Packers' defense on the run
The Green Bay Packers’ defense played well enough to win Sunday, which matters most.
But its shortcomings against the run were a problem all day in the Packers' 31-23 win over the Chicago Bears, and that especially matters because the Week 2 assignment is much tougher: Marshawn Lynch, who is one of the NFL's top two or three backs, and a Seattle Seahawks run game that features the added threat of quarterback Russell Wilson in the read option.
When you break down the game video of Bears running back Matt Forte’s 141 yards rushing against the Packers, you see that the Packers didn’t have one issue, but different players breaking down at different times.
That’s a sign that, at least for now, the Packers are short of difference makers whose play elevates everyone else on that side of the ball, at least in stopping the run. After Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers, the Packers don't have any game-changing defensive players.
But the tape also shows the problems mainly were individual errors, and not a shortcoming of the scheme or defensive play calling.
Several players, most notably defensive lineman Josh Boyd and outside linebacker Mike Neal, had trouble consistently holding their ground when the Bears ran at them. Another, Mike Pennel, defended the run well all camp but made one egregious mistake that allowed an explosive play. And safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, though a talented young player with promise, made several fundamental tackling errors that cost extra yardage.
From the first snap this game was full of sequences in which the Packers would defend a run play exactly how you draw it up and then on the next snap suffer a breakdown that kept the chains moving or put the Bears in a favorable down and distance.
On the game’s first play, for instance, the Packers were in their base 3-4. Across the board, the defensive line played it well. Pennel, B.J. Raji and Mike Daniels all had a little push onto the Bears’ side of the ball. Forte ran straight up the middle, and he’s a good back so he found a way to fall forward as he was tackled. But it was only a three-yard gain. Good play for the defense.
Then on the next snap, one guy, Pennel, made a huge error and it allowed a 22-yard gain. Raji and Daniels played the down well and held their place on the line. But Pennel saw right tackle Kyle Long drop like he was pass blocking and thought Jay Cutler was making a play-action fake. So Pennel flew up the field at the quarterback.
Forte ran left and into a wall of Raji and Daniels. But Pennel vacated the left side of the defensive line in pursuit of Cutler, so even though Forte’s feet stopped for a moment, he had a huge cutback lane and took the ball for 22 yards.
Defensive linemen are taught that if they can’t see the ball, they should stay home. In other words, if they’re unsure of the play, hold their ground. Pennel violated that, jumped the gun and gave up an explosive run.
The Bears’ new coaches obviously didn’t want to expose Cutler and his undermanned offensive line to third and medium or long. They know that when teams pressure Cutler, his mechanics go awry and he throws interceptions.
So they wanted to run the ball and keep the downs and distances manageable. The Packers broke down enough to allow it to work. The first two plays of the second quarter were illustrative of that.
On the first play, the Bears faced second and eight from their own 22. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase, whose MO is to throw as much as possible, played it conservatively and called a run to the right. Long cleared the way by blowing Boyd out of the hole. Forte picked up a solid five yards, and instead of facing a sure passing down, the Bears had a run-pass choice on third and three.
On the next play Forte ran right again. This time Martellus Bennett, who’s a receiving tight end, performed a textbook hook block that pinned Neal inside. It’s one of the game’s hardest blocks, because the blocker is lined up inside the defender and has to get to his outside shoulder.
Yet Bennett walled off Neal, and provided Forte a clear path around the right edge. Forte’s easy eight-yard run wasn’t a huge gain, but it kept the chains moving and the ball out of Aaron Rodgers’ hands, which was the Bears’ plan.
Those plays weren’t bad scheme, they were just point-of-attack defenders losing one-on-one battles.
Maybe the suspended Letroy Guion will help the Packers’ run defense when he returns, though he’ll miss this week and Week 3 against Kansas City before his return. He’s stouter in the middle of the line than Boyd, who played 23 defensive snaps (to Pennel’s 13).
Winning arms race
As much as anything, Sunday’s game was a showcase for Aaron Rodgers’ arm talent. He might have the best combination of accuracy, touch and strength in the NFL.
Two of his touchdown passes — the back-shoulder throw to James Jones in the first quarter and the five-yarder on Cobb’s double move in the fourth quarter — were exceptional.
On the 13-yard back-shoulder throw, Jones showed good strength making the catch with cornerback Alan Ball on him face-to-face. But the pass was perfect. Even though Rodgers threw slightly off his back foot, the ball went just past Ball’s ear hole and had enough on it that Ball didn’t have time to turn and find it.
On the fourth-quarter score, Cobb ran a double move — out and up — and Rodgers lofted a pinpoint touch pass. He threw it where Cobb was the only player who had a shot at the ball along the sideline. That’s why the Packers win. Few quarterbacks can make those throws.
The little things matter too, and one play that jumped out was with 1:30 left in the first quarter and the Packers facing second-and-10 from the Bears’ 20. If you watch the play again, it’s clearly a run call. All the linemen and all but one receiver go to block. Halfback Eddie Lacy thinks it’s a run.
But the only defender lined up across from receiver Davante Adams is safety Antrel Rolle, who’s 12 yards back. Rodgers didn’t make any hand signals, but either he said something or made eye contact with Adams, because right after the snap the receiver looked for the ball and took the quick-release throw for a seven-yard gain. Not a big play on paper, but it put the Packers in third-and-three, which gave them the option of running or passing. Jones caught the back-shoulder touchdown against one-on-one coverage the next play.
» Not many linebackers in the NFL could have made Matthews’ game-turning interception in the final four minutes. If you watch Cutler’s head, he’s looking to tight end Martellus Bennett from the start of the play. Matthews read Cutler’s eyes and Bennett’s route and got there in an instant. Then he caught the ball with extended hands. This wasn’t an interception where the ball stuck in his stomach or facemask. It was a catch by an athlete with his hands.
» You have to wonder if Capers will scale back or scuttle plans to play safety Sean Richardson at cornerback in some of his defensive packages. In the first half Sunday, Capers used Richardson at cornerback in the base defense regularly, and as a slot cornerback in the dime as well — he played 28 snaps total on the day. The idea must be that Richardson is physical against the run and can match up with tight ends in coverage — Richardson is 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds. But it didn’t work Sunday. The fourth-year pro didn’t make a play and seemed a half-tick slow making reads.
— 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