The Green Bay Packers’ game plan Monday night was simple: Force Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith to win the game.
Looking back at the game video, it was evident from the Chiefs' first snap, when one starting safety, Micah Hyde, lined up at linebacker level, while the other, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, crept up to 10 yards from the line of scrimmage instead of staying back at the usual 15 yards.
That’s the way Dom Capers, the Packers’ defensive coordinator, played the first half, when the game was competitive and the Chiefs weren’t in catch-up mode. Kansas City has a first-rate running back in Jamaal Charles, and he was the biggest threat to beat the Packers. So Capers and coach Mike McCarthy essentially dared Smith to win it, and he couldn’t. He didn’t even come close.
The plan showed a good understanding of Smith, the 11th-year quarterback who famously was drafted No. 1 overall in the same 2005 draft where Aaron Rodgers wasn’t selected until No. 24. The difference between the two never has been greater than it was Monday night.
When people in the NFL characterize Smith as a game manager, they’re right. He might be the best game-manager type quarterback in the league, but that’s what he is, with all the implied strengths and weaknesses.
The Packers determined there was no way Smith could outscore Aaron Rodgers. They had history on their side.
The differences between the two statistically are enormous, but here’s what stands out:
One of the most telling stats about a quarterback’s playmaking ability as a passer is average yards per attempt. In the two-plus seasons Smith has been the Chiefs’ quarterback, his average per attempt is 6.8 yards. That ranks 22nd among the 24 quarterbacks who have started at least 20 games in that time.
Rodgers’ average is 8.5 yards. That’s the highest average in that span.
And when it comes to average per attempt, a 1.7-yard difference is astronomical. Look at it this way: Rodgers attempted 901 passes in that time, so that average accounts for 1,531 yards more on the same number of throws. That’s 15 football fields and some change.
Here’s another number, from Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders: From 2012 through ’14, Smith on third downs averaged throwing to a target two yards short of the first-down marker. That was lowest in the league and made him the only quarterback who on average threw short of the sticks. Rodgers averaged throwing three yards beyond the marker, highest in the league.
Those numbers tell you what the Packers saw on videotape and what everyone in the league has seen even since Smith became a winning quarterback in 2011 (39-18 record over that time): He doesn’t have the arm talent and fast reactions to challenge defenses and come out ahead. But if he has a good defense and running game, he can take care of the ball and often make just enough plays to win.
So the Packers put as much as they could on Smith’s shoulders. On the first three Chiefs possessions, Capers on first down had Clinton-Dix and Hyde inside 10 yards of the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped – on the final two, both were within six yards. Those plays – two runs and a short catch by Charles – gained a total of three yards. All three possessions were three and outs.
On the Chiefs’ next two series, the Packers on first down had 10 defenders within five yards of the line of scrimmage, and one safety 15 yards deep. Charles picked up six yards on a short pass and two yards on a run. That’s how Capers played the rest of the half.
By the time the Chiefs got back the ball for the final time in the second quarter, the Packers led 24-7 and Smith’s offense had only 59 yards total. The game essentially was over, and the Chiefs spent the rest of the night putting up respectful-looking numbers against a prevent-oriented defense.
But the Chiefs’ final numbers (326 yards in total offense, 28 points) meant nothing. When the game was a game, the Packers on early downs jammed the line of scrimmage, rendered Charles a non-factor and put the Chiefs’ fate on Smith. It wasn’t a game for long.
On the block
In preseason games, the Packers’ blocking at tight end generally ranged from shaky to abysmal. But since the regular season opened, starter Richard Rodgers has looked like a different player in that part of the game.
Rodgers has blocked well enough that coach Mike McCarthy regularly is lining him up in the backfield in a fullback-type position. The advantage of using a tight end rather than a fullback in that role is the threat of motioning him out and using him as a receiver; the defense can’t key quite as much for a run.
In the first quarter alone Monday night, Rodgers twice reach-blocked outside linebacker Tamba Hali, which allowed running back Eddie Lacy to get outside for a five-yard gain on one play and receiver Randall Cobb to pick up 13 yards on an end around on the other.
Rodgers didn’t have a flawless night blocking – the Chiefs’ other outside linebacker, Justin Houston, powered through him and blew up a James Starks run that lost two yards. But Houston is an outstanding, explosive player who does the same thing to offensive linemen. And a few plays later, Rodgers turned Houston inside with a block that allowed Lacy to get to the edge for a four-yard run inside the Chiefs’ 10.
Alonzo Harris showed some burst for a big man in his NFL debut. The undrafted rookie was active for the first time this season because of Lacy’s precarious health – Lacy came into the game with a sprained ankle – and picked up 16 yards with a strong run through the left side of the line on the first of his two carries. Harris showed some burst for such a big man (6-feet-1, 237 pounds).
Joe Thomas’ debut as the middle linebacker in the Packers’ dime defense had the desired effect – it gave Clay Matthews a chance to work as an edge rusher on the most obvious passing downs. Matthews is the Packers’ best rusher, so they need to get him some rushes on the edge. Thomas, though, weighs only 228 pounds and is vulnerable against the run. Charles ran through him twice at about the 3-yard line on touchdown carries up the middle of four and seven yards in the fourth quarter. The question this week is whether the Packers will use Matthews or Thomas as the dime linebacker against one of the game’s premier scrambling quarterbacks, Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers.
— 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