Analysis: Poor pass rush at root of Packers' defensive problems

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews (52) gestures to the bench against the Dallas Cowboys Sunday, October 8, 2017 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tx.

Where do you start with this uninspired defensive performance?

Only 10 men on the field and no one notices and calls time out.

Allowing a conversion on third-and-17.

No stops in the final 30 minutes.

No wonder coach Mike McCarthy said after his Green Bay Packers’ 26-17 loss to New Orleans, “I’m particularly disgusted with the second half.”

He was talking about his entire team, but coordinator Dom Capers’ defense deserved calling out.

There was plenty to pick apart after this one, but really, there’s only one place to start: the pass rush.

The Packers’ had almost none Sunday. They sacked Drew Brees once and hit him only three times. The quarterback put up 331 yards in the air. And his two interceptions were strictly the product of tight and aware coverage by Damarious Randall and Davon House. The rush affected neither.

Capers regularly rotated his outside rushers — Clay Matthews (57 snaps), Nick Perry (54), Kyler Fackrell (26) and Chris Odom (21). You have to think that was to keep Matthews and Perry fresh to make a big play or two with the game on the line late, but it didn’t work.

Matthews, in particular, had a lackluster day and forgettable fourth quarter.

On one play in the final 15 minutes, Saints rookie tackle Ryan Ramczyk and backup guard Senio Kelemete moved him four yards off the line of scrimmage with a double-team block that opened the way for running back Mark Ingram’s 23-yard run. On the next play, Matthews couldn’t beat a tight end in pass protection to pressure a Brees throw. And two plays after that, on a big third down, Matthews got nowhere against Ramczyk while Brees comfortably tossed a short pass to that side that converted the first down.

This wasn’t the Clay Matthews who makes game-changing plays. Maybe it’s the accumulation of hamstring injuries over his nine-year career, or maybe it’s just his age (31), but Matthews simply isn’t the explosive pass rusher he was a few years ago. The Saints routinely blocked him with one man and never paid.

And it wasn’t just Matthews. Even Perry’s lone sack on a bull rush was a gift because left tackle Terron Armstead tripped over guard Andrus Peat’s left leg.

Meanwhile, Fackrell and Odom were invisible. The only player who in recent weeks had been getting anything approaching a consistent rush is defensive tackle Mike Daniels.

No doubt Brees is a top-notch quarterback, and a great timing passer who gets the ball out fast. So getting him to the ground is a tough one. But what jumped off the game video is that the Packers rarely even pressured him Sunday. A good pass rush can cover up a lot of weaknesses, but the Packers’ rush didn’t cover up anything Sunday.

It didn’t help that Ahmad Brooks (back) missed his third game because of injury. He’s been a decent rotational rusher when healthy enough to play.

But with or without him, the Packers need help, and they need it now. Their best hope at this point is that Vince Biegel can come off PUP and add a little playmaking and inspiration. The fourth-round pick can’t get on the field soon enough. He started practicing last week and could make his NFL debut against Detroit after the Packers’ bye this week.

Magnifying the pass-rush shortcomings is one of the mysteries of the Packers’ defense this season, the play of safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. The fourth-round pro went to the Pro Bowl last year, but he’s not playing anything like a Pro Bowler this year.

Last week safeties coach Darren Perry hinted that Clinton-Dix has been playing hurt, but the safety hasn’t been on the Packers’ injury report. Whatever the reason, he has been giving up plays he didn’t in 2016.

Two that jumped out as emblematic Sunday were an apparent missed coverage and a completion where he turned down a chance to attack the ball.

On the former, a third down halfway through the second quarter, Clinton-Dix directed Josh Jones before the snap. But then in zone coverage, he went to the same receiver he’d pointed Jones to cover and allowed tight end Coby Fleener to run uncovered through his own zone for an easy 17-yard gain.

On the latter, a third-and-nine in the third quarter, Daniels got one of the Packers’ three quarterback hits just as Brees released the ball. The throw downfield was a wobbler, which gave Clinton-Dix a chance to break it up and get the defense off the field. Clinton-Dix was in position a few yards behind receiver Mike Thomas to attack the ball, but instead, he hesitated, then played for the tackle after the catch.

The Saints scored a touchdown two plays later.

Capers won’t be facing offenses this good every week. Brees is a top quarterback, and the Saints are on a roll (four straight wins).

But if this was the Packers’ real defense, they’re going to have a tough time beating anyone without Aaron Rodgers.

Confidence game

If Brett Hundley wanted to see the timing and speed it takes to play quarterback in the NFL, all he had to do was look at the guy across the field.

By NFL standards, Brees is short (6-0 ¼) and a tick slow (4.85-second 40 in 2001). Yet his abilities to make quick reads and anticipation throws set him apart as a future Pro Football Hall of Famer.

No one would expect that from Hundley in his first NFL start, but Hundley also didn’t play with the confidence you might expect from a third-year pro. His timing too often was a tick slow.

The play that stood out most was his deep shot to Jordy Nelson in the second quarter. Nelson had slipped behind two Saints defenders, but after Hundley’s play-action fake he paused at the bottom of his dropback and then launched the ball. If he’d pulled the trigger immediately he would have had a shot at a 61-yard touchdown, but instead his bomb was a little short and broken up by cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

Same thing on an out to Nelson in the second quarter. It was a timing route in which Nelson took a few jabs steps in and then broke to the sideline. The ball should have come out as soon as Nelson planted his foot before breaking out. But Hundley held it a tick long. The incompletion didn’t matter because of offsetting penalties, but Hundley has to be quicker on those kinds of throws.

We probably will need four games to fairly assess Hundley. In his starting debut he didn’t make any big mistakes, threw the ball away smartly several times and showed confidence in his legs (three runs for 44 yards).

But he also didn’t make many plays and lacked confidence in his reads and arm (39.9 rating).

If you thought the third-year pro would play better, you weren’t alone. But he now has the bye week to regroup.

Extra points

» Rookie cornerback Kevin King is a better tackler than advertised. Several times this season he has shown the athleticism to close fast and the willingness to make the hit. On Sunday that was evident on the Saints’ first play. Brees hit Mark Ingram with a pass in the flat, and King looked like a safety filling from seven yards deep to drop him for only a one-yard gain.

» Second-year defensive tackle Kenny Clark continues to impress with his ability to take on double-team blocks and his motor in pursuing plays outside his area. Late in the second quarter Sunday he made a hustle play that won’t show up on the stat sheet but got the defense off the field.

On a short swing pass to halfback Alvin Kamara on a third-and-five, the 314-pound Clark’s pursuit kept Kamara from converting the first down. If Clark hadn’t been on Kamara’s tail, the running back could have paused while Ramczyk wiped out safety Jones ahead of him. But Kamara had to run hard to the sideline to beat Clark, and that allowed Jones to evade the block and knock the back out of bounds short of the first down.

Grade card

Quarterback: First-time starter Brett Hundley made plays with his legs but not his arm. This is a passing league. Grade: C-

Offensive line: With starting tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga back, this group was fine but didn’t have enough to put its new quarterback in a comfort zone. Grade: C

Running back: Aaron Jones (131 yards, 7.7-yard average) was impressive with the ball in his hands and had a couple good blocks in protection, too. But Ty Montgomery had a forgettable day (four carries for 6 yards). Grade: B+

Wide receiver: Six catches among Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison doesn’t get it done. Hundley bears the bulk of the responsibility, but the receivers weren’t exactly running free, either. Grade: C.

Tight end: Martellus Bennett’s run blocking was good more often than not, but he dropped another pass that went unnoticed because of an interference penalty. Grade: C

Defensive line: Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark are playing the run well between the tackles, and Daniels is getting some pressure up the middle. But this defense needs more from him and Clark as rushers. Grade: C.

Linebackers: If it wasn’t for Blake Martinez (13 tackles) on the inside, this might be an F. Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Kyler Fackrell and Chris Odom provided minimal outside rush and generally didn’t set a strong edge against the run. Grade: C-

Cornerbacks: Two interceptions on Drew Brees makes for a good day. Both Davon House and Damarious Randall made plays that usually would win a game. Grade: B

Safeties: Too many uncontested throws over the middle and too many players left uncovered for a Pro Bowler like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to give up. Rookie Josh Jones had a rough day against the run as an inside linebacker. Grade: D+

Special teams: Mason Crosby hit all his makeable kicks and Justin Vogel seems to hit a 50-yard-plus punt every week. Grade: B-

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