4 Downs: Mike McCarthy's quick decision rescues Packers
Every week I’ll share four observations the day after the Green Bay Packers' game. Here they are after the Packers’ 27-21 overtime win at Cleveland on Sunday:
NFL coaches, including Mike McCarthy, get plenty of flak for game-management decisions that don’t work out. So let’s give some credit for a big spur-of-the-moment decision McCarthy made that played a key role in the Packers’ win. It was his fourth-quarter challenge of DeShone Kizer’s short completion to David Njoku that converted a third down with just under three minutes to play. If the play had stood, the Packers, who trailed by a touchdown, had only one timeout and the two-minute warning left to stop the clock. So Cleveland, at minimum, would have been able to run the clock down to about a minute to play before having to punt. The first couple replays on the TV broadcast gave no indication the ball hit the ground, but McCarthy got a decent look at it on the field — the completion wasn’t far from the Packers’ bench — and challenged the call. Another replay angle showed the ball did hit the ground out of Njoku’s control, and the catch was overturned. Cleveland punted with plenty of time on the clock (2:57), Trevor Davis returned it 65 yards, and the Packers tied the game with 17 seconds to play.
The Packers’ two kicking specialists quietly had good games Sunday. Mason Crosby booted three touchbacks, including one after the game-tying score with 17 seconds left, and the other in overtime. That might not seem important, but it prevented Cleveland from getting a shot at a big return that could have set up a winning field goal. And Mathew Dayes averaged only 12 yards on the two kickoffs the Browns returned. Also, Justin Vogel out-punted his counterpart, Britton Colquitt, when it came to field position. Vogel’s net average was 41.5 yards to Colquitt’s 36.5 yards.
The Packers had set up the Browns’ defense for the fourth-and-one play in the third quarter, and Aaron Jones probably would have scored a 10-yard touchdown if Brett Hundley hadn’t botched the play. The Packers had been running inside all game, and on this play, they had fullback Aaron Ripkowski leading the way on an apparent run over right guard. But that was a misdirection, and Jones went left for a counter toss. The left side was sealed off enough that Jones probably would have made the edge and scored the touchdown. Hundley, though, forgot the play, turned to hand the ball off behind Ripkowski and was dropped for a two-yard loss when no one was there. “It was a fake off of a run that we had set up earlier in the game,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy went to a spread offense for much of the second half, which forced Hundley to get the ball out fast and just as importantly get touches for all his receivers, something the offense had been lacking. The Packers used their four-receiver, one-tight-end set regularly in the second half, and when halfback Jamaal Williams was in the game, it wasn’t unusual for McCarthy to go empty in the backfield and line up Williams as a receiver. That spread out the Browns’ defense and set up a lot of one-on-one matchups for short completions that gave Davante Adams (10 catches), Randall Cobb (eight catches) and Jordy Nelson (four catches) the chance to pick up a few yards after the catch. Cobb wasn’t even targeted last week.