Matthews, Clinton-Dix spark run defense
When a defense holds Adrian Peterson to only 3.5 yards a carry and 45 yards rushing, you know its line did the job.
So kudos to the line rotation of B.J. Raji, Mike Daniels, Letroy Guion and Mike Pennel in the Green Bay Packers’ 30-13 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
But shutting down the NFL’s best running back and outstanding cut-back runner takes a lot of help from the back seven as well. And looking at the game video, two others who had key roles were Clay Matthews and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Matthews showed why the Packers have to play him at inside linebacker even if they miss his outside pass rush. He blew up several plays and was a key to the Packers’ holding down Peterson on first down, which in turn put their defense in more favorable downs and distances on second and third down.
Maybe the most remarkable numbers from the game were Peterson’s first-down stats. He had seven first-down carries for a total of only three yards, or less than half a yard a carry. His longest first-down rush was four yards, and on three of them he lost a combined seven yards.
Matthews accounted for two of those first-down losses, both for minus-three yards. Both times the Vikings punted three plays later. Those were big plays that ruined drives.
The first was late in the second quarter, with the Vikings starting in great field position on the Packers’ 42. The Vikings ran Peterson on a toss right, so he had the option to try to get outside, or catch the defense in over-pursuit and make one of his patented cut backs.
Raji and Daniels did a good job of protecting cutback lanes, and Matthews got outside and into the hole where Peterson wanted to run. Matthews then made an incredibly athletic play by sliding under the block of tight end Kyle Rudolph, who’s no slouch as a blocker, and taking down Peterson with a sliding ankle tackle.
The Vikings count on Peterson providing them favorable downs and distances. Second-and-13 is not what they’re looking for.
Then about halfway through the third quarter, on first down from Minnesota’s 41, the Vikings ran a shallow toss to Peterson. With his deep set, great vision and cutback ability, he should have had the entire field to work with.
But Matthews quickly read the play, and as he bolted through the hole he made fullback Zach Line whiff on his lead block. Matthews exploded through the hole so quickly that Peterson had no cutback lanes, and Matthews dropped him for the three-yard loss.
That’s why the Packers have to play Matthews at middle linebacker. Teams can’t run away from him there. He’s got great instincts and even better quick-twitch ability and speed.
Clinton-Dix has been hit and miss as a second-year pro, but the safety also had a strong game Sunday.
The Packers usually play Morgan Burnett as the extra safety in the box far more than Clinton-Dix, but in this game Clinton-Dix lined up as the extra defender nine times to Burnett’s five.
Early in the second quarter, he made probably his best play in run defense in the game. On a second down, he crept up to the right side of the line of scrimmage, and when Peterson took a handoff up the middle, Clinton-Dix played his assignment perfectly. He stayed in his gap, and when Peterson tried to cut back that way, he had nowhere to go. Clinton-Dix exploded through the hole and tackled Peterson for only a one-yard gain.
Clinton-Dix also showed in the third quarter that he’s learning his craft as a blitzer. On a second-and-13, he moved up to linebacker level and just before the snap took a step back as if here were going to bail to safety.
However, he then took off to blitz the right edge, and because of that fake step no blocker picked him up. He had a straight path to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and sacked him. He disguised his blitz well.
Clinton-Dix is the Packers’ most talented safety since Nick Collins. He doesn’t have Collins’ pure speed — Collins ran the 40 in a smoking 4.36 seconds coming out of college, as opposed to Clinton-Dix’s more pedestrian 4.58 seconds. Clinton-Dix also is still missing tackles when he goes for kill shots and drops his head, which is a hard habit to break from something that worked in his college days. But he’s instinctive and physical, and he appears to be getting better in all aspects of his game.
The gut feeling after Sunday was that backup JC Tretter did a good job at center in place of starter Corey Linsley. The game video bore that out.
Linsley injured his ankle in the first quarter, and the third-year pro Tretter played the rest of the game at a level few teams are likely to get from their backup center. In fact, you wonder if Tretter still might be the starter if he hadn’t injured his knee late in camp in 2014. That opened the door for the then-rookie Linsley, and by the time Tretter returned halfway through the season, Linsley was playing too well to take out of the lineup.
Tretter on Sunday showed the quick feet, speed and hands that the Packers liked going into 2014. On one run early in the third quarter he was blocking 10 yards downfield, and on another he engaged a linebacker and pushed him a couple more yards downfield.
And one of his best plays came early in the fourth quarter, when his handling of a tackle-guard stunt helped protect Aaron Rodgers on a 27-yard touchdown pass to James Jones.
On that play the Vikings faked a Double-A gap blitz, then lopped end Danielle Hunter into the middle of the line. Tretter picked up the stunt without issue. That showed a backup who was prepared to play.
Linsley is more of a masher and street fighter, and also has an uncanny ability to regain his balance in a nano-second. Tretter is a little more of a technician with a good motor. Either way, the Packers are in good shape at center.
The Packers’ screen game has picked up the last couple weeks, and a key has been their interior linemen’s ability to get out as blockers. Right guard T.J. Lang sprang James Starks’ 30-yard screen Sunday by making a tough open-field cut block on the Vikings’ most athletic linebacker, Eric Kendricks.
Receiver Randall Cobb had two drops Sunday, including a big one on a third-and-11 with 4:24 left that probably would have put the game away. Hard to know if he’s pressing too much because of his new contract, or if it’s a lack of concentration, but according to Pro Football Focus his seven drops is the most on the team and tied for sixth most in the NFL.
Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1