4 Downs: Packers' Mike Pettine leaning less on outside linebackers
Every week I’ll share four observations the day after the Green Bay Packers' game. Here they are after the Packers’ 29-29 tie Sunday against Minnesota:
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is getting a lot of rest for his outside linebackers. One of his primary defenses is deploying three defensive linemen and only one outside linebacker on his defensive front. That means there are plenty of snaps where only one from among Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and Reggie Gilbert is on the field. True, Pettine also often does the reverse on obvious passing downs — three outside linebackers and one lineman — so all three outside backers get snaps then. But the days of having two outside linebackers on the field every down appear to be long gone, which could help keep Perry and Matthews fresher and healthier late in games and by season’s end. We’ll see if that makes a difference.
Going into the season the NFL rule change that left many observers apoplectic was the new helmet rule. But so far, it’s the added protection of quarterbacks that’s having the far greater impact. We saw it twice Sunday. One was the shaky roughing the passer call against Vikings linebacker Erick Kendricks that helped set up the Packers for a field goal on the final play of the first half. The other was, of course, the big penalty on Clay Matthews in the final two minutes that wiped away the game-clinching interception. Referee Tony Corrente called the penalty because he thought Matthews picked up Cousins and drove him into the turf. On replay, it looked like Matthews momentarily grabbed the underside of Cousins’ leg but then let go and never actually picked up the quarterback. Either way, the new helmet rule hasn’t been called in either of the Packers’ first two games and hasn’t been an issue league wide. The added protection of quarterbacks, on the other hand, is popping all over. I wouldn’t be surprised if the league informs the Packers that the call on Matthews was wrong. But really, if I’m the Packers I’m OK with the skew toward protecting the passer. After all, they have one of the game’s two best quarterbacks, and that will only extend the length and quality of his career.
Marcedes Lewis has his limitations as a receiver — he’s 34, after all — but as a blocking tight end, he’s about as good as they come. We saw that on a play in the third quarter Sunday, when he replaced Jimmy Graham on a third down. The move seemed curious because Graham is one of the Packers’ best receiving threats, but coach Mike McCarthy clearly was anticipating a Vikings blitz on third-and-11. He was right. Lewis looked almost like a left tackle blocking blitzing outside linebacker Anthony Barr to help give Rodgers time to complete a 15-yard crossing route to Davante Adams.
Davon House was Pettine’s first choice to replace Kevin King after the latter suffered a strained groin, but as the game went on Pettine went more with second-round pick Josh Jackson. The best guess is that Pettine went with House initially because the rookies Jackson and Jaire Alexander have worked more in the slot than outside in their short time in the NFL. King plays the outside, so Pettine went with the veteran. But after Stefon Diggs beat House by a couple yards on a 75-yard bomb for a touchdown, Pettine moved Alexander to the outside and brought in Jackson to play the slot when the coordinator went with three cornerbacks. If King can’t play next Sunday at Washington, the guess here is that Pettine will go with the two rookies and Tramon Williams as his top three cornerbacks.