Packers' defense again grasping for answers

Tom Silverstein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) eludes Green Bay Packers inside linebacker Blake Martinez (50) during the Green Bay Packers 47-25 loss to the Tennessee Titans during the NFL football game at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee,Sunday, November 13, 2016.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - They weren’t pointing fingers at anyone but themselves, but maybe the members of the Green Bay Packers defense should have been asking what it was they were being asked to do Sunday at Nissan Stadium.

The 47-point whooping they took at the hands of the Tennessee Titans was so thorough, so categorical and so well-scripted that their coaching staff had to be completely outwitted for such an outcome to occur.

How else do you explain Titans running back DeMarco Murray taking a counter play all the way to the house on the team’s very first play from scrimmage? Or the Titans scoring touchdowns on five of their first six possessions, including four straight to start the game?

“I don’t know how to answer that,” linebacker Nick Perry said.

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Injuries affect performance and players have off days, but this team had seven defensive starters and all its key reserves healthy on the Titans’ first snap of the game, including veterans Mike Daniels, Morgan Burnett, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Letroy Guion, Micah Hyde, Julius Peppers and Perry.

It’s hard to imagine all 19 available players who have some kind of regular role on defense just checking out of this game. It was as though all but a few players were dumbfounded, unable to figure out where exactly they were supposed to be and how they were supposed to react.

 “We were not the best team out there,” Perry said. “Everybody is accountable. We had our mistakes. It’s up to the defensive coordinator to put us in the best position possible and our job to go out and execute it.

 “Things did not go our way.”

Perry was one of those who chose to lay the blame on the players and not defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his staff for the defense allowing 446 yards, six touchdowns and two field goals in a 47-25 loss to the Titans.

But the game plan Capers came out with was set up to stop Murray from controlling the game as he had against Oakland, Miami, Indianapolis and Jacksonville. The Packers came in with the No. 2-ranked run defense in the NFL, but other than Dallas had not faced a team ranked higher than 10th in rushing offense.

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The coaches talked about minding play-action passes and encouraging their inside linebackers to play with vision and not recklessness. They talked about making sure tight end Delanie Walker, quarterback Marcus Mariota’s favorite target, did not slip through the cracks.

But with linebackers and safeties packed up in the box, Mariota just buried the Packers with purpose runs and play-action passes. After the 75-yard run, the Titans rushed just 12 times for 50 yards the rest of the half, barely a 4.0 average.

“Obviously, we want to be a smash-mouth team and run the football first,” receiver Tajae Sharpe said. “But if teams force us to pass the ball, we can do that as well. We have no problem adjusting to that. We just want to keep rolling.”

Walker rolled the most, catching six passes for 100 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown on a halfback option pass from Murray. He owned the middle of the field and took advantage of linebackers sucking up on the run and safeties not being able to tackle him after the catch.

When the Packers finally got around to doubling and tripling Walker, receiver Rishard Matthews beat man-to-man coverage by nickel back Hyde for a 32-yard touchdown that made it 28-7 with 8:45 left in the first half.

“The only thing I question is our communication,” Hyde said. “The players have to execute whatever play is called and talk about it. They executed a lot better than we did. I don’t feel like they left many plays out there.”

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Injuries definitely have affected the Packers defense.

For the third game in a row, linebacker Clay Matthews sat out with a hamstring injury. Before he even got to play one down of defense, linebacker Jake Ryan suffered an ankle injury covering a punt and did not play again.

Ryan is the Packers’ best run-playing inside linebacker, but his replacement, Joe Thomas, is quicker and can cover. The Packers’ corners, LaDarius Gunter and Quinten Rollins, have played enough that they should have been able to cover Tennessee’s unspectacular receiving corps.

Gunter performed well, but Rollins appeared lost, giving up among several other plays a 33-yard touchdown in which he didn’t seem to know the coverage. He was benched for Demetri Goodson.

“I think every single game this year we could have played better,” Hyde said of the secondary. “Today, we just gave up too many big plays and no one really made plays back there.”

And it wasn’t like the Titans didn’t have their issues on offense. They lost left tackle Taylor Lewan to a game ejection for making contact with an official in the first quarter and had to play with veteran backup Dennis Kelly.

But when the Packers rushed four, nobody got to Mariota. Not having Matthews hurts the team’s pass rush as much as it does their run defense, but this is the third straight game without him and the defense should have adjusted by now.

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“This has nothing to do with Clay,” Perry said. “Everybody here is held accountable. Everybody has to do better. We have to get more.”

In the second half, Capers blitzed more on passing downs and seemed to have more success. The Titans went three and out to start the third quarter and were facing a third-and-5 at the Packers 33 on their second possession when Rollins inexplicably stayed in the flat instead of following Sharpe down the field and got burned for a touchdown.

Instead of perhaps giving up a field goal that would have made it 38-22, the Packers were down 41-22 after the Titans failed on their 2-point conversion.

They had a chance to get the ball back for their offense with about 10 minutes left in the game, but safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was called for an unnecessary roughness penalty after trying to dive over a sliding Mariota, giving the Titans a first down at the Green Bay 42. The penalty allowed them to kick a field goal three plays later to take a 44-25 lead and extinguish any remote chance the Packers had of a comeback.

It’s been three straight weeks that the defense has not been able to hold serve when the offense needed it most. Capers has been outfoxed in all three of those games, making a questionable coverage call at the end of the Atlanta game, allowing Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck to throw a 20-yard strike into zone coverage on third and 10 late in the game and laying an egg early in a game the offense finally gained some traction.

“We’ve got to remain positive,” Daniels said. “We have to come together because everyone is going to be coming down on us. We have to stay together and execute and play to the best of our ability.”

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