Amid wave of errors, Burnett slide was correct play
You can watch a lot of NFL games and not see as many mistakes in four quarters as the Green Bay Packers made in the final minutes and overtime of their meltdown in the NFC championship game at Seattle on Sunday.
Coach Mike McCarthy took his foot off the gas, and his players made several glaring mental and physical mistakes that cost them a trip to the Super Bowl even though they had a 12-point lead and the ball with 5 minutes, 4 seconds to play. Incredible.
We'll go through them in order and will start with a controversial decision that actually was the right one: safety Morgan Burnett hitting the dirt after intercepting Russell Wilson with 5:04 to play.
Burnett has taken a lot of heat for not continuing the return and possibly getting deep into Seahawks territory or even scoring. It's unwarranted.
The Packers were up two scores. That should have clinched the game. It's raining, the ball's wet, and Burnett's not a guy who has the ball in his hands much. Just think if somebody would have caught him from behind and forced a fumble. Everyone would have been calling him an idiot for risking the return and blaming the coaching staff for not instructing him to get down. He made the right call.
Now here's a look at what went wrong:
On the ensuing series the Packers lost four yards on three runs, and punted. There were execution errors on each run, but the biggest mistake was McCarthy's decision to play it safe, to play not to lose.
The Packers' offensive line might be the best pass blocking group in the NFL. It had a fantastic game protecting Aaron Rodgers on Sunday against one of the best pass-rushing lines in the NFL. Really impressive. But it's middle of the road as a run-blocking unit, and the Seahawks were looking run all the way. Getting a first down on the ground probably was asking too much.
Also, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman was obviously playing one-armed because of an injured elbow. He was ripe for targeting. The Packers have a booth full of assistant coaches and spotters upstairs. They had to know it.
You have Rodgers, the presumptive league MVP and a guy who protects the ball as well as anyone. Put the game in his hands to keep the clock moving.
On the first play the Seahawks had 10 men in the box and the 11th only seven yards deep. They were selling out against the run. On second down, even against three wide receivers, it was seven in the box, press coverage and a single safety 10 yards deep. Match up Nelson with Sherman and throw him a jump ball. Nelson would have a huge edge.
In fact, on third-and-16, Nelson was matched against Sherman on the outside. You would have had to have liked Nelson's chances of coming down with the catch against a one-armed player. But McCarthy called a run instead.
When Seattle got the ball back it scored a touchdown in only 1 minute, 43 seconds. The big play was a 26-yard pass to running back Marshawn Lynch on a wheel route down the sidelines to the Packers' 9.
Second-year linebacker Sam Barrington is a young player who made a bad play. He had coverage on Lynch, took a poor angle and ran into the pick set by Seahawks tight end Luke Wilson. Barrington ran at Lynch in the flat instead of aiming ahead of him to the sideline. Lynch would have blown right by him even if Barrington hadn't run into the pick.
In fact, Barrington played it perfectly a little earlier, in the third quarter on the play before Seattle's fake field goal. Lynch ran a circle route, Barrington took a good angle toward the sideline, went over the pick and was there to knock the ball away when it hit Lynch's hands.
Next was the killer play, the Packers' botched recovery of the onside kick. Backup tight end Brandon Bostick was out there to block, and if he'd done that, the ball would have landed in Jordy Nelson's chest, just like you'd draw it up. The Packers then could have run three plays and a punt, and there's no way Seattle would have had enough time to win. But Bostick went for the ball, almost whiffed on the catch, and the Seahawks recovered. It's probably going to cost Bostick his job.
Next was Seattle's two-point conversion, which gave the Seahawks a three-point lead and prevented Mason Crosby's field goal with 14 seconds left from winning the game. That prayer never should have been completed.
First-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has come a long way this season, but he fell asleep on that play. It looked like he got caught watching Seahawks' quarterback Russell Wilson scrambling far to his right. Maybe Clinton-Dix relaxed because he didn't think Wilson could throw the ball back across the field. Either way, that ball was in the air for an eternity, but Clinton-Dix didn't react to it, and Luke Willson made the catch for the two-point play.
In overtime, the Seahawks hit two big plays that won the game, and the Packers had a crucial technique error on both.
On the first, a 35-yard completion to receiver Doug Baldwin on a wheel route, cornerback Casey Hayward shuffled his feet too long. It was third-and-7, and Hayward must have been looking for Baldwin to run a curl or some other shorter route to pick up the first down. But Baldwin took off downfield, and Hayward didn't open his hips and run until it was too late.
Baldwin blew by him and beat him by a couple yards. If Hayward had opened his hips immediately, like Tramon Williams did covering Ricardo Lockette right next to him on a shorter in route, he might have been there to play the ball.
Then on the next play, the 35-yard game-winning touchdown to Jermaine Kearse, Williams made the technique mistake.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers was playing to stop the run against two tight end personnel, so he called Cover Zero, which meant there was no safety back in coverage. Williams and Sam Shields were on their own against the outside receivers. Russell Wilson saw that and, according to coach Pete Carroll, audibled to the deep shot.
The one thing a cornerback can't do in Cover Zero is allow the receiver an inside release. But Williams did. That makes the throw much, much easier. The quarterback has the entire middle of the field to work with and can put the ball up and let the receiver run underneath it. So even though Williams had pretty good coverage, Kearse made the catch for the score.
If Williams had lined up correctly, his outside shoulder to Kearse's inside shoulder, it would have forced Kearse to the outside, and the sideline would have been Williams' friend. The throwing window is much smaller and the angle more difficult. It's still a tough cover, but there's a better shot at an incompletion.
The MMQB reported that the Seahawks ran their fake field goal for a touchdown only after they were sure linebacker Brad Jones was on the field. They'd seen something on videotape that made them think the fake would work because of how hard he'd rushed kicks. But that doesn't mean the touchdown was his fault.
Jones did was he coached to do. Looking at the play from the Seahawks' side of the field, he was lined up second from the far left, and his job was to rush hard and force the play.
Cornerback Davon House, who was lined up just outside Jones, made the mistake. He had outside contain, but when he went around the edge he turned the corner and stood. Jon Ryan, the holder, easily ran around him to the outside.
That put A.J. Hawk in a bind. Ryan had open field and a run-pass option. Garry Gilliam was running behind Hawk to the end zone. Hawk had to go for one or the other and chose the ball, which gave Ryan the easy 19-yard touchdown throw.
If you watch Jarrett Bush on the other side – or House on the extra point – he played it how you're supposed to. He took a couple steps up field but then slid to the outside. If Ryan had run that way, Bush was ready and would have blown up the play.
• Rodgers' injured calf loomed large in this game. There was at least one play each quarter where Rodgers probably would have either scrambled and thrown or run for a good gain if he'd been healthy.
Maybe the biggest was on the Packers' game-tying drive at the end of the fourth quarter. On first-and-10 from the Seattle 36, Rodgers was flushed out of the pocket to his right. He had a lot of green ahead of him and normally would have run out of bounds after a 10- to 15-yard gain. Instead, he tried to flip a pass to Eddie Lacy that fell incomplete.
If Rodgers had been able to run, the Packers would have had the ball at or inside the 25 with about 30 seconds left. With all their timeouts they would have had the entire field to work with for a shot at the game-winning touchdown.
• Mason Crosby looked like he was on the outs a couple years ago, but the Packers made the right call in sticking with him. He was money on Sunday. His 48-yard field goal with 14 seconds left that tied the game was right down the middle.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty