Warranted or not, costly penalties become game-changers for the Packers in their loss to the Commanders
LANDOVER, Maryland − With a struggling offense putting the defense in a pressure cooker, the Green Bay Packers can’t afford errors, especially those of the self-inflicted kind. But that is what happened again Sunday, as they lost 23-21 to the Washington Commanders.
“We had some uncharacteristic mistakes, a lot of penalties that put us in some bad situations,” coach Matt LaFleur said. "It took away and negated some big-time plays."
In total, it was nine penalties for 69 yards. There were four on offense, three on defense and two on special teams, with some that changed the course of the game and, arguably, the course of the season for the Packers.
On a day in which the offense finished with only 232 total yards, penalties negated plays and set the group deep behind the chains, contributing to a dismal 0-for-6 on third downs. There were three holding calls (two on Yosh Nijman, one on Robert Tonyan) and an illegal formation on veteran Allen Lazard.
“I think a lot of times when you have penalties that set you back, it’s hard to convert,” LaFleur said. "I don’t know, we’ve got to do something. We’ve got to look at everything and see what we’re doing and the situations we are putting our guys in. We’ve got to play smarter, too. We’ve got to play smarter and not put ourselves in situations where we can get called for holding.
“I think we had an illegal formation, that you rarely see. But we’ve just got to be more disciplined and mindful about what we are doing on each individual play, because right now it’s not good enough.”
One of the calls on the defense changed the tone of the game.
With just less than 5 minutes to play in the second quarter, facing third-and-6 from the Packers 39-yard line, Commanders quarterback Taylor Heinicke was flushed from the pocket and sacked by Rashan Gary. The ball popped out and corner Rasul Douglas retuned it 62 yards for what would’ve been the second touchdown of the day for the Packers defense.
The only person who didn’t see it was Eric Stokes. He was claiming his case on the other end of the field, wanting the official to pick up the flag he just threw.
“(The official) said I can't touch him on the double move,” Stokes said. "That’s all he told me, I can’t touch him on the double move. I ain’t ever heard that.”
The line of scrimmage was the Green Bay 39-yard line. Stokes was locked in contact around the 45-yard mark, before disengaging.
The NFL rule book states: “Beyond the five-yard zone, if the player who receives the snap remains in the pocket with the ball, a defender cannot initiate contact with a receiver who is attempting to evade him. A defender may use his hands or arms only to defend or protect himself against impending contact caused by a receiver.”
On review, it appears Stokes initiated contact around the 40-yard line. But Stokes and teammates were under the impression that given the nature of the play and what the receiver was allowed to do on the move, the rules would allow Stokes to initiate contact in that situation.
“He ran a slow-go on me and I guess I just can’t touch him at all," Stokes said. "I guess he just gotta run free. I guess we just gotta do routes on air.”
Douglas, who had his touchdown negated, is in his sixth year in the NFL. That call in that situation was a shock to him as well.
“I’ve never seen that before,” Douglas said. "It’s a (expletive) running back first of all, on the opposite of the field. The quarterback is scrambling on the opposite side of the field. There’s no other plays. He’s running, the quarterback’s running, everything is offset.
“He’s out there as a decoy. The quarterback’s not looking at him. The quarterbacks running left, he’s on the right side of the play. So if he’s running, the quarterback takes off and scrambles (left), the play’s over with.”
The explanation from the officiating crew, led by referee Clay Martin, was that Heinicke was still in the pocket.
“We’re playing football. It’s a contact sport,” defensive lineman Kenny Clark said.
The NFL put an extra emphasis on illegal contact this offseason, though, as former official Dean Blandino explained on the broadcast.
Through the first four games of the season, the Packers picked up a total of 17 penalties for 140 yards. That has increased over the past three games, during which they’ve been penalized 23 times for 178 yards.
"I feel like the last couple of games kinda been like that,” safety Darnell Savage said. “I feel like we play pretty disciplined as a team. I don’t think we’ve had many penalties at all the last couple of games. We're not gonna make excuses like that. But it is what it is. We just got to play. I mean, it's not gonna change the way we play.”
Stokes penalty wasn’t the only critical penalty for the Packers on defense. On the second play of the second half, Clark was called for defensive holding. Instead of facing a third-and-6, the Commanders were given a fresh set of downs. They would cap the drive with a touchdown to take the lead.
“I don’t think I held anybody" Clark said. "I don’t know what he see or whatever the case may be.”