CARSON, Calif. – Za’Darius Smith pumped his arms in the air as he took the field. So did Blake Martinez. This was before the first snap of Sunday’s game at the Los Angeles Chargers, and the Green Bay Packers had been handed a gift.
Not only were the stands filled with mostly Packers fans, enough that Dignity Health Sports Park was practically overtaken as Lambeau Field West. But the Chargers were backed up at their own 5-yard line by a penalty on the kickoff, in a corner of the stadium where some particularly vocal Packers fans stood like a student section, cranking the noise.
It was as daunting of an environment as any home team could possibly enter. A situation that just called for problems.
Fifteen plays and 84 yards later, the Chargers had a lead they never relinquished.
“Them being able to drive the field almost 90 yards,” defensive tackle Kenny Clark said at his locker a few hours later, “that just can’t happen. I don’t care who we’re playing. That stuff can’t happen. When you’ve got somebody backed up, if we want to be who we say we want to be, we’ve got to pin our ears back, keep them backed up there.”
The Packers' defense was not what it has said countless times it wants to be in a 26-11 loss to the Chargers. The defense was not what it has shown capable of being, what it was at times earlier this season.
The defense also was far from the only culprit in Sunday’s loss. Indeed, it might have been the Packers’ strongest phase Sunday, a damning possibility considering the defense allowed 442 yards, 6.5 yards per play, generated no turnovers and was left generally broken down by the end. That’s how poorly the Packers' offense and special teams played in what amounted to a complete no-show in southern California.
And yet if this Packers defense is what it thinks it is – a top-10 group in the NFL, a unit capable of helping carry the load to a Super Bowl championship – this was a game that begged for more. The defense had countless opportunities to help flip momentum against a Chargers offense that fired offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt early in the week. Instead, the Packers' defense did what it’s done for weeks, bending but not breaking, holding the Chargers to 2-of-5 in the red zone and four field goals.
That was enough to give the Packers' offense plenty of chances to find traction, but that game-changing play, the one that could have helped the offense out even more, never came.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Martinez said. “I think throughout the game, the biggest thing that’s going to kind of make me sick to my stomach – and other guys – is every single time they made a play or do those type of things, it was on us. It was just understanding gap responsibilities, understanding where to be, where to fit. What they were trying to do within their formations and stuff like that, that we knew. We just weren’t locked in enough.”
After the game, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers suggested the Packers defense also wasn’t creative enough.
Rivers mostly did what he wanted Sunday, picking apart the Packers as he completed 21-of-28 passes (75 percent) for 294 yards and a 108.3 rating. Considering Rivers did not throw for a touchdown, that’s an impressive number. It’s also a problem, because the Packers have now lost to the two best quarterbacks they’ve played this season.
Back in September, it was Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz who picked apart the Packers defense.
Both quarterbacks operated with a quick-strike attack in the passing game, getting the ball out of their hands on time to negate the Packers' rebuilt pass rush. Za’Darius Smith (half sack) and Preston Smith (full sack) each got to Rivers on Sunday, but neither wrecked the game.
The Packers did little schematically to help spark a momentum change. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, as he has done much of this season, continually rushed with four players, dropping seven in coverage. Against a quarterback such as Rivers, the lack of schematic diversity didn’t help.
“I think based on what this defense was giving us,” Rivers said, “we just stayed with it. You saw the same formation, I don’t know, maybe 25 snaps. We were in three receivers and a tight end. We just kept getting the same look, and kept getting the same look, and kept getting the same look. I think we said, ‘Let’s just keep doing the same thing.’
“Obviously, games won’t always be like that. Teams are going to start blitzing and doing some different things, but they continued just to kind of hold tight, hold tight, hang in there. Obviously, I’m sure they were hoping to keep us to field goals because then when their offense gets rolling, we'll look up and it’ll be 16-12, 14-12 their way. I’m sure that’s what they thought, just keep holding us to field goals, but our defense kept doing such an unbelievable job that it wasn’t enough.”
Rivers and Wentz are not the only two quarterbacks to throw it on the Packers this season. Oakland’s Derek Carr completed all but six of his 28 passes for 293 yards and a 119.2 rating. Kansas City’s Matt Moore, of all passers, had 267 yards, two touchdowns and a 107.1 rating.
And that’s just the two games before Sunday.
Rivers made it three straight quarterbacks to finish with a passer rating higher than 100 against the Packers, a developing problem they must solve. Because if this team is going to be the team it wants to be, the team it thinks it should be, it’ll see plenty of passers capable of dissecting a defense.
The road to the Super Bowl is paved with franchise quarterbacks.
“You have to get pressure on him,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “You have to give him different looks, different reads, pre-snap wise. He’s a great quarterback. One of the things that I do admire about Philip is he prepares the right way for a game. If you do anything that you’re not supposed to do on the field, he’s going to pick it up right away. You can see it on the field, he runs the game from the line. He’s one of the quarterbacks that does do that in this league, and it’s impressive.”