Packers' best defense? It's their offense
The Green Bay Packers have some problems at defensive back that aren’t going away.
Some of it is injury related, some also performance. Regardless, not that much is going to change between now and the end of the NFL playoffs.
So if they’re going to do any damage in the postseason starting this week against the New York Giants, they’ll have to continue a trend that has been a key to their six-game winning streak: Play defense with their offense. Get ahead and let coordinator Dom Capers’ defense play with a lead. Control the ball and keep their defense off the field.
The Packers’ 31-24 win Sunday night at Detroit was the perfect illustration of what a difference it makes when they put up points and play from the lead. The game turned for Capers’ defense over a 6-minute span late in the second quarter and to start the third quarter.
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With 23 seconds left in the half, the Packers trailed 14-7. But they finagled a field goal to end the half, then doubled that up with a touchdown drive to start the third quarter. Suddenly they’re up 17-14, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers was starting to roll. The Lions knew they’d have to keep pace. And that gave Capers’ reeling defense, which would lose three cornerbacks on the night, just enough of an edge.
Look at how it changed the Lions. In the first half, running back Zach Zenner had 16 carries for 63 yards. In the second half, he had four for six. That’s the direct effect of the Packers putting up back-to-back scores and getting ahead. The pressure on Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter spiked, because he was going to go toe-to-toe with the hottest quarterback in the NFL.
The play-action passing game that kept the Packers’ linebackers off balance in the first half was gone in the second. The Lions became a little easier to defend because they were one-dimensional. Capers’ pass rushers could tee off. He could call his favorite blitzes. The Packers knew what was coming.
Would you have guessed that Matthew Stafford actually threw for more yardage in the first half (186 yards), when the Lions ran the ball 17 times, than in the second (151 yards), when they ran only four times?
This is the Packers’ template for the postseason. Their opponents this week, the New York Giants, want a low-scoring, grind-it-out game. If the score is in the teens, the Giants probably win. But if the Packers can get ahead and turn it into more of a shootout, the advantage is theirs, and it’s big.
Playing from behind, the Giants would have to put the ball in quarterback Eli Manning’s hands. He’s had his moments, most notably winning Super Bowl titles in the 2007 and ’11 seasons. But his history generally has been, the more he has to throw it, the more prone he is to interceptions.
Manning finished this season ranked No. 22 in the NFL in passer rating (86.0) and tied for fourth-most interceptions (16). If he has to throw the ball 35 or 40 times, Capers’ defense would get its chances for picks. The Packers have had trouble getting stops this season, but a couple interceptions would change the game.
The X factor will be their secondary. We won’t know until late in the week or maybe game day who’s healthy enough to play. And even then, we won’t know for sure which players Capers will play.
You have to think cornerback Quinten Rollins’ chances are close to nil after he was taken off Ford Field on a stretcher because of a neck injury. Damarious Randall now has three injuries — groin and shoulder going into the Lions game, plus a knee injury that knocked him out of it Sunday. Deep backup Makinton Dorleant has a new knee injury, too. Their status could be shaky.
And to be frank, Capers’ defense might have been a little better with its makeshift secondary than it was when Randall and Rollins were playing. After all the injuries hit, LaDarius Gunter and Micah Hyde played outside cornerback, and safety Morgan Burnett the nickel slot. In dime, rookie safety Kentrell Brice moved up to the other slot, a position he hasn’t played much. But that group held up better than Randall and Rollins did before their injuries.
So you wonder if Capers will stick with Gunter, Hyde and Burnett this week. Or will he use rookie Josh Hawkins, who was inactive Sunday night and hasn’t played much after getting burned early in the season? Our suspicion is Capers will go with Burnett, Hyde and Gunter. At least with Burnett and Hyde, he’ll have veterans who know the scheme well.
There is a downside, of course. Both are safeties for a reason. They’re slower than most cornerbacks and don’t have quite the same cover skills, though Hyde made a textbook interception on a back-shoulder throw in the end zone that clinched the game Sunday night.
Still, Capers will have to plan for some matchups this week.
It starts with Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who ran a 4.43-second 40 at the NFL scouting combine in 2014. He’s among the most dynamic receivers in the league, so Burnett and Hyde could have a really tough time keeping up with him on all the crossing routes, slants and deep patterns he runs. When these teams played on Oct. 9 — the Packers won 23-16 — Capers didn’t match a particular cornerback with Beckham. Randall missed that game, but Rollins and Gunter were healthy.
So maybe Capers plays it the same this time. Or maybe he has Gunter follow Beckham wherever he lines up. Maybe Capers will double Beckham constantly.
But no matter who’s at cornerback for the Packers on Sunday, the best help they can get is from the other side of the ball. If Rodgers stakes the Packers to a lead, that changes everything.
Rookies no more
At this time of year, teams are banged up and need help from players they weren’t playing much in September. The Packers are getting some of that from a few of their rookies, even if it’s in relatively small roles.
On Sunday night, defensive linemen Dean Lowry and Kenny Clark each made the kind of play that can help win a game.
Lowry’s might have gone unnoticed, because it was a sack that was nullified by an offside penalty on Datone Jones. But it still mattered, because it was a free play for the Lions. We’ve seen with Rodgers how dangerous free plays can be — it allows the quarterback a shot downfield without having to care about an interception. Lowry’s sack snuffed out a free shot at the end zone.
Clark knocked down a pass on a first down in the fourth quarter. It didn’t look like much, but it was a good play that wasted a valuable down when the Lions were trying to rally.
On offense, tackle Jason Spriggs replaced injured Bryan Bulaga in the third quarter, and on his first play the Packers ran Ty Montgomery behind him. Spriggs made a good reach block on defensive end Kerry Hyder, which allowed Montgomery to bounce outside for an 11-yard gain. That’s a good play coming in cold off the bench.
The Packers will need more of that to advance in the playoffs.
Montgomery paid a big price for blowing his assignment on a screen pass halfway through the first quarter. The mistake earned him a chewing from Rodgers as they left the field and a spot on the bench for the rest of the half.
If you look at the video, several offensive linemen go out as lead blockers for a screen left, but Montgomery leaked out like it was a middle or right screen. Rodgers had a rusher in his face, and his back-handed flip to Montgomery went incomplete.
Montgomery came back in the second half with seven carries for 37 yards, plus three receptions for 17 yards.
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