Baranczyk/Christl column: Without Jennings, Packers lose big-play punch

Dec. 19, 2011

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Vince Lombardi’s mantra was that football was a game of blocking and tackling, and the Green Bay Packers’ identity during most of his nine years as coach was a grind-it-out running game. But even Lombardi, whose teams ran more than 60 percent of the time back when football was played on the ground, said it was playmakers who decided games.

The game of pro football is all about making big plays — even more so now that it’s a game played through the air — and that’s what the Packers didn’t do Sunday that they had done in their first 13 games.

Their defense giving up 438 yards was nothing new. It had given up more in five previous games, and it had allowed more points in seven games. Despite losing two right tackles to injury, Aaron Rodgers was under no more pressure than he had been in other games this year. And the five dropped passes weren’t totally out of character.

But what was different with no Greg Jennings in the lineup was the absence of big plays. The Packers’ wide receivers looked like they were leg-shackled to Kansas City’s defenders. Rodgers’ average per attempt, one of the most telling statistics in the game, was 6.7 yards. It was a league-leading 9.4 yards in the first 13 games.

Wide receivers

The Chiefs appeared to have taken a page from the New York Giants when they game-planned except they didn’t have to worry about Jennings and their cornerbacks probably are better than the Giants’ corners. The Chiefs rushed three or four and tried to handcuff Rodgers by taking away his weapons. They played man tough underneath, especially on the outside, and then had one or two safeties, even three at times, high.

Donald Driver, James Jones, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb — they all seemed to get swallowed up by the press coverage. Nelson probably faced more press coverage than he has all year and didn’t catch a pass until after the Chiefs went into a prevent defense with five minutes to go.

Cobb, at least, made some catches in the intermediate game. But Jones and Driver couldn’t break free to even do that. Driver’s 2-yard TD came against the Chiefs’ fifth cornerback. That’s the kind of matchup he has been getting all year.

When a team averages 6.7 yards per attempt that means its wide receivers aren’t getting over the top, and the ones lining up to the outside aren’t getting the job done.

Jermichael Finley

When a defense is playing tight coverage on the outside with safeties 15 yards deep, the way to beat it is with the tight end. The world’s greatest tight end in his own mind made the only big play of the game by a Packers receiver on his 41-yard catch, but he has to do much more in Jennings’ absence

Aaron Rodgers

No. 12 has to shoulder some of the blame, too. He wasn’t as accurate as he normally is. How many times has he bounced balls in front of receivers? And as the game went on, he seemed to be hanging onto the ball the way he did in his first year or two.

Running game

The Chiefs’ down linemen weren’t playing run at all other than when the Packers were lining up with two tight ends or in a pro-I formation. The Chiefs were just firing up field. Against that kind of a charge, if a team has an explosive back, it should lead to some huge plays in the running game: Forty, 50-yard runs, not just 15 to 20.

Pass blocking

On all three sacks that Marshall Newhouse allowed, he ran Tamba Hali past Rodgers but failed to maintain contact. Whether or not they were coverage sacks, Newhouse didn’t play well.

Newhouse’s hands kept coming down to his hips before he’d strike. When he loads that low to punch, he’s not going to get his hands up on his guy’s chest and inside the numbers. Newhouse’s feet weren’t bad, but Hali beat his hands the entire game.

If the Packers lose Bryan Bulaga for any length of time, it will be a huge loss. Maybe Scott Wells has graded out better this season, but Bulaga also has played at a high level and has better physical tools. He’s an outstanding run blocker.

Derek Sherrod is a loss, too. He has come a long way since training camp, particularly with his hands. He still has to get better at sinking his hips and knees, especially in the running game. But his height and arm length is enough to make an offensive line coach drool. Newhouse has a ceiling; Sherrod’s upside might be unlimited if he can come back from his injury.

The defense

There were signs of it the last few weeks and Sunday seemed to confirm it. The Packers are going for interceptions to the point where they’re not playing sound, fundamental defense. They’re jumping balls and getting beat. When players try too hard to make big plays, they usually screw up.

Here’s something else that doesn’t speak well for the defense. Its best tackler might be D.J. Smith, normally a backup. Charles Woodson comes off the edge and trips guys up. Smith strikes a blow and wraps up.

Former Press-Gazette sports editor Cliff Christl and former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offer their analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week.

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