Analysis: Pivotal plays expose plight of Packers' defense

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty
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Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant (10) is tripped up by Green Bay Packers cornerback Kevin King (20) during the the first quarter of their game Sunday, November 26, 2017 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Mike McCarthy and Brett Hundley put up 28 points against one of the top five scoring defenses in the NFL on Sunday night.

That should have been enough to get the Green Bay Packers a win.

For that matter, Dom Capers’ defense forced three turnovers and played about as well as it could against one of the league’s most talented offenses.

Yet, it wasn’t enough, and their 31-28 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on the final play of the game revealed a lot about the state of the Packers’ defense in 2017.

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Capers’ defense gave its all Sunday night at Heinz Field and still came up short. It simply couldn’t overcome a feeble pass rush and the absence of defensive tackle Kenny Clark, who didn’t play because of an ankle injury sustained last week.

Pittsburgh’s talent no doubt presented the Packers with as big a challenge as they’re going to face this season. The Steelers have three premier players on offense (quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and receiver Antonio Brown). That’s why they’re 9-2.

But there also were a couple key plays when the Packers’ weaknesses caught up with them, especially a pass rush that has been spotty at best all season and was AWOL on Sunday night.

A game-turning play can happen anytime, and one of them Sunday night came early, on the Steelers’ first drive.

Roethlisberger swiftly had moved to inside the Packers’ 5 when rookie cornerback Kevin King made the kind of play that can help win a game. On third-and-goal from the 2, the Steelers ran a reverse to Martavis Bryant, a 211-pound receiver who ran a 4.42-second 40 at the NFL scouting combine in 2014. He’s a big, fast man.

King, though, came off a lame block attempt by Brown and in open space took a diving, one-armed swipe that tripped up Bryant just enough to knock him down at the 1. That was an athlete making a play on an athlete.

The tackle was a potentially big win for the Packers. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin either would kick the field goal, which would save four points, or go for it on fourth down, and if the Packers got one last stop, they’d keep Pittsburgh off the scoreboard altogether.

But here’s where Clark’s absence mattered. Tomlin went for it, and on fourth down offensive coordinator Todd Haley called a shovel pass to tight end Xavier Grimble. While one defensive tackle, Mike Daniels, held stout at the 1, the other, Quinton Dial, was pushed a yard into the end zone by guard Ramon Foster. Grimble followed Foster into the end zone standing up.

If Clark had played, he’d have been in Dial’s spot, and that play very well might have turned out differently. Clark has been one of the Packers’ best defensive players this season, is more athletic than Dial and rarely gets driven back, especially one-on-one. If he’d been in there, Haley might not have even dialed up that play.

But the Steelers got the easy score instead.

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The other telling and consequential sequence came at game’s end, and this is where the Packers’ no-show pass rush was their undoing.

The Packers hadn’t put much pressure on Roethlisberger all night. They had only two hits on him — one on a sack by Daniels after Roethlisberger held the ball too long, the other by Nick Perry. But most of the night, Roethlisberger (106.8 rating, 351 yards passing) had plenty of room to slide around the pocket until he found an open receiver.

Capers had tried to minimize Brown’s damage by double-teaming him on most plays. Capers really didn’t even try to disguise it. He had a cornerback in Brown’s face and kept a safety about 10 yards behind them.

Brown nevertheless had eight receptions when the Steelers got the ball back at their own 30 with 17 seconds left and the game tied.

On first down, Brown and Roethlisberger made what can only be described as a spectacular pitch and catch. Brown ran a deep out against King and safety Josh Jones, and with outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell getting only late pressure as a rusher, Roethlisberger threw a perfect touch pass over King that only Brown could get to.

Brown then made an extended toe-tap catch that was nothing short of stunning. It was the kind of thing Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson have pulled off on occasion. And it was a big 23-yard gain.

About the only thing you could fault Capers for on that play was having Jones, a rookie, playing over the top of Brown instead of fourth-year pro Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Maybe the veteran Clinton-Dix would have recognized the play quicker and gotten over in time to disrupt the catch.

Then on the next play, with 13 seconds left and the Steelers still not in field-goal range at the Packers’ 47, Capers dialed up a big blitz. He sent six rushers, which left Clinton-Dix as a single high safety and King matched alone against Brown.

It was a mismatch. King bailed right off the snap to ensure he wouldn’t get beaten over the top, but Brown broke off his out route for an easy 14-yard catch that put Pittsburgh in field goal position. The Packers hadn’t been getting home, blitz or not, all game. You knew they were going to Brown, so it was a strange time to leave him one-on-one. Two plays later, the Steelers won on a  53-yard field goal.

The Packers gave this one their best shot. Their defense played about as well as it could against a team with an abundance of offensive weapons. But in what’s been a running theme this season, it just didn’t have the pass rush to finish the job.

A week better

Hundley played his best game since taking over for an injured Rodgers in mid-October.

He displayed some pocket presence that had been absent in his previous five games, read the defense better and had a little more zip on a couple passes. That’s how he put up a 134.3 rating.

He still holds on to the ball too long, though, which is a problem for most young quarterbacks, including when Rodgers was early in his career as a starter.

A play that stood out was when the Packers got the ball back with 1:20 to play and the game tied. On first down, Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt dropped to the middle of the field to spy Hundley and momentarily drifted with tight end Richard Rodgers on a short route over the middle.

When Watt saw Hundley hold the ball and then start scrambling up the middle, he took off for the quarterback, quickly closed the 12-yard gap and sacked him.

A veteran quarterback — especially the top ones such as Roethlisberger, Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Carson Wentz — would have recognized that when Watt took off, the ball had to go to Richard Rodgers, who was wide open for about a five-yard gain. Hundley didn’t see it and ended up taking a six-yard loss.

That play showed Hundley still isn’t there. But he showed he’d learned from last week, most noticeably, in his willingness to step up in the pocket rather than bail out backward. He still didn’t look comfortable stepping up, and he still could use some work combining it with a step to his left or right as well. But it also looked like he’d learned from the previous week’s shutout against Baltimore.

Extra points

» Damarious Randall has played some good football since his benching and banishment to the locker room in Week 4 against Chicago. That continued Sunday night, when on a couple big plays he displayed the athleticism that made him a first-round draft pick.

On his first-quarter interception — his fourth interception since his benching — Randall’s late burst allowed him to make a falling catch on a pass over the middle to Eli Rogers. Then on third-and-10 with the score tied in the final 1½ minutes of the game, Randall showed closing speed and leaping ability when he knocked away another pass to Rogers. That forced a Steelers punt that gave the Packers a shot to win the game in the final minute.

» McCarthy surprised by starting Jason Spriggs at right tackle after his poor performance in relief of Justin McCray last week. Spriggs, the 2016 second-round pick, rewarded him by playing much better than he did in 22 snaps against Baltimore, and better than he’d played in the preseason for that matter.

McCarthy helped Spriggs by often lining up a tight end next to him to help slow down the Steelers’ rush on that side. Regardless, Spriggs didn’t have any plays where he obviously blew an assignment or was beaten badly. He had a quiet game in a way the Packers had to find encouraging.  

Grade card

Quarterback: Brett Hundley (134.3 rating) hit a few big throws and put up 28 points. He also missed some plays that could have kept drives alive and still needs to improve in the pocket. Grade: C+

Running backs: Jamaal Williams (135 yards total offense) ran hard, scored on a 54-yard screen pass and played about as well as he can play. Grade: B

Offensive line: The run blocking wasn’t bad against a stout Steelers front that knew the run was coming, but the front five still allowed three sacks and too much pressure on Hundley — guard Jahri Evans got beat a couple times on inside rushers. Grade: C

Tight end: Richard Rodgers made a good catch and run on a big 25-yard gain that jump-started the Packers’ game-tying touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. Grade: B-

Wide receivers: Randall Cobb sprung free on a wheel route that was a good play call by coach Mike McCarthy, and Davante Adams had a nice stop-and-go move for a 55-yard touchdown. Grade: B+

Defensive line: The Packers missed Kenny Clark, especially in the run game, where the talented Le’Veon Bell rushed for 95 yards on 20 carries. Grade: C+

Linebackers: Blake Martinez (15 tackles) had a really good game against the run and made a fast reaction to intercept a tipped pass. Jake Ryan (eight) wasn’t bad, either. But the outside rush from Nick Perry, Ahmad Brooks, Kyler Fackrell and Vince Biegel was almost nonexistent. Grade: B-

Cornerbacks: Damarious Randall had an interception in the first quarter and a big third-down pass breakup in the final two minutes. Kevin King saved a touchdown on a reverse to Martavis Bryant, too. But despite constant double teams, Steelers receiver Antonio Brown caught 10 passes for 169 yards and two scores. Grade: C-

Safeties: Morgan Burnett had nine tackles in his first game back from a hamstring injury. Grade: C+

Special Teams: Trevor Davis let a punt hit the ground just outside the 10, which ended up pinning the offense back at its 5. Mason Crosby had a shot at a game-changing 57-yard field goal but missed a little short and a lot left. Grade: C-


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