Aaron Nagler listens and responds to voicemails from Packers fans after their team's big win against the Cowboys. (Oct. 9, 2017)
GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers galloped 75 yards in 62 seconds Sunday to beat the Dallas Cowboys 35-31 with a scoring drive so fluid that it was easy to forget the offense was without its best weapon: wide receiver Jordy Nelson.
As quarterback Aaron Rodgers sliced apart the Cowboys’ defense, Nelson was on the sideline being evaluated for an undisclosed injury. He did not play a single snap on the nine-play march that ended with a touchdown pass to Davante Adams.
Rodgers shredded the Cowboys anyway with a group of skill players consisting of receivers Adams, Geronimo Allison and Randall Cobb, tight end Martellus Bennett, and rookie running back Aaron Jones.
“(Nelson) was being evaluated,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I don't know where we would have been if it went into overtime. But at that point, we just stayed with the group we had out there.”
McCarthy declined to comment on the nature of Nelson’s injury but refuted a report that said Nelson was dealing with a hamstring problem. The only other detail at this point is that Nelson did not suffer a concussion.
Nelson’s final play of the game was the failed 2-point conversion in the fourth quarter after cornerback Damarious Randall returned an interception for a touchdown. Nelson jogged in motion from the right side of the formation to the left and ultimately broke free in the back of the end zone.
But the pass from Rodgers was high, and Nelson jumped with his left arm extended trying to reach the football. The ball sailed incomplete as Nelson tumbled to the ground. He was slow to get up and grimaced in pain as he rose to his feet.
The Packers will release their next injury report Wednesday.
Lateral moves: Six defensive backs dropped more than 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage on Sunday’s final play, but Packers cornerback Quinten Rollins wasn’t one of them.
His job was to blitz quarterback Dak Prescott from the defense’s left. It put Rollins in position to trail the Cowboys’ last-ditch, lateral-heavy attempt at cracking the goal line from 75 yards away. That would turn out to be important.
With five seconds left, Prescott completed a 12-yard pass to receiver Brice Butler. Then things got interesting.
Usually, lateral plays quickly fizzle. This one lasted 27 seconds — 22 after the clock expired — and included six laterals. Outside linebacker Nick Perry picked up the football from the turf at one point, believing the game was over. Joe Buck, calling the game on Fox, declared the Packers as winner — but no whistle was blown.
Cowboys center Travis Frederick knocked the football from Perry’s hands, scooped it and ran about 10 yards. When Clay Matthews hit Frederick at the Packers’ 39-yard line, a little too close to the goal line for comfort, he tried to lateral a seventh time. Right tackle La’el Collins, Frederick’s intended target, was walking off the field believing the game was over.
Fortunately for the Packers, Rollins knew it was still live.
“I was still playing,” Rollins said.
Rollins dove in front of Collins to catch Frederick’s lateral, downing it to end the game after both sidelines had started flooding the field. His alertness helped prevent a potential catastrophic ending for the Packers. Rollins said there wasn’t any panic on the field during the play, but his heart started racing when he watched the replay Monday.
“You could see there could have been some holes where they possibly could have (scored),” Rollins said.
The Packers, like all NFL teams, do practice defending laterals. McCarthy said it’s a designed play, which the Packers fittingly call “last play” in their playbook.
There are several “coaching points” involved in the play, McCarthy said. Things got hairy for the Packers when running back Ezekiel Elliott got to the perimeter of the field, allowing the Cowboys to spread out.
“It’s about angles, pursuit, awareness,” McCarthy said. “Obviously, pick the ball up, cover the football, what happened at the end there between Nick and Quinten. So those are all coaching points that we can learn from, and that was really the message of our corrections today, was about improvement.”
Special delivery: In the NFL, missed extra points have a karmic way of influencing the final minutes of close games. Make a mistake early, and chances are it will resurface late.
Packers kicker Mason Crosby missed two extra points in the first half of Sunday’s victory. Toss in the failed two-point conversion on an incomplete pass to Nelson and the Packers were unable to punctuate three of their five touchdowns.
“Fortunately, we got away with it,” special teams coordinator Ron Zook said. “And we’ve got to get it fixed.”
Crosby clanged his first PAT off the right post after a 10-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers to Adams. The toss by long snapper Taybor Pepper and the hold by punter Justin Vogel looked clean for the first two-thirds of the operation, but the direction of the laces wasn’t clear on the television broadcast. Ultimately, Crosby pushed the kick to the right.
Crosby missed again in the second quarter after a 7-yard touchdown run by Jones. But that mistake had little to do with Crosby himself. Instead, the snap from Pepper was low, and Vogel bobbled the ball as he made the catch. The timing of the play was disrupted forcing Crosby to hook the ball wide left.
“It’s not just the kicker, it’s not just the snapper, it’s not just the holder,” Zook said. “Everybody has to work together, and then you have the protection. It just hasn’t worked, and the inconsistencies is what — Mason is probably going to change a little bit, and I don’t want to change him because he’s in a groove and he’s kicking well. He’s a pro, and he’ll get it fixed. But the ball has got to come back consistent.”
Which is why the loss of veteran long snapper Brett Goode was so significant when the Packers placed him on injured reserve in late September. What Goode lacked in athleticism and coverage ability he made up for with tremendous reliability and accuracy.
The same cannot be said for Pepper, a rookie, who was cut by the Packers in May and re-signed after Goode went down with a hamstring injury.
“I think the consistency will probably be the thing that most people would say (is the issue),” Zook said. “It’s got to be consistent. If it’s going to be one way, it’s got to be the same way all the time.”
Crosby made his last two extra points and also added a 22-yard field goal in the third quarter. The Packers could have won or tied the game with a field goal in the closing seconds rather than a touchdown were it not for the PAT mixups.