Packers' confident defense dealt a blow by Eagles' balanced attack
GREEN BAY – After three victorious weeks that featured a No. 2 ranking in scoring defense (11.7 points allowed per game), 12 sacks and eight turnovers forced, members of the Green Bay Packers defense weren’t shy about letting the world know how they felt about themselves in the moment, and what they could still become.
Then the Philadelphia Eagles came to Lambeau Field and dropped 34 points on them, shut them out in the sack and turnover columns and handed the ball off to three running backs 27 times for 163 yards (for an even six yards per carry).
“We can’t take nothing back,” safety Adrian Amos said. “We played the game, we lost the game. We did some good things, we did some bad things. It’s really just time to get to the drawing board. We’re not going to change. It’s going to sting tonight, tomorrow.”
Including Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz’s designed short-yardage plunges, his scrambles and game-ending kneel downs, the Eagles rushed 33 times for 176 yards (5.3 avg.). It was the third straight week an opponent has run for 149 yards or more.
“That was a really good o-line, one of the best in the NFL, but overall it wasn’t good enough,” Packers defensive tackle Dean Lowry said of the defense's showing. “Just from an execution standpoint we’ve got to get better at staying in our gaps, having better discipline on the backside of runs and just overall performing better.
“Because if you want to be a top defense we’ve got to outperform the best o-lines in the NFL and tonight we didn’t.”
The Packers knew the Eagles (2-2) were going to present a different challenge than their previous opponents. Second-year tight end Dallas Goedert was back on the field for Philadelphia to join Pro Bowler Zach Ertz, and both stand 6-5 and weigh 250 pounds. They were involved in the run game and were athletic enough to create mismatches in the secondary.
Two tight end formations are called “12 personnel,” but the Packers noted Ertz's and Goedert’s athleticism and catching ability allowed them to run pass plays that resembled “11 personnel,” or what are typically three wide receiver sets. It stressed the linebackers and safeties for the Packers, and it also allowed for wider run lanes.
Eagles wide receivers caught only four passes (three of them to Alshon Jeffery) while Ertz caught seven passes for 65 yards and Goedert two for 16 — one of which went for a 3-yard touchdown.
“The tight ends were definitely Wentz’s go-to guys, especially first and second down,” Packers defensive back Josh Jackson said. “That’s who sets the tempo of the offense, their main targets.
"We just gotta be more locked in on those details, but overall we played well. It’s definitely some minor details we gotta correct for sure. They definitely did a good job of moving the tight ends, using them for the run-pass action. They did a good job using them. We’ve got to be alert and more aware of how they’re trying to use them.”
The top three tacklers for the Packers were inside linebacker Blake Martinez with 15, followed by safety Will Redmond (eight before he left with an injury) and safety Adrian Amos (seven).
With an effective ground game, Wentz attempted 27 passes and completed 16 for 160 yards. He also connected on three touchdown throws. He was only hit twice, officially.
“They knew we’ve been getting a lot of pressure so they did a lot of things with screens and getting the ball out of his hand quick to where it was hard to kind of affect him,” Packers outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell said. “There were a couple of opportunities here and there. Missed some, made some. I think it was just a combination of their game plan and their ability to run the ball that kind of slowed down the rush.”
Not only was Thursday night the first time the Packers' defense couldn't affect the quarterback or get the ball back on takeaways, it also was the first the unit couldn’t hold a lead.
Green Bay had not trailed since early in the second quarter of the season opener in Chicago — a span of just over 190 minutes of game action — until Philadelphia took a 14-13 lead on the Goedert touchdown late in the first half.
The Packers would eventually tie the game at 27 late in the third quarter — but the Eagles answered immediately with an eight play, 75-yard touchdown drive to take the lead. It was a drive that began with a 30-yard Miles Sanders run and ended with a 3-yard Jordan Howard touchdown run.
Playing a close game against an offense that remained balanced created problems for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s group, especially on first and second downs. Philadelphia ran it 18 times and threw it 10 times on first down and ran it 10 times and threw it 11 times on second down.
Three times the Eagles scored on drives where they didn’t need to convert a third down to keep the drive going. And on two other scoring drives the Eagles were a combined 4-for-4 on third down. In all, they went 5-for-9 on third down.
“The biggest thing for us is first and second down gets you those third down opportunities and when we get all our sacks and our pressures and our hits, we’re third-and-7, third-and-9, third-and-10-plus,” Packers defensive lineman Tyler Lancaster said. “Whereas when you’re third-and-1, third-and-2 and third-and-3 you don’t get those opportunities. The ball comes out fast or they just run the ball. You’ll definitely see a dip if we don’t do our job on first and second down.”
Despite a subdued tone in the locker room postgame, cornerback Tramon Williams said he would have seen cracks in confidence before the game even ended and to him there were no such fissures then or immediately after. The result of Thursday’s game is the first true test of adversity for a confident defense, but the veterans on the back end believe the loss hasn’t shaken that.
“It’s football. I don’t know too many 16-0 teams,” Amos said. “The last 16-0 team didn’t win the Super Bowl. It happens. It’s football. We finished the first quarter of the season 3-1. If we do that both times it’s at 12-4. It’s just back to the drawing board. We know certain things we need to get better at.”