Bills offer blueprint for slowing Packers' offense
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Green Bay Packers suffered a double whammy Sunday.
For one, their 21-13 loss to the Buffalo Bills cost them control over the race for the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. If the playoffs started this week, they'd be in, but only as the No. 6 seed. Perhaps most importantly, the Seattle Seahawks, who are playing the best football in the league, would hold the home-field edge over the Packers by winning their final two games.
Second, the Bills' defense reminded the rest of the NFL what has given the Packers' top-ranked scoring offense the most trouble the past several years. That is, a defense that doesn't have to blitz to pressure the quarterback, and that has the cornerbacks for physical pass coverage that disrupts the timing of the Packers' precise pass routes.
There happen to be two NFC title contenders, Seattle and Detroit, that have the personnel to pull off that kind of game plan.
The practical end of the loss is that it could cost the Packers home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, or at the very least, home field against the Seahawks, who beat San Francisco on Sunday.
The Packers dropped from the No. 2 seed entering Sunday to No. 6, though that doesn't mean much with two games to play and several contenders scheduled to meet. A lot can and will change.
There are too many possibilities to go through here, but in its most basic form, the Packers still win the NFC North Division and No. 2 seed by winning out at Tampa Bay and at home against Detroit. If they split their last two games, they could end up anywhere from the No. 2 seed to out of the playoffs, depending on scenarios.
Home field clearly means a lot for the Packers — they've been even more dominant than their 7-0 record at Lambeau Field this season suggests. What probably matters most is being seeded ahead of the Seahawks, whose dominating defense feasts off the loud home-field venue. But the Packers lost control of that with their loss to the Bills.
Both teams are 10-4. The Seahawks finish at Arizona next week and host St. Louis in the finale. If the Packers and Seahawks finish tied, the Seahawks would have the tiebreaker because they beat the Packers in their head-to-head matchup Week 1.
"Everything's right in front of us," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "We win out, we still win the North. This is a tough team, good football team, and we just didn't play very well on offense. Our defense held them to 12 points, you expect to win those games."
As for the bigger picture, Buffalo basically had the personnel to execute the same plan that has given the Packers the most trouble dating to Kansas City handing them their lone regular-season loss in 2011, and the New York Giants defeating them in the NFC divisional-round game later that season. San Francisco and Seattle has done the same the past three years, and this season Detroit.
All those teams had or have excellent defensive lines that can get consistent pressure with their front four, which allows them to cover with seven. And then their cornerbacks play as physically as possible to disrupt receivers Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams.
On Sunday, the Bills' defensive front, led by ends Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes, and tackle Marcell Dareus, didn't have a particularly big day. The Bills had only one sack and three hits on Rodgers, and the Packers' quarterback was far from being under siege.
But Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's confidence in his front four prevented him from blitzing much. He either kept back both safeties or slanted his single safety coverage to Nelson. Either way, it allowed cornerbacks Corey Graham and Stephon Gilmore to play ultra-aggressively.
"If you can rush four and play coverage with seven, it's a lot better than rushing five and playing coverage with six," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "It gives you more time to squat on certain routes because you have help over the top or you have help coming from underneath, things like that."
The physical tone was set early, when Rodgers in the first quarter failed to connect on his first four back-shoulder throws, which are a staple of the Packers' offense. The Bills' physical play disrupted the timing.
Also, besides intercepting two passes, which gives Rodgers five for the year, they also had a good shot at two or three more. That included Gilmore jumping a quick hitch to Nelson, which would have been a 65-yard pick-6 if Nelson hadn't popped the ball free.
"They were physical outside with our receivers and were able to get away with it all day," Rodgers said. "We had some chances, missed on them."
When asked if he thought the Bills broke the coverage rules that were enforced especially closely early in the season, Rodgers said: "I would say it will be interesting to see when we go back through (the game video). Yeah, we'll see."
It didn't help that Rodgers and his receivers had one of their worst games of the past five seasons.
One of the most shocking plays was when Rodgers, whose 34.3 quarterback rating was his lowest ever, didn't see Nelson breaking wide open behind a broken coverage late in the third quarter. It almost surely would have been a 73-yard touchdown. Instead, he went to Cobb on an out to the left but didn't lead him enough and safety Bacarri Rambo knifed in front for the interception.
"Cobb was (read No.) 2, Jordy was (No. 3)," Rodgers said. "Just out of the backside, they ran with Davante, and Cobb was open. I threw it a little inside. If I'd kicked it out one more (read), obviously Jordy's open for a touchdown."
Then on the Packers' next possession, Nelson again ran free on a skinny post for what looked like a 94-yard touchdown. But Nelson dropped the perfectly thrown strike.
In all, the Packers had seven receivers drop a pass (Nelson, Cobb, Adams, Richard Rodgers, Andrew Quarless, Jarrett Boykin and James Starks). It was an abysmal performance by the league's top-scoring offense entering this week.
Not every team has the defensive personnel to pull off what the Bills did Sunday. But Seattle definitely does, and Detroit has probably the best front four in the league and held the Packers to seven points when the teams met in Week 3. The Packers will see this again.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty