Packers' run defense starting to catch on
The Green Bay Packers beat the Miami Dolphins on Sunday with an Aaron Rodgers-led, classic touchdown drive in the final 2 minutes.
But there were other factors that also made for the Packers' 27-24 win, and one of them was a run defense that has been much stouter the past two weeks after a terrible start to the season. That included the Packers' critical goal-line stand in the first quarter that kept seven points off the board.
Going into Sunday, it looked as though the Dolphins would have a big edge running the ball. They had the NFL's fifth-ranked run offense in rushing yards and average yards per carry, and starting halfback Knowshon Moreno was returning from injury; the Packers ranked last in the league in rushing yards allowed and No. 24 in yards allowed per carry.
But the Packers' play Sunday suggests they might be adapting to defensive coordinator Dom Capers' new one-gap defensive scheme after operating in his two-gap system the previous five years.
The strongest forces behind the Packers' run play Sunday were defensive linemen Letroy Guion and Mike Daniels. There was nothing great about their stats (three tackles combined), but they played the scheme better than they had early in the season, and that helped everybody else.
In the first three or four games, there were too many snaps in which the Packers' defensive linemen shot through gaps but left a running lane behind them. They were going around their blocker and getting too far up field.
Against the Dolphins, though, there were plenty of snaps in which Guion or Daniels got up field but took the blocker with them. They didn't just go around the guy, they got some push, too. That blocked running lanes and allowed other players to make the tackle at or behind the line.
That was most evident, and most important, on the goal-line stand in the first quarter.
Shortly after the Dolphins had blocked a punt, they faced fourth-and-goal from the 1. They ran Moreno into the heart of the line, but Guion blew up the play by crashing through the gap between right guard Mike Pouncey and the right tackle who was supposed to block him, Ju'Wuan James. At the same time, Daniels got underneath his man, center Samson Satele, and fought him to a stalemate in the middle of the line, with A.J. Hawk filling a gap next to him.
Guion crashed through so quickly that he and James fell as a road block at the 3, right in front of Moreno just after the running back had taken the handoff. Guion's move made room for safety Morgan Burnett to come off his flank unblocked, and linebacker Jamari Lattimore to fill in unblocked behind him. They dropped Moreno for a 2-yard loss that kept seven points off the board.
Another player who's added something to the Packers' run defense the past couple weeks is outside linebacker Nick Perry, who made two important plays in his limited time (13 defensive snaps) Sunday.
The first was early in the second quarter, on a first down from the Dolphins' 27. Miami ran Moreno to Perry's side, but Perry brushed off left guard Daryn Colledge's block and hit Moreno 2 yards deep in the backfield. Moreno bounced off the tackle, but he gave up ground to keep his feet, and a swarm of Packers defenders led by safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix buried him for a 9-yard loss. Two plays later, on third-and-12, cornerback Casey Hayward intercepted quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Perry's other play was later in the second quarter, on third-and-8 from the Dolphins' 34. Tannehill ran a quarterback draw, had a big alley in the middle of the line and appeared on his way to picking up the first down. But Perry read the draw from his left outside linebacker spot, dived and tripped up Tannehill just enough to stop him 2 yards short of the first down. That ended the drive.
Miami's one-two punch of Moreno and Lamar Miller finished the game with only 63 yards rushing on 20 carries. Miller had a good run for 14 yards late in the third quarter, and Tannehill had a 40-yard run on a read option, but overall the Packers' run defense did the job.
Reading the option
The Packers have had big problems with good read-option quarterbacks — see Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson — so it will be worth watching outside linebacker Clay Matthews this week against Carolina's Cam Newton, who might be the most dangerous running quarterback of them all.
Matthews is aggressive and makes plays because of his speed and athleticism. But playing that way can come at a cost, and against the Dolphins that was two read-option runs by Tannehill.
On both, Matthews crashed hard down the line on fake handoffs going away from him. But Tannehill read him, kept the ball and had a wide open field in the area Matthews vacated. The first didn't cause much damage, because cornerback Davon House chased Tannehill out of bounds for a 3-yard gain. But the other, early in the second quarter, turned into a 40-yard run that set up a Miami touchdown.
Newton isn't surrounded by weapons as good as Tannehill's, but he's a huge, fast man. He's rushed for 2,181 yards in his 53 NFL games, and last week against Cincinnati he finally looked like he's back to full strength (107 yards rushing on 17 carries) after being slowed early in the season by post-surgical ankle and a rib injury sustained in training camp.
■ The Packers are one of the NFL's few teams that can lose both starting cornerbacks to injury and not go into panic.
After Sam Shields (knee) and Tramon Williams (ankle) left the game in the third quarter, the Packers still were OK with Casey Hayward and Davon House as their starters. Not saying they're as good as Shields and Williams, but they're ascending players who had shown their skills in the first half.
House had a big pass breakup in the end zone on receiver Brian Hartline the play before the fourth-down, goal-line stop in the first quarter. House in fact probably should have intercepted that pass.
Hayward's interception came early in the second quarter, on a third-and-long. He read Tannehill's eyes in zone coverage, dropped of his man and made an athletic, leaping catch.
Yes, Miami scored 21 points in the second half, and Tannehill had more success throwing than in the first half (137 yards to 84 yards). But most teams would be in much worse shape if they lost both starters, and the Packers should be able to function on defense this week if Shields and Williams can't play.
Also, though Jarrett Bush finished the game as the No. 3 cornerback, there's a good chance safety Micah Hyde will take over that slot role if both starters are out. Hyde held up in that role last year as a rookie when Hayward was injured, and the Packers are covered at safety with first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who's playing more than Hyde anyway.
■ Sometimes injuries help NFL teams, and that might be the case for the Packers at receiver. Jarrett Boykin's groin injury has forced them to play second-round pick more than they would have otherwise, and Adams is growing quickly as the No. 3 receiver.
His eight targets and six catches against Miami were career highs, and he showed good awareness on Aaron Rodgers' fake-spike call that set up the game-winning touchdown. Adams still will make some mistakes that Boykin wouldn't as the season goes on, but he's also more talented and will be the more formidable receiver later in the season.
Adams really is a James Jones-type receiver, not a burner, but a bigger, physical player who runs well after the catch. That's a big part of the Packers' offense. They like to throw quick hitches outside and give their receiver a chance to break a tackle and pick up a few yards or more. They did it a lot with Jones, do it a lot with Jordy Nelson, and look like they'll be able to use Adams that way as well.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty