From left, Green Bay Packers offensive linemen Don Barclay, Josh Sitton, Evan Dietrich-Smith, T.J. Lang and Marshall Newhouse take a break during the NFC wild-card playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field on Saturday. They had a nice game against the Vikings, but the San Francisco 49ers should be a tougher test. H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media
One thing the Green Bay Packers almost never do with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback is lose games. They donít win every time, but they donít give games away.
So when backup quarterback Joe Webb, on Minnesotaís 13th play from scrimmage, with his arms hogtied by linebacker Erik Walden, threw one of the dumbest passes of all time to avoid a sack ó a pop fly with interception written all over it ó there was little doubt the Packers were going to prevail against the Vikings in their wild-card playoff.
Letís face it, a team quarterbacked by Rodgers would beat a team quarterbacked by Webb not only 10 out of 10 times, but maybe 100 out of 100.
But there still were several positive signs for the Packers that had little to do with Webbís dreadful pocket presence, cluelessness when it came to reading coverage and inability to hit the broadside of a barn.
The offensive line
The game was all but settled when the Packers took a 24-3 lead. Thus, their final numbers maybe didnít look good. But up to that point, with 9:25 left in the third quarter, they had controlled the clock for 21 of 35 minutes and had gained 314 of their 326 yards.
Maybe the line benefited some from the field conditions and the temperature, and maybe from Jared Allenís injured shoulder.
But the pass blocking was extremely good, and the drive where that really jumped out was the last one of the first half when the Packers covered 59 yards on three pass plays and scored with 38 seconds remaining. Those were obvious passing situations, and the pocket was perfect on the first two. The third was a rollout.
Marshall Newhouse has had solid back-to-back games against Allen. Allen had one sack Saturday night ó a coverage sack. At this point, Newhouse appears to have cleaned up some of his technique issues and is playing at a serviceable level, which is usually good enough. Probably 90 percent of the offensive linemen in the league fall into that category.
Evan Dietrich-Smith isnít dominant, but he appears to be good enough, too. John Kuhnís 3-yard touchdown run was a classic trap play where linemen down blocked and T.J. Lang pulled. Dietrich-Smith didnít blow his guy off the ball, but he turned his hips and shielded him from the play.
That was reminiscent of Scott Wells. Wells was undersized, but effective. Had Fred Evans, the defensive tackle, penetrated against Dietrich-Smith, that blows up the play. Thatís why the centerís block is the key to its success.
Late, Dietrich-Smith and Lang had some problems with Evans in the run game and Newhouse got beat for a sack by Christian Ballard. But that was garbage time. If Saturdayís game against San Francisco is close in the fourth quarter and Justin Smith is playing alongside Aldon Smith, that will be a much truer test for the left side of the line.
RB DuJuan Harris
Up to this game, there was some question whether Harris could catch the ball out of the backfield. Then he dropped his first opportunity. But, thereafter, he showed he could catch screen passes, check-downs, swing passes ó anything thrown at him. Now, the next question is: How will he do on blitz pickup? He hasnít seen a lot of that and, no doubt, thatís partly why Kuhn replaces him in some passing situations.
Clearly, the Packers would rather have the ball in Harrisí hands than Kuhnís or Ryan Grantís. At 5-foot-8, for Harris to be whereís he at, starting for a playoff team, he has to have good vision. And you saw that on his 9-yard touchdown run. He took a step right, saw that Newhouse had caved down Allen on the backside and exploded back through the crease.
For comparison sake, just before that with 1:44 remaining in the first quarter, Grant ran left, found the hole was plugged and was dropped for a loss. But the backside of the line, from right tackle Don Barclay on down, had collapsed the Vikingsí line of scrimmage.
It was great blocking with a huge cutback lane. The problem was Grant doesnít have enough in the tank to take advantage of those cutbacks. Plus, Grant didnít even appear to see the hole.
The receiving corps
The Vikings played nickel minus a linebacker for most of the game and rushed just four. Whatís more, one of the two remaining linebackers, Erin Henderson, either lined up 6 yards deep or bailed out at the snap to cover the low hole under the safeties in a two-deep zone. That left the short middle wide open. As a result, the Packersí backs were targeted 10 times.
But as much as the Vikings were trying to take away the big play, Greg Jennings, James Jones, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb combined for 12 catches for 170 yards, a 14.2 average. As expected, the Vikings didnít have enough good cover people to handle the Packersí three- and four- wide receiver sets.
DB Charles Woodson
Woodson made his presence known immediately. On the Vikingsí first series, they advanced from their 32 to the Packersí 13 where they faced second-and-5. Adrian Peterson had rushed for 33 yards on just five carries and even a 3- or 4-yard gain at that point might have led to a touchdown.
The Vikings lined up in the kind of bunch formation to the right that they had run out of so successfully in the previous two games. An NBC graphic Saturday night showed Peterson had averaged 16.4 yards against the Packers when he ran or bounced plays wide right. But Woodson crawled up to the line of scrimmage, knifed through and dropped Peterson for a 2-yard loss.
Especially in the first half, Woodson would come up to linebacker depth, and the Packers would be essentially playing a 3-5 front. And much of the time, he was across from a tight end or a wingback to that side, formations that had exploited Tramon Williamsí shortcomings as a tackler.
The outside linebacker play was better than it was at the Metrodome. They stayed home longer ó waiting for Peterson to cross the line of scrimmage before closing down to the ball. That made it tougher for Peterson to cut back and get around the corner.
But a bigger part was having Woodson taking on blockers, throwing his body around and making tackles. For example, with 3:17 to go in the first half, Peterson gained 6 yards from the Vikingsí 12. Walden set the point and forced Peterson inside. Then Woodson, at linebacker depth, forced Peterson to stay to the inside, which, in turn, allowed Woodson and A.J. Hawk to combine for the tackle.
Last week, Walden might have crashed down and given Peterson the outside. Then with only Williams to beat to the sideline, Peterson might have been on his way to an 88-yard touchdown.
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.