'em, and then we're going deep on you. I like it," said San Francisco safety Donte Whitner. "If you get your eyes out of position one time, take a false step, it can be a big play. And that's what they've been doing. They've been taking advantage of that, and hopefully it continues."
Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton had to create a game plan to face Kaepernick in Week 17. San Francisco played a relatively vanilla scheme that day, with Kaepernick rushing only three times for 5 yards in a 27-13 win. But Horton, like every other football-loving individual, saw what Kaepernick did in his next game. Now Horton has advice for Atlanta's coaching staff.
"If you're asking me how best to stop Kaepernick, you need to have Matt Ryan have a great day throwing, and Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers have a good day running the ball to keep Kaepernick off the field," Horton said. "In lieu of that, you have to play multi-dimensional defense against Kaepernick. You can't just play zones on him, and you can't just play man to man out on the edge. It's important to mix things up to keep Kaepernick off balance."
Kaepernick is expecting the Falcons to try to take their shots at him.
"If you get the opportunity to blow up somebody and make a statement, that's what you want to do,'' Moore said.
Green Bay had few chances to do the same last week, and even the hardest hits Kaepernick absorbed seemed to have little effect. After one hit, at the end of a long run, he spiked the ball in celebration and drew a flag for taunting. Harbaugh called that penalty "ticky-tack" on Wednesday.
For his part, Kaepernick shrugged off the idea that the Falcons might try to punish him.
"I mean, run where they're not," he said. "You want to run away from where the defensive players are, and when they get close, get down."