The Green Bay Packers’ defense beat the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
Really, it did it in two ways. First, it played the key role in 14 of the Packers’ 30 points by returning one interception for a touchdown and setting up the offense in the red zone on another interception.
Also, coordinator Dom Capers’ group held the Raiders to 20 points. That’s under the NFL average.
The NFL scoring mean (23 points) and median (22.6 points) are about the same. A good rule of thumb is, if you hold a team under the NFL average, your offense, especially one with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, should put up enough points to win.
Really, the Packers’ defense has been fine most of this season, and two rookies have helped that side of the ball in the last month or so: Damarious Randall and Jake Ryan.
Randall took some lumps Sunday against one of the NFL’s exciting young players, rookie Amari Cooper. But the Packers’ first-round pick also had a couple nice plays of his own and continues to look like a good, young player himself.
Ryan has been an upgrade at inside linebacker since replacing Nate Palmer against Detroit three weeks ago. It’s starting to look like the fourth-round draft pick might be more than just a fill-in.
Cooper had a good game (six catches, 20-yard average per reception), but made it look like a bad day for Randall with two big gainers on one series. a 41-yard bomb when safety Morgan Burnett was helping over the top, and a 26-yard touchdown against true one-on-one coverage.
Now, Randall’s assignment was against one of the league’s most explosive players. Cooper ran the 40 in an exceptional 4.34 seconds at the NFL scouting combine; Randall, 4.46.
On the 41-yarder, Randall didn’t get any jam at the line and got beat – not terribly, but Cooper was a good yard behind him.
On the touchdown, after again missing the jam, Randall played the go route pretty well. He was right on Cooper’s hip, squeezed him to the sideline and opened up to the ball. But as he turned, Randall lost his footing and started to fall just as he tried to play the ball. He missed. Touchdown.
All cornerbacks get burned. That’s the nature of the position trying to cover some of the great athletes who play receiver in the NFL.
But Randall also made one huge play, his 43-yard interception return for a touchdown. And he made a tough breakup on another play in the end zone on the same series in which Cooper burned him twice.
On a second down from the Packers’ 40, Randall was matched with receiver Andrew Holmes, who is 6-feet-4 and has a 35-inch vertical leap. Holmes ran a fade route, and Raiders quarterback Derek Carr threw a jump-ball to the back of the end zone. Randall showed good body control and awareness when he turned, found the ball, timed his jump and got his hand on the ball just as Holmes reached for the catch.
Randall also made a smart play early in the game when Cooper beat him for what would have been an 80-yard touchdown. When it was clear Cooper was past him and the ball was on its way, Randall grabbed Cooper’s arm from behind to prevent the catch. That was heady. The gain was 25 yards rather than 80, and the Raiders finished the drive with a field goal rather than a big-play touchdown.
Randall also looks like a complete cornerback who’s willing to tackle in the run game. He showed that in the fourth quarter when he stepped in hard and chopped down 230-pound halfback Latavius Murray on a seven-yard run. That says a lot about him as a football player.
Ryan on Sunday didn’t do anything that leapt off the field – no sacks or tackles for loss. But he held several runs to short gains that easily could have ruptured into big gains had he not made the play.
One was a short-yardage run early in the game. On a third-and-one, Murray looked like he might turn a plunge against a defense jammed at the line of scrimmage into a big play when bounced a handoff outside. He beat safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to the edge, but Ryan showed good short-area burst and tackled Murray for only a two-yard gain. If Ryan hadn’t reacted so fast, Murray probably would have gained at least 20 yards and very well might have scored a 65-yard touchdown.
Ryan’s strengths are that he has good feet, doesn’t make false reads and generally takes good angles. He showed that a few plays later in the first quarter when he filled a big cutback lane and dropped Murray for only a two-yard gain.
He did so again early in the second quarter when Murray got outside on a sweep to the left. Ryan started in the middle of the field, diagnosed the play and ran hard to the edge, where he tackled Murray for only a two-yard gain. If he’d been a step later, Murray probably would have run for a first down, and maybe a lot more. A.J. Hawk wouldn’t have made that play last year, and Palmer probably wouldn’t have, either.
It’s easy to see why quarterback Aaron Rodgers likes throwing to second-year pro Jared Abbrederis.
Abbrederis made a couple important catches Sunday, including one on which he looked a little like Jordy Nelson. It came late in the third quarter, on the Packers’ long drive that ended with a field goal that put them up seven points.
On the third play of the possession, a third-and-5, Rodgers moved to his right and threw low to Abbrederis near the sideline. Like Nelson often does, Abbrederis went down to his knees and made the sliding catch for the first down.
Earlier in the quarter, Abbrederis also held on to a 15-yard pass over the middle when safety Charles Woodson hit him with a good shot. With Abbrederis’ injury history you always wonder if he’s going to get up after a hit like that, but he popped up immediately.
Coach Mike McCarthy appears committed to giving fullback John Kuhn extensive playing time, and he should. Kuhn had a career-high 47 snaps Sunday. Many of those came in the second half in a personnel grouping not used much up to now: four receivers and Kuhn in the backfield. But when a halfback is on the field, Kuhn is a much better blocker than tight end Richard Rodgers, so if McCarthy wants to run the ball he needs Kuhn on the field regularly.
McCarthy’s call on Kuhn’s five-yard touchdown run in the first quarter was eye-catching. It came out of that four-receiver set, with Kuhn and Randall Cobb in the backfield. Rodgers faked a toss to Cobb to the right almost simultaneously with his handoff up the gut to Kuhn. That fake prevented the defensive end on that side, Khalil Mack, from crashing down on the run up the middle. Safety Taylor Mayes honored the toss too. The Packers blocked everybody else, and Kuhn had a full head of steam to bowl over cornerback TJ Carrie at the 2 on his way to the end zone.
Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1