Packers' defense again at fault in final loss

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers cornerback LaDarius Gunter (36) misses the tackle and falls at the feet of wide receiver Julio Jones (11) on a long touchdown pass in the third quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia Sunday, January 22, 2017.

ATLANTA - The six games that have knocked the Green Bay Packers out of the playoffs since they won Super Bowl XLV have one thing in common.

Dom Capers’ defense gave up acres of ground.

It is telling that the 493 yards the Packers allowed in a 44-21 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday at the Georgia Dome wasn’t even the most in that six-game span.

Going backward from last season, the Packers in the previous five losses allowed:

» 368 yards (Arizona, 26-20, OT)

» 397 yards (Seattle, 28-22, OT)

» 381 yards (San Francisco, 23-20)

» 579 yards (San Francisco, 45-31)

» 420 yards (New York Giants, 37-20)

Add it all up and it’s an average of 439.7 yards and 33.8 points in games that have determined whether the Packers would move on in the playoffs. Two of those losses have occurred when the Packers were a game away from the Super Bowl.

“I don’t know,” linebacker Clay Matthews said, assessing the latest throttling. “We got playmakers. While injuries are never an excuse, sometimes you have to be real about it. Unfortunately, their athletes made plays today.

“In certain aspects, we weren’t able to hang, we weren’t able to make the plays.”

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This loss appeared to be another joint failing between general manager Ted Thompson and the defensive coaching staff. Thompson repeatedly has delivered talented athletes to coach Mike McCarthy and his offensive staff, which they’ve used to build around franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

But the defense continues to be the weak link and even though the Packers made it to the final four, they probably never had enough in their tank defensively to make it to the Super Bowl.

“The NFC championship is not good enough,” nose tackle Letroy Guion said. “We worked all year long to get to the Super Bowl. We fell short today. Everybody has to learn from this, just like we did two years ago.

“We have to come to the point where we can get over this hump and finish and go get that trophy. Just getting here isn’t good enough. It hurts. It just sucks right now."

The offense was as much at fault as the defense Sunday, but it was without star running back (Eddie Lacy), went in with three injured receivers (Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison) and lost three starting offensive linemen (Bryan Bulaga, Lane Taylor and T.J. Lang).

Prior to the game, Rodgers and those receivers and linemen were largely responsible for the team going on an eight-game winning streak.

The defense, on the other hand, went into the game with 2015 undrafted rookie LaDarius Gunter trying to cover arguably the NFL’s best wide receiver, Julio Jones. The top backup safety, Kentrell Brice, and his backup, Marwin Evans, were undrafted rookies.

The other two cornerbacks, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, the top two draft picks from ’15, were non-factors all season because of injury and mediocre performance and weren’t even considered as possibilities for covering Jones on Sunday. There was no one to pick up the slack.

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“I think we need some depth, experienced depth, for situations like that,” Guion said. “The guys we had coming in, they’re fine. We just didn’t get it done today.”

If the Packers had played suffocating defense against Dallas in the divisional round or been dominant any time during the season, injuries might have been an excuse. But it’s an indictment of the entire unit when not even the unit’s highest draft picks get anything done.

Thompson first-round picks Nick Perry, Datone Jones and Kenny Clark combined for five tackles, including one for loss, one quarterback hit and no sacks or forced turnover. Draft picks Blake Martinez, Dean Lowry and Kyle Fackrell contributed three tackles and one tackle for loss.

Matthews and Julius Peppers left without a sack.

“Those guys performed great and we didn’t have enough to keep up with them,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “With that, here we are.”

The result was quarterback Matt Ryan completing 27 of 38 passes for 392 yards and four touchdowns (139.4 rating), Jones catching nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns and running back Devonta Freeman combining for 84 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown.

There wasn’t anyone on the Packers' defense capable of matching the play of those athletes and the Falcons proved that right from the start.

“We definitely had them shook early on,” Jones said. “(Mohamed) Sanu made some plays early on for us so they’re trying to take Sanu away. Then I make a few plays. Then (Taylor Gabriel) makes a few plays.

“Then we can run the ball with Tevin (Coleman) and Freeman out of the backfield. We were gassing them a little bit. We were driving the ball down the field. Every time we got the ball we were getting points out of the drive.”

And the Packers could do nothing about it.

Capers attempted to stop Atlanta’s rushing attack and make them one-dimensional. The Falcons were held to 3.4 yards per carry, but the passing game just took over. Ryan connected with eight different targets and didn’t seem to care what coverage the Packers were in.

The Falcons scored touchdowns on six of their nine drives, including three of their first five. They opened up with an 80-yard touchdown drive. They followed that up with a 69-yard field goal drive. Then another 80-yard touchdown drive. Then after a punt, a 68-yard touchdown drive.

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When they went into halftime, the Packers were down, 24-0. They would get the second-half kickoff and would need their defense to make a couple stops to get back in the game.

Did they make any adjustments?

“You’ll have to ask coach about that,” defensive tackle Mike Daniels said.

After the Packers' offense went three and out to start the third quarter, Ryan, on the second play from scrimmage, got Jones matched up with Gunter in bump-and-run coverage. Jones just manhandled Gunter, caught the pass, stiff-armed Randall and rambled 73 yards for the touchdown.

Game over.

“You can’t give up 80-yard passes and whatever else the stats were because they scored a lot,” Matthews said. “I don’t know. It’s difficult. We showed bouts throughout the year of being a great defense. At times it lulled.

“Much like these last couple of years we’ve felt like we were really peaking going into the playoffs, taking the ball away.”

And much like in recent years, they finished with footprints on their backs.

The Packers have had or been close to having championship offenses the past six seasons, but they haven’t had a defense even close to that since 2010. None of the players placed the blame on Capers and the organization wouldn’t be out of line using injuries as an excuse.

But the record is pretty damning. So are the numbers. End of season.

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