The closeness of the score and the all-out effort of a defense that badly missed Clay Matthews belied the underlying cause and effect of the Green Bay Packersí overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins Sunday.
In truth, this loss was an utter embarrassment for this reason: The Dolphins came into Lambeau Field and beat the Packers by usurping their identity. They exposed the Packers for what theyíve become: A team that doesnít even show any pretense of playing power football. Losing 23-20 in overtime might not be a disgrace, but in the name of Vince Lombardi, the Black & Blue Division and the Frozen Tundra it was just that.
The Dolphins ran 39 times for 150 yards, mostly right up the gut, despite two suspect starters at center and right guard. Even in the passing game, they were more physical despite having an erratic quarterback. Six-foot-four, 230-pound Brandon Marshall caught 10 balls, largely by overpowering the Packersí secondary.
Thereís nothing wrong with being a passing team if youíve got a quarterback with the talent of Aaron Rodgers, but you canít play scared.
The past two weeks, the Packers have been 5-for-26 on third-down conversions. What teams are doing is playing man under with two safeties over the top. Itís Cover 2 with man underneath. That takes away the deep ball, but itís also tough to get five, six yards underneath against man coverage. Itís a lot easier to get those yards against a straight zone scheme.
Part of it seems to be that in the wake of the Brett Favre era, Mike McCarthy and Rodgers are so wary of throwing interceptions, they donít take chances. And if you donít take chances, you donít make plays. Brett Favre threw away plenty of close games, but he won more than his share by making daring throws.
The other thing the Packers could do is run the ball some on third down, or run four verticals and spread those safeties out. Right now, linebackers are bailing out against them and itís hard to throw a slant, and the safeties are staying deep and are able to get to the plays on the sideline.
This was the happiest that Rodgersí feet looked this year and with good reason. He got blasted last week and suffered a concussion. If the Packers could run the ball, this is a game where youíd think theyíd do it. But Rodgers puts it up 33 times.
He just didnít seem willing to stand in there and make the throws he usually makes. The worst one was the interception up the sideline to James Jones. Normally, Rodgers puts that ball out in front of the receiver and itís a big play. But he didnít seem confident in the pocket, so he wasnít hanging in there and stepping forward like usual.
There, again, a running game would help him. But Brandon Jackson is a different runner than Ryan Grant. Grant could function without a lead blocker; Jackson canít. Thatís why youíre seeing the Packers run more out of an I-formation and why they might have to make even more adjustments.
Cameron Wake, Miamiís outside linebacker, is a special player and what he did was keep Bulaga off balance. From the second quarter on, he had Bulagaís number. It wasnít so much that Bulaga was physically overmatched, it was that Wake got inside his head and had him thinking: Do I set up soft? Do I set up hard?
If Bulaga set up hard to brace himself for the bull rush, Wake would use speed. When Bulaga set up light and tried to feather him, Wake started mixing in a bull rush and overpowered him. We talked about it last week; Bulaga has to work on keeping his weight back a little bit. But in the running game, he was still pretty good. Heís athletic; he just needs confidence and experience.
The pass rush
No Captain Caveman, no pass rush. It shows what a difference one player can make. The Dolphins didnít have to dedicate two players to block one. So there werenít as many one-on-one matchups. Because of Matthews, Cullen Jenkins typically goes one-on-one. Without Matthews, he gets double-teamed or he faces a running back floating over the top.
None of the outside backers were getting home. And C.J. Wilson and Jarius Wynn are nothing more than warm bodies. So the Dolphins knew they could win on the edge and they could devote more blockers to Jenkins and B.J. Raji.
The inside linebackers
Just because Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk made a lot of tackles doesnít mean they played well.
Bishop had a couple big plays, but he doesnít get over the top as fast as Nick Barnett. This might sound like an oxymoron, but it seems like heís smart, but not an instinctive player. Plus, he doesnít play as fast as Barnett. He just seems like a stopgap guy.
Hawk is good at making sure heís in his run fits and redirecting ball-carriers, but he doesnít get off blocks to make plays. He did that on that third-and-1 play in the third quarter. He stabbed the guy at the waist and got him for no gain. But thereís not enough of those plays. He doesnít press at the line of scrimmage. When heís taking on blockers at two-plus yards, it makes it that much harder on the rest of the defense.
Press the line of scrimmage, force the backs wide and the Packers have the players in their secondary to make the tackles at the line of scrimmage. But thatís why the Dolphins quit running outside. The Packersí inside backers were playing soft, not pressing the line, and the Dolphins were able to get yards up the gut.
Cliff Christl is a former Packers writer and sports editor for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Eric Baranczyk is a former player and coach at the high school and collegiate level.