Defense hopes struggles were just blip on radar
Less than 24 hours after his defense collapsed in the second half, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy made it clear he wasn't interested in rehashing what went wrong against the Atlanta Falcons.
Although the Packers still squeezed out the 43-37 win for their ninth victory in the past 10 games, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones made the game a much closer affair than the 31-7 halftime score would have suggested.
The Falcons produced 17 of the 26 first downs, 304 of their 465 total yards and 30 of their 37 points in the final 30 minutes. Meanwhile, a Packers' defense known for its spontaneity over the past month seemed to revert back to vanilla, zone-heavy tendencies.
McCarthy said the defense wasn't purposely packing things in case the teams should meet again in the playoffs. However, he was noticeably curt when asked about the free fall in the second half, particularly when it came to the secondary's inability to contain Jones.
Jones followed up last week's 189-yard showing against Arizona by catching 11 passes for 259 yards and one touchdown off a whopping 17 targets. It was the most yards the Packers have allowed to an opposing receiver in a single game, surpassing the 244 yards Detroit's Calvin Johnson had in the 2011 regular-season finale.
"Hey, they had a big day. Julio had a huge night," McCarthy said Tuesday. "They got hot in the second half. I think you first have to give the Falcons credit. They're a very good offense. Winning in December is important, and winning in December is difficult. I'll tell you what, I'm not going to sit here and talk about defense all day. We're on to Buffalo."
For all the Falcons' faults, their offense can move the football. They entered Week 14 ninth in total offense (374.0 yards per game) with the sixth-most productive passing game (276.8). The return of Roddy White from an ankle injury only helped Ryan's cause.
Coincidentally, pass defense arguably has been the most consistent aspect of Dom Capers' defense. It ranked as high as fifth earlier this season and came into Monday night's game allowing a respectable 234.5 yards per game, good for 11th.
That average swelled to 245.5 after Ryan tore through the secondary in the second half. The Packers remain ninth in opponent passer rating (84.9) and tied for fifth in interceptions (16), but plummeted to a season-low 20th in yards allowed.
The Packers played extensively in zone coverage and admittedly had problems keeping a defender on Jones, who has re-established himself as one of the league's premier receivers after playing only five games last season with a fractured foot.
All four of the Packers' top cornerbacks lined up across from Jones at various points of the game, but rarely double-teamed him. With the Packers playing a lot of single-high coverage, the Falcons schemed their offense through Jones' ability to generate separation with a double move like he did on his 79-yard completion at the start of the second half.
Sam Shields drew Jones the most through the first three quarters and struggled after missing two days of practice with a concussion. The Packers maintain they intended to limit Shields' reps, but he didn't return after allowing a 22-yard touchdown to Jones with 12:39 remaining in the fourth quarter.
"It was a rotation," McCarthy said. "It's something we went into the game with. Talking with Dom and Joe Whitt. Sam missing practice and making it through the protocol is great to have him available. But Sam didn't practice until Sunday. Just the outdoor work. We just wanted to make sure we were covered there."
Davon House said after the game he wasn't sure why he was summoned in the fourth quarter, but seemed to have the most success against Jones, deflecting two passes before the fourth-year receiver exited with a hip injury.
The secondary wasn't the defense's only problem, though. The pass rush had its share of difficulty getting to Ryan despite the Falcons' banged-up offensive line. The Packers mustered just one sack (Clay Matthews) and four quarterback hits.
Veteran Julius Peppers has cooled off from his torrid start, now a month removed from his last sack. The Packers planned to cut down the 34-year-old's snaps from the 851 he played last year in Chicago, but he's on pace for 838 this season.
Matthews' shift to inside linebacker has taken a chunk out of the team's depth at outside linebacker, boosting Peppers' workload.
"I think our pass rush has been good," McCarthy said. "It's clearly an improvement from earlier in the year, clearly an improvement from last year. We have some different things going on each and every week, based on where we're going to play Clay and so forth. It's good to have Nick Perry back at full strength. I felt like last night he was back after that shoulder injury. Mike Neal's doing well. I like the way our rush unit has been performing."
The Packers' next two opponents, Buffalo and Tampa Bay, won't strike much fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators on paper. The Bills are 22nd in total offense with the Buccaneers sitting 29th.
However, the passing game for both teams is powered by the presence of explosive rookie receivers. Buffalo's Sammy Watkins had his fourth 100-yard performance of the year last weekend against Denver, while 6-foot-5, 231-pound Mike Evans has been one of the few bright spots for the Buccaneers' offense.
Survive those two receivers and the Packers will face another battle with Detroit and Calvin Johnson to close out the month. Whatever happened against the Falcons, the Packers will look to figure out where they went wrong when they turn on the film this morning.
Their hope is Monday's struggles were only a blip on the radar of the defense's second-half revival.
"It's not like it was something new. It was just difficult," defensive back Micah Hyde said about defending Jones. "We just didn't execute. It had nothing to do with defensive calls. We just didn't execute as players how we should have.
"In the end, good teams find a way to win even if it's an ugly win, which it was. We find a way to win. That's the one thing we take away from it."
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