Green Bay Packers defenders Clay Matthews (52) and Jerel Worthy (99) stack up running back Arian Foster (23) against the Houston Texans during Sunday night's game at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
The late Hall of Fame baseball manager Sparky Anderson used to tell his Cincinnati Reds that Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez were special players and would be treated accordingly. ďThe rest of you,Ē Sparky would tell his 21 non-superstars, ďare turds.Ē
Perhaps no other manager or coach ever has felt so emboldened to be that blunt, but they all know, no matter what the sport, that a very small number of elite playmakers ultimately decide championships ó and they do it by being the deciding factor in enough games and particularly big games over the course of a season.
So make no mistake about it, the No. 1 reason why the Green Bay Packers rolled over the previously unbeaten Houston Texans was because quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews, their two best players, were at their best in the same game for the first time this season.
That doesnít mean football isnít a team game or that the other players donít have to do their part. But their part in most cases simply means doing their job: Playing smart, winning at least a fair share of their one-on-one battles and sacrificing for the good of the team.
They donít have to dominate; they just have to contribute. And thatís exactly what the Packersí offensive and defensive lines did Sunday night in a selfless way. As a result, they nullified Arian Foster and J.J. Watt, the Texansí best offensive and defensive players, and made it all the easier on Rodgers and Matthews.
Led by Ryan Pickett, they couldnít have played it better against the Texansí signature stretch play. To hold Foster to a 1.7-yard average on 17 carries required a faultless defensive effort. Again, the line wasnít necessarily dominating, but its technique work was right out of a football textbook.
The Packersí linemen donít play an attacking game like the Texans. Their job is to take up space and eat blockers. So their stats arenít going to jump out ó Pickett, for example, had one tackle ó but they were the key to the Packersí defensive effort.
They never got driven off the line of scrimmage and that allowed the linebackers to scrape and shoot gaps or the safeties to come up and make tackles.
The Packers took a different approach against the run. In recent weeks, they played it by setting a point and trying to turn the running back up. Against Houstonís zone scheme, they stretched it out and had Foster running to the sideline. Thatís usually the best way to play against a zone, but the defensive linemen have to get no worse than a stalemate.
That said, they werenít just holding a point. They all played with good arm extension and held their ground even as they ran down the line.
The Packers played more 3-4 than usual and so Pickett was the key. If he gets pushed back, the backside pursuit has to climb over him to get to the ball. But that didnít happen.
Even at 33, Pickett is quick off the ball. And heís just a tough guy. Heís not an up-field player, but he has always had the ability to stay on his feet and run laterally.
Jerel Worthy had his best game. Earlier when heíd get blocked in the running game, heíd kind of stand up and give up. Thatís not uncommon for a rookie who was able to just blow by people in college. But in the pros, defensive linemen have to learn to play with their hands, and Worthy did a much better job of that. He was knocking the blockers hands away and staying alive.
C.J. Wilson has played well against the run all year.
Again, maybe they didnít dominate, but they did a solid job. Watt is a superstar defensive tackle and he made some plays, but he wasnít nearly as destructive as he has been in other games.
Whatís more, the Packers ran the ball effectively, even if Alex Greenís stats didnít necessarily reflect it. Watt is an active defensive tackle and one of the ways to counteract that is to trap him. Trap plays arenít part of the Packersí zone scheme, but T.J. Lang pulled a handful of times. That was a new wrinkle, and it helped the Packers make yards between the tackles.
Lang would pull, look for a blue shirt and Green would cut off his backside. If Lang pulls and whiffs, itís no gain. But Green ran behind Lang, Josh Sitton and Jeff Saturday for an 8-yard gain on a second-quarter trap. John Kuhn gained 5 on another trap late in the second quarter when Lang engulfed a hard-charging Watt. And Green burst for 9 yards behind Lang and Bryan Bulaga on another trap play late in the third quarter.
No doubt, the trap play had a two-fold objective: Not only to take advantage of Wattís aggressiveness, but also to get him running up-field in an attempt to tire him out.
Give credit to Green, as well. He ran hard, and he did a better job of reading blocks and not overrunning holes. Maybe 65 yards on 22 carries doesnít jump off the stat sheet, but Greenís production helped keep the pressure off Rodgers and opened up the play-action passing game.
Whatís more is that through three quarters, Green ran out of the shotgun on 11 of his 16 carries. That meant the Packers were able to run the ball and still keep three wide receivers and a tight end on the field.
A.J. Hawk has been stepping up and playing more physical. Typically, heís a catcher and rider, but his hit on Foster on the goal line was a big-time linebacker play. ... Brad Jones will give the defense more length than D.J. Smith and heís usually in the right spot, but Jones isnít as explosive as Smith. Ö Casey Hayward looks like a player. You have to wonder if it isnít time to keep Woodson at safety and play Hayward as the third corner in nickel.