A rule of thumb in the NFL is: Special players win games, bad players lose games.
Given the defense’s performance against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, the Green Bay Packers might be better poised to compete in the playoffs than they were last year – that is if Aaron Rodgers gets healthy and they get in.
The Packers played two elite quarterbacks in meaningful games last year after they lost cornerback Al Harris to a knee injury. With the highly vulnerable Jarrett Bush playing nickel back, Pittsburgh with Ben Roethlisberger and Arizona with Kurt Warner passed for a combined 882 yards and a 140.4 passer rating while leading seven scoring drives of 70 yards or more. In turn, the Packers’ defense forced one three-and-punt series.
In the Patriots’ victory Sunday, Brady was effective with a 110.2 passer rating. But he threw for only 163 yards and led only one scoring drive of 70 yards or more, while the Packers forced three three-and-outs.
Despite their many injuries on defense, the Packers appear to have more than adequate fill-ins or, at least, have been able to cover up for those losses. Thus, with rookie Sam Shields as their nickel back behind a vastly improved Tramon Williams and a still capable Charles Woodson, the Packers don’t appear to have that glaring weakness that they did a year ago. Take away Matt Flynn’s interception and the bizarre 71-yard kickoff return by a guard and the Packers gave up 17 points to a Brady-led offense.
The defense played well enough to win against an MVP quarterback. B.J. Raji got up-field. A.J. Hawk’s tip on Brady’s last pass was a huge play. And the corners held Wes Welker and Deion Branch to five catches for 75 yards. The Packers played more dime and more three safeties deep, and they got beat for one big play.
Even on the 10-yard touchdown pass to the tight end, Aaron Hernandez, there was no safety help and Shields was on an island. He had to take away the inside, and the guy ran an out. Even then, Shields with his speed was able to drive on the ball and challenge the pass. He missed the tackle and came out on the wrong side of the play, but his physical ability jumped out. Maybe Shields won’t play quite so much to the inside next time, but he did what he was coached to do. Unlike last year, the Packers don’t have one guy the other team can pick on play after play.
The running game
Brandon Jackson’s 99 yards was the most by a Packers back against a winning team in two years. In the six games that the Packers played against winning teams last year, Ryan Grant averaged 49.7 yards rushing with a high of 79.
The offensive line played with better pad level, and so they were able to win at the point of attack and get to the second level. But the Patriots’ defensive line wasn’t nearly as good as Detroit’s. Vince Wilfork is a stud, but a guy with that kind of body is going to run out of gas if he’s on the field that much. Plus, the Patriots were dropping eight in coverage and splitting their ends wide, which opened cutback lanes.
But the biggest thing was the Packers kept feeding the ball to one back and allowed him to get a feel for the game. So as the game progressed, Jackson was setting up blocks and making things happen.
Even in what you’d call that pistol look, the Packers were running essentially out of an I-formation, which is what Jackson does best. In the pistol, it’s still a spread look, but the quarterback moves up to five yards or even closer to the center, and you have two backs or a tight end and a back behind him. In a shotgun, the quarterback is at five-plus yards with one or no back. So in the pistol, with a tight end or a fullback in the backfield, those were still downhill runs for Jackson.
He had a nice game and hit the big pass to James Jones. But he missed on a couple others – like not hitting Jackson right away on third-and-one before the field goal – and he had a pick-six. Also, the Patriots set up to take away the quick slants and the hook-curls to see if Flynn could beat them going vertical and he couldn’t. He was close. He was very good. But he wasn’t quite good enough.
Maybe the most impressive thing was that when he was under duress, he didn’t get happy feet. And maybe that’s why it appeared that he had a little more mustard on his ball than against Detroit. He was stepping into his throws. He looked relaxed and comfortable, although like most young quarterbacks, he held onto the ball too long.
He had a meltdown on that last drive. On the first sack everyone was fan blocking – that’s where the linemen are stepping to the outside to the next guy over -- and Bulaga wasn’t. So an undrafted rookie, Dane Fletcher, gets a free run for a sack. On the last play, Flynn stepped into the guy, but Bulaga had to be more physical and stay on the guy.
He has some Mike Alstott in him, but you have to pick your spots with him.