GREEN BAY — In the midst of the four-game losing streak that ended late last month, the Green Bay Packers became accustomed to routine gouging by opposing tight ends.
Against the Indianapolis Colts, who upset the Packers at Lambeau Field, quarterback Andrew Luck flicked a pass across his body to tight end Jack Doyle for a third-down conversion that sealed a win in the closing minutes.
A week later, against the Tennessee Titans, tight end Delanie Walker desecrated the defense with nine catches for 124 yards and a touchdown. At times he literally dragged defenders in his wake.
And against Washington, which blew out the Packers on national television, tight end Jordan Reed rampaged across the field with size and speed the defense simply couldn’t match. Reed finished with five catches for 79 yards.
“Around the league there' s a number of those guys now that are matchup guys because of their size, their catch radius,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
The aforementioned plays underscore a larger issue that flashed early in the season and has become increasingly problematic in the last five games. For the season, opposing tight ends are responsible for 26 percent of completions and 26 percent of receiving yards against the Capers’ defense. But those numbers spiked to 32 percent and 29 percent, respectively, during a five-game stretch in which the Packers lost more games than they won.
Because of that trend, the potential for impending trouble is readily apparent when Sunday is viewed through a tight end prism. The Seattle Seahawks, winners of four of their last five games, have on their roster one of the best tight ends in the league, Jimmy Graham. He ranks fifth in receptions (57), third in yards (769) and tied for third in touchdowns (5).
“He’s a great player and he’s good with the ball,” said Darren Perry, safeties coach for the Green Bay Packers. “He can run. He can do it all. He’s a complete tight end, and you see him make some great catches. When the ball is in his vicinity, there’s a great chance he’ll come down with it. He’s a great route runner, and he presents some challenges with his size and his speed. Our guys have been looking forward to it, and it should be a great matchup.”
In hindsight, it seems as if the Week 1 matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars was a precursor for what has happened in the last five weeks.
That afternoon, beneath a broiling Florida sun, the duo of Julius Thomas and Marcedes Lewis combined for seven catches, 112 yards and a touchdown. Thomas found success when isolated against second-year cornerback Quinten Rollins; Lewis broke a handful of tackles on a play that gained 37 yards.
But the problem seemed to vanish almost immediately, and the weeks that followed were defined by containment. Five of the next six opponents managed 64 yards or fewer from their tight ends. (The Detroit Lions were the lone exception with 82 yards.)
Problems crept in against the Colts, whose three tight ends combined for 83 yards on seven catches. Then the Titans’ tight ends gained 133 yards on 10 catches and scored twice. Then Reed gained 79 yards. Finally, a respectable performance against the Eagles (three catches, 36 yards) gave way to 10 receptions for 79 yards and a touchdown in the win over the Houston Texans last week.
“They’re going to get balls whether we have the perfect coverage on them (or not),” defensive back Micah Hyde said. “They just make plays. Whether we have a good call on and they know what we’re in, so they play to our leverage, (or) they can possibly stress our coverage and from there make plays.”
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Over the course of the season, opposing tight ends have averaged 69.8 yards per game against the Packers, according to data from Football Outsiders, a website focusing on advanced statistics. This places the Packers outside the top 25 best defenses in the league in that regard and more than 14 yards above the league average of 55.6 yards per game.
But Football Outsiders created a formula for measuring a team’s efficiency in various areas, and the Packers, despite their high yardage totals, rated eighth in the league. The metric, known as Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), evaluates every single play and compares it to league averages for the same situation. DVOA includes factors such as yardage toward a first down, red-zone plays and quality of opponent to yield data that quantifies the actual effect of yards gained or yards allowed.
In this regard the Packers rank 14.9 percent above the league average. The data seems to reinforce a comment by coach Mike McCarthy, who in his Monday news conference said tight end production for opposing teams is not always as problematic as the final stats might suggest.
“I think a little bit of that, too, is the stress of the coverage that we’re playing,” McCarthy said a day after beating the Texans. “I think when you play that much two-shell coverage, and we played a little more three-shell last week than this week, that’s all part of the game. And that’s a tough match maybe for a linebacker and so forth. So, yeah, to me that’s all part of the game plan.”
It makes the question for Sunday rather simple: Opposing tight ends have gouged the Packers, so what is the game plan for stopping Jimmy Graham?