The Green Bay Packers lost five starters and four other players that they were expecting to fill key roles during the course of the season, but the team never suffered.
Proving the point once again that the overwhelming percentage of players in the NFL fall into the average to slightly above average category and are easily replaced, the Packers seamlessly plugged holes with the likes of Charlie Peprah, Bryan Bulaga, Desmond Bishop, Howard Green, Frank Zombo and Erik Walden, and James Starks.
The stat geeks and the minutiae patrol kept adding up the number of quarters missed by the Packers’ injured starters and babbled incessantly about how they had no business winning. But the fact was that the Packers lost only two players all season they couldn’t replace. Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews each failed to finish a game and play in another, and the Packers lost all four.
Then disaster struck Sunday in Super Bowl XLV. The Packers lost cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Sam Shields late in the first half – Shields eventually returned – and appeared doomed to blow the biggest lead in Super Bowl history. They had to fill in with two replacements who have struggled in the past, Jarrett Bush and Pat Lee, at the most vulnerable position on defense. But once again Dom Capers performed his magic and the Packers prevailed over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The defensive adjustments
Capers’ game plans and the packages he runs out there are something special. And still his players seem to be on the same page. You see other teams when they lose a starter in the secondary, they look like they’re lost. Bush and Lee aren’t the athletes that the other two guys are, but they didn’t look lost.
Most of the year, the Packers’ base defense was their nickel, and they used Woodson almost as a linebacker. But had they used that nickel as much, the Steelers might have burned them with their running game. So the game plan was stop the run on first and second down, and make Ben Roethlisberger beat them on third down.
The first play of the game, the Packers went with four down linemen, four linebackers. And they did more of that in the second half. That was ingenious to pull that out of their playbook.
It also was obvious going into the game that they wanted to keep Roethlisberger in the pocket by keeping their spacing up front on the rush. And when they lost Woodson, they used Clay Matthews more as a spy. The pass rush didn’t get to Roethlisberger much in those situations, but it kept him in the pocket.
The Packers were running that four-man front with four linebackers. Then they’d play their base 3-4. They ran their nickel and dime. They played situational defense more than usual, especially after they lost Woodson.
And they didn’t blitz a lot. They played a lot of two deep with their safeties, man under with the corners. That forces the quarterback to be exceptionally accurate.
Bottom line: Roethlisberger wasn’t accurate enough to beat them.
The defensive personnel
A.J. Hawk didn’t attack the blocker, and Rashard Mendenhall cut inside him on his first big gain. But other than that, Hawk and Desmond Bishop were physical and played the run well. With Matthews as a spy, the Packers needed Zombo to get some pressure, and he did just enough. He doesn’t strike fear into anybody, but he’s a scrapper and fighter. He doesn’t hurt them.
One of the keys to the Packers’ defense is that their secondary is physical, especially since Peprah replaced Morgan Burnett. And that was true to form Sunday. Again, Nick Collins showed why he’s a Pro Bowl safety. He’s an athlete. He can bend his knees, turn his hips at the last second and make sure tackles.
Kudos to Bush for picking off the pass. He and Lee weren’t awful. Part of that was because the Packers weren’t blitzing and they had safety help over the top.
That was a real credit to Shields to go back and play. Everything a corner does involves his shoulders: Jamming a guy at the line, tackling, whatever. The 25-yard touchdown to Mike Wallace, Shields wasn’t able to get his hands on him. It was obvious he was playing hurt.
Tramon Williams had another Pro Bowl game playing the ball.
Offensive game plan
The Packers were able to nullify James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, the Steelers’ two defensive stars, with three, four, five wide receiver sets. Against outside backers like Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, you want to tire them out. The Packers seemed to do that by spreading them out, using a lot of deep drops, passing a lot.
And by using multiple receiver sets, Polamalu wasn’t able to come up to the line of scrimmage. He had to play coverage. Woodley also was in coverage a lot. Chad Clifton did an outstanding job one-on-one against Harrison. But to help him and Bryan Bulaga out, the Packers influenced those outside backers to fly up-field to rush the passer. The tackles would drop back to pass protect, and James Starks would run underneath Harrison and Woodley.
Scott Wells is tenacious and a technician, but he’s short and doesn’t have the wingspan to get inside some of those big defensive linemen. He can’t physically overpower people. If they ever want to be a running team, they’ll need to do something about the left guard and center positions. On the other hand, John Kuhn was more effective as a blocker than Quinn Johnson. He finishes blocks better.