Last year, the Green Bay Packers could have counted on Julius Peppers to come through in a game like this.
With no Clay Matthews and thin at cornerback Sunday, the Packers needed someone on their defensive front to punish the Indianapolis Colts at their weak spot, the offensive line.
But no one did in the Packers' 31-26 loss. Not Nick Perry, who’d had a strong season up to Sunday. Not Kyler Fackrell, the third-round draft pick who took some of Matthews’ snaps on passing downs. Not Datone Jones, who plays outside linebacker primarily on early downs.
And not Peppers.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers clearly was looking for Peppers to summon a difference-making performance from his 36-year-old body, and it just wasn’t there. Peppers played 50 snaps, which was 74 percent of the defense’s total. In the first seven games, he’d played 48 percent of the defensive snaps.
He made minimal impact. It showed on the stat sheet, where Peppers registered only one mark, an assisted tackle. And it showed on the game video. Perhaps one play summed up his and the Packers defense’s day best.
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It came with just less than two minutes left in the first half with the Colts facing third-and-2 from their 45. With a stop, the Packers would get back the ball and a chance to cut into a seven-point deficit at the end of the half. This was one of several key moments in the game that called for someone to make a play.
The Colts ran a read-option look. That left the right end, in this case Peppers, unblocked. On a read option, quarterback Andrew Luck reads him. If Peppers holds his ground, Luck hands off. If Peppers goes straight for the running back, then Luck keeps the ball and runs for the corner.
But Luck didn’t give Peppers much of a look, which suggests the play might have been a planned hand-off from a read-option set. Either way, Peppers took a step upfield while Luck immediately handed to Turbin. Peppers then went for Turbin and had a clean shot at about the line of scrimmage. Turbin slipped through the tackle and picked up seven yards and the first down.
The Colts went on to score a touchdown with 11 seconds left in the half. Instead of a deficit of seven points or less, the Packers were down 14. A huge swing in the game.
The play was there for Peppers to make, but he didn’t have the explosiveness to make it. He also was in for several of the following seven plays and like the rest of the pass rush didn’t get anywhere near Luck. On one play, center Ryan Kelly stood him up off the snap, and that was it.
Capers had to be careful how much he blitzed while playing with two backup cornerbacks in the game, so he couldn’t send his safeties and inside linebackers down after down. He sent them occasionally, but they had to help in coverage.
So facing an offensive line that had given up a league-high 31 sacks coming into the game, the Packers’ defensive front needed to come up big. It didn’t produce. Mike Daniels got some decent push up the middle, but it was surprising to see nobody getting off blocks against an undermanned line. The outside rushers — Peppers, Perry, Fackrell, Jones — offered little on a night when Luck was sacked only twice.
And giving Luck time to throw was one of the differences in this game.
Just the week before at Atlanta, the Packers at times used Jordy Nelson as a pseudo tight end in their four- and five-receiver personnel groups. It worked.
Remember his 58-yard catch in the first quarter against the Falcons? Nelson had lined up in the slot just a few yards from left tackle David Bakhtiari. That’s close enough to be tight end territory. Then he ran a deep route through the middle of the field, got wide open and turned it into a big play.
Against Indianapolis, coach Mike McCarthy went back to using tight end Richard Rodgers a lot. Rodgers played 49 of 69 snaps a week after he’d played about half that (26 of 62) at Atlanta. He and Justin Perillo combined for 71 snaps against the Colts after getting 29 against the Falcons.
Rodgers had 10 targets, second most on the team, and averaged 10.7 yards on his six catches. McCarthy clearly saw the middle of the field as an area he wanted to attack against the Colts’ predominantly man-to-man coverage, and Rodgers was a big part of that plan.
The problem is, Rodgers isn’t much of a threat after the catch. So it makes you wonder whether using Nelson more like the Packers did against Atlanta, lining up almost as a tight end and running routes over the middle of the field, might be the better option.
Nelson isn’t as big as a tight end, but he’s big for a receiver (6-3, 217). He can’t block like a tight end, so the Packers’ can’t ask him to. But for all the limits that places on play calling and the run game, he has the size and ability to work the middle of the field, and he can do way more than Rodgers or Perillo after the catch.
At age 31 and coming off ACL surgery, Nelson hasn’t shown the speed this season to outrun defensive backs down the field. He’s getting open on posts and crosses because of his route-running skills, but playing as an outside receiver might not be his best position anymore. Using him more often from a tight end-like position might be a way to get the most out of him now.
» Corey Linsley looked fairly sharp for a guy who hadn’t played in a game since January and had been back practicing for only three weeks coming off a severe hamstring injury in the offseason. Linsley started at center in place of injured JC Tretter and looked good with protection organization and no glaring mistakes in the passing game. That’s the first place rust shows up. His run blocking was adequate — he got some push at times and at minimum didn’t get moved back. That’s a good starting point after his long layoff.
» Unless punter Jacob Schum implodes, the Packers should stick with him for the rest of the season. He had his share of bad punts in the first half of the season as Tim Masthay's replacement, but he’s been a little better recently and had a good game Sunday. He averaged 48.3 yards gross, including hitting a 64-yarder, and the coverage units gave up only three yards on two returns. The Packers might as well ride him out the rest of the season to see how he develops. Among other things it would keep their field-goal operation intact, because he’s the holder.
Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week during the season. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1