Tag Archives: Aaron Rodgers

Packers Not Ready for Prime Time

In his final game of the 2020 season, Green Bay defense end/linebacker Preston Smith had very little impact.  But he did have a few moments.

With 18 seconds left in the first half of a still very close game, Smith’s (Preston) inside rush was too quick for Smith (Donovan), Tampa Bay’s offensive left tackle, allowing Preston nearly immediate access to quarterback Tom Brady.

Facing a third-and-four from the Green Bay 45, Tampa Bay had lined up with three wide-receivers to the left, and tight end Cameron Brate as the lone eligible receiver on the right end of the formation.  The Packers answered with man coverage.  Brate would put a double-move on safety Adrian Amos and streak up the sideline, but Amos wouldn’t bite and stayed with Cameron on his trip downfield.  Brady had a check-down as running back Leonard Fournette circled out of the backfield, but Smith (Preston) was in so quickly on the Buccaneers veteran quarterback that Fournette didn’t have a chance to get to the line before Tom had to get rid of the ball.  To his left were a lot of defenders shadowing a lot of receivers, so Brady heaved the ball up the right sideline, hoping that either Brate could make a play on the ball, or that it would just sail out of bounds.

The ball wasn’t thrown far enough outside to do either.

Thrown higher than it was far, the football tailed to the inside.  It was well away from Brate and Amos – so neither of them could make a play on the ball – but (in Goldilocks terms) it was “just right” for the safety to that side – third-year player Will Redmond.  In the Packers’ split safety design, the other safety, Darnell Savage, was occupied to three-receiver side.  But all Redmond had to focus on was Cameron Brate working his way up the sideline.

Ambling to that sideline, Will looked up to find the ball floating right toward him – and watched in agony as the ball bounced harmlessly off his outstretched hands.  At the time, this was understood to be a significant drop – how significant would only be understood after the game was over.

As I write about these games, I try to look for that moment – that singular play – that sends one team inexorably on to victory.  In this game, that wasn’t possible.  As Tampa Bay moved on to Super Bowl LV courtesy of a 31-26 conquest of the Green Bay Packers (gamebook) (summary), there were nearly a dozen plays that could easily have re-written history.  A couple of them were poor decisions by the officiating crew (who, I think, were borrowed from a nearby hockey rink), most of them were breakdowns by the offense, and a few – like this one – were defensive gaffes.  All added together, this litany of woulda/shoulda/coulda sentenced the Packers to another off-season of head-shaking.

In almost all of these cases, the plays were much like this.  The hard part of the play was already achieved.  In this case, Green Bay had managed to get quick pressure on Brady – something they almost never did on Championship Sunday; they kept the intended receiver covered – an area that was a little hit-and-miss for the early part of the game; and they had a player (Redmond) in position to make a game-changing play.  All afternoon it was the comparatively routine part of the play (here, the act of catching a football right in his hands) that bedeviled the Packers.

Before this game began, I expressed my concern about this Green Bay team, feeling that their advancement to top seed in their conference and subsequent progress to the Championship Game was too easily achieved.  I wondered if they would be able to withstand a team that could offer them a stiffer challenge than they had so far faced.  For three hours and fourteen agonizing minutes (for Packer fans) on that afternoon the Green Bay team proved themselves not ready for prime time as they simply and repeatedly refused to claim a game that was consistently sitting there for the taking.  In the second half, Tom Brady would end three successive drives with interceptions.  The Packers would turn those turnovers into all of six points – and came close to not getting those.

But that’s just the beginning of the story – the offensive side of it.  There was considerably more.  This moment that I began with – this missed interception by Redmond – I chose because it was the moment that precede the onslaught.  It was (if you will) that last moment of grace extended to the Packers before the blade fell.

When Will dropped that ball, it was still a four-point game, and the Buccaneers were faced with a fourth-down.  Six football snaps later, Green Bay trailed 28-10 and spent the rest of the day in catch-up mode.  In terms of game-clock time, it was an 84-second implosion that sent the Halas Trophy on its way to Florida.

That dropped interception was a distressing moment, but not the worst moment for the defense by a long shot.  That would come two plays later, on a play that would elicit a “My God!” exclamation from color man Troy Aikman, after Tampa Bay had converted the fourth down.  With but 8 seconds left in the half, the Bucs had the ball on Green Bay’s 39-yard line.

A Head-Shaker

With time (probably) for one last play (the Bucs had just used their final time out), Green Bay ran a Cover-5 – kind of halfway between Cover-4 and an outright prevent defense.  Green Bay had the four defensive backs responsible each for a deep fourth of the field, with a fifth safety behind them as a final fail-safe.  Defending the deep left sideline was cornerback Kevin King.  His assignment was relatively simple.  Don’t let anyone behind you.

You could almost hear the heads of the viewing audience explode along with Aikman’s as King stood – rooted in place, staring into the backfield – as receiver Scott Miller just ran right past him.  Brady’s toss hit him perfectly in the hands, and Tampa Bay closed the first half with a gift touchdown.  On the third play from scrimmage in the second half, 1000-yard rusher Aaron Jones fumbled, giving the Bucs the ball on the Green Bay eight-yard line.  And one play later, the Packers had been saddled with an 18-point deficit.

The Almost Come-Back

From that point on, the Packers mounted just enough of a comeback to offer their fans a brief hope of a miracle in the offing.  In the end – like everything else on this day – the effort would come up just short.  Appropriately, the final blow would come from the all-but-invisible officiating team.

It’s an old hockey tradition – and one of the things that marks hockey as an inferior sport – that the officials don’t bring their whistles with them in the third period.  The philosophy, as I understand it, is that the officials don’t want to “impact” the game.  Let the players determine the outcome, while we stay out of it.  You rarely see this kind of unprofessionalism in more legitimate sports like baseball and football, as the officiators there understand that there are few things they can do that will impact a game more than disappearing.

And yet, on Championship Sunday in Green Bay, the Packers and Bucs got a crew of hockey officials – which meant that anything goes in the secondary.  The broadcast booth brought us replays of – oh – half a dozen pass interference penalties that should have been called.  The only one that was impactful – as did everything else that day – added damage to the Packers.  Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ three-touchdown day was marred by a single interception executed by cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, and made possible by one of the more obvious of the missed interference calls.  As Packer receiver Allen Lazard was starting to separate from Murphy-Bunting, Sean simply grabbed Lazard by the shoulder pads and pulled the two players closer together.

But this was just one of many examples of defenders latching onto receivers, turning them by their shoulder pads, etc. – the kinds of activities that will draw penalty flags from most crews on most Sundays.  But not this one.

The Buccaneers were not the only ones taking advantage of the officiators’ negligence.  Green Bay, in fact, got away with the game’s single most egregious missed call.  In what would turn out to be the final Green Bay drive of the season, receiver Davante Adams achieved his separation from Murphy-Bunting through the simple expedient of pushing him to the ground.  As if unaware of the irony involved, Sean sat on the turf, looking around at the officials with his arms spread in the attitude of asking, “Where’s the flag?” Where, indeed?

The permissiveness of the officials spread to the line-play as well.  Not only were there no pass interference penalties called (at least for the first 58 minutes of the game), there were no holding penalties called – offensive or defensive – and not because the line play was pristine.  On the play after the Adams play just mentioned, Davante caught another pass for 11 yards.  On the play, the left side of the Green Bay offensive line (Elgton Jenkins and Billy Turner) had their respective Tampa Bay defensive linemen in such a tight hold you would have thought it was the final dance on prom night.

Of course, there was no flag thrown.  Let the players play.  At least that’s how it was until there was 1:46 left in the game.

Tampa Bay has their final five-point lead and the ball, but they face a third-and-four on their own 37-yard line.  With a stop here, the Packers would get the ball back – presumably – in solid field position with a minute and a half (or so) left and a time out – conditions favorable for a potential thrilling finish.

For a moment, as Brady’s third-down pass sailed well over the head of Tyler Johnson, it looked like Green Bay had managed that needed stop.  And then the flag came sailing in.  As Johnson was on his way to the sideline running his cross, the defender covering him (Kevin King, again) reached out and briefly grabbed his jersey.  It was enough for back judge Perry Paganelli to throw the game’s lone flag for any of the misbehaviors that had characterized the secondary play to that point.

And with that, the Packer season came to an end.

Tough to Take

To be clear, it was a penalty.  In most other games on most other Sunday’s, this flag would only have been mildly controversial.  But this play wasn’t even remotely worse than many violations previously ignored.  Moreover, the pass wasn’t catchable.  It wasn’t a question of the potential lost step.  Johnson was running horizontally to the sideline, and the throw sailed well over his head.  Toss in the fact that the call (coming at the point of the game that it did) left Green Bay with no chance to answer or recover.

The circumstance that deprived Rodgers and the offense of their one last chance makes it a little tough to take.  All the more so because the penalty was unnecessary.  Whether the call should or shouldn’t have been made, there was no need for King’s actions.  The ball was over-thrown.  Again, the hard part was taken care of.  It was the inability to execute the “routine” part of the play that ultimately proved Green Bay’s downfall.

But, again, let’s be clear about this game.  This was a contest that Green Bay did not deserve to win.  In fact, even if the penalty was ignored and the Packers did get the ball back I am doubtful that they would have finished the comeback.  In a game in which the offense had wasted so many opportunities, it’s hard to believe that this wouldn’t be just one more missed chance.  During the regular season, the Green Bay offense scored the most points and gained the fifth most yards in the NFL, with quarterback Rodgers leading the league in most of the relevant passing numbers – including his 121.5 passer rating.

But this loss falls squarely on the shoulders of Rodgers and the offense.  Setting aside penalties that were and weren’t called, setting aside some damaging misses by the defense, Green Bay’s elite offense had ample chances to take down a beatable Tampa Bay defense.  There were ample throws available for Rodgers – throws that he either didn’t make, or didn’t execute when he did make them.

For all the controversy surrounding Aaron’s supporting cast on the offensive side of the ball, this is a loss that he is as responsible for as anyone else in the organization.

Rodger’s Good, but Not Great Day

As his 101.56 passer rating testifies, Aaron Rodgers had a lot of great moments against the Buc defense.  In particular, Aaron was on top of his game on third down.  Rarely better, Aaron was 8 for 11 on that down for 129 yards (an average of 11.73 yards per pass, and 16.13 yards per completion) with 2 touchdowns – an impressive 151.14 passer rating.  He was also instrumental in bringing Green Bay back from behind.  He threw the ball 41 times in the game while trailing by at least 7 points.  He completed 30 of those passes for 314 yards and 3 touchdowns – a 119.36 passer rating.  But – and this is a telling number – in those periods of the game where it was close – early in the game before Tampa Bay had mounted its lead and later when Green Bay had crept back into things – Aaron was a pedestrian 3 for 7 for 32 yards, 1 first down, no touchdowns and that interception.

It is patently unfair to hold quarterbacks to any kind of perfect standard.  Every quarterback in every game misses some open receivers.  Even so, I think even Rodgers himself – after watching the tape – would agree that there were a lot of throws left on the table.

There is 12:19 left in the second quarter.  Trailing 14-7, the Packers face second-and-ten on their own 25.  Davante Adams – coming off a huge 115-catch, 1374-yard, 18-touchdown season lined up in the slot to the left, where he would draw tight, bump-and-run coverage from Murphy-Bunting. Davante left Sean in his dust, winning immediately off the snap and gaining separation with every step.  It looked like Aaron saw him – it seemed that he glanced right at him at the snap.  But for some reason never threw him the ball.  He settled for a 12-yard completion to Marquez Valdes-Scantling.

On the interception to Lazard, Aaron had his choice of two in-breaking routes to choose from.  Breaking from the right sideline into the middle of the field, tight end Robert Tonyan opened up later in the route when linebacker Lavonte David stumbled in coverage.  Rodgers would have had to wait another half second on this one, but there was little pressure, so he did have the time.

These were a couple of the opportunities he had against man coverage – we haven’t even started on the opportunities presented by Tampa’s still struggling zones.

Two Goal Line Stands

The microcosm of Green Bay’s day came in the form of two goal line stands.  After a four-yard run from Jones gave them a first down, Green Bay had a first-and-goal on the Buc six-yard line with 5:13 left in the first half.  They trailed 14-7 at this point.

On first down, Adams – the recipient of 57 touchdown passes from Rodgers over their careers – lined up close to the line on the left, with Tampa Bay’s best corner – Carlton Davis – lining directly over him in press coverage.  As Aikman in the booth drew a circle around all of the open area behind and to the right of Davis he said “I expect Aaron will be all over this.”  Again, Adams won off the line, getting Davis both backing up and veering inside, while Adams broke wide open to the outside.  The difficult part was achieved.  Now football’s second-leading receiver just had to catch the ball.

But Rodgers threw the ball out in front – expecting Adams to keep running to the sideline, while Davante turned the route up-field, as though he were going for the back corner.  The result was that the throw ended up behind Davante, who turned and got a hand on the pass, but couldn’t haul it in.

There was 5:11 left in the first half of a seven-point game, but as Adams lay face down on the grass in the end zone, I began to realize that Green Bay was going to lose this game.

On second down, this time with Adams in the slot on the right (and still covered by Davis), Green Bay tried another goal-line favorite – the flat pass in front of the flag.  Adams was open on this pass, too, but linebacker David was able to leap into the passing lane and deflect the pass.  And now, it was third down.

This time it would be Adams in the back of the end zone, under the goal post. Green Bay set up with three receivers to the right, with Valdes-Scantling the nearest and Lazard the farthest, lining up nearest the sideline.  In between them, in the traditional slot, Adams drew coverage this time from Murphy-Bunting, who had him in man coverage, but played with outside leverage, hoping to turn Davante back inside, where he thought he would have some help.

The help never materialized.  Valdes-Scantling cleared the whole middle of defenders with his middle vertical, and Davante broke cleanly inside.  For the third straight play, Aaron Rodgers had Davante Adams wide open either in or near the end zone.  And for the third straight play, they misconnected.  This time Rodgers simply threw it behind Adams.  Davante pirouetted in midair, and managed to catch the ball.  But now, off balance, he had no chance to get either foot in bounds.

And out came the field goal unit.

They were back down there with 2:22 left in the game, first-and-goal at the eight, trailing 31-23.  It was the same story.  A miscommunication on first down found Lazard not even looking for the ball thrown in his direction, and then two final incompletions to Adams.  On both of the final plays, Rodgers started to scramble, and – especially with the last one – it looked like he might have the necessary room to make it to the line.  But at the last moment before taking off, Aaron second-guessed himself and threw uncatchable balls in Adams’ general direction.

Rodgers finished the day just 4 of 11 (36.36%) in the red zone for just 28 yards (2.55 yards/attempt).  He did cap two drives with touchdown passes, but left two other big ones on the table.  Eight of the 11 passes went to Adams, who caught only three of them.

Even the traditional Green Bay weather let them down.  The snow predicted all week never showed up.  The day was chilly (29 degrees at kickoff) but dry.  As the game started, the sun even came out – shining brilliantly, of course, on the Tampa Bay sideline.

For the fourth time, now, in the last seven seasons, the Packers have fallen one win short of the Super Bowl.  This time, though, the problem wasn’t the roster.  The team they fielded two Sunday’s ago was every bit talented enough to win that game.  But they weren’t mentally and emotionally ready to beat a vulnerable Tampa Bay team.

And those are the questions they will have to find answers for over the long, long offseason.

What to Make of the Buccaneers?

And so it’s off to the Super Bowl for Tampa Bay – just the way everyone thought it would be when they signed Brady.  As we’ve kind of documented all season, this team has transformed itself from mid-season to this point.  The change has been less about Brady than it’s been about the philosophy around him.  Two big commitments this team has made have transformed this group.

First, this Tampa Bay team is committed to balance.  The Bucs ran the ball 24 times against Green Bay – and this even though their running game was almost entirely unproductive.  The 24 runs produced just 76 yards (3.2 per), but even that is a little misleading.  Remove Fournette’s 20-yard touchdown run, and Tampa Bay’s other 23 runs managed just 56 yards (2.4 per), as this team found it all but impossible to dislodge Kenny Clark from the middle and/or Dean Lowry from the edge.

Only five of their other 22 running attempts (subtracting Brady’s final kneel-down) managed as many as four yards.  And yet, they kept running.  This discipline shows considerable growth in offensive philosophy.

The other, even more spectacular commitment, was to keeping Tom Brady upright in the pocket.  If you will think back to the mid-season 38-3 beating they absorbed from New Orleans, you will remember Brady getting hammered on nearly every pass play.  In the playoffs, they have now faced three of football’s better pass rushes, with Tom rarely disturbed behind center.

Two Sundays ago, they made Green Bay’s Za’Darius Smith disappear.  Tackles Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs handled him with little incident.  But it’s more than just stellar play from their tackles.  Tampa Bay is now willingly committing extra shoulders to pass blocking.  It’s become almost common to see them keeping seven – and sometimes more – in to block.  Late in the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers answered a six-man pass rush from Green Bay with 8 blockers – leaving just two receivers in the route.

For the game, in 37 drop-backs, Brady was essentially unbothered 73% of the time.  Of the times that he did see some pressure, only 4 times (10.8%) was it significant pressure (he was hit three times and sacked just once).  Wary of his great experience, Green Bay blitzed him infrequently – only 8 times – and almost always with no success.  They did force one interception, but the other seven times, they didn’t get especially close.  He completed 5 of the other 7 passes against the Packer blitzes for 78 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Extra men in blocking makes blitzing as especially dangerous proposition against this offense.

But even as things have improved on the Suncoast, the frankensteining of the mostly disparate Arians and Brady core offenses still leaks in spots.  As witnessed by their presence in Super Bowl LV, this is a very dangerous offense, but not indefensible.

Offensive Issues Still Un-Reconciled

One of the curious developments over time in Tampa Bay is that even as the running game has become more and more physical, the passing part of the offense – especially the quarterback – has become almost contact-phobic.  I said earlier that Za’Daruis Smith disappeared.  That’s not entirely fair.  A lot of the reason the Packer pass rush was AWOL was nothing more than Brady’s penchant for unloading the ball at the first hint of trouble.  I would say that on about half of Smith’s rushes, Brady had the ball out of his hands before Za’Darius had taken his third step.

On those rare instances when Green Bay could put a little pressure on Tom, the results were worthwhile.  It was only six times that they hurried him without hitting him, but Brady was only 3 for 6 for just 9 yards on those plays.

It has gotten increasingly hard to pressure Tom, and this will be Kansas City’s challenge.  The teams they have faced so far in the playoffs have featured edge rushers.  In Chris Jones, Kansas City has one of football’s better middle rushers.  It could make a difference.

The other thing that has become very obvious about Tampa Bay is that they are still very “big play” dependent.  The team that can force them to put together long drives will probably shut this offense down.  In three playoff games – totaling 33 drives – Tampa Bay has put together just 4 ten-play drives – all resulting in field goals.

Further, in those three games, the Bucs have scored 10 touchdowns – 6 of them off of turnovers.

While scoring touchdowns after taking the ball away from your opponent is praiseworthy execution (and a skill that will win a good many games), what happens when you run into an opponent that doesn’t turn the ball over and doesn’t give up the big play.  What happens if Kansas City doesn’t shoot itself in the foot the way that Green Bay did? 

Going into the Super Bowl depending on Patrick Mahomes to miss Travis Kelce multiple times when he is wide open in the end zone is probably not a winning game plan.

Which brings us to Tampa Bay’s defense

Not Really In the Zone

Trading off the higher completion percentages usually allowed by zone defenses with the greater yardage per completion usually seen against man defenses, Aaron Rodgers’ performance against the Bucs didn’t show a great deal of difference between man and zone.

With the coverages not quite as airtight as they were against New Orleans, Aaron was 11-for-19 against Tampa Bay’s man coverages for 171 yards (15.55 yards per completion) and 2 touchdowns (with the one interception) – a 100.99 passer rating.  When faced with zone (which Tampa Bay played on 58.5% of Rodgers’ pass attempts) Aaron completed 22-of-29 (75.86%) for another 175 yards (just 7.95 yards per completion) and another touchdown – a 101.94 passer rating.

This number, though, doesn’t justly describe Tampa Bay’s weaknesses in zone coverage – a fact that makes their reliance on it all the more surprising.  Aaron Rodgers’ very first pass of the game – against the Tampa zone – is instructive.

The Buccaneers are in quarters’ coverage.  The outside corners, Davis and Jamel Dean, allow outside receivers Lazard and Tonyan to run right past them without so much as a look.  Rodgers could have thrown deep to either of them.

Inside, the safeties (who had no outside responsibilities, anyway) were not in a position to help as they were occupied watching tight end Marcedes Lewis settle into the deepish middle.  Lewis wasn’t open at this point, as linebacker Lavonte David kept dropping deep with Marcedes.  But, when running back Jones circled out of the backfield and settled into the flat, David dropped the deeper route to defend Aaron in the flat.  Rodgers delivered the ball to Lewis the moment David left him for 14 yards and a first down – a productive play, but still a curiosity that he didn’t opt for either of the open deep routes.

With 6:35 left in the third quarter, Tampa in cover-four, linebacker Devin White found himself responsible for the short zone to the offensive right side.  But White repeatedly displays a strange unwillingness to leave the middle of the field.  Even as both Adams and running back AJ Dillon floated out into the open spaces of the right underneath zone, Devin had set up camp in between the hash-marks, effectively leaving Carlton Davis to cover the entire right side of the field – setting up as easy a 13-yard catch and run as Dillon is likely to get.

White and David are great athletes.  Their raw speed gives them sideline-to-sideline range against the run and makes them more than passable in man coverage.  When Tampa Bay played man, Lavonte David was usually covering excellent tight end Tonyan.  Robert – as a result – didn’t even have a target against man coverage, making all four of his catches (for 22 yards) against zones.

But both are liabilities in zone coverage.  White, in particular, has no instinct for it.  He has no feel for when he should keep dropping and when he should move up to take away the short route; for when he should expand his zone to the sideline, and when it’s OK to hang out in the middle of the field.  He doesn’t sense the receiver behind him the way that many of the better zone defenders do.

As a result, Rodgers was 10-for-11 passing against White, 2-for-2 when Devin was in man coverage (against running backs Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones) and 8-for-9 against his zone responsibilities – the lone incompletion logged against him coming when Jones dropped a pass in the flat.

It’s an issue that the Chiefs must certainly have noticed.

On the play mentioned above, Tampa Bay blitzed while playing zone behind it.  Blitzing is the one reliable card in coordinator Todd Bowles deck – and in some ways the best thing they did on defense against the Pack.  As far as pressure goes, the blitz didn’t work all that well.  Of the 25 blitzes that they unleashed on Rodgers, they only reached him with significant pressure twice – including no sacks. (In one of the most unusual playoff lines in memory, the two teams combined for 33 total blitzes, but neither team recorded a sack off the blitz).

As the playoffs have started, Tampa Bay has gotten much better at getting pressure from their four-man rush.  Rushing just four, the Bucs either hit or sacked Rodgers 32.1% of the time.  Mostly responsible for the increase are rush linebackers Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett

These two have raised the level of their play noticeably during this playoff run, and were absolute mismatches for Green Bay tackles Ricky Wagner and Billy Turner.  Wagner, of course, has taken the place of star tackle David Bakhtiari, who ended the season on injured reserve.  To date, Wagner has been much praised, as the offense seems not to have missed a beat in Bakhtiari’s absence.

But on Championship Sunday, he wasn’t able to contain either of the pass-rushing linemen.  This is an important development.  Remember that Kansas City lost a starting offensive tackle (Eric Fisher) in their win over Buffalo.  If Barrett and Pierre-Paul can have their way with Wagner, it’s not hard to imagine that they could wreck similar havoc against KC’s backup lineman.

Even without pressuring the Packer quarterback, the Tampa Bay blitzes did alter the Green Bay passing attack.  When Tampa Bay rushed only four, Aaron completed 15 of 23 passes for 182 yards and 2 touchdowns – a 118.39 passer rating.  When he was blitzed, those numbers regressed to 18-for-25 for 164 yards (just 9.11 per completion) and an interception to offset the lone touchdown pass – an 86.08 rating.

You will note that his completion percentage is higher when blitzed (72% to 65.22%), but for shorter yardage as Rodgers’ frequent response to the blitz was a check-down.  The blitz also rushed the throw that turned into the interception.

Entering the post-season as the fifth-most blitzing team in the NFL (at 39%), Tampa Bay upped the ante against Green Bay, sending an extra rusher at Rodgers 47.2% of the time.  They came 50% of the time when they were in man coverage, and – surprisingly – 45.2% of the time when they were in zone – a nod to the necessity of getting some kind of pressure to protect the zone coverages.

On successive plays beginning with the play at 12:20 of the fourth quarter, Tampa Bay brought both cornerbacks off the slot, playing zone behind a six-man pass rush – a move that was, at the same time, brilliant and fool-hardy.  The foolishness was the expectation that a defense that struggled to play disciplined zone defense with seven players wouldn’t be much worse with only five in coverage.

On both occasions, the weakened zone invited big plays against it.  On the first play, the two deep safeties – who always play exceedingly deep – dropped even deeper as they converged on Adams’ deep-middle route.  This allowed Green Bay to high-low White, the only defender left to cover the entire middle of the field.  Allen Lazard settled in the flat underneath and Marquez Valdes-Scantling curled in deep behind White.  True to form, Devin dropped coverage on the deeper route to cover the shorter route.

On the second play, Valdes-Scantling was mostly ignored as he streaked up the right sideline.  Meanwhile to the left side, White (who had underneath responsibility) kept dropping deeper and deeper to try to keep level with Lazard – even while Jamaal Williams and Davante Adams were both setting up underneath him in his zone, Jamaal running the short underneath route and Adams weighing in about five-yards further downfield.

The fact that Tampa Bay was burned neither time is due – in part – to the continued questionable decision-making by Rodgers, and – in part – to the brilliant aspect of the plan (the two corner blitzes further stressing the tackles who were already struggling to contain Jason and Shaq). 

The outside rushes affected both plays.  Quick pressure form Murphy-Bunting forced Rodgers to check down to Williams rather than taking the deep shot to Valdes-Scantling on the second play.  On the first play, Jamel Dean, the other blitzing corner, hit Rodgers as he was throwing – forcing an incompletion.  On that occasion, Aaron had eschewed the wide open shorter routes and was trying to throw deep down the middle to Davante Adams – even though he was the only receiver who was actually covered on the play.

Had Aaron not been hit when he threw, that pass might well have been intercepted.

This, then, is the state of the Tampa Bay defense – and offense, for that matter – as they head into their showdown with Kansas City.  They are a dangerous, but big-play reliant offense that will struggle to put together long drives.  That offense is backed by a defense that is much better in man than in zone – that for some reason is adamant about playing a lot of zone.  In either coverage, they will almost certainly not be good enough to slow the Kansas City offense – unless they get a substantial pass rush.

If Kansas City can keep Tom Brady from completing the big strike (admittedly easier said than done), can avoiding giving them short fields on turnovers, and can reasonably protect Mahomes, this could be a long afternoon for Tampa Bay.

A Step Too Late

Right tackle Billy Turner was engaged with his pass block on Chicago’s Bilal Nichols, and probably wasn’t even aware of the corner rush.  Aaron Rodgers – Green Bay’s legendary quarterback – stood alone in an empty backfield.  There was no back hanging with him.  So when Duke Shelley came off the corner, there was no one to pick him up.  He came as a free rusher on the Packer quarterback.

It didn’t matter.

One step before Shelly reached Rodgers, Aaron lofted the football up the field.

Green Bay lined up with three receivers to Aaron’s right and two to his left – the side that Shelley would come from.  The Bears were in cover four, with the two non-rushing cornerbacks and the two safeties each taking a deep fourth of the field.

Davante Adams (who was to the left of Rodgers) and Allen Lazard (to the right) went about ten yards up field and turned around.  As they did, the two defenders responsible for the deep middle of the field stopped with them – Tashaun Gipson hovering over Adams, and Eddie Jackson ready to deny any pass in Lazard’s direction.

This was all well and good, except for one thing.  The most inside receiver on the three-receiver side – Marquez Valdes-Scantling – didn’t stop.  He exploded into the gaping void that the deep middle had now become.  Of course, that was where Aaron had directed the football, and Valdes-Scantling – with linebacker Danny Trevathan in futile chase – gathered the ball in and sprinted the final 42 yards into the end zone.

That touchdown, coming with 8:31 left in the first half, gave the Packers their first lead of the game (14-10), and as such served as a kind of turning point in the contest – an eventual 35-16 Green Bay victory (gamebook) (summary).  It was also a singular occurrence – an aberration, if you will, weighed against the rest of the game – even as it revealed two recurring issues that did much to define the outcome.

First the singularity.

That 72-yard touchdown was the only play of 20 yards or more that Green Bay executed the entire game. (One small caveat here.  Early in the third quarter, Valdes-Scantling found himself behind the defense again – in almost the same area of the field – for what would have been a 53-yard touchdown, but he dropped Rodgers perfectly thrown pass.)

This speaks directly to the defensive game-plan developed by coach Matt Nagy and defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano.

Playing the Packers twice a year, Chicago is very familiar with Aaron Rodgers.  Over the course of his 16-year career, Rodgers is now 20-5 against the Bears with a 107.2 passer rating against them.  The 4 touchdown passes he tossed against them on Sunday bring him to 55 in 25 career games against Chicago – his most against any team.  Clearly, in this case, familiarity breeds more contempt than success for Chicago.  In his two victories against them this year, Aaron completed 40 of 53 passes (75.5%) for 451 yards and 8 touchdowns with no interceptions.

Defending Rodgers

This time around, the Chicago brain-trust devised a complimentary-football approach that came closer to working than the score indicates.  With the offense controlling the clock and keeping Rodgers on the sidelines, the defense set up with their two deep safeties (Gipson and Jackson).  Chicago rarely blitzes anyway – at 29.5% they have football’s fourth-lowest blitz percentage.  In this game, they blitzed even less – coming after Rodgers just 4 times.

They did a lot of faux-blitzing where a linebacker (like Khalil Mack) would join the rush with a lineman dropping out in coverage.  The corner rush on the touchdown pass was such a ploy, as Akiem Hicks dropped out of the rush into a short middle zone.

It was almost always four rushers, but not necessarily the four down linemen rushing.

The intent of the whole plan was to steal a few possessions of game time and prevent the big play at all cost.  If the Packers were going to score, they were going to have to do it with a series of long drives.

The concept was more successful than not.  The Packers had only 7 possessions for the game.  Apart from the long touchdown pass, Green Bay was only able to put together two touchdown “drives,” one of 80 yards and the other of 76 yards.  In the end, the Pack was held to just 44 offensive plays and 316 total yards.  The difference in what would have been a razor-close 21-16 game and the 35-16 decisive loss was two short field touchdowns Green Bay scored after turnovers by the Chicago offense.  Green Bay recovered a fumble on the Bear 22 about midway through the second quarter, and returned an interception to the Chicago 26 late in the fourth.

Almost always in Chicago these days, it comes back to the offense.

The Offense Giveth and the Offense Taketh Away

As damaging as the turnovers were, it would be a disservice to present them as the offense’s only impact on the game.  The Bears ran the ball with more commitment than most would have expected.  Thirty-one running plays took their toll on a Green Bay defense that endured 74 plays and 35 minutes and 29 seconds of ball possession.  Against that, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky completed 78.6 percent of his passes (33 of 42) – albeit for only 252 yards (7.64 per completion) as the Bears picked at Green Bay’s underneath coverages.

Only 7 of Mitch’s 42 passes were more than 10 yards from scrimmage.  Not very cinematic, but it kept the chains moving.  Chicago backed a solid 6-for-15 showing on third down with a surprising 5-for-6 on fourth down.  They put 356 yards and 21 first downs on the Green Bay defense.

But, the one fourth down they missed came at a critical junction of the game, they finished just 1-for-5 in the Red Zone – and there were the two turnovers.

The main takeaway here is that the gap between the 8-8 Bears (who will go into the playoffs as the seventh seed) and the 13-3 Packers (who will enjoy a bye and the conference’s top seed) lies – for the most part – in Chicago’s inability to limit their mistakes.  That being said, there were two other recurring issues that inform the playoff trajectories of both of these teams.

Secondary Issues

The Valdes-Scantling touchdown was one of several examples of soft play from the Chicago secondary. Here, both safeties dropped coverage on Marquez’ vertical.  In other instances, it was a mental error or a simple failure to adjust the defensive design to the demands of the coverage.

With 4:37 left in a still close (21-16) game, and Green Bay facing a second-and-nine from the Chicago 18-yard line, the Bears deployed in man coverage (after playing mostly zone early, they went more-and-more to man defenses as the game progressed).  Well, everyone was in man except for slot corner Shelley.  As Allen Lazard ran a shallow cross, Shelley – who should have had him in coverage – dropped into a zone, curling away from the receiver that was his responsibility.  Seeing Lazard uncovered, linebacker Josh Woods tried to run with him, and was able to catch him from behind – but not until Allen gained 14 yards on the catch-and-run.  Green Bay scored a touchdown on the next play.

With 5:40 left in the first half, Green Bay faced third-and-four on the Chicago 16.  With Adams in the slot to the right, he was the responsibility of slot-corner Shelley, who played with outside leverage on Davante, knowing he had safety help inside.  But that safety (Gipson) was 15 yards off the line (remember, this was third-and-four), so all Adams had to do was curl to the inside of Shelley and he was sufficiently open to catch the pass for the first down.

Green Bay would go on to score the touchdown that would give them the 21-13 halftime lead.  Every time that the Bears’ secondary mistakes let Green Bay off the hook, the Packers put the ball in the end zone.  Every.  Single.  Time.

Three plays earlier, Chicago came with one of their rare blitzes, bringing Jackson from Aaron’s left and playing man behind it.  Problem was that Green Bay lined up two tight ends (Marcedes Lewis and Dominique Dafney) to the right, where there was only one defender (Shelley, again) to cover both.

At the snap, Dafney ran an inside route and Shelley went with him.  After chipping on end Robert Quinn. Lewis rolled out into the flat where he was all alone.  That would have been an 11-yard pickup, but the gain was nullified when Adams pushed Shelley in the back.

These were the most glaring errors. But the secondary play in general was soft and more than a little tentative.  They successfully limited the big play.  Davante Adams never had a completion over 9 yards, but he caught 6 passes for 46 yards – with four of the six going for first downs (including a touchdown).

For his part, Rodgers had only 4 completions on passes more than 10 yards downfield, but he completed 15 of 16 short passes.  He also worked over the middle of the field – mostly exploiting the safeties.  In passes to the middle of the field, Aaron was 8-for-9 for 148 yards and 2 touchdowns.

This is a potentially critical issue for Chicago.  Against New Orleans (their WildCard opponent) soft play in the secondary will almost certainly prove fatal.  So too, by the way, will turnovers and red zone failures.

A Step Too Late

Referring a final time to the touchdown pass that we began with, the final element to consider is Shelley’s pass rush – just one step too slow.

For a quarterback who was only sacked once, and only blitzed four times, Aaron Rodgers found himself under a substantial amount of pressure.  For all that he only threw 24 passes, there were a good handful of rushers who came free or nearly free.  In nearly all cases, they were a step too late.  With his veteran’s understanding of defenses and his absolute command of all of the pieces of his offense, Aaron’s ability to diagnose where the ball should go and the quickness he displayed in getting it out of his hands was as determining a factor in the victory as any of the other items listed here.

Aaron converted a third-and-eight in the first quarter on a check-down to Aaron Jones just as Robert Quinn was bringing him to the ground.  On the pass to Lewis referred to earlier, Jackson came free on the blitz, but he couldn’t get there in time.  In similar fashion, Hicks came free on a stunt on the third-down throw to Adams noted above.  He converted a second-and-six to Robert Tonyan in the third quarter with Quinn rushing up on him from behind.  Again, not in time.  The 14-yard pass to Lazard with 4:37 left in the game also came with Quinn (who was unblocked on the play) in his face.

For the afternoon, Rodgers was 9 for 10 for 154 yards and 2 touchdowns when the ball was out of his hands in less than 2.5 seconds.

This is the bind that a defense finds itself in against the elite quarterbacks – and right now Mr. Rodgers is playing at as high a level as anyone in the business – a circumstance that bodes well for the Packers in the upcoming tournament.

Green Bay’s Imperfrect Storm

According to the various game reports, the Green Bay Packers were cruising early last Sunday, as they pulled out to a 10-0 lead over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  This lasted right up to the 12:50 mark of the second quarter, when a Tampa Bay cornerback named Jamel Dean stepped in front of Packer receiver Davante Adams and intercepted Aaron Rodgers’ pass – returning it 32 yards for the touchdown.  With that play flipping the momentum, the Bucs came roaring back for the victory.

There is, of course, a strong element of truth there.  Tampa Bay did go on to score the final 38 points on the evening in a convincing 38-10 victory (gamebook) (summary).  The truth, as usual, is more nuanced than that.  Even before this particular tipping point, there were signs that all was not right with the Packers.  Rodgers – beyond the interception – endured what must surely be one of the worst games of his storied career, but the fault extends well beyond Aaron’s struggles as he was widely let down by his teammates – and, for that matter, even the design of the offense contributed to the lopsided loss.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the Packers ran into a Tampa Bay team playing its most complete game of the season.  The offense was near flawless as they committed no turnovers, committed no penalties, suffered no sacks, and went 4-for-4 in the red zone.  Defensively, they played much tighter in their zone coverages than they have previously, and, from about the mid-point of the third quarter on, they switched to stifling man coverages that I didn’t know they had in them.

For Green Bay, it all amounted to an imperfect storm.

Starting With Aaron

From the very beginning of the game, Rodgers was playing fast and a little on the frenetic side.  With 11:27 left in a still scoreless first quarter, the Packers dialed up a quick wide receiver screen to Equanimeous St. Brown along the left sideline.  But the moment the ball reached Rodgers hands, he spun and immediately fired the ball, well before St. Brown could possibly turn around and catch it.

Arguably, his most frazzled moment came with 5:24 left in the first – with the Packers up 3-0, facing a first-and-10 on the Buccaneer 41.  His first target on the play was Adams on a quick out.  The window would have been a little tight, but Rodgers has made tighter throws than that.  For whatever reason, though, he decided against it and pulled the ball down.  Just in front of him, he had Aaron Jones wide open underneath the zone.  But Aaron couldn’t pull the trigger.

At this point, although the pocket was still fairly secure, Rodgers bolted, spinning out to his left.  He pumped to throw, but pulled the ball down, and spun again back to his right – all but running right into William Gholston – a Tampa Bay defensive lineman.  Escaping his grasp, Aaron scrambled back to his right where he fired the ball out of bounds in the general direction of Adams.

In spite of this shakiness, Aron recovered enough to finish off the touchdown drive, and finished the first quarter 8 for 12.

His first play of the second quarter found Aaron escaping the pocket again at the first hint of pressure.  After more scrambling, he threw high to Jones in the flat.  On second down, Rodgers rolled right on a naked boot.  No one had blocked Jason Pierre-Paul, who seemed more interested in containing Rodgers than forcing the issue.  As Aaron meandered toward the right sideline, with JPP keeping a watchful eye on him, he had some opportunities.  He had TE Robert Tonyan underneath and he had Malik Taylor at the sticks.  But Rodgers didn’t throw the ball until he threw it away the moment before he went out of bounds.

On the next play, he threw the first of his two game-changing interceptions.

Unsettled by the Blitz

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Rodgers was relentlessly blitzed, but DC Todd Bowles did make that extra rusher a substantial part of his game plan.  Of the 41 times that Aaron dropped back, he saw an extra rusher 18 times (43.9%).  In spite of the fact that 3 of the 4 sacks that Tampa Bay recorded against Aaron came on the blitz, they weren’t generally effective in getting pressure on the Green Bay quarterback.  What it did do, though, was to speed up his clock.  Almost always, as soon as he saw the blitz coming, Rodgers would immediately unload the ball.

This is what happened on both of his interceptions.  On the first one, Sean Murphy-Bunting was coming unblocked from the secondary.  But he was still more than five yards away from Rodgers when Aaron quickly snapped the ball to a covered Adams.  On third down of the subsequent possession, Tampa Bay sent 6 rushers.  In spite of the fact that the blitz was pretty much completely picked up, Aaron rushed the throw to Adams, who hadn’t achieved any kind of separation from CB Carlton Davis.  The ball was batted by Davis (or Adams) and may have been tipped at the line by JPP.  It eventually ended up in the arms of safety Mike Edwards, who returned the pick to the two-yard line.  One play after that, Tampa Bay had a 14-10 lead.

The day didn’t get any worse than that for Rodgers, but it never got much better.  He made other rushed decisions and passes.  Other times, he had open receivers that he just threw poorly to.  It was a day that Aaron could certainly have used some help from his teammates.  He wouldn’t get it.

Little Help from His Friends

For their part, the rest of the offense had a correspondingly bad day.  The offensive line was spotty in protection – especially against the blitz – and running back Jamaal Williams (one of the Packers’ most improved players) was repeatedly unable to pick up blitzing linebackers and defensive backs.

As for the receivers, they were officially charged with 6 dropped passes – although a few of those were a little unfair.  Marcedes Lewis was charged with a drop on a throw that was well beyond him.  His dive for it brought him close enough to have the ball brush off his fingertip.  Nonetheless, there were enough legitimate drops to add to Aaron’s frustrations.

Even the usually reliable Davante Adams contributed to the offensive malaise.  He was charged with two drops of his own, and, with Green Bay facing a third-and-8 with 5:40 left in the third, he uncovered on a deep throw up the right sideline and hauled in one of Aaron’s best and most confident throws of the game.  But the pass was ruled incomplete, as Adams – who caught the ball with his back to the sideline – failed to negotiate the sideline and stepped out of bounds.

At least a half-dozen other times, Rodgers stared into the teeth of Tampa Bay’s zone defenses only to find he had no outlet or underneath route to dump the ball off to.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a game plan that routinely didn’t provide for check-down routes against the zone defenses they knew they would see.

The futility was general – and seemed to effect the entire team.

If I were to speculate on a reason – other than it was just one of those days – I might point to the lack of the running game.

Running the ball against the Bucs has become almost legendarily difficult.  Last year, they allowed an average of just 73.8 rushing yards per game, and only 3.3 yards per carry – both figures were the best in the NFL.  This year so far they have been even better.  They came into the Packer game surrendering just 58.4 rushing yards per game, and only 2.7 yards per carry – again, both numbers were the NFL’s best.

In spite of the fact that the Packers were among football’s best running teams (averaging 150.8 yards per game and 5.1 yards per attempt), Green Bay’s response was to give up on the run before they even took the field.  They ran the ball just 10 times in the first half, and only 21 times on the day – many of those late in the fourth after the contest was decided.

Over the last few seasons, the Packers have become more reliant on the balance their running game provides than, perhaps, even they are aware.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the abandonment of this foundation of their offense wasn’t a contributing factor in the general disorientation that the offense experienced.  I wrote a couple days ago about identity.  Green Bay surrendered an important chunk of its identity before the game even kicked off.

Recognizing the Defense

In caviling the various elements of the Packer offense, I’m afraid some readers might understand this as minimizing the contributions of the Buccaneer defense.  That couldn’t be farther from my intentions.

If anything, last Sunday’s game served as a coming out party for one of the NFL’s most compelling defensive units.  Through their first 5 games, their patented zone defenses were distressingly squishy.  Only four teams in football started Week Six allowing a higher completion percentage than the Bucs –a problematic 70.9%.

There was none of that on Sunday (helped, of course, by the fact that Green Bay frequently didn’t provide for a check down).  Rodgers came in completing 70.5% on the season.  He left town having completed just 16 of 35 – 45.7%.

But as tight as the zone coverages were, the revelation to me from the game was the Tamp Bay Buccaneers in man coverage – especially Carlton Davis, who was generally Adams’ escort for the evening.

Davis didn’t shut out Green Bay’s most dangerous receiver, but he pretty much played him to a draw.  Adams finished with 6 catches, but for just 61 yards, no touchdowns and no plays longer than 18 yards.  And without explosive plays from Davante, the rest of the receiving corps was fairly easily silenced.  Number two receiver – Marquez Valdes-Scantling covered mostly by Murphy-Bunting – found precious little space.  He finished with 3 catches for 32 yards.  Taylor has become Green Bay’s the third receiver – he had no receptions and only one target.

Green Bay’s Persistent Concern

Once again, the question comes down to receiving depth in Green Bay.  It was a worry last year.  It was part of the angst of the recent draft.  And on Sunday, it came back to bite them again.  One of the reasons – I believe – that Tampa Bay was so comfortable in calling man coverages was because after Adams, the Packers didn’t have anyone that would strike fear into them.

In a Week Three win over New Orleans, Allen Lazard erupted with a 146-yard receiving game – and immediately went on IR.  His return might have a sizeable impact on this offense.

But for right now, no one knows when that return will be.  And no one seems to have any other immediate answers.

The Atlanta Falcons Soar Into Super Bowl LI

In the moments before their game against the Atlanta Falcons, the Green Bay Packers won the coin toss and elected to defer.  The afternoon was all downhill for them from there.

The Falcons took the opening kickoff and moved 80 yards in 13 plays in a drive that consumed the first 6:36 of the game to take a 7-0 lead.

The next time they got their hands on the ball (starting on their own 31), they moved the ball 59 yards in 12 plays consuming five more minutes (and 21 seconds).  By the time Matt Bryant added the field goal, there were just 14 seconds left in the first quarter, and the Packers already trailed 10-0.

The second quarter would prove similar. Another 80-yard drive on their first possession of that quarter pushed the Falcon lead to 17-0.  They went into the locker room at half-time leading 24-0 after a 5-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Julio Jones with just three seconds left capped a quick 68 yard drive.

The Packers made a little second half noise, but they were never truly in this one, falling by a final score of 44-21.  The Atlanta Falcons (who only attempted 6 passes in the second half) will now advance to their second ever Super Bowl to face New England on Sunday.

So, How Good is the Falcon’s Offense?

Pretty darn good.

They finished the regular season as one of the top scoring offenses in NFL history, racking up 540 points (an average of 33.8 per game).  They then put up 36 points against Seattle in their first playoff game, before hanging 44 on the Packers.  By yardage they finished second in the league this year (third in passing yards and fifth in rushing yards).  Quarterback Ryan finished completing 69.9% of his passes for almost 5,000 yards.  He averaged 9.26 yards for every pass attempted, and 13.3 for every pass he completed.  His regular season touchdown-to-interception ratio was 38-7.

Prominent on the receiving end is record-setting wide receiver Julio Jones, who stormed through the regular season hauling in 83 passes for 1409 yards.  In the signature moment of the Championship Game, he beat cornerback Ladarious Gunter to the inside for a 73-yard catch-and-run touchdown that pushed the score to 31-0.  Julio would finish the afternoon with 9 catches for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns.

But the game – like the season – belonged to Ryan.  At 27 of 38 for 392 yards and 4 touchdowns, Matt picked the Packer defense clean.  A predominantly man coverage team, the Packers lined up in man coverage against Jones and the Falcon receivers for 26 of the 38 passes (68.4%).  They didn’t come close to slowing them down.  Ryan sliced their man coverages for 16 completions in those 26 attempts (61.5%).  Fifteen of those 16 completions earned first downs as Ryan totaled 269 yards with those passes (10.35 per attempt and 16.8 per completion).  Three of his four TD passes came with the Packers in man coverages.

Gunter was supposed to have help with Jones, but it never materialized.  Slightly more than one third of the time the Packers were in man, Ryan looked for Jones, throwing 9 of the 26 passes in his direction.  Julio finished catching seven of them for 140 yards and both of his touchdowns.  The Packer man coverage schemes clearly didn’t work.

But neither did their zones.  Ryan and the Falcon passing game were equally proficient when Green Bay dropped into zone coverage.  Matty completed 11 of 12 (91.7%) of his passes against the zone defenses for 123 yards and his initial touchdown pass.

In their own evaluation of the execution of their strategy, the Packers will probably concede that they knew they were asking, perhaps, too much of a somewhat banged up secondary.  But they were counting on getting enough pressure on Ryan to give their secondary a chance to compete.  Indeed, when Ryan did face significant pressure (and I grant this is a small sample size), he was a fairly mortal 4 for 7 for 57 yards and no touchdowns.  But the Packer pressure was sporadic and all too often the Green Bay secondary was hung out to dry.  Top pass rusher Clay Matthews was mostly a non-factor.  He finished with one tackle, no sacks and three pressures.  He spent 90% of his evening lining up opposite of Falcon left tackle Jake Matthews.  While Jake effectively eliminated Clay, it should also be pointed out that Clay has been battling a fairly serious shoulder injury all year.  Whether it was the Falcon offensive lineman or the limits of his health – or some combination of the two – the absence of Clay’s outside pressure was a critical blow to the Green Bay defensive scheme.

A couple of numbers that more fully illustrate the dominance of the Falcon passing game:

Ryan threw 15 passes from his own side of the 50-yard line.  He completed 14 of those passes (93.3%) for 231 yards.  His passer rating from his side of the field was 141.0.  For the game, seven of their nine possessions ended in Green Bay territory, and they ran 44 of their 68 plays (64.7%) on the Green Bay side of the field.

Additionally, the more balanced Atlanta offense adds to the effectiveness of Ryan’s play-action passing game – something they should, perhaps, do more of.  Ryan only went play-action seven times, but completed six of those passes for 179 yards and the 73-yard touchdown to Jones.  Jones, in fact, was the target of 4 of those 7 play-action passes, and accounted for 4 completions and 133 yards. Julio is very dangerous all the time – but especially when the Falcons run play-action.

And then, there was third down.  The Falcons finished the game a devastating 10 for 13 in third down situations, including 6 of 9 when the third down was six yards or more.  Ryan was 10 for 11 (90.9%) passing on third down for 101 yards.  Nine of his ten completions went for first downs.  Three of his touchdown passes came on third-down throws.  It all adds up to a 144.5 rating on third down.

But with all the positives of the un-stoppable passing game, there are a few cautionary observations to make.  First, it can’t be forgotten that the Packers finished the season ranked thirty-first out of thirty-two teams in pass defense.  That was by yardage allowed.  But the passer rating against them was a troubling 95.9 (ranking them twenty-sixth in the league).  The New England team that they are set to face on Sunday allowed opposing passers an 84.4 rating (they finished eighth).  In addition, the Patriots allowed the fewest points of any team in the league.  Ryan-to-Jones is a devastating combination, and it’s unlikely that New England will be able to shut them down completely.  But it’s not unreasonable to think that they will be able to slow them more than Green Bay could.

If all Atlanta has on Sunday evening in Houston is Ryan-to-Jones, I don’t think it will be enough.  Which brings me to the Falcon running game.

After a season of accolades, the Atlanta Falcon running game continued a pattern of fading against the league’s better run defenses.  Including their two playoff games, Atlanta has played 5 games against defenses ranked eighth or better at stopping the run.  In those games, the Falcons have averaged 86.4 yards.  The only time in any of those games that they cracked 100 yards was the Championship Game against Green Bay.  They managed 101 yards on 30 carries in that game.  Leading by 24 at the half, the Falcons went into the second half with the goal of establishing their running game. They focused to the extent that 16 of their 22 second half plays were runs.  They managed just 47 yards on those carries (2.9 per).  These struggles continued even after Green Bay lost starting inside linebacker Jake Ryan to injury about midway through the third quarter.  Additionally, 23 of the yards they did get came on scrambles from Ryan and 7 more were the result of a direct snap to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu out of the Wildcat formation.  As far as running backs taking handoffs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman (who combined for 1599 yards this season), combined for only 71 yards on 25 carries during the game.

Much of the yardage that they did get came as a result of Green Bay defenders over-running the play and leaving the talented Falcon running backs open cutback lanes – something the disciplined Patriot linebackers are unlikely to do.

New England finished the season allowing just 88.6 rushing yards per game – the third-best total in the NFL this year.  If Atlanta is unable to run the ball against the Patriots, I expect that Ryan and the passing game will have a much more difficult evening than they did last Sunday.

This, I feel, is all the more likely after getting a close look at the Falcon offensive line.  In the aftermath of a 44-21 blowout, you would expect to see domination on the part of the winning team’s offensive line.  To state it directly, I was unimpressed.  Matthews (as mentioned) did a nice job pass blocking against Matthews. I’m not completely sure if that was due to great blocking or injury on the part of Green Bay’s Matthews.  Left guard Andy Levitre had some very good moments, throwing some excellent blocks, but also had very bad moments where he was beaten quickly both in pass blocking and run blocking.  Center Alex Mack and right guard Chris Chester mostly failed to defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion (Daniels, in particular, had a very strong game against all of Atlanta’s interior linemen), allowing the Packer linebackers to mostly flow freely to the point of attack.  And right tackle Ryan Schraeder – although a four-year veteran and two-year starter seemed to struggle most, seeming slow to react.

I don’t expect this team to run the ball against the Patriots.  Matt Ryan and his passing game will gain yards and put up points, but not as many as they have been wont to score throughout the year.  Which leads to what I consider to be the most important question regarding this year’s Super Bowl.

How Good is the Falcon Defense?

As the Packers began the season, their backfield featured Eddie Lacy as the main running threat.  He lasted five weeks before succumbing to a lingering ankle injury.  Later on James Starks resurfaced for a few games before he also landed on the injured reserve list.  A running back named Don Jackson played in three games, starting one, before his season ended with an undisclosed injury after Week Nine.

By the time the Green Bay offense took the field for the first time in the Championship Game, their running game was reduced to a converted wide receiver (Ty Montgomery), a Seattle castoff (Christine Michael) and fullback Aaron Ripkowski.

The Packers opened the playoffs running just 25 times for 75 yards against the Giants.  They followed that up running just 17 times against Dallas for 87 yards.  Last Sunday, they came into Atlanta with no intention of running at all. After Montgomery gained four yards on Green Bay’s very first play, the Pack threw on their next eight plays.

Midway through the second quarter, when Ripkowski burst over left guard for a 12-yard run, it was only the third Packer running play in their first 13 plays.  And, after Ripkowski fumbled the ball away at the end of that run, it would be the last Packer running play until they trailed 31-0 and there was 13:46 left in the third quarter. (Montgomery would take the Packers’ fourth running play of the day on their twenty-sixth offensive snap.)  Fifty-five offensive plays into their afternoon, Green Bay had all of ten running plays, and two of them were scrambles by their quarterback.

With the game well out of reach late in the fourth quarter, the Packers ended their season running on 7 of the last 9 plays.  They ended the game with 99 yards on 17 rushes.  Subtract the three scrambles from QB Aaron Rodgers and two designed QB runs, and the actual yardage gained by running backs taking handoffs was 39 yards on 12 carries – most of them late.

Sometimes defenses have to work to make teams one dimensional.  The Packers were one dimensional coming off the bus.  Even though the Falcon defense has been vulnerable to the run all year (allowing 104.5 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry) and even though Atlanta had at least five defensive backs on the field for every defensive snap of the game, Green Bay never tried to exploit this opportunity.  So dormant was the Packer running attack, that in 50 called passing plays, Rodgers threw just one play-action pass.

Instead, the Packers attempted to answer the Falcons’ high-efficiency offense with Aaron Rodgers throwing the ball to Jordy Nelson (playing with cracked ribs), Davante Adams (trying to stay on the field after spraining his ankle last week), Jared Cook (who dropped two more passes) and Randall Cobb.  Factor in the loss of three more offensive starters to injury as the game progressed (the Packers lost Montgomery and two offensive linemen: Lane Taylor and T.J. Lang), plus the fact that Atlanta was up 17-0 almost before anyone could blink, and things seemed to tilt decidedly to the advantage of the Atlanta defense.  (In fact, the Packers put the ball into play trailing by twenty or more points on 43 of their 64 offensive snaps).

Yet, by game’s end, this limping, one-dimensional Packer offense had scuffled for 21 points and 367 yards, gaining 5.7 yards per offensive play.  In fact, take back Mason Crosby’s miss of a 41-yard field goal on Atlanta’s first possession and Ripkowski’s fumble at the Falcon 11-yard line on their second possession, and the Packers could easily have put up 31 or so points against this Atlanta defense that finished twenty-fifth in the league in yards allowed and twenty-seventh in points allowed.

The television crew that broadcast this game went to great lengths to praise the Atlanta defense.  I’m not sure I’m convinced.

The Falcons also played decidedly more man coverages than they did zone, and showed weaknesses in both.  Rodgers was 12 for 19 against the Falcon zones (63.2%) for 147 yards (an average of 12.25 yards per completion).  The Falcon linebackers – and specifically middle linebacker Deion Jones – frequently got lost in zone coverages.  Randall Cobb – whose quickness is reminiscent of Patriot receivers like Julian Edelman – caught four of the five passes thrown to him in zone coverage for 78 yards and four first downs.

Even more telling, in the man coverages that the Falcons prefer, they had noted difficulty finding someone who could cover Jared Cook, the Packer tight end.  Cook finished with 7 catches for 78 yards.  He also had the two drops that would have accounted for at least 13 more yards.  Particularly ineffective against the Packer TE was safety Keanu Neal who was completely manhandled in his attempts to cover him.  If covering Cook is a challenge, how much more difficult will an accomplished tight end like the Patriots Martellus Bennett be.

When playing Green Bay, most teams focus on keeping Rodgers in the pocket.  Atlanta managed that for the most part by blitzing him.  On almost 47% of the Packer pass plays (22 of 47), they sent five pass rushers his way.  None of these were exotic, overload blitzes designed to bring a free rusher.  Instead, the purpose of these blitzes was as much to keep Rodgers in the pocket as it was to hurry his process.  And in this, it was largely successful.  The blitz got to Aaron once, and Rodgers scrambled out of pressure three other times.  But he only threw from outside of the pocket 7 times, and completed only 3 of those passes (albeit for 82 yards).  His lone interception was thrown after he rolled out of the pocket and heaved a long pass downfield on third-and-21.

While there were some holes, there were a lot of things the Falcon defense did quite well.

In the wake of the Falcon’s victory, many of the commentators suggested that New England’s defense would be facing a unique challenge in the Atlanta offense.  They neglected to mention that Atlanta’s defense would be similarly challenged.  In New England, they will be facing a more balanced offense with another elite quarterback and receivers who aren’t battling injuries.

The Atlanta Falcons are an impressive team and they have made great strides over the last few years.  They have become an elite offensive team, but their defense still lags behind.  Far enough behind to be a liability against the Patriots.

The NFL Gamebook for this game can be found here.  The Pro Football Reference summary is here.

What Comes Next?

Ideally, I would like to get one more post written before Sunday, taking a closer look at the AFC Championship Game.  I am a little behind and facing a busy week, so I make no promises.

And then, some time after the Super Bowl – hopefully not too long – we will do a little analysis on the last game of the season.

The Film Room: Falcons Pass Defense Evolving

As they took the field for the first time last Sunday – with 9:41 left in the first quarter – the Atlanta Falcons defense – specifically their pass defense – was already suspect.  Through the first seven games, opposing quarterbacks had picked Atlanta’s squishy-soft zone defenses to the tune of a 67.2% completion rate (199 for 296).  Along the way they had surrendered 15 touchdown passes while only collecting 6 interceptions.  The lack of a consistent pass rush was one principal contributor.  They went into their Week Eight match-up with the Green Bay Packers (and elite quarterback Aaron Rodgers) with just 15 sacks (only 4.8% of the drop-backs against them).  The passer rating against them was a disappointing 96.9.  Top quarterbacks Drew Breese, Cam Newton and Philip Rivers had already stung them for over 300 yards.  Prospects against Rodgers were not encouraging.

Wearing the bullseye were the trio of cornerbacks: fourth-year players Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, and un-drafted rookie Brian Poole.  Poole was unheralded coming out of Florida, but Trufant (first round) and Alford (second round) were high draft investments by the club in 2013.  Alford has been starting for most of the last three seasons and Trufant has been a starter since being drafted, going to last year’s Pro Bowl.  Considering the recent investment in the pass defense, the results have been more than a little disappointing.

But mid-way into the first quarter on Sunday, the struggles continued unabated.

On his first snap from scrimmage, Rodgers dropped a 3-yard pass to wide receiver Dante Adams, comfortably open in front of Alford.  After two running plays, Rodgers flipped a 58-yards toss to Jordy Nelson running free behind the linebackers and in front of the secondary.

After another running play, Nelson crossed from the right into the middle of the end zone where he found yet another vacant spot in the Falcon’s zone.  Rodgers delivered the ball, and Green Bay had jumped in front 7-3 with 6:08 left in the first.

Rodgers had attempted 3 passes in that opening drive, completing all of them for 66 yards and the touchdown.

And at that moment – for one day, at least – Atlanta stopped being a predominantly zone coverage team.  When they came back on the field (with 4:28 left in the first) they would play man coverage almost exclusively the rest of the way. And – although it wouldn’t be overly noticeable in the statistics – the whole tenor of the game changed on that decision.  Rodgers – who was as sharp and precise as we’ve seen him in a while – still completed 25 of his last 35 passes (71.4%) and threw 3 more touchdown passes against Atlanta’s man defense.  But the “big-play” was pretty completely removed from the equation from that point on.

After racking up 66 yards on his first three passes, Aaron’s last 25 completions accounted for only 180 yards.  He would have only 2 more completions that accounted for more than 20 yards. Facing a second-and-21 from his 46, Rodgers dumped a screen pass to Davante Adams who carried it 22 yards after rookie safety Keanu Neal (another first-round draft pick in the Falcon secondary) missed the tackle in the Falcon backfield.  With 17 seconds left in the first half, Nelson caught a 21-yard pass over the middle that looked like it was tipped by Trufant.

Contrast the relatively easy touchdown pass to Nelson described above with the nine-yard touchdown pass that Rodgers threw to Trevor Davis with 4:22 left in the half.  Davis lined up in the slot on the right.  At the snap, he veered sharply right toward the sideline, broke the pattern and drove up-field into the end zone, where he executed a sharp buttonhook and curled back toward the corner of the end zone.  Throughout the entire route, Poole stayed exactly on his inside hip, breaking perfectly every time Davis broke.  When it came, Rodgers’ pass almost scraped the top of the goal line marker as he fired it into the very tiny window about knee high to the receiver and just barely beyond Poole’s fingertips.

It was like that the whole afternoon.

In the second half, Coach Dan Quinn took the next step and started blitzing Rodgers at least a little.  I think I saw only one blitz from Atlanta in the first half.  They came about a half dozen times in the second half – and even when they didn’t blitz the pass rush came after Rodgers with more intensity.

The added pressure reduced Rodgers’ effectiveness even more.  Although he still completed 11 of 17 in the second half (64.7%), those completions only totaled 76 yards (just 6.91 per completion).  Nelson, who finished the first half with 94 receiving yards and a touchdown had no receptions in the second half and only 2 targets.

In the end, all of this was just enough for Atlanta to squeak past with a 33-32 victory – yet another 30 point game against the Falcons. But maybe an important turning point.

Why this is important is because the Falcons have been an offensive highlight reel during the season’s first half.  After another explosion last night in a 43-28 dismissal of Tampa Bay, the Falcons now sit at number one in the NFL in offense (both in yards and in points per game – now up to 33.9).  Atlanta’s chances of going deep in the playoffs will depend almost entirely on improvement in the defense currently sitting at number 25 in yards and 28 for scoring.

One game isn’t necessarily indicative of a season, but against the Packers last Sunday the Falcons man coverage schemes seemed competitive in a way their zone coverages never did.

The NFL Gamebook for this contest can be found here, while the Football Reference summary is here.