Lost in the decay of the Green Bay Packers’ offense the past couple of months is that defensively they’re playing well enough to win. More than well enough.
The Packers’ No. 12-ranked scoring defense again did its part Sunday in the matchup for the NFC North title against the Minnesota Vikings, though it went for naught in the 20-13 loss at Lambeau Field.
The Packers held the NFL’s best running back, Adrian Peterson, to 67 yards rushing and a 3.5-yard average. They held quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to only 99 yards passing.
Seven of the Vikings’ points came on the third Aaron Rodgers fumble returned for a touchdown in the past two weeks. Also, 41 of the Vikings’ 151 yards rushing as a team came on a fake punt.
That’s a winning performance, even if the Packers didn’t win the game.
What stood out above all was that coordinator Dom Capers’ defense achieved the nearly unthinkable by holding down Peterson twice in the same season.
In the teams’ first meeting in late November, Peterson rushed for only 45 yards and the same 3.5-yard average. He was a non-factor in the Packers’ 30-13 win.
On Sunday night, Capers’ game plan again worked. Peterson gained only about two-thirds of his 92.8-yard average per game, and his long run was only 10 yards.
Again, the Packers played him well on first down, which kept the Vikings from favorable downs and distances. In the teams’ first matchup Peterson averaged less than half-a-yard per carry on first down. The Packers’ weren’t as dominant this time, but Peterson’s 3.8-yard first-down average still was palatable, and six of his 10 first-down carries were for three yards or less.
Capers’ plan included a big dose of his base 3-4 defense and bringing up a safety in the box as an extra run defender. And that big lineup, which sometimes included both his best run-stopping outside linebackers (Datone Jones and Nick Perry), worked in cutting down Peterson’s running lanes.
For instance, late in the first quarter the Vikings appeared off to a good start on a possession with a second-and-4 at their own 30. But Capers kept his big run-stopping lineup on the field, and the group of nose tackle Letroy Guion; ends Pennel and Mike Daniels; and Jones and Perry on the outside stalemated the Vikings’ offensive line.
Peterson had nowhere to go, and Guion and Daniels teamed to tackle him for only a two-yard gain. That was a win for the Packers’ defense, which got off the field after an incompletion on third down.
Safety Morgan Burnett also made several tackles as the safety in the box, including on a first down early in the second quarter. On this play, Capers lined up his largest-possible three-man line (Raji, Guion and Pennel) and had Burnett playing as an extra linebacker. Peterson ran hard right behind center, but Burnett filled a cutback lane and then knifed in for the tackle that held him to a two-yard gain.
Then on the next play, rookie Jake Ryan showed why he has been an upgrade at inside linebacker the second half of the season. The play was a swing pass to Peterson, not a run. Peterson caught the ball in the flat about nine yards from Ryan, and Ryan played it perfectly. He closed directly at Peterson, and when Peterson tried to juke outside Ryan made the ankle tackle for only a one-yard gain.
And early in the fourth quarter, with the Packers’ desperate to get the ball back down by 10 points, Pennel and Ryan teamed up to make a drive-wrecking play, this time against halfback Jerick McKinnon.
Pennel started things by shooting a gap into the Vikings’ backfield and forcing McKinnon on a wide track. McKinnon just escaped Pennel’s reach and cut up field. But Ryan had been tracking the play pressing the line of scrimmage. He filled the hole hard when McKinnon cut back. He and Pennel dropped McKinnon for a two-yard loss.
Peterson now has played the Packers twice per regular season for eight seasons — he didn’t play them last year because of an NFL suspension. In 2012, he gashed them for 409 yards. This year, though, he put up only 112 yards in the two games. That’s his single-season low against them and a great defensive effort wasted.
Sitton off guard
Hats off to Josh Sitton for doing what his coaches asked and lining up at left tackle Sunday night in place of injured David Bakhtiari.
That said, he had a rough night. Sitton has good short-area quickness, but after years of playing guard he doesn’t have the footwork of a tackle, and it showed.
He gave up two huge sacks to Everson Griffen on outside rushes — one turned into a fumble that the Vikings returned for a touchdown, the other on a third-and-3 ended a drive with a field goal in the fourth quarter.
On both, Sitton showed the technique of a guard. When a guard pass protects, he moves laterally with small steps, but when a tackle pass blocks he has to take two or three big kick steps to prevent getting beaten outside. If you look at the video of Griffen’s sacks, Sitton’s small, choppy drops steps didn’t cover enough ground to prevent Griffen from going around him.
» Quarterback Aaron Rodgers made one of his worst throws of his season on the late fourth-down interception in the end zone with the Packers trailing by a touchdown. Rodgers had been under heavy pressure much of the second half, and on fourth and goal from the 13 with a little more than two minutes left he looked like a quarterback who’d been under siege. He moved around in the pocket, then stepped up to his left and made an off-balance snap throw to James Jones in the corner of the end zone. Rodgers threw the ball to the inside, and it was easily intercepted by cornerback Xavier Rhodes. But if Rodgers had set his feet and thrown to the pylon, there’s a good chance he’d have had the game-tying touchdown.
» Mason Crosby might have made some history Sunday night when he forced a fumble against Vikings return man Cordarrelle Patterson in the fourth quarter. It’s unclear how far back fumbling data goes, but Pro Football Reference’s database shows only three NFL kickers with a forced fumble: Buffalo’s Rian Lindell in 2010; Pittsburgh’s Shaun Suisham in 2013 and now Crosby.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1