Early in the NFC championship game following the 2007 season, as the New York Giants’ defensive linemen trotted to the sideline after smothering another offensive possession by the Green Bay Packers, one of them started chirping loud enough to be heard in the lower rows on the east side of Lambeau Field, “They can’t block us.”
From that point forward, those linemen strutted like peacocks despite sub-zero temperatures and radiated nothing but confidence when they’d huddle near the south end of their bench between series. On the field, they held the Packers to 28 yards on 14 rushes and never gave Brett Favre a chance to beat them through the air.
Here it is almost five years later and the Packers still can’t block the Giants’ front four. Or at least they have failed to do so in two more meetings: Last January’s NFC playoff game at Lambeau and Sunday night at MetLife Stadium.
The Packers lost more than a good tackle when Bryan Bulaga went down with an injury. They were weakened at two positions.
The Packers started the season with three highly reliable regulars on their line — Bulaga, and guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang — and two other average or mediocre ones in Marshall Newhouse and Jeff Saturday. Now, without Bulaga, they have one solid starter (Sitton) and four mediocre ones.
Newhouse and Lang didn’t get much help in pass protection and that’s where the pressure came. Lang gets impatient and overextended; and Newhouse lets his hands drop and doesn’t have that big punch. Chad Clifton used to stun his opponent with his punch. Newhouse can’t do that.
Basically, the Giants rarely blitzed and their four rushers beat the Packers’ five blockers. The Giants even had a defensive tackle hang back to spy Rodgers at times.
In the weeks just before Bulaga got hurt, the Packers were pulling Lang and running some power plays — branching out from their zone running scheme. Against the Texans' J.J. Watt, the Packers used Lang to trap him and power that way and that opened up the play-action pass. But they couldn’t do that against the Giants.
Evan Dietrich-Smith looks too slow-footed to pull and that’s not Sitton’s game, either.
Worse yet, the line just didn’t play inspired football. Saturday was a guy who blocked beyond the whistle in Indianapolis. He’s not doing that. None of those linemen were finishing blocks.
When the Packers lost in the 2007 postseason, Favre forced a pass that was intercepted and led to the Giants’ game-winning field goal. With Rodgers there is less risk-taking, but still no reward.
Make no mistake about it, the more the Giants’ lead grew the more Rodgers was under siege. But as longtime NFL scout Michael Lombardi wrote for NFL.com last week, “Interceptions are part of the game, and signal-callers who want to win a Super Bowl have to be willing to go for tight throws.”
At times against teams that have been able to apply pressure in front of their two deep zones, Rodgers has made bad reads, pulled the ball down prematurely, gotten antsy with his feet and dumped off balls on third down that had little chance of picking up a first down.
He had more than 4 seconds before he fled the pocket on his first sack. With plenty of time, on second-and-17 in the second quarter, it appeared he could have risked a quick throw down the seam to Jordy Nelson but wound up running for 6 yards.
Just before the end of the third quarter, he scrambled right and threw 10 yards to Nelson when he had time to stand in the pocket and hit Randall Cobb on a post for a 29-yard TD. On the next play, he had good time and rushed a throw to Nelson.
Playing behind a makeshift offensive line with no running game makes it tough on Rodgers, but the Packers aren’t the only contender minus a good back and having problems up front. Aside from running the ball, when the pressure is coming, the best way to beat it is by throwing the ball quick down the middle between the hash-marks.
The Packers miss more than just Clay Matthews’ pass rush. They miss him against the run. Sometimes we forget how good he is in all phases of the game. That said, the Packers’ problems weren’t limited to Matthews’ absence.
The defensive linemen were getting pushed back more than usual, especially after C.J. Wilson went down. Until the coaches pulled Jerel Worthy, he was getting double-teamed and blown off the ball almost every time.
Dezman Moses has put pressure on quarterbacks while filling in for Matthews, but he’s weak at the point of attack even though he played defensive end in college. Moses struggles to keep his shoulders and hips square to the line of scrimmage and to set the edge against the run. The Giants attacked his side relentlessly.
Frank Zombo and Erik Walden had their problems, as well, getting off blocks and staying square. When they did, they didn’t have the athletic ability to finish and make the tackle. You saw Walden’s limitations when he couldn’t make the tackle on Ahmad Bradshaw’s 59-yard gain on a screen pass.
Something Nick Perry did well was use his strength to squeeze the hole. Too often with Moses, Walden and Zombo, when they’re blocked, they’re blocked.
Another issue was that Henry Hynoski, the Giants’ fullback, was in A.J. Hawk’s grill all game long. Hynoski repeatedly beat Hawk to the hole and drove him back.
Brad Jones was more aggressive, but took some bad angles and had a hard time scraping, although the latter was due partly to Worthy or another linemen getting driven back into him or Hawk getting planted next to him.
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.