Run defense still shows worrisome cracks
Coordinator Dom Capers' defense played more than well enough for the Green Bay Packers to win Sunday.
It gave up only 12 points (four field goals) and 253 yards. Responsibility for the Packers' 21-13 loss to Buffalo falls fully on their offense and special teams.
It's hard to envision Aaron Rodgers having a worse day. The Packers' receivers (tight ends and backs included) were a pass-dropping machine. The punt team gave up a touchdown, and the field goal unit had a kick blocked.
But the defense's performance, notwithstanding its strong play in the red zone and after turnovers, still left open the question of how vulnerable the Packers will be in a grind-out game against a good running team in the playoffs.
The Packers' run defense was fine against the Bills overall. Buffalo's three halfbacks — Fred Jackson, Anthony Dixon and Bryce Brown — combined for 117 yards rushing and a 3.9-yard average. That's a decent day rushing. But it wasn't close to being the difference in the game's outcome.
However, the Bills put up those numbers despite significant limitations at quarterback (Kyle Orton), and even though their best back, C.J. Spiller, hasn't played for two months because of a broken collarbone.
It was hard not to come away from the game videotape still wondering if the Packers' run stopping, though improved since Clay Matthews moved to inside linebacker in the nickel, has improved enough to slow the upper-echelon running backs they might see in the playoffs such as Seattle's Marshawn Lynch and Dallas' DeMarco Murray.
The potential vulnerabilities showed on a handful of plays Sunday.
One came early in the second quarter, when rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix beautifully timed a run blitz on a first down. Clinton-Dix crept up from deep in the secondary, blew into the Bills' backfield untouched and had a great shot at dropping Brown for a three-yard loss.
However, the rookie safety, who is having a promising first season, didn't slow down and come to balance, and then dropped his head as he went for the tackle. Brown jump-cut to the left, and Clinton-Dix nearly whiffed. He went for a big hit instead of just wrapping up, holding on and giving teammates time to finish the tackle. Brown busted around left end for a 12-yard gain, and instead of second-and-13, the Bills had a first down.
Later, about halfway through the third quarter, Jackson on a first down bounced a run to his right. Outside linebacker Julius Peppers played it well and looked like he'd drop him for no gain. But he only grabbed at Jackson's shoulders, and the running back spun away. Inside linebacker Sam Barrington took a bad angle and overshot on Jackson's spin. After Jackson reversed direction to the left side and ran several yards up field defensive lineman Mike Daniels missed a third tackle.
So Jackson picked up 13 yards, and instead of second and 10, the Bills had a new set of downs.
A few plays later, on a second-and-10 on the same drive, nickel cornerback Micah Hyde knifed into the backfield and hit Dixon about three yards behind the line of scrimmage. Hyde tried to wrap up and had hold of Dixon' leg for a good long second, which should have been enough for a teammate or two to help finish the tackle.
Daniels first had a clean shot but delivered only a glancing blow with his shoulder instead of wrapping up as Dixon pulled out of Hyde's grasp. Barrington missed as Dixon gave up even more ground and then reversed field to his right. And Peppers got caught standing and watching until Dixon turned the corner.
By the time Peppers pushed him out of bounds, Dixon had picked up six yards. Again, instead of a favorable down and distance (third and 13) that helps a defense off the field, the Packers faced a third-and-four, which Buffalo converted.
If the Packers face Lynch or Murray in the playoffs and tackle like that, they'll be in big trouble. Lynch is as hard to bring down as any back in the league, and Murray has a combination of speed and power no one on Buffalo approached. To have a chance against those teams and backs, the Packers will have to rally to ball better than they did Sunday.
Also, Seattle (Russell Wilson) and Dallas (Tony Romo) have better quarterbacks than the Bills, which makes them harder to defend. So even though the Packers played good defense Sunday, the jury's still out on whether they can stop the run well enough to win a grind-out game against a top team.
If Bryan Bulaga's concussion prevents him from playing right tackle this week, coach Mike McCarthy will have to adjust and give backup J.C. Tretter some help in pass protection.
Tretter played 15 snaps after Bulaga's concussion Sunday, and in that short time it was easy to see why the Packers like him, even if it's more as a center and guard. He showed good quickness getting to the linebackers as a run blocker, better than Bulaga in that respect.
But he also had problems anchoring against the power rushes of Mario Williams, who's a big man (6-6, 292) and one of the better defensive ends in the game. On several passes, Williams had Tretter on skates, but Rodgers got the ball out quickly enough that it wasn't a big problem.
Then on the Packers' final offensive play, Williams powered past Tretter and got just close enough to Rodgers to bat the ball out of the quarterback's hand, which caused the game-clinching safety.
Tretter probably won't have big problems with speed rushers because of his quickness. But he doesn't have the strength yet to sink his hips and play strong against power rushers. That means McCarthy probably will have to help him with a tight end or running back if Bulaga can't play against Tampa Bay this week.
• The biggest problem on Marcus Thigpen's 75-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Packers was Tim Masthay's short punt.
Masthay is a good punter but hit a short and relatively low punt on that one. Also give Thigpen some credit for running up hard and making the tough catch — it was a gutsy and dangerous decision to return it.
But the short punt made it tough on the Packers' cover men because they're expecting the ball to be at least 10 yards deeper. Brett Goode, Sam Barrington, Jayrone Elliott and John Kuhn were in pretty good alignment but didn't get a good chance to break down and make the tackle.
Yeah, they can see Thigpen coming up to make the catch, so they can see the punt might be short. But that's a pretty split-second adjustment for guys barreling down the field that fast.
Also, rookie cornerback Demetri Goodson probably needs to attack earlier as the safety on that play. Thigpen had a blocker in front of him, and at about the 50 Goodson turned and ran with them. But his job is to make sure Thigpen doesn't get to the sideline, and he needs to prevent that as early as he can.
He should have gone after the blocker almost immediately and forced Thigpen inside. Instead, Thigpen didn't have to cut back until just inside the 20, and by then it was too late.
• One of the downsides of moving Clay Matthews to inside linebacker in the nickel is that Peppers is playing more than the Packers probably prefer.
In the last four games Peppers has played 232 of the Packers' 259 defensive snaps (90 percent), or an average of 58 a game. If he maintains that pace for the final two games, he'll have played 860 snaps this season, which is more than each of the last two years with the Bears (851 in 2013, and 785 in '12).
The Packers have to be concerned that the 34-year-old is wearing down at the end of the long season, when they need him at his best. They almost surely wanted him under those Bears totals, not at or above. Nick Perry's recent shoulder injury hasn't helped, either, because that's opened some snaps at outside linebacker.
Still, the Packers might have to take some snaps off Peppers regardless of Perry's status, because in the last couple weeks he hasn't been as much of a playmaker as he was through the bulk of the season.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty