Packers' challenge gets tougher
The Green Bay Packers’ passing game came back to life Sunday in their wild-card playoff win over Washington.
But this week they face a completely different animal in the Arizona Cardinals. Some of their best plays against Washington probably aren’t going to work Saturday night against the NFC’s second-seeded team.
Among the Packers’ most successful plays against Washington were wide receiver screens and hitches. They hit several for nice gains that got the offense in rhythm and kept the chains moving. But they worked because while Washington played the same single-high safety alignment that everyone’s been using against the Packers, it didn’t have the faith in its cornerbacks to play bump-and-run coverage.
That won’t be the case with Arizona, which has a first-team All-Pro cornerback in Patrick Peterson and jammed the Packers’ receivers at the line of scrimmage in the teams’ meeting a little more than two weeks ago.
You could see the difference on the videotape from Sunday.
The Packers’ offense came alive in the second quarter, and one of the plays that helped was a quick throw to Davante Adams on a first down from Washington’s 35. It was the kind of play that historically has helped coach Mike McCarthy’s offense get in rhythm. Aaron Rodgers took the snap, immediately turned and threw to Adams, and the receiver, with help from a block by Randall Cobb, picked up nine yards for an excellent first-down gain.
But the play works so well in large part because cornerback Quinton Dunbar lined up six yards off Adams and was backing up on the snap. That provided Cobb a great blocking angle on Dunbar, and Adams plenty of running room to pick up the nine easy yards.
Against Arizona, that cornerback will be lined up two or three yards closer to Adams. It will be a lot tougher to make that play work.
Later in the second quarter the Packers ran a similar man-beater type play on a second-and-10 with Cobb on the right. He was the most inside of three receivers, with linebacker Will Compton lined up seven yards off him; cornerback Will Blackmon eight yards off Adams; and cornerback Bashaud Breeland 10 yards off James Jones.
Rodgers threw the quick receiver screen to Cobb, who had all kinds of room to out-run Compton outside. Cobb and Jones didn’t even make contact on their blocks until they were eight yards downfield. It was a quick, easy 11-yard gain.
Against Arizona, the outside corners won’t be lined up so deep. And more importantly, that linebacker probably will be Deone Bucannon, who’s really a glorified 211-pound safety and runs a 4.49-second 40.
Similarly, on the play early in the third quarter when Adams injured his knee, the Packers bunched three receivers to the right. Washington lined up Blackmon only three yards from tight end Richard Rodgers, but Compton was six yards off Jones, and Breeland was eight yards off Adams. Adams stepped in for the screen, and with Richard Rodgers locked on Blackmon, Adams had a lane for a nice drive-starting nine-yard gain.
Clearly, Washington defensive coordinator Joe Barry had no faith in his cornerbacks to hold up in bump coverage. Those plays simply will be tougher to pull off against Arizona, which last time the teams met played its cornerbacks tighter to the line of scrimmage and dared the Packers to beat them on a big play.
What the Packers might have to do against the Cardinals is run plays off those formations, but with a change. So instead of throwing to the bunch side, they might have to try to hit the lone receiver on the other side in one-on-one coverage.
And their receivers will have to make some plays like they did Sunday. Plays like early in the second quarter, when Jones ran a short crossing route, saw Rodgers starting to scramble and turned straight up field with no safeties in sight. Rodgers hit him for a 34-yard gain. That was a receiver and quarterback on the same page.
Or like late in the second quarter, when Adams made the key catch on the touchdown drive that put the Packers ahead for good. It was a fade route down the sidelines, and Adams made the contested 20-yard catch over Dunbar. That’s the kind of pass he’d been missing or dropping this season.
No laughing matter
Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix had the kind of game against Washington that the Packers will need this weekend from their secondary to slow down the NFL’s top-rated offense.
He made three big plays in a span of four snaps of a game-turning sequence in the first quarter.
The first was when he hustled and pushed explosive DeSean Jackson out of bounds just before the goal line on a play that originally was ruled a touchdown but was overturned on replay.
Then on first and goal from inside the 1, Clinton-Dix and linebacker Jake Ryan flew in behind defensive lineman Letroy Guion’s penetration to drop running back Alfred Morris for about a half-yard loss.
And on third-and-goal from the 7, Clinton-Dix in zone coverage closed on receiver Pierre Garcon and reached over his shoulder to break up the pass in the end zone. That stand saved the Packers four points and was a pivotal moment in the game.
Other than the safety he gave up early in the game, JC Tretter held up well at left tackle in place of injured David Bakhtiari (ankle). Tretter is listed at 307 pounds, and you wonder if he’s even that heavy. So he has some trouble anchoring, as happened when Preston Smith overpowered him on the safety. But he has much better feet than Don Barclay or Josh Sitton, the two previous replacements for Bakhtiari, so he’s able to steer outside rushers past Rodgers even when they initially beat him around the edge. It’s unclear whether Bakhtiari will be back this week. If not, Tretter is a viable option, though Arizona’s 35-year-old Dwight Freeney surely will be ready with his full arsenal of rush moves.
Ladarius Gunter, the Packers’ undrafted rookie cornerback, put in a credible performance in the first extended playing time of his career Sunday. Gunter replaced Quinten Rollins (quad injury) in the third quarter and played 31 snaps. He helped clinch the game by breaking up a third-and-10 pass to Pierre Garcon with 5:02 left in the game. With Shields’ and Rollins’ health in doubt, Gunter might see extended playing time this weekend.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1