Lack of pressure dooms Packers' defense

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty
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The Green Bay Packers’ defense Sunday wasn’t much better than a stiff wind.

Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews (52) knocks down Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2)  during the 1st quarter of the Green Bay Packers NFC Championship game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia on Sunday, January 22, 2017.

Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons moved the ball almost at will in an NFC championship game that exposed all the Packers’ shortcomings that had cropped up periodically during the season.

The NFL is a passing game, so to play good defense you have to either get pressure on the quarterback or cover well. We saw during their four-game losing streak and again Sunday, the Packers in their 2016 incarnation did neither.

That’s how you end up with a defense that finished No. 31 in the NFL in passing yards allowed and could barely muster a fight while allowing the Falcons to put up 44 points with a Super Bowl trip on the line.

Starting with the lack of pressure, the Packers’ best pass rushers, Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers, are old.

At 30, Matthews is hardly ancient, and it’s difficult to say how much of the drop-off in his performance is from the shoulder injury that he played through but will require surgery in the offseason. We won’t know for sure how much it affected him until he’s healthy and playing in a game.

But aside from that, his long history of hamstring problems very well might be taking a toll on his speed and quickness now that he’s into his 30s. He’s the Packers’ highest-paid defense player – he’s scheduled to make $11.1 million in salary and bonuses next season – and they need big plays from him. They didn’t get many this year.

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He now has gone without double-digit sacks in back-to-back seasons, and he actually had more sacks (6 ½) while playing mostly as an inside linebacker in 2015 than this season (five in 13 games) as an outside linebacker. The outside linebackers are the key rushers in coordinator Dom Capers’ defense. Capers moved Matthews all around Sunday trying to give him an edge as a rusher, but Matthews’ ended up with three hits on Ryan and nothing close to a sack.

The Packers have some hard thinking to do here. Do they project that after surgery he’ll come back and at age 31 be a double-digit sacker again? Do they move him back to inside linebacker and acquire a younger replacement for the outside? Or do they approach Matthews with a plan to cut back his playing time at outside linebacker, in hopes that less is more, but with a commensurate cut in pay?

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As for Peppers, he proved to be an excellent signing by Ted Thompson on one of the general manager’s rare forays into the open market. For $26 million over three years, Peppers provided the Packers an eye-catching talent (6-feet-7, 287 pounds), a highly respected veteran’s presence in the locker room and 25 sacks. He gave them their money’s worth.

But this season his performance dropped a notch. He turned 37 last week, and it’s remarkable that he played at the level he has. But now it’s time for the Packers to thank him profusely and move on. Time stops for no one, and they need younger and more athletic pass rushers.

At cornerback, Sam Shields on Sunday said he’s still experiencing concussion symptoms four months since his season ended in Week 1. He wants to continue playing, but how can that happen considering his concussion history? It’s hard to see any way he’s in the Packers’ future.

Without him this season, the Packers’ coverage went AWOL. Against the Falcons, none of the Packers’ cornerbacks looked like a starting NFL player.

Damarious Randall certainly has the physical ability to play the position well. The second-year pro is springy and fast, and he has the instincts to play the ball in the air.

He also had a disastrous second season in which he was usually injured (groin, shoulder, knee, foot) and often beaten. Simply put, he looks like his confidence is shot.

Sunday provided a sight that was commonplace this season. On a first down late in the first quarter, Randall spotted receiver Mohamed Sanu a huge cushion (10 yards), allowed an uncontested 15-yard reception on an out pattern, then shook his head, shrugged his shoulders and turned his palms up like he couldn’t believe what happened.

This offseason, Randall first needs to get healthy. Then he needs to rediscover the swagger that the Packers liked so much when they drafted him in the first round in 2015. Guys like Shields and Tramon Williams gave up their share of plays – all cornerbacks do – but their mind-set was that they’d make the next play. Randall seems to have lost that after his promising rookie season.

LaDarius Gunter actually played the best of the Packers’ cornerbacks this year, but his physical limitations are real. That was never more evident than against Atlanta’s Julio Jones, the NFL’s best receiver.

The Packers matched Gunter with Jones and provided constant safety help over the top. Capers wasn’t going to let Jones beat him over the top. But it didn’t matter, because Gunter (4.69-second 40) couldn’t keep up with Jones on crossing routes. If Ryan had wanted he could have thrown to Jones over the middle on almost every play.

For instance, on Jones’ 73-yard catch-and-run slant for a touchdown early in the third quarter, he beat Gunter off the line, ran through a Gunter hold on his break and then pulled away from Gunter’s diving tackle attempt. Granted, Jones dominates a lot of corners one-on-one in this league. He’s a great player. But those plays over the middle where there all day for him (nine catches, 180 yards) even against double coverage. The difference in physical ability was astounding.

Quinten Rollins missed five of 19 games (groin, neck/concussion) and was not much of a factor for big chunks of his second season. He was invisible on 19 snaps Sunday. He’s not a burner either (4.57-second 40), and you have to wonder if his future is at safety, not cornerback.

As we saw Sunday, the Packers have plenty of needs to address, but Thompson’s list has to start with pass rushers and cover men.

The new blitz

Falcons coach Dan Quinn, a defensive coordinator by trade, clearly studied the Packers’ videotape against Dallas from the divisional round of the playoffs.

He saw quarterback Aaron Rodgers pick apart the Cowboys early when Dallas tried to contain him in the pocket and play coverage. And he saw the Cowboys have some success when they started blitzing, especially with defensive backs off the edge.

And so that’s how the Falcons attacked Rodgers from the start Sunday. A key, tone-setting play was a third-down blitz on the Packers’ first possession that forced Rodgers to throw the ball away. On that one, linebacker Deion Jones ran a delayed blitz in the A gap. Jones is explosive for a linebacker (4.59 40) and was on Rodgers fast because he was unblocked. That ended a promising drive with a (missed) field-goal attempt rather than a touchdown and showed Quinn that blitzing could work.

Several times Quinn blitzed rookie cornerback Brian Poole off the slot, and Poole had two brutal hits on Rodgers in the first half. One came on a third down and forced a punt, the other was a blind-side shot that caused Rodgers head to snap and instantly put him on the ground. The quarterback popped up immediately, but he had to be feeling it Monday.

So now the Packers know what to prepare for in the offseason. The old book on Rodgers was rush to contain, play coverage and hope he holds the ball. But after the way he played during the Packers’ eight-game winning streak, the new one probably will be sending smaller, athletic blitzers at him.

Extra point

First-round pick Kenny Clark’s improvement in the middle of the defensive line by season’s end revealed real talent and promise for the future.

He was young coming out of college – he turned 21 in October – and had played well at that level since his true freshman season because of his foot speed and natural core strength. But as an NFL rookie he was going against players who have been in the weight room for four, five or six more years than him.

He had trouble getting off blocks for much of the season, in part because he might have been concentrating more on the techniques he now needed to win more than actually shedding the block. But as the skills became more second nature late in the season, he began to flash more ability and closed the season with a credible performance if modest stats (two tackles) in 31 snaps against the Falcons.

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