There were multiple breakdowns that allowed Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald to break the Green Bay Packers’ back on the first play of overtime Saturday, but Julius Peppers wasn’t one of them.
Peppers has come under a firestorm of criticism after vacating the area where Fitzgerald was wide open before his 75-yard catch that gave the Cardinals a first-and-goal opportunity. After a delay, Peppers started running across the field to pressure Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer. Before he could get to Palmer, the quarterback found Fitzgerald with no Packers defenders within 20 yards of him.
But, defensive coordinator Dom Capers said, Peppers was not responsible for blowing coverage.
“Julius was just doing what he was supposed to do,” Capers said.
The Packers were playing the Cardinals’ “three-receiver hook” formation, Capers said. Peppers was responsible to cover Cardinals running back David Johnson, if Johnson became a receiver. When Johnson stayed in the backfield to block blitzing inside linebacker Jake Ryan, it freed Peppers to rush Palmer.
“We coach him to do that,” Capers said. “If the guy he’s playing a three-receiver hook on (doesn’t become a receiver), then he can go ahead really and have anything on that.”
Peppers wanted Palmer. He never got him.
So who was responsible for the blown coverage?
Capers said rookie corner back Damarious Randall – who lined up across Fitzgerald – errored in not recognizing the depth of Fitzgerald’s crossing route. Randall stayed on the left side of the field when Fitzgerald continued his route to the right sideline, near Peppers’ vicinity.
There was no miscommunication on the play call, Capers said. On the sideline before overtime started, he said, Capers decided to blitz up the middle on the first play. It was an adjustment to the Cardinals’ previous drive when the Packers struggled defending their play-action passes on first down.
“I think (Randall) knew the call,” Capers said. “But you have to evaluate how shallow the crossing route goes on that. If it goes under your underneath defenders than you have the ability to come off of that. If it goes over the top of him then you have to carry it.
“He just needed to carry (the coverage) further across the field.”
Capers said there was more than one guilty party. The Packers’ inability to sack Palmer was as responsible for the back-breaking play as the blown coverage, he said. Inside linebacker Clay Matthews blew past his blocker, but he ended up running past Palmer as well. Outside linebacker Mike Neal bumped into Palmer, but he couldn’t wrap up.
Palmer escaped the pocket to buy time. Too much time. It allowed him to find an open receiver. When he did, Fitzgerald made sure the Packers would pay for their gaffes.
“Any time you’re pressuring,” Capers said, “it’s a combination of you’ve got to make your shots count on the quarterback. Because if he can extend the play that long there’s going to be somebody that probably comes open. Even the way the play developed, it shouldn’t have been a 75-yard gain.”
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