Analysis: Packers' embattled defense delivers on two big plays

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews (52) hits Cleveland Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer (7) forcing a bad throw which was intercepted in overtime on Dec. 10, 2017 at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.

The Green Bay Packers’ defense has had more than its share of issues this season, and that hasn’t changed.

Its pass rush has been AWOL for much of the year. Its already thin cornerback corps has been diminished further by injuries to Kevin King and Davon House. And it ranks No. 29 in defensive passer rating, which might be the most important defensive stat in the NFL.

This has been another tough year for coordinator Dom Capers’ group.

But for all the weaknesses and shortcomings, that same defense came through in the Packers’ 27-21 overtime win Sunday at Cleveland.

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It didn’t play a great game, and it was facing the NFL’s worst team and a rookie quarterback. But any time you hold an opponent to 21 points in an NFL game, you should win. And Sunday, Capers’ defense made two plays that were the difference between good enough and not good enough: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s second-quarter interception and Clay Matthews’ hit on DeShone Kizer that caused the decisive interception in overtime.

Clinton-Dix’s interception was the kind of play you expected to see more of this season from a guy who went to his first Pro Bowl last year. It came with Cleveland in position to add to a 14-7 lead in the final minute of the first half. Kizer tried to hit receiver Corey Coleman with a 30-yard pass just inside the Packers’ 20, but Clinton-Dix read Kizer, cut in front of Coleman and made the play.

That kept big points off the board. At worst, the Browns weren’t far from a possible field goal, and they still had 17 seconds and a timeout left to try to get at least three points and possibly seven. In a game that went into overtime, any points there might have been the difference.

Matthews, in the meantime, has played maybe his best football of the season the last two weeks. He has been a good run defender all year, but he hasn’t won many one-on-one battles as a pass rusher and hadn’t made many game-changing plays.

But last week against Tampa Bay he had three sacks, and then against the Browns he made a couple big plays rushing the passer, including the hit that turned the game in overtime.

In the first quarter, Matthews helped set up Kyler Fackrell’s third-down sack by getting Kizer off his spot on an outside rush. He also beat right tackle Shon Coleman on an inside move for a sack late in the second quarter, several plays before Clinton-Dix’s interception.

Then there was his huge play in overtime. It wasn’t just that Matthews’ hit caused a flutterball that Josh Jones intercepted in Browns territory, which set up Brett Hundley in great field position to direct the game-winning score. It’s that it also probably prevented a big play by the Browns.

If you watch the TV replays from the Browns’ end zone, receiver Rashard Higgins slipped behind Morgan Burnett when Kizer started scrambling, and there was no one behind Burnett to help. Higgins was open, and if Kizer had enough time to get off the deep ball, there’s a good chance it would have hit for a long catch, pass interference penalty or even a touchdown.

But Kizer had no chance to get the pass off cleanly and shouldn’t have tried. It was third down, so if he’d eaten the ball (Ahmad Brooks was closing from the front side, so Kizer had nowhere to run) then Matthews’ pressure would have been enough to end the drive anyway. But when Kizer tried to do the impossible, Matthews was there to hit his arm and cause the interception.

It’s also worth pointing out Clinton-Dix’s role in that play. It was a third-and-2, and the call was designed for Kizer to hit his best receiver, Josh Gordon, on a short slant to his right for the first down. But Clinton-Dix jumped the route from safety and would have had a good shot at an interception, so Kizer had to pull the ball down. Then Matthews, Mike Daniels and Jake Ryan chased Kizer out of the pocket and into the big mistake.

The matchups for Capers’ defense get tougher from here. Cam Newton is the best running quarterback in the league, Minnesota’s Case Keenum is a veteran who won’t make the kinds of mistakes Kizer made and Detroit's Matthew Stafford is one of the league’s most talented throwers.

But just a couple key plays can win an NFL game, and Capers’ embattled defense made them Sunday to keep the Packers’ playoff hopes alive.

Hundley’s comfort zone

Hundley was a spread-offense, read-option quarterback for most of his amateur career. So it makes sense that he functioned well when coach Mike McCarthy went to a spread game in the second half Sunday.

Where Hundley has had trouble in his first extensive playing time is getting through his reads quickly and getting the ball out fast enough. But with the spread offense and even plenty of snaps with an empty backfield, he just had to pick out the best read at the line of scrimmage and make the quick rhythm throw.

In the second half, he completed 81 percent of his passes (27-for-33) and had a 110.3 rating. That rating wasn’t higher because he had a low average per attempt (5.8 yards) with all the short throws. But he completed 31 passes to wide receivers (Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and Geronimo Allison), and almost all were short routes where the receiver at least had a chance to pick up a few yards after the catch to help keep the chains moving.

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Hundley’s game-winning touchdown pass to Adams was illustrative of the Packers’ offense in the second half. It was a receiver screen where Hundley’s read was predetermined. The ball was going to Adams at the snap. Then Adams did the rest on the 25-yard touchdown with a spin move and help from blocks by Nelson and Cobb.

This was exactly the offense Hundley ran at UCLA and in high school before that in Arizona. So if he looked comfortable, it’s because he was.

Extra points

» Trevor Davis has made some questionable decisions on punt returns, whether it’s letting balls hit the ground that he should have fair caught, or catching the ball in the end zone or dancing too much instead of heading straight up field.

But McCarthy stuck with him because of his breakaway running ability, and the payoff was Davis’ 65-yard return that set up the game-tying drive in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Davis danced around on that return, too, but after changing direction three times, he was able to turn the corner going to his left and make the big play.

» Ryan, an inside linebacker, had a decent game on the stat sheet — he was second on the team in tackles with seven. But he had a rough day on the field against left guard Joel Bitonio. Bitonio manhandled Ryan on several of the Browns’ biggest runs, and on running back Duke Johnson’s seven-yard touchdown on a shovel pass in the second quarter, Bitonio got on Ryan’s outside shoulder and took him out of the play, clearing a huge alley for Johnson to score untouched.

Grade card

Quarterback: Brett Hundley (111.2 rating) has trouble making second and third reads, but when he knows where he’s going with the ball before the snap he’s pretty good. Grade: B-

Running backs: Jamaal Williams had a tough day on the ground (15 carries, 49 yards), but he caught a 30-yard touchdown when split out at receiver and kept drives alive in the check-down game (six other catches for 39 yards). Grade: B

Offensive line: Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ plan was obvious – attack the line of scrimmage and force Hundley to win with his arm. The Packers’ front five played well at times but run blocked poorly on plenty of others. Grade: C+

Tight ends: Richard Rodgers and Lance Kendricks each had a drop. Grade: C-

Wide receivers: Davante Adams gets more separation than Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, so Hundley is more comfortable throwing to him (10 catches for 84 yards). But they caught almost everything thrown their way and broke some tackles (17 by Mike McCarthy’s count) after the catch. Grade: A

Defensive line: Browns halfbacks Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson combined for 129 yards on 25 carries, mostly between the tackles. That’s too much. Grade: C

Linebackers: Jake Ryan had a long day against guard Joel Bitonio in the run game. Clay Matthews now has back-to-back strong performances as a pass rusher. Grade: C

Cornerbacks: Damarious Randall made a nice tackle in the backfield against the run in the second quarter and played well matching up against Josh Gordon (three catches total) most of the day. Grade: B-

Safeties: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix had a huge interception late in the second quarter, and when he jumped a slant to Gordon in overtime it led to Kizer throwing a bad interception that set up the winning score. Grade: B

Special teams: Jermaine Whitehead converted a fourth-and-2 on a fake punt, and Trevor Davis had a huge 65-yard punt return that set up the score that sent the game into overtime. Those are game-changing plays from special teams. Grade: A


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