Analysis: Packers' defense desperately needs playmakers

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty
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Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) runs for yards after the catch chased by Green Bay Packers inside linebacker Blake Martinez (50) during the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium.

All the Green Bay Packers’ defensive warts in the 2017 season showed up Sunday in the team’s 31-24 loss to Carolina.

Their lack of athleticism at inside linebacker in coverage. Their propensity to give up big plays on blown coverages. Their inability to handle a fast and athletic quarterback. And their absent pass rush.

We don’t want to overstate the case. The Packers’ defense got a few stops Sunday, and though it gave up 31 points, it also was put in a tough spot because a rusty Aaron Rodgers threw three interceptions in his return from a nine-week layoff because of a broken right collarbone.

But there’s no hiding from the issues that have plagued coordinator Dom Capers’ defense in 2017. The Packers rank No. 30 in defensive passer rating, which is among the most telling of defensive statistics. None of the teams ranked in the bottom 10 of that category this week is likely to make the playoffs this season.

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The most glaring problem was the Packers’ inability to cover Carolina tight end Greg Olsen and running back Christian McCaffrey. That’s in part a function of their lack of speed at inside linebacker. Blake Martinez has had an excellent season as a run defender but has trouble matching up in the passing game. Jake Ryan and Joe Thomas have the same matchup issues.

Thomas played alongside Martinez on Sunday, though it’s unclear whether it was because Ryan had missed some practice last week because of a knee injury, or because he’s marginally better in coverage than Ryan. It might have been a combination of both.

And Carolina is a tough matchup for linebackers because of the threats Jonathan Stewart presents at halfback and Cam Newton in the read-option, along with the challenge of covering a good tight end (Olsen) and another halfback (McCaffrey) who’s a bigger threat as a receiver than runner.

Martinez and Thomas simply couldn’t match up with either Olsen (nine catches for 116 yards) or McCaffrey (six for 73), and that was compounded by rookie safety Josh Jones’ bad day in coverage.

Jones, in fact, appeared to have a big hand in allowing two touchdowns – McCaffrey’s seven-yard score in the first quarter, and Olsen’s 30-yard touchdown early in the third quarter.

McCaffrey’s touchdown was big because it came on a second-and-goal from the 7, so it was hardly a given that Carolina would get in the end zone in two plays. You might have noticed watching the game live on TV that Clay Matthews alerted his teammates before the snap that McCaffrey might run a wheel route from the backfield. Then Newton pointed at Matthews and said, “You’ve been watching film. That’s cool. Watch this.”

McCaffrey didn’t run a wheel route, which would have taken him up the sideline, but instead ran a halfback post route. The Packers didn’t cover him, which allowed the easy score.

It’s hard to be sure whether Jones or Martinez blew the coverage because both locked on to Olsen when he ran straight up the field from his in-line position. Without knowing the call, the best guess is that Martinez was responsible for the tight end and Jones for McCaffrey.

On Olsen’s 30-yard touchdown in the third quarter, it sure looked like Jones blew the coverage there too. It was as easy a 30-yard touchdown as you’ll ever see in the NFL.

Carolina deployed run-heavy personnel – three tight ends, a running back and a receiver – but lined up with an empty backfield. It appeared Jones and Thomas were supposed to play zone – at least that’s how Thomas played it. When Olsen crisscrossed with fellow tight end Ed Dickson coming off the line of scrimmage, Thomas passed off Olsen to Jones. But Jones stayed on Dickson, which left Olsen uncovered for the easy score.

Olsen also took advantage of Thomas for a big 20-yard gain in the third quarter when Thomas made a critical technique error. In zone coverage he had help from Martinez to the inside, so he’s supposed to turn his hips to the outside as he dropped. But Thomas turned inside and had no awareness of where Olsen was behind him, giving Newton and Olsen an easy 20-yard pitch and catch behind the linebacker.

The Packers also have had their issues with running quarterbacks, dating all the way to Colin Kaepernick in the playoffs in the 2012 season. That didn’t change Sunday.

Newton hit them with several scrambles, including two that converted third downs, along with a couple read-option runs on his way to 58 yards rushing on 14 carries. Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks twice got caught crashing the running back on the read option, which allowed Newton to pull the ball out and hit the edge for 22 yards. On both plays, the Packers’ inside linebackers stayed inside instead of circling around to replace Brooks, so chances are Brooks was supposed to play Newton on both plays.

One of the Packers’ biggest problems on defense is the same as it's been for several years, a lack of dynamic playmakers. General manager Ted Thompson drafted Kevin King and Jones to improve the defense’s speed, but King is on injured reserve and Jones is making his share of rookie mistakes. The Packers still have a lot of work to do on this side of the ball.

Pass-happy offense

One of the surprises and mistakes Sunday was how the Packers came out throwing in Rodgers’ return after a nine-week layoff.

They’d found two capable running threats in Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams during Rodgers’ absence, and you'd have thought they'd take some of the load off Rodgers with a more run-oriented game plan Sunday. But Rodgers attempted 45 passes, whereas Williams and Jones combined for only 13 carries.

Some of that was because the Packers played catchup in the fourth quarter – they were down two touchdowns with 12:24 to play. They combined for 22 pass calls (passes and Rodgers scrambles) in the final 12½ minutes.

But they didn’t run the ball earlier, either. They ran only once on their first, four-play possession that ended with a punt. And Jones had only three carries (and 26 snaps to Williams’ 43 snaps) even though he ripped off runs of 23 and 20 yards on his first two carries a little more than halfway through the second quarter.

The one thing we don’t know is if the pass-heavy play calling was more because of Rodgers' checks at the line of scrimmage or were part of McCarthy’s game plan.

Extra points

» Jason Spriggs played well enough at right tackle the previous two games to think he might get in the running for a starting job next year, but then Sunday he gave up 2 ½ sacks in the fourth quarter.

On the first, he was beaten by defensive end Wes Horton, who started with an outside rush, then pushed the off-balance Spriggs aside as he went inside.

The same drive ended on downs a few plays later after back-to-back sacks. On a third down, linebacker Thomas Davis got half a sack when he pushed Spriggs back into Rodgers – Star Lotulelei got the other half by beating center Corey Linsley up the middle. Then on fourth down, Julius Peppers beat Spriggs cleanly with a speed rush to the outside for a quick sack that ended the possession.

» Capers ran an effective Hail Mary defense at the end of the first half that will be worth trying again. On the final play of the second quarter from the Carolina 47, Capers deployed eight defensive backs and three pass rushers. But he had two of the defensive backs, Jermaine Whitehead and Marwin Evans, blitz. Evans delayed his blitz and had a free run at Newton, who didn’t have time to wait for his receivers to get downfield, or set his feet and take a shot at the end zone. So he instead threw a checkdown to McCaffrey, who was tackled for a harmless 21-yard gain.

Grade card

Offensive line: Three crucial sacks in the fourth quarter ruined what had been a pretty good day. Grade: C+

Tight ends: Richard Rodgers had two big catches for 50 yards and a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Neither he nor Lance Kendricks had a good day blocking. Grade: B

Running backs: Jamaal Williams (30 yards on 10 carries) and especially Aaron Jones (47 yards, three carries) produced when they got the chance, but were underutilized. Grade: C.

Wide receivers: Randall Cobb (seven catches, 84 yards) re-emerged with Aaron Rodgers’ return and showed some run after the catch on his 33-yard touchdown. Grade: B+

Quarterback: Rodgers had some eye-catching moments (three touchdown passes) but had too much rust (three interceptions) as a decision maker and thrower to win his first game back after missing nine weeks. Grade: C

Defensive line: One sack (from Kenny Clark) was not enough of a pass rush to keep Cam Newton off balance. Grade: C

Linebackers: LB: No sacks from the outside linebackers (Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and Ahmad Brooks), and too many completions allowed in coverage by the inside linebackers (Blake Martinez, Joe Thomas). Grade: D+

Cornerback: Panthers wide receivers combined for only four catches against Damarious Randall, Josh Hawkins and nickel back Morgan Burnett, though two by Damiere Byrd were for touchdowns. Grade: C

Safeties: Neither Ha Ha Clinton-Dix nor Josh Jones made an aggressive play on the ball, and Jones appeared to blow coverage on at least one and possibly two touchdowns. Grade: F

Special teams: Punter Justin Vogel (38.5-yard net) had another solid day. Grade: C+

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