The Green Bay Packers don't have one of the NFL's top run-stopping front sevens.
But they have an asset in their secondary, as they showed Sunday in their win over the Detroit Lions, that can help their run defense in the playoffs: their cornerback play.
The Packers on Sunday faced the NFL's greatest receiving weapon, Calvin Johnson, who this season has the best complementary receiver of his career in free agent Golden Tate. They are a dangerous duo.
Yet the Packers kept them mostly in check in their 30-20 win Sunday even though defensive coordinator Dom Capers generally played only one safety deep and the other near the line of scrimmage to support the run.
While the Lions were regularly deploying true bracket coverage against Packers receiver Jordy Nelson — that is, a cornerback underneath him and a safety playing directly over the top — the Packers often only shaded a lone safety toward Johnson. Not a true double team.
That put enormous responsibility on outside cornerbacks Sam Shields and Tramon Williams to cover Johnson and Tate, and the two defensive backs came through with one of their best games of the season. Johnson caught only four of 11 targeted passes, and for only 39 yards. Tate caught three of five targets for 45 yards.
No downfield completions and less than 100 yards total for one of the top receiving tandems in the game. That's a banner day for any secondary.
If Shields and Williams hadn't held up, Capers probably would have kept both safeties deep more often to protect against big plays. Instead, Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix were able to take turns lining up at the linebacker level and defending the run.
That's important, because there's a good chance the Packers will face the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round of the playoffs in two weeks. The Cowboys have the NFL's leading rusher in DeMarco Murray, and one of the game's most talented big receivers in Dez Bryant. If Shields and Williams can hold up against Johnson, they have a chance of doing the same against Bryant, which gives Capers a better shot at slowing Murray in the run game.
A look at the game video shows that Shields and Williams played well Sunday from early on.
Late in the first quarter, for instance, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford tried to hit Johnson on a quick slant that the receiver had a chance of turning into a catch and big run. But Williams, playing off a couple yards, read the route, and with veteran savvy undercut Johnson just off his back hip and knocked away the pass. He had help from Burnett over the top, but Williams played the kind of tight coverage that characterized the game.
Not much later, early in the second quarter, Johnson lined up on the other side, next to Tate and across from Shields. The Packers had this play scouted and coached well, because when Johnson came off the line Shields immediately played hard to the inside and ran stride for stride with Johnson on a short crossing route.
Stafford was looking that way, but the coverage was too tight for a quick throw, and then defensive lineman Mike Daniels pressured the quarterback out of the pocket. Stafford ended up throwing to Johnson on the sidelines, but Shields was there and the pass in fact was a throw away. It was third-and-11, so the incompletion got the Packers' defense off the field.
Later, in the third quarter, Stafford tried to hit Johnson to his left on a quick post. But Shields jammed him at the line, threw off the timing, and Stafford's bullet throw was over-led and incomplete.
And halfway through the fourth quarter, with the Lions still down only two scores (16 points), Stafford took a deep shot to Johnson against Shields. Burnett was the lone deep safety, shaded toward Johnson but not close enough for bracket coverage. It didn't matter, because Shields ran just ahead of Johnson the entire route and had a better shot at the ball than the receiver. The pass fell as a harmless incompletion.
Now, it wasn't a perfect day for the Packers' corners. Johnson caught two touchdown passes. One was a 20-yarder against two-deep zone coverage, with Micah Hyde losing him underneath and Burnett unable to close quickly enough on Stafford's strong throw. The other was a 4-yard fade over Williams in the corner of the end zone, though that's an incredibly tough one-on-one cover against a receiver who's 6-feet-5 and has a 421/2-inch vertical jump.
Johnson also had maybe a step on Shields and was well behind Burnett, who took a bad angle, on a deep post early in the second quarter. But Stafford overthrew.
Still, it was a good day for Shields and Williams overall. And if they can cover like that with primarily single-safety help in the playoffs against a team such as Dallas or Seattle, then Capers will have a better chance of keeping Murray or Marshawn Lynch from beating the Packers on the ground.
NOWHERE TO HYDE
Micah Hyde keeps showing that he's better than a lot of NFL return men who have far more impressive 40-yard dash times.
Hyde's 55-yarder Sunday was his second punt return for a touchdown this season and third of his two-year career.
Hyde's 4.56-second 40 is on the slower side for an NFL returner, but as he showed again Sunday he compensates because he's a decisive north-south runner.
You rarely see Hyde going east and west on a punt return. He catches it and almost immediately heads straight up field. That takes guts and good vision.
It's effective because the cover team is barreling down at full speed and has trouble breaking down and changing directions. If a returner runs toward the sideline, even for only a couple steps, that gives the cover men time to slow down and take good angles.
Watch Lions fullback Jed Collins on Hyde's touchdown Sunday. He was the one Lions player who had a decent shot at Hyde, about seven yards into the return. But Hyde went right at him, made a subtle cut inside, and Collins was running too fast to react. He whiffed, and Hyde went untouched for the score.
— For the second time this season, coach Mike McCarthy got a little too smart with goal-line play calling, and it again cost the Packers points.
The first was at New Orleans two months ago, when outside linebacker Julius Peppers came on for a goal-line play and dropped a quick slant on a hard throw from Aaron Rodgers. The Packers ended up kicking a field goal.
On Sunday, the Packers took their first drive down the field, and on first-and-goal from the 1 lined up fullback John Kuhn and tight end Andrew Quarless in the backfield.
Normally when Kuhn gets carries near the goal line, he lines up maybe two yards behind the line of scrimmage as an apparent lead blocker for Eddie Lacy or James Starks. When Kuhn gets the handoff, it's a quick hitter.
But this time, Kuhn was five yards behind the line, and Quarless was the lead blocker. McCarthy gave Kuhn the ball, and the Lions, who have the NFL's No. 1-ranked run defense, stuffed him for no gain. The Packers then ran two failed pass plays, and went for it on fourth down with a Lacy run that the Lions also stuffed. No points.
McCarthy can rightly say that had offensive lineman JC Tretter, playing as an extra tight end, not fanned on his block on Ziggy Ansah, the play probably would have been a touchdown.
Also, you have to keep in mind the factors that go into given play calls that outsiders can't know. NFL coaches have reams of information about tendencies — their own and the defense's. They sometimes use formations, personnel and plays that don't make much sense to outsiders but that have a purpose, either for an element of surprise, to break a tendency, or to set up a different play for later.
But Kuhn is the Packers' slowest back, so running him from that deep and near the goal line, where things happen fast, was strange. Lacy is their most powerful runner and might have found a way to score, missed block or not. If he was unavailable for whatever reason, Starks was still a much better option.
— It appears the Packers are cutting back on outside linebacker Julius Peppers' snaps late this season. They haven't reported him as injured or ill, so it likely means they're trying to keep the 34-year-old fresh for their biggest games.
Peppers played less than half the Packers' defensive snaps Sunday — 33 of 69. He didn't have any sacks but knocked down two passes and had several quarterback pressures, mostly with bull rushes that collapsed the edge of the pocket.
Last week against Tampa Bay, he played only 31 of 63 defensive snaps. So for the past two games, Peppers has played 48.5 percent of the defensive snaps (64 of 132), which is down from his season's average of 73.9 percent.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty