Predictable? Packers show they're anything but
The unscouted looks came as advertised, though maybe not from the team you expected.
Mike McCarthy and the Green Bay Packers matched creative fire with fire against Bill Belichick in Sunday's 26-21 win over the ever-changing New England Patriots at Lambeau Field. They added a few more bells and whistles to the NFL's second-highest scoring offense, while Dom Capers' defense continued to evolve.
It was made possible by early production from receiver Davante Adams, tight end Richard Rodgers and running back Eddie Lacy. As the game wore on, the Packers spread out New England's defense and made the Patriots show their hand through empty backfield sets and motions.
They even hit backup running back James Starks for 28 yards off a go route after he motioned out wide.
Perhaps the Packers' most brilliant move was reintroducing receiver Randall Cobb into the backfield. His ability to run or catch out of that look made the Patriots prone to mismatches such as one particular third-and-5 conversion in the second quarter.
The Packers had three receivers lined up right and Cobb in the backfield. When Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington got caught up in traffic, it forced linebacker Rob Ninkovich to trail him on a wheel route that resulted in a 33-yard gain.
Cobb was a fixture in the Packers' backfield during his breakout season in 2012, but those plays had been infrequent this season until the opportunity presented itself against New England.
"It gives the defense a different look and he not only can release in a pass pattern out of the backfield but we use him as a runner sometimes," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. "The defense, they have to respect the run because he's gotten some big runs from out of the backfield. As a pass receiver coming out of the backfield, they just have to account for him and it's a little bit different alignment for them at times. He's a dangerous weapon and we try to use him as best we can."
Cobb was just one example of how far the Packers have come since ranking 28th in NFL total yardage through the first five games. McCarthy believes consistency in the locker room bred that resolve, but good play-calling and adjustments have coincided with the Packers' recent uptick on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, no two series looked the same against New England, a far cry from earlier this season when the offense was criticized for leaning too heavily on a zebra personnel package of three receivers, a tight end and running back to maintain its no-huddle tempo.
The offense used a number of packages to keep New England off-balance, even sliding receiver Jarrett Boykin into the backfield on the play after Cobb's explosive gain, producing a 6-yard reception.
The final score would have been more decisive if the Packers could have converted a touchdown on one of their four red-zone opportunities, but the offense's 478 total yards on 70 plays kept all options on the table. The defensive stability made the game feel like it never truly was in doubt.
"You have the ball for 70 plays, it's more opportunities for your players," McCarthy said. "It was important for Eddie to touch the ball 20 times in a game. We hit that target, in both the run and the pass. And really passing game-wise, it really takes care of itself. The way the defense plays and the way we roll the concepts in and out, the ball goes to the open player. So that's why you continue to see Aaron go through six, seven, eight, nine targets each and every game."
Capers was billed as the coordinator expected to counteract whatever concoction Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels devised for the Patriots' offense. His response was a multi-faceted attack similar to the one prevalent in the team's three wins since the bye.
The most startling change was Sam Barrington replacing A.J. Hawk at inside linebacker in the nickel package and Clay Matthews stepping in as the sole inside linebacker in the dime.
Hawk played strictly in the 3-4 defense when Matthews moved to outside linebacker. Otherwise, it was Barrington and Matthews holding things down in the nickel package, which has been the Packers' base defense of choice throughout most of this season.
Capers admits the reasoning behind lining up Matthews at inside linebacker in the dime was directly tied to the ever-present danger of New England tight end Rob Gronkowski. In the defense's 56 total snaps, Matthews and cornerback Tramon Williams were the only players that didn't leave the field.
Hawk, the definition of durability, was in a similar role until about two weeks ago. Admittedly dedicated to stopping the Patriots' run game, Capers evidently felt Barrington gave Green Bay the best chance in the nickel to make that happen. The second-year linebacker finished with five tackles, including two stops on the Patriots' three-and-out series.
It remains to be seen which direction the Packers will take going forward, especially since the Packers haven't been playing much 3-4 as of late. Hawk finished with one tackle on 26 snaps Sunday.
"I would say it would vary from week to week," Capers said. "Again, based off what our opponent is doing, you'll see different personnel groups and different people involved in those and it could change from one week to the next based on your injury situation, who's available. The purpose is to try to get your best 11 people against who they put out there and the matchups."
The changes made it difficult for New England's offense to get a pulse early. The Packers didn't use one particular player to shut down Gronkowski and were balanced offensively between the pass (38) and the run (29).
Suddenly, it was the Patriots having to take everything into account. It's traditionally been the other way around during their seven-game winning streak and most of Belichick's tenure as head coach.
The Packers won't face an opponent as decorated as New England the remainder of the season, but McCarthy and Capers will continue to plot out exactly how they want to deploy personnel.
There was a time not too long ago when some called the Packers predictable. Nobody is saying that these days. Week after week, the Packers are morphing into a Super Bowl contender.
"It's the way you want to go into the fourth quarter," McCarthy said. "I mean, it's obviously an excellent win for our football team, to go up against an excellent opponent. It's definitely something we can build off of. We talk about stacking success all the time, and we've had a very good month of November. So our goal is to play better in December than November."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod