Let’s not mince words: The Philadelphia Eagles eviscerated the Green Bay Packers’ starting defense in their preseason matchup Saturday night.
Let’s also face reality: This was a preseason game that doesn’t count in the standings and that saw the Packers use only their most basic defensive calls.
The question, which lacks a definitive answer, is what to make of it.
The defense’s wholly uninspired performance — it gave up 39 points and 325 yards in the first half — in part might have been a hangover from receiver Jordy Nelson’s season-ending injury last week against Pittsburgh. Some of the team’s key veterans very well might have been questioning the value of preseason games, as quarterback Aaron Rodgers did immediately after that game, and that could have bled into their performance Saturday night.
But if you’re looking for the Packers’ potential concerns as the start of the regular season nears, there were a couple possibilities there also. In particular, it was startling to see defensive linemen B.J. Raji and Mike Daniels pushed around in the middle of the line several times in the first half – Daniels was coming off an ankle injury that had sidelined him for two weeks. And the Eagles’ brisk no-huddle offense repeatedly picked on linebacker Sam Barrington and nickel cornerback Micah Hyde in pass coverage.
Daniels and Raji were the two interior linemen in the Packers’ nickel defense on 17 snaps in the first half. The Eagles flushed them out of the way with one-on-one blocks on several solid, drive-churning runs ranging from five to eight yards.
Now, Daniels had been out 15 days with the ankle injury, so it wasn’t a minor sprain. He also added about 10 pounds in the offseason to get stronger and stouter. It’s hard to know whether it was all because of the injury and rust of being out for two weeks, or if the added weight also is a factor. But Daniels didn’t show anything like his usual quickness and power in his first preseason appearance this year.
Raji this offseason actually has dropped somewhere from five to 10 pounds from his previous 337-pound playing weight. He’d been having a good camp in practices, including one-on-one pass rushing drills. But on Saturday night he also was unable to hold the middle on a number of plays.
For instance, both players were washed out on DeMarco Murray’s first two runs of the game, for five and eight yards. And again on Murray’s next inside run, on the next series on first-and-10 from the Packers’ 21, which went for six yards when left guard Allen Barbre and center Jason Kelce pushed Daniels and Raji out of the play.
The truth is, second-year pro Mike Pennel had a better night than either of them. Pennel doesn’t offer much yet as a pass rusher, but he’s looking like the Packers’ best defensive lineman against the run.
Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford also found favorable matchups with Barrington and Hyde in coverage for several big plays.
Barrington is a true thumper in run defense, but he looked unusually slow in recognizing and reacting to pass plays Saturday night, which has to concern the Packers because at least for now he’s their every-down inside linebacker.
It started on the game’s first touchdown, an eight-yard wheel route to running back Darren Sproles. Barrington took a bad angle straight at the sidelines rather than aiming up field, and Sproles blew past him for the easy catch.
Then on Bradford’s seven-yard touchdown pass to tight end Brent Celek on a short post route near the end of first quarter, Barrington didn’t start moving his feet until Celek was on him. Barrington should have recognized pass as soon as Celek broke the line of scrimmage. Linebackers in those situations are supposed to look for work, and if there are no pass patterns in front of them they need to get depth. If Barrington had reacted more quickly, he could have dropped deeper and at minimum made the play tougher by forcing Celek off his route. Instead, it was an easy pitch and catch in the back of the end zone.
Also, on a short crossing route to Sproles late in the first quarter on a first down from the Eagles’ 41, Barrington for some reason backpedaled rather than turning and running. Barrington nearly fell, and Sproles turned the short catch into a 33-yard gain that led to another touchdown.
Granted, it’s a mismatch for Barrington to cover a dynamic back such as Sproles, and in a regular-season game defensive coordinator Dom Capers will do everything he can to avoid that matchup. But still, Barrington didn’t even give himself a chance.
Hyde has been a good, smart, instinctive player for two-plus seasons in the NFL, but he had trouble keeping up with the Eagles’ receivers Saturday night.
Talented second-year pro Jordan Matthews twice beat him for nice gains on deep out patterns that set up touchdowns — a 27-yarder on the Eagles’ second possession and a 17-yarder on their third possession. On both, Hyde gave it his all but didn’t have enough left to go after the ball as it arrived, which allowed Matthews to make the reception relatively unencumbered.
Also, in the second quarter receiver Jeff Maehl outran Hyde by several yards on a short crossing route that he turned into a nine-yard touchdown.
Hyde has played good football for the Packers, and nobody’s writing him off as an important player. Same for Barrington, who helped upgrade the Packers’ run defense when he and Clay Matthews replaced Brad Jones and A.J. Hawk as the starting inside linebackers last year.
But both had rough nights Saturday that other teams will see on videotape and attack early in the season. And with the strong play of draft picks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins in camp so far, Hyde could be in a season-long battle to win and then hold that nickel cornerback job.
Special teams gaffes
The Packers had eight penalties on special teams, and punter Tim Masthay had another shaky night, but that was only part of the story on new coordinator Ron Zook’s group.
The Packers also had three punt returns in which they had the wrong number of players on the field. On the first, in the middle of the second quarter, they were penalized for 12 men on the field. On the re-punt, the Packers then had only 10 players on the field. And on the Eagles’ first punt of the second half, the Packers also had only 10 players on the field.
No doubt the logistics are tough in the preseason with 90-men rosters and the coaching staff wanting a look at as many players as possible. But three plays with the wrong number of players is astounding.
Masthay had four punts that averaged only 37.3 yards and 4.01 seconds of hang time. If doesn’t find his rhythm soon, look for the Packers to bring in competition for him again.
■Josh Walker looked sharp in an extended look at right tackle. He’s been the Packers’ best guard-tackle backup in camp. Among other things, he had a pancake block on defensive end Cedric Thornton that helped spring halfback Rajion Neal for a five-yard gain when the Packers were backed up at their own 3 in the second quarter. Walker looked like he could operate in space at tackle and that the position wasn’t too big for him.
■Don Barclay played noticeably better than in the first two preseason games. He had a holding penalty and gave up at least one pressure at left tackle, but he did fine on run-blocking and held up better than he had as a pass blocker. He’s not a left tackle, but he can play either guard or right tackle, and after he showed progress this week in his return from knee-reconstruction surgery it’s hard to see the Packers cutting him.
■JC Tretter is a given for the 53-man roster as the backup center. So the Packers’ decision on backup guard Lane Taylor probably will come down to whether they keep eight or nine offensive linemen. If it’s nine, Taylor stays.
■Ty Montgomery showed explosiveness when he turned a short crossing route into a 52-yard gain. What stood out was his ability to plant his foot and immediately turn straight up field after the catch. A lot of receivers arc that cut a little bit, but Montgomery got north and south immediately.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1
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