Silverstein: Packers' use of Martellus Bennett keeps opponents guessing
GREEN BAY – If the season opener was any indication, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy has no intention of creating a pattern for how he'll use the tight end in his offense.
If he plays his marquee offseason addition, Martellus Bennett, as much as he did in the Packers’ 17-9 victory Sunday over the Seattle Seahawks, someone will have to scrape the 6-6, 270-pound man-mountain off the turf late in the season.
Bennett played 67 of a possible 82 offensive snaps (81.7 percent) while his backups, Lance Kendricks (21 snaps) and Richard Rodgers (five) hardly played at all. Besides the offensive line and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the only guys who played more snaps were Jordy Nelson (76) and Ty Montgomery (74).
But as the Atlanta Falcons prepare to christen new Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday night with a rematch of their lopsided NFC championship game victory against the Packers, they very well could see less of Bennett and more of Geronimo Allison and Trevor Davis, two receivers who play well on artificial turf.
McCarthy is going to keep them guessing much like he will do with every opponent this season because Bennett poses a threat — whether perceived or real — that the opposition must consider. Maybe Bennett, at age 30, will prove to be a step slower and a tick less reactive and won’t be the player he was in New England or Chicago the past four seasons.
Until then, he is going to dictate a lot of every opponent’s attention.
Take the Seattle game.
McCarthy had every intention of starting out the game being balanced between run and pass, but the Seahawks played their base 4-3 defense against the Packers’ three-receiver sets on early downs. It was most likely a concession to the Packers’ run game and the fact Bennett practically constitutes an extra offensive lineman.
If the Seahawks started in nickel, McCarthy could have put Bennett on the line and had him try to neutralize strong safety Kam Chancellor or linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner while running the 225-pound Ty Montgomery behind six offensive linemen against a pass defense.
The Seahawks’ plan was good because they completely shut down the run game and let the passing game pile up yards in its own end on the way to a 3-0 first-half lead. Instead of running the ball, the Packers threw it eight straight times to start the game.
Bennett played seven of those snaps and only twice did he line up in a traditional tight end position. McCarthy attempted to take advantage of him getting covered by a linebacker or safety.
Montgomery ran eight times for 16 yards and Rodgers completed 14 of 22 passes for 153 yards with an interception as the Packers held the ball for 20 minutes, 14 seconds in the first half. It was as though the Seahawks had dictated the matchups to the Packers and neutralized Bennett.
“The time of possession was well in our favor, but we could never really get into a really good flow,” McCarthy said. “I think once we were able to adjust a few things at halftime, coming out during the second half, going more standard huddle, (we were) trying to set things by our personnel, not as much as opposed to what they're doing defensively.”
Of his 32 first-half snaps, Bennett lined up at tight end just 16 times.
The rest of the time he lined up flexed (a couple steps wide of the tackle) on the left side seven times, flexed to the right five times, in the right slot three times and wide right once.
Only four times did McCarthy go with run-weighted, double-tight-end formations.
“I think going in we wanted to do a little more with the multi-tight end, but just how the game was going, we weren’t really (executing),” Kendricks said. “We were moving the ball but we were making some mistakes, so really weren’t able to get the game flowing right away.
“We changed up the game a little bit. The second half was more of what we wanted to do.”
The final 30 minutes featured more of Bennett with his hand down on the ground even with Seattle sticking to its base defense against three-receiver sets. McCarthy started out with fullback Aaron Ripkowski instead of a tight end but then began to mix things up.
The most success the offense had was when Bennett was at a normal tight end position.
After Mike Daniels forced a fumble and the Packers recovered at the 6, McCarthy ran Montgomery off Bennett’s side for a touchdown. On the next series, Bennett and Kendricks were in the lineup together, albeit split off the line in a passing formation.
All of a sudden, the offense started to move.
Kendricks caught a 9-yard pass, Rodgers scrambled for 13, Bennett caught a 5-yard pass and Montgomery ran for six for another first down. Then Montgomery caught a pass over the middle for 12, Cobb caught a pass for 6 and Montgomery ran for two.
Then with Bennett joining Davante Adams, Jordy Nelson and Cobb in a four-receiver set, Rodgers saw Seattle substituting late and hurried the team to the line. Nelson got matched up with linebacker Bobby Wagner and beat him easily for a 32-yard touchdown.
The Packers scored again on a Mason Crosby field goal and were in business offensively.
“I thought our last four series told the whole story,” McCarthy said “The last four series when you go touchdown — obviously the big turnover there by our defense — but touchdown , touchdown, field goal and you run out the clock. That's the way you finish a game.”
The 6-minute drive to end the game featured a mix of single-, double and even a triple-tight end formation. The final salvo was Bennett’s 26-yard catch-and-run off a bootleg fake.
In the end, Bennett saw action just about everywhere.
For the record, he played tight end on the left, right or in a double set 32 times. He played wide left three times, slot left three times, flexed to the left 14 times, flexed to the right nine times, slot right four times and wide right twice.
Bennett’s final statistics were modest: three catches for 43 yards.
By no means was the offense at its best, but Bennett’s ability to play multiple positions, none more important than as a run blocker, is going to be a critical part of McCarthy’s game-planning each week. What worked against Seattle won’t necessarily work against Atlanta or Cincinnati or Chicago and the task ahead for McCarthy is to figure out how to best use his personnel.
Round 2 starts Sunday night.
"Right now I think we're still trying to figure out who we are as a team, what our identity's going to be, what we represent," Bennett said. "We don't know that yet. We don't know who the 2017 Packers are. I think early in the season we're going to find out who are guys are to make plays in tough situations and things like that. I think it's still a journey to figure out who we are as a team."
WEEK 1 BY THE NUMBERS
7 – Combined pressures, quarterback hits and sacks outside linebacker Nick Perry had.
51.6 – Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson’s quarterback rating on third down Sunday (4 of 9 for 23 yards).
29.4 – Percentage of time that defensive coordinator brought more than four rushers (10 of 34; nine 5-man and one 6-man)
50 – Percent the Packers' offense converted on third and 10 or more (3 of 6).
10 – Snaps (out of 82) in which the Packers went no-huddle.