Tag Archives: Green Bay Packers

Why Would You Blitz?

We’ve all had those days, right?  That “what was I thinking moment?”

Sometimes that bad decision is fueled by frustration.  Sometimes by desperation.  And sometimes, it’s a little of both.

Now in his third season as the defensive coordinator for Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs, Steve Spagnuolo had one of those days last Sunday.  And it’s easy to see how frustration and desperation might have played a part.

After a rugged beginning to the season, the KC defense entered last Sunday’s contest as hot as any defense in the league.  Rebounding from a 3-4 start, the defense had fueled an eight-game winning streak that elevated the Chief’s to the conference’s top spot.  During the streak, opposing teams had scored more than 17 points just once against Spagnuolo’s platoon, and were averaging just 12.9 points per game.

Passing against this defense had become close to impossible.  Over those previous eight weeks, passers against KC were limping along with a 77.6 rating (the NFL average is 90.6), averaging 219.4 passing yards a game and throwing 18 interceptions against just 10 touchdowns.

The defensive resurgence began when Charvarius Ward returned from quad and foot injuries, allowing the Chiefs to slide L’Jarius Sneed to slot corner.  With Rashad Fenton showing that he could hold up on the other corner, Kansas City could return to its predominant man-coverage schemes.

The problem, of course, is that some offenses are more challenging to play man coverage against than others.  And last Sunday, the Chiefs had to contend with one of those teams – the scorching hot Cincinnati Bengals and quarterback Joe Burrow – fresh off a 525-yard, 4-touchdown passing day against the Ravens.

Even though the Chiefs led by 14 points on three separate occasions in the first half, it was clear that the Cincinnati offense wasn’t going away quietly.  Burrow, credited by the SportRadar group that provides “advanced stats” to the football reference site (linked to below) as football’s most accurate passer, was every bit of that against the Chiefs.  Of the 38 passes thrown to a receiver (Joe had one throw away), 32 were judged to be on target – an impressive 84.2%.

While the game hinged on two deep shots late in the game, throughout the contest Burrow took significant advantage of the Chief man coverages with a heavy dose of wide receiver screens.  Of his 38 passes, 11 went to receivers behind the line of scrimmage.  Nine of those passes ended up as completions for 72 yards – an average of 8 yards per completion from his screen game.

At times during the contest – especially early – Spagnuolo tried to dampen the Cincy attack with some zone defenses.  The trouble is that Kansas City doesn’t really play zone very well, and the Bengals made them pay for all of their breakdowns.  Bengal receiver Ja’Marr Chase – who went off on Kansas City for 266 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns – scored Cincinnati’s two longest touchdowns of the game exploiting breakdowns in the KC zone.

With 2:13 left in the first quarter and Cincinnati already down 14-0, the Bengals faced a second-and-seven on their own 28-yard line.  On the play, Tee Higgins (who lined up to the offensive right side) ran a shallow cross over the middle.  That cross held the attention of linebacker Willie Gay Jr. and kept him from dropping deep enough into coverage to deny the curl that Chase was running just behind him, but well in front of safety Tyrann Mathieu.  Respecting Chase’s speed, and cognizant of his own deep responsibilities, Mathieu didn’t crowd Ja’Marr and was still 4.5 yards away from him when Chase caught the pass.  Alone, now, in a bubble of KC defenders, Ja’Marr employed his elite quickness to elude Mathieu and the rest of the Chief defense, turning an 11-yard curl into a 72-yard touchdown that flipped momentum and put the Bengals back in the game.

Now it’s the third quarter, Kansas City still up 28-17.  Cincy faces a third-and-four on its own 31-yard line.  Chase lines up wide to the offensive left, and the Chiefs answer with cover four.

At least most of the Chiefs are playing cover four.  Fenton – lined up over Chase on the outside – was under the impression that he had no deep responsibility.  After carrying Chase’s vertical about ten yards up the field, Rashad noticed Tyler Boyd running a crossing pattern behind the linebackers, and abruptly stopped running with Chase.  Boyd’s cross also held safety Daniel Sorensen – who had actual responsibility for that cross.  On tape, you can see Sorensen’s surprised reaction when Chase soars past Fenton.  Daniel tried to pursue, but by then it was long over.  Burrow’s perfect pass hit Ja’Marr in in stride for an easy 69-yard score.

In between the zone breakdowns, Burrow and his receivers were repeatedly beating very tight man coverages.  The numbers suggest that Kansas City’s defense had a terrible afternoon.  The truth is that when they played man coverage, they competed valiantly against the very talented Bengal receivers.  But time after time, standing in against frequent heavy pressure, Joe Burrow continued to make accurate throws into tight windows, and his receivers consistently outfought the Chief defenders for possession.

Frustrating, to say the least.

So now it’s late in the fourth quarter and the game is on the line.  After yet another brilliant catch against tight coverage by Chase, the Bengals are set up.  It’s first-and-ten on the KC 24.  The score is tied at 31-all, and a field goal could win it.

But the KC defense rises up.  A holding penalty pushes Cincy back ten.  Chris Jones then bursts through for a sack.  After Joe’s second down throw falls incomplete, the Bengals face a third-and-27.  Back now at the Chief 41, they are almost assuredly out of field goal range.  Even if their third-down play gains the 7-10 yards necessary to get them back in field goal range, there is still 3:19 left and the Chiefs – with all of their time outs – would have more than ample time to answer with a score of their own.

So here is my question (and it’s probably the same question that Steve has been asking himself ever since).  Given that situation – third-and-27 – why would you blitz?

Kansas City blitzes more than most, but they aren’t a live-or-die-by-the-blitz defense.  Jones, Jarran Reed and Frank Clark had been doing a more than adequate job of pressuring Burrow.  Unleash the pass rush, play a bit off the receivers, allow the short completion, rush up and make the tackle.  No real need to do more than that.

But Kansas City blitzes – and not just adding one extra rusher to the mix.  Spagnuolo sent seven, leaving his secondary, once again, isolated in man coverage.  The blitz was accounted for, with only Sorensen (pressing up the middle) getting close enough to force Burrow to throw over him just a bit.  Up the right sideline, Ward was running step-for-step with Chase again.  In spite of the pressure, the throw was a perfect back shoulder toss.  Ja’Marr went up, rotating in mid-air away from the defender, secured the catch, and added a final three yards before running out of bounds.

On third-and-27, Burrow and Chase pulled a 30-yard rabbit out of their hats.  Now, it was first-and-ten on the 11-yard line, giving Cincinnati ample opportunity to run down the clock, exhaust all of Kansas City’s time outs, and kick the game-winning field goal as time expired (gamebook) (summary).

With the win, Cincinnati secured their division title.  The loss knocked the Chiefs out of the conference’s top seed, dropping them behind Tennessee.  The Bengals are currently third and will probably stay there – although both teams do have an outside shot at the top seed.

With Tennessee’s staying power in question – depending on how the future shakes out regarding Derrick Henry – a KC/Cincinnati rematch in the AFC title game isn’t at all unlikely. If there is a rematch, it will be in Arrowhead.  The expectation is that such a rematch would be every bit as entertaining.

In this one, the microcosm of the KC loss occurred four plays before the final pass to Chase.

It’s second-and-eight for the Bengals on their own 41.  The Chiefs are blitzing again, sending six rushers – and this time with better results.  Jones bowled right through guard Jackson Carman (who was replacing the injured Quinton Spain), Reed was steadily pushing center Trey Hopkins back into Burrow’s lap, and linebacker Anthony Hitchens had just sped right around tackle Isaiah Prince.  All three defenders were collapsing on Burrow.

Up the right sideline, it would be Chase vs Ward again, although this time Mathieu was aligned to the right to add support.  Even as the rush was about to bowl him over, Joe was still able to hold Mathieu with his eyes before launching the pass to Chase.

Again, both the receiver and the defender leapt into the air.  This time, though, Ward elevated high enough to bat the ball.  But, instead of dropping harmlessly to the ground, the pass had enough force behind it to skip off of Charvarius’ hand and sail right into Ja’Marr’s grasp for a 35-yard gain.

When it’s your day, it’s your day.  And last Sunday clearly belonged to Burrow, Chase and the Cincinnati Bengals.

Another Hot Quarterback in Green Bay

After opening up a 20-3 halftime lead in frigid (11 degrees) Green Bay, the Packers and Aaron Rodgers took their foot off the gas a little.  Through the first thirty minutes, Rodgers and his offense picked a depleted Viking defense clean.  The running game rang up 88 yards (at 7.3 yards a rush), and Aaron went into the locker room having completed 20 of 25 passes (80%) for 211 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Most of that air traffic went through Davante Adams, who caught 8 of those passes for 118 yards.

Thereafter, as Green Bay coasted to its 37-10 win (gamebook) (summary), Aaron threw just 13 second half passes, only 4 in Davante’s direction.  They ran the ball 20 times after intermission and finished with 174 rushing yards.

On Friday, I said that there were no “invincible” teams in the tournament.  The Packers might be the closest to that standard.  At 38 years of age, Rodgers has never been better, and his connection with Adams will be a challenge for any defense to disrupt.  After many years, Green Bay has finally embraced the balance its running attack brings, and both of their primary running backs (Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon) are forces to be contended with in their own right.

As of this writing, Green Bay was still down both of their starting tackles (Billy Turner and the all-but-irreplaceable David Bakhtiari), so I still feel they’re a little vulnerable to a team with a good outside pass rush (that and an egregious official’s call is how Tampa Bay knocked them off last year), but beyond that, this is a team with precious few weaknesses.

The defense has been an asset all season, and was extra dominant against the Vikings.

In a game where they managed only 206 yards of offense and went 2-for-12 on third down, the Vikings never held the ball for more than 3:22 nor ran more than 8 offensive plays on any of their 11 drives.  Their lone touchdown drive – which came when they were already down 30-3 – was the only time in the game that they advanced the ball more than 43 yards.  The Viking defense paid the price for their offense’s inability to stay on the field.  Green Bay controlled the ball for 38:33 of the game’s sixty minutes.

The Packers’ defensive dominance comes with a couple of caveats. 

First, of course, is the fact that Minnesota was starting its backup quarterback.  With Kirk Cousins landing on the COVID list, the mantle fell to Sean Mannion who struggled in his only start of the year – and just the fourth of his career.

Strangely enough – considering that the Vikings had a backup quarterback on the field – the second caveat is that the Vikings neglected to run the ball.

Sharing the backfield with Mannion was All-Pro running back Dalvin Cook who entered the night as the fourth-most prolific ground gainer in the NFL with 1067 yards.

In the post-game, Head Coach Mike Zimmer was asked why he thought his team was unable to establish a running game.  His answer was frank.  “Honestly,” he said, “I don’t think we stuck with it enough.”

The assessment was spot on.  When you have one of the best backs in the league, when you’re starting your backup quarterback, and when you need to control the clock and keep Rodgers and the Green Bay offense off the field, then yes, 9 carries – only 2 of them in the second half – is not enough.

But beyond the substance of his statement was the tone.  Zimmer spoke of his absent running game with a head-shaking sense of wonder – as though he, himself, was having a hard time understanding why the man (Klint Kubiak) that he had brought in to run his offense hadn’t even attempted to establish any kind of run presence.

Their 27 rush yards (which included a total of -1 yard in the second half) represented Minnesota’s lowest ground output of the season, and even given the size of their final deficit it’s difficult to justify.

The Cousins Discussion

As we are finished with the Viking for the season, it’s time for us to have that Kirk Cousins discussion.

There is probably no one in the NFL that I pull for more than Cousins.  I do not know him personally, but everyone who has had contact with him on and off the field holds him in the absolute highest regard.  He is – by all accounts – a terrific teammate and a relentlessly hard worker.  He embodies everything that is good and right about football.

He is also a terrific quarterback.

Over his ten-year career, Kirk has thrown for 32,343 yards, leading to 220 touchdowns against just 91 interceptions.  He heads into his season finale carrying a 101.3 passer rating.  This will be the third consecutive season that he’s finished over the 100 plateau.  His career passer rating of 98.4 ranks sixth all-time.  Better than Tom Brady (97.5).  Better than Peyton Manning (96.5).  Better than Joe Montana (92.3).

Furthermore, his statistics are not a mirage.  Kirk excels doing all the things that quarterbacks are supposed to do.  He reads defenses, looks off defenders, and makes all of the throws with plus accuracy.  In nearly every way that you can measure quarterbacks, Kirk measures up with the very best in the game.

Except, of course, in wins.

For all of his statistical excellence, Cousins is 58-59-2 for his career.  He is 27-26-2 in games decided by 7 points or less.  He is 2-9 on Monday night, 10-17 in prime-time games, 16-19 in December, and 1-2 in the playoffs.

In missing the playoffs the last two years, Cousins has lost 12 one-score games, including all 8 of his losses this year.  In almost none of those losses can you point the finger at Kirk and claim that he was the reason the Vikings lost.  And yet, in almost all of them there was one more play out there that could have been made that he didn’t make.

Over his career, a troubling pattern has emerged and refused to go away.  Over ten years and 119 starts, Kirk has compiled a lot of completions, yards and touchdowns.  He is also compiling a long list of plays almost made and games almost won.  It could be just plain bad luck, but ten years is an awful long time to be just consistently unlucky.

Called to account for two consecutive seasons out of the playoffs, Coach Zimmer may well be coaching his final game for the Vikings tomorrow.  If I were a betting man, my money would be on someone else roaming the sidelines in Minnesota next year.

But whoever guides the affairs of the 2022 Vikings – whether Zimmer’s track record buys him another year, or whether someone else will get this chance – they should be warned and forewarned.

Kirk Cousins is the kind of quarterback that gets coaches fired.

Scary When They Run the Ball

It was a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights moment.

In the spotlight was Frank Reich – head coach of the enigmatic Indianapolis Colts.  It was the post-game press conference, and Frank was explaining that – respecting the top ranked run defense of his opponent that day (the world-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers) – his Colts decided to pursue promising matchups in the passing game.

It was exactly one week earlier that the Colts seemed to legitimize their season.  In splitting the first ten games, the Colts had managed to cling to the .500 mark with only one of their wins coming against an opponent (San Francisco) that currently sports a winning record (and they were not a .500 team when the Colts faced them).  Oh, they had played some of the better teams close.  They had lost one-score games to the Rams, Ravens and Titans.  But that signature win was always one mistake away.

And then they went to Buffalo in Week 11 to play the then-East division-leading Bills.  They shredded them.  On a cold and blustery afternoon in Orchard Park, the dome-residing Colts took it to Buffalo in a complete team victory, 41-15.  The highlight of the rout was the Indy running game, featuring an offensive line that is arguably football’s best and the NFL’s leading rusher – a dynamic young back named Jonathan Taylor.  Taylor logged 185 of Indianapolis’ 264 rushing yards – an impressive total against a Buffalo defensive unit that ranked (at the time) third in the league against the run.  Taylor scored 5 touchdowns that day.

It was the second time in three games that Indy had surpassed 200 yards on the ground, and they had ascended to fourth in the league in rushing, averaging 147.9 yards a game.  This is a Colt team that can truly be scary when they run the ball.

But against the Bucs, they folded up the running attack early.  Taylor jogged into the locker room at the half with just 8 carries and only 25 yards.  The team – on the strength of 2 Carson Wentz scrambles – managed just 47 ground yards in the first half.

Here’s the thing, though.  The Colts carried a 24-14 lead into the half.  You know those matchups in the passing game that Coach Reich mentioned?  They worked like a charm.

Most of them involved tight end Jack Doyle, who bedeviled the Bucs throughout a first half that saw him catch 4 passes for 59 yards and a touchdown.  And once it involved a little-known, third-year wide receiver named Ashton Dulin, who took advantage of Tampa Bay’s concentration on Michael Pittman and T.Y. Hilton to slip open over the deep middle and haul in a perfectly thrown, 62-yard touchdown strike.

For thirty heady minutes, the Colts had put their game against the world champs into the hands of Wentz, and things couldn’t have gone much better.  Carson finished the half 16 of 24 for 197 yards and 3 touchdowns – adding up to a 131.4 rating.

The second half began in the same vein.  Taking the opening kickoff, Carson completed 5 of 7 passes for 55 yards as he drove the Colts to the Tampa Bay 20 yard line.  It was here that the game would turn.

Shaquil Barrett – one of the Super Bowl heroes – sprinted around the edge to sack Wentz.  The ball shook free, and Barrett recovered.  From there, it took Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay offense 6 plays and 2:52 to negotiate the 65 yards for the touchdown.

Carson finished the game completing just 6 of his last 13 passes (46.2%) for just 54 yards (4.15 per pass), with no touchdowns.  His two second half interceptions (he had thrown just 3 all season to that point) were responsible for half of the four second-half turnovers that saddled the Colts with a very costly 38-31 loss (gamebook) (summary).

But here’s the kicker.

The first 18 plays that Indy ran in the second half were all called passes – during which time the Colts fell from a 10-point lead to a 31-24 deficit.

It wasn’t until there was 10:06 left in the game that Jonathan Taylor got his first carry of the second half – a 5-yard burst up the middle.  That would be the first play of a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that would temporarily tie the score at 31-all.  Taylor would carry the ball on 8 of the 10 plays – his only carries of the second half – and he would slice easily through the Tampa defense, scrolling up 58 yards on those carries (7.3 per).

They wouldn’t have the opportunity to run again.  Brady would drain most of the rest of the clock driving the Bucs to the go-ahead touchdown.  A 72-yard kick return by Isaiah Rodgers gave the Colts the ball on the Buc 32, making things interesting.  But Carson missed on his final two passes, having the last one picked off as time ran out.

Question Abound

The loss leaves Reich awash in questions that have no easy answers.  Could the Colts have run the ball against the Bucs if they had stayed with their running game longer?  Or was Tampa lulled into pass rush mode after 18 consecutive passes?  Can Carson Wentz be the big game passer that he appeared to be in the game’s first half?  Or is he really the Wentz who contributed 3 of the team’s 4 second half turnovers?

And – most perplexingly – if he’s both (which is not an unlikely answer), then how do you know when to take the ball out of his hands and return to the running game.

If they had taken the excellent first half that Carson had given them with his arm, and then came out running the ball in the second half, who knows what might have happened.  But the only way that Frank could have known to do that was to know going in that Carson was going to struggle in the second half.  In a critical, late season game against a top opponent, Carson Wentz was the answer.  Until suddenly he wasn’t.

It’s a tender situation that Coach Reich will have to feel his way through for the rest of the season – a season which now may not include a playoff opportunity.

Indy Needed This Game

More than just a win that got away, this loss could go a long way to pushing the Colts out of the playoffs.  They are now 6-6 and one of a half-dozen AFC teams that are all sitting either at .500 or within a game of the .500 mark.  They play Houston this week, and then have their bye.

It will be the first two games after their bye (in Weeks 15 and 16) that will now – in all likelihood – tell their fate.  They play at home against the torrid New England Patriots, and then travel to Arizona to play a Cardinal team that will probably have all its pieces back by then and will be in the fight for their conference’s top spot.  Neither of these is a very good matchup for the Colts, but they are now in a position where they will need to win one of those games.  If they lose both, the best they will finish is 9-8, which almost certainly won’t be good enough. 

If the Colts don’t make it, that could be very good news for a team like Kansas City.  The Chiefs are currently sitting at the top of their division, but their closing schedule is fairly brutal.  Three of their final four are road games at the Chargers, the Bengals and the Broncos.  Kansas City has played much better lately, but I still think it will be a down-to-the-wire struggle for them to get into the dance.  If the Colts do fall short, that could make all the difference for the Chiefs.

Trying to Figure Out the Champs

On the other end of this intriguing matchup from last Sunday are the world champion Buccaneers.  While, on the one hand, Indianapolis’ offensive game plan was a smashing success (in the first half, anyway), the Colts were also able defensively to mostly derail football’s top scoring offense.

They denied Brady the deep-strike weapons that have characterized this team.  Brady threw only one pass at a target more than 20 yards from the line of scrimmage, and averaged just 5.85 intended air yards on his throws.  This means that his average target was less than six yards from the line of scrimmage.  His two primary targets – Chris Godwin and Mike Evans – were limited to a combined 10 targets.  Together, they managed 7 catches for just 40 yards.

Tom Brady – who entered the game as football’s fourth rated passer (104.3) – ended his afternoon with just 226 passing yards and a rating of 88.6.  He averaged just 9.04 yards per pass completion.  It could have been a dicey situation for the champs, but Tampa Bay found a way forward.  They decided to do what Indianapolis was unwilling to do – take over the game with their running attack.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a curious relationship with their running game.  Perhaps you remember that in the big game last February the Bucs ran through the Chiefs to the tune of 145 yards, with Leonard Fournette (aka Playoff Lenny) accounting for 89 of them.  The dynamic of that game, of course, was very different.  Tampa Bay jumped out to the early lead and turned to the running game to control rest of the contest.  Eighty-five of those yards came in the second half.

That was the surprising thing about Sunday’s game.  Almost always, the Bucs respond to a deficit with their passing attack.  In a Week Eight loss to New Orleans they ran the ball only 14 times even though they averaged 5.1 yards per rush.  The next week – in a loss to Washington – they ran the ball just 13 times – although they gained 4.1 yards per attempt.  These two losses came on the heels of a 182-yard rushing explosion in a win against the Bears.

Tampa Bay can clearly run the ball better than most teams.  They just don’t like to do it.  They brought in TB12 and lined up all of those receivers to fill the air with up-the-field passes.  Coming into the Colt game, Brady had thrown the second most passes of any quarterback in football (423) and the Bucs’ 219 rushing attempts ranked as football’s second fewest.

But the ground game bailed them out in the second half last Sunday.  Fourteen running plays (gaining 87 yards) balanced 15 called passing plays (gaining 94 yards) to guide the come-from-behind victory.  Again, it was Playoff Lenny who scampered around left end for the 28-yard touchdown run that provided the winning margin.  Fournette paced the 142-yard team effort with 100 rushing yards of his own (on just 17 carries).  He scored three of the four rushing touchdowns that the Bucs achieved against a Colt defense that had allowed only 4 rushing touchdowns all season.  Leonard also caught Brady’s only touchdown pass, capping off his four touchdown day.

Don’t get me wrong.  Tampa Bay’s passing attack is plenty potent.  But it can be dealt with – especially when they willingly make themselves one-dimensional.

This offense also gets much scarier when they decide to run the ball.

Clear Sailing Ahead?

There is, of course, a lot of football to play.  But over the last few weeks the stars have been aligning somewhat for the Bucs, and a path to the top spot in the conference is beginning to emerge.  Much of this is the result of the recent struggles of the Cowboys, who seemed in great shape to take the top spot until they dropped their last two games.  They are now sitting in fourth place.

The other piece of great news for the Bucs is the deterioration of both the Saints and Panthers – division opponents against whom Tampa Bay will play half of its remaining schedule.  With no more division foes that seem capable of bringing them down, the Bucs now have 6 winnable games in front of them.  The most challenging of those, of course, will be their Week 14 match-up against Buffalo.  That game will be at home, giving them an edge.

If they do get past the Bills and finish the season 14-3, that will put significant pressure on the two teams ahead of them to also win out.  The Packers – currently 9-3 and the second seed – still have to go in to Baltimore to play the Ravens in Week 15.  A tough draw.  The conference’s current top seed – Arizona (9-2) – also has a challenging road contest ahead when they travel to Dallas to play the Cowboys in Week 17.

If the Bucs and the Cards both reach 14-3 on the season, the Bucs would get the nod based on their record against common opponents.  Having already beaten Dallas, Chicago, and, now, Indianapolis, the Bucs would need only to win both of their remaining games against Carolina to finish 5-1 against their common opponents (the Bucs lost a Week Three game to the Rams).  The Cards would finish 4-2 against those same opponents.  They have already beaten the Rams and lost to the Panthers.  This scenario would predict them finishing out with wins in Chicago and then at home against the Rams and the Colts, with that Week 15 game against the Cowboys being the potential second loss.

The opportunity is there, but in a wildly unpredictable season, the Bucs have no margin for slip ups.

The Bills Also Turn to the Running Game

Buffalo is another team that has a conflicted relationship with its running game.  In Devin Singletary they have a premium running back who is averaging 4.7 yards per carry over the course of his three-year career.  But for that career, he is only getting 10.4 carries per game – and just 8.9 carries a game this year – a career low.

In Buffalo’s 3-1 start, Devin carried the ball 49 times (12.3 per contest) and averaged 5.3 yards per carry.  But beginning with the Week Five and Six games against Kansas City and Tennessee, Singletary was abruptly shoved to the sidelines.  Over the next six games (a span in which Buffalo went 3-3) Devin never carried more than 7 times in any game, and finished with just 34 total attempts (5.7 per).  And, yes, he was still averaging 4.6 yards per carry in those games.

Last Thursday, this Buffalo squad faced off against a New Orleans team in possession of the NFL’s third-best run defense (allowing just 89.8 yards per game).  This wouldn’t seem to be the game that the Bills would re-discover their balance.

And yet, as Buffalo took its 10-0 lead into the half, they had done so with admirable balance.  Quarterback Josh Allen had thrown 16 passes and the Bills had run the ball 16 times.

Some caveats:

First, the 16 runs included 2 scrambles by Allen on plays that were called passes. Josh was also sacked a couple of times – so the actual first half play calling was 20 passes and 14 runs.  Still better balance than we’ve usually seen from the Bills.

Second, the balance in approach didn’t yield a great harvest in yards.  The 16 runs produced 55 yards (3.4 per), with no run exceeding 9 yards.  Singletary gained 7 first-half yards on 4 attempts.  This is very much in line with the difficulties most teams have in running the football against New Orleans.

Given the early struggles, I expected the Bills to mostly discard the running game in the second half.  To my surprise, Buffalo answered their 16-rush first half with 16 more running plays in the second half – with 11 of those carries going to the almost forgotten Singletary.

In the macro, the second half results were very similar to the first half.  The 16 running plays advanced the ball just 58 yards (Devin’s 11 rushes amounting to just 37 yards).  But the balance played enormous benefits in the passing game.

Throwing the ball just 12 times in the second half, Allen completed 10 of those passes (83.3%) for 137 yards (11.42 yards per attempt) and 3 touchdowns as Buffalo opened up the game on its way to a 31-6 victory (gamebook) (summary).

All of the running opened up the play-action game for Allen and the Bills.  Of Josh’s 28 passes, 12 made use of a run-fake – fully 42.9% of the passing attack.  And the results were cheering.  Allen completed 10 of the 12 play-action passes for 124 yards and 3 touchdowns to offset an interception.  His passer rating on these throws was an excellent 122.9.

While the direct effects of Buffalo’s running attack were fairly modest (113 yards on 32 rushes), the indirect benefits showed in a more diversified and dangerous passing attack.

This is another offense that becomes much more challenging to defend when they remember to run the ball.

Are the Rams Soft?

The running games had much tougher sledding in Lambeau in Sunday’s late contest between the Packers and the Los Angeles Rams.  Although they won the games 36-28 (gamebook) (summary), Green Bay only earned 2.9 yards per rushing play (92 yards on 32 attempts).  Along the way, though, second-year running back AJ Dillon opened some eyes.  He finished with just 69 yards on 20 carries (3.5 per), but should have had far fewer.

His 20 carries produced 22 yards before contact by the defense.  But AJ broke a career-high 5 tackles in the run game (he would break another after a pass), and gained 47 yards after contact (2.4 per carry).

It was the kind of occurrence that has some wondering if the Rams – losers, now, of three in a row – are soft.  And not just physically soft.  Is this Ram team emotionally soft as well?

Coming out of the half trailing just 20-17, the Rams turned the ball over twice in the second half, never made it into the red zone, and watched quarterback Matthew Stafford complete just 12 of 24 after intermission.  Over the last three weeks, there have been chances for this team to fight their way back into the games, but the fight hasn’t seemed to rise to the opportunities.

I feel that you dismiss the Rams at your own peril.  I grant you that they look vulnerable at the moment.  But they’ve also had some significant roster churn recently.  I don’t think the Ram team that you’re seeing right now will be the Ram team that you’ll see in a few weeks.  This is a team that’s better than they look.

That being said, their offensive philosophy does lean toward the soft.  Previous editions of the Sean McVay Rams have featured the running game as the foundation, with the passing game building off the running game.  It was a system in which every play looked like it was a zone run, which then added a lot of play-action and boots by the quarterback to get him safely outside the pocket.

All of that smoothness – as well as the toughness that comes from a run-first mentality – is pretty much a thing of the past.  In the second half against the Pack, McVay called 25 passes against just 7 runs – contributing materially to Green Bay’s 20:50 – 9:10 time of possession advantage.  For the game, Green Bay nearly doubled the Rams in possession time 39:40 to 20:20.  After that much time on the field, even the toughest defense will look soft.

Of Stafford’s 38 passes, only 4 came off of play action.  For the season, Stafford is throwing off of play action just 18.3% of the time (the league average is right at 23%).  They ran the ball 20 times in last Sunday’s game – including a Stafford kneel-down that ended the first half.  Not enough.

A re-commitment to the running game would dramatically change the way that defenses approach this Ram team.  Historically, they have been a much tougher offense when they were a run-first operation.

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.

What Happens When He’s Not There? (LA Rams Edition)

Were I to have told you before the Divisional Round games were played that one team would rush for 188 yards that weekend, I suspect it would have probably taken you at least three (and possibly four) guesses to name that team.

You first guess would almost certainly be the Baltimore Ravens.  Their season average, after all, was 191.9 yards.  They didn’t quite come to that level, topping out at 150 yards in their loss to Buffalo.  The next guess would have probably been Cleveland – the number 3 running team in football running against a suspect KC run defense.  The Browns certainly might have gotten there if they hadn’t ignored their running game through the first 30 minutes.  Even so, Cleveland managed 112.

Failing the first two guesses, you might still have thought of the Rams next.  They ran for 164 yards in their win over Seattle the previous week, and, with their quarterback about two weeks removed from surgery on his throwing thumb – and with the Rams playing without their leading receiver – you would think that Los Angeles would be a strong candidate for a run-centric game.  But the Rams would fall well short as well – they finished with 96.

So, who could it be?  Buffalo and Tampa Bay don’t run the ball.  Kansas City sometimes does, but with Patrick Mahomes working against that suspect Cleveland pass defense, why would they?  New Orleans has a strong running attack, but they were also going up against the top run defense in the league, so 188 rushing yards would be a lot to ask.

That would leave only the Green Bay Packers, but they were also lining up against a top run defense (the Rams ranked third against the run, allowing but 91.3 rushing yards a game).

Nonetheless, when the two minute warning hit, there were the Green Bay Packers with 192 rushing yards rolled up against that Ram defense.  They gave back four of those yards on three Aaron Rodgers kneel-downs that killed off the last of the clock and left them with 188 rushing yards for the day.  The Green Bay Packers were your rushing leaders for Divisional Round Weekend.

In the hoopla surrounding Rodgers and Davante Adams, people often forget that the Packers are about as balanced an offense as there is in the NFL.  Along with their ninth-ranked passing game (ranking by yards), Green Bay can deploy an eighth-ranked running game.  During the season, in fact, they had six different games where they ran for more than 140 yards, surpassing 200 rushing yards twice.  From Weeks 12 through 16, Green Bay averaged 176 rushing yards a game at a clip of 5.5 yards per carry.

By season’s end, primary ball-carrier Aaron Jones finished with 1104 yards (the fourth most in football) and a 5.5 yard average (the fifth best average in the game).

So, yes, the Green Bay Packers.  Last year’s club finished fifteenth in the league in rushing – and, not coincidentally, fifteenth in scoring – and subsequently lost to San Francisco in the Conference Championship Game – a game they were out-rushed in by a 285-62 margin.  In 2019 Rodgers’ numbers were very good (he threw for 26 touchdowns and had a 95.4 passer rating), but he was also sacked 36 times.

This year, the elevation of the running game has raised the level of the entire offense.  With 509 points scored, Green Bay led all of the NFL.  Rodgers’ numbers in the passing game also soared – he threw 48 touchdowns this year with a 121.5 passer rating – both of those league leading numbers (two of an easy half-dozen categories that Rodgers led the league in).  He was also sacked just 20 times.  In what is increasingly a pass-happy league, a good dose of balance can make all the difference.

The difference has come as a result of just a few changes.

Commitment

First of all, the 2020 edition is characterized by a stronger commitment to balance and a renewed interest in the running game.  Seeing first-hand how devastating a dominant running game can be, the Packers have upped their focus.

Last year’s team ran the ball 25.7 times a game.  This year that number is marginally up to 27.7 rushes a game.  But even as they are running slightly more, they are spreading the carries around, keeping their backs fresher.  Jones carried the ball 236 times in 2019.  He handled just 201 carries this year.  Jamaal Williams’ workload has picked up, from 107 rushes last year to 119 in 2020, and rookie AJ Dillon has been added to the mix – he carried the ball 46 times (averaging 5.3 yards a carry).

The run commitment here hasn’t just been about running more.  It’s been about running better.

The Emergence of Jenkins

In 2019, left guard Elgton Jenkins was just a rookie.  He was an impressive rookie (being named to the NFL all-rookie team), but he was just a rookie offensive lineman.  Now a “seasoned veteran” in his second year, Jenkins is beginning to impact games at a high level.

Saturday against the Rams, when All-World defensive lineman Aaron Donald lined up to his side, Jenkins handled him one-on-one – and dominated the matchup.  The ceiling is very high for this young man.

The Emergence of Patrick

Over the offseason, right tackle Bryan Bulaga took his nine years and 111 career starts to the Chargers.  Green Bay’s adjustment was to slide guard Billy Turner over to Bulaga’s tackle spot, and to promote fourth-year player Lucas Patrick to the right guard spot.  At that point, Patrick had started 6 games over the previous three years.

Unknown though he might be, Lucas has brought an energy to that line, and has improved as the season has gone on.  He was notably impressive against the Rams.

On an eight-yard run by Williams in the first quarter, Patrick just muscled Sebastian Joseph-Day off the line and shoved him 6 yards up field.  Toward the end of the first half, on an eight-yard run by Jones, it was Patrick overpowering Donald – pushing him to the far side of the formation.

The entire Green Bay offensive line performed spectacularly on Saturday afternoon.  None were more eye-opening than Lucas Patrick.

Not Himself At All

Taking nothing at all away from the Packer offensive line, but I can’t sit here and write about these guys pushing Aaron Donald all over the field without expressing a fact that was obvious to everyone who watched the game.  This was not the Aaron Donald that we’re used to seeing.  I don’t believe the extent of his rib injury was ever completely disclosed, but there is no question that Aaron was a shadow of his usual self out there.  Without any special attention at all, Green Bay made one of this generation’s most impactful defensive players mostly disappear – and that just does not happen if Aaron is at even 75% effectiveness.

The strongest hint of the severity of Donald’s injury is found in the snap count chart.  Aaron was on the sidelines for 47% of Green Bay’s offensive plays.  During the regular season, he missed only 15% of the opponent’s offensive plays.

I think it’s hard to over-estimate the impact of this loss.

What Happens When He’s Not There?

Look, football is a tough man’s game, and people get hurt.  Winning teams cobble together enough quality depth to be able to survive if a starter goes down – even if that starter is a star.  On Sunday, Kansas City milked enough plays out of Chad Henne to help them beat Cleveland even after they lost Patrick Mahomes.  The Packers themselves are heading to the Championship Game without David Bakhtiari – one of football’s elite offensive linemen.  Ricky Wagner has plugged into his spot, and is giving Green Bay enough to keep going.  On Saturday against the Rams, he looked a lot like Bakhtiari.

But some losses boarder on the irreplaceable.  When you have a unique talent, it’s almost second nature to construct your scheme (offensive or defensive) around that talent.

I wrote about this after Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray went down in a playoff-deciding game against the Rams.  The Cardinal’s entire offensive scheme is intertwined with Murray’s unique dual-threat skills.  When he was knocked out of the game, Arizona’s offense crumbled.  We’ve seen the same thing happen in Baltimore when they’ve had to play without Lamar Jackson.  Even players who have “similar” abilities can’t revive an offense that draws its life from the singular talent that sits at its heart.

Aaron Donald is that kind of talent for the Ram defense.  When you have an Aaron Donald leading your defensive line, you can take all kinds of liberties with the layers of defense behind him.

On Green Bay’s very first possession, ball at their own 42, facing a first and ten, the Packers came out with two receivers split out to the left, and two running backs (Jones and Dillon) in the backfield with Rodgers.  When Jones went in motion to flank out left – making the left side the three-receiver side – middle linebacker Troy Reeder followed him out to the perimeter – presumably in man coverage.

With two other defensive backs aligned over the other receivers, and a safety sitting deep to that side, the Rams had a four defenders-to-three receivers advantage on that side.  But there were now no linebackers in the middle of the field.  The Rams had three linebackers on the field, but two were on the edges in pass rush mode, and Reeder was outside the numbers in coverage.  From tackle-to-tackle, the closest defender was safety Nick Scott, about ten yards up the field.

This is a liberty you can take when you have Aaron Donald in the middle of your line.  Suppose the Packers try to run?  Fine.  Donald will push the guard into the backfield and drop the runner for a 2-yard loss.

But what happens when Donald isn’t there?  Or, as in this case, when he’s physically there, but not able to be Aaron Donald.  What then?

In this instance, center Corey Linsley turned nose-tackle Joseph-Day out to the right, Jenkins stopped Donald in his tracks, and Dillon popped the middle for nine yards.  This exact scenario worked out multiple times during the game – Reeder confidently abandoning the middle of the field to cover a receiver motioning to the three-receiver side – almost always with the ensuing run popping for six to nine yards.  This was even the setting – with one small adjustment – that opened up the game’s longest run.

First play from scrimmage in the second half.  Adams goes in motion to the left, and Reeder follows him out of the middle – even though this time Donald is on the sideline.  This time safety John Johnson is the only defender in the middle of the field – nine yards back.  Jenkins this time blocks Morgan Fox, with Linsley again down-blocking on Joseph-Day.  This time, though, he doesn’t stay with Sebastian.  This time he passes him off to Patrick and leads through the hole to take out Johnson.

Now it looked like practice, with Aaron Jones running through a completely vacant middle of the field.  Safety Jordan Fuller eventually caught up with him and escorted him out of bounds, but not until Aaron had covered 60 yards – putting the ball on the LA 15.  Five plays later, Aaron scored from the one, and the Packer lead (after a failed two-point conversion) was 25-10.

I believe that this was the last time in the contest that the Rams did this, but even while playing more conventional defenses, LA still struggled to stop the run.  When you have a guy like Donald absorbing two and sometimes three blockers, you have the luxury of running smaller linebackers behind them.  But without the protection that Aaron afforded them, Reeder and Kenny Young – the other undersized linebacker who usually found himself in the middle – were continually subjected to the not-so-gentle attentions of that Packer offensive line. 

Beyond his physical presence, the lack of Donald’s emotional energy seemed to drain the rest of the Ram defense.  Even the other members of an top defensive line – guys like Leonard Floyd and Morgan Fox (who I praised in the thread linked to above) were just punching bags for the Packer line – and the running backs.  Green Bay running backs averaged 2.97 yards AFTER contact (the NFL average was 1.91) and the Rams missed 8 tackles (according to the summary).

The final score of 32-18 (gamebook) (summary) doesn’t do justice to the Rams’ defensive struggles.

Constructing an entire philosophy – whether offensive or defensive – around a singular talent comes with uncommon advantages.  Until, of course, they’re not there.

What to Make of the Packers

For the entire season, I’ve been waiting to get a clear read on who this Green Bay team is – and for the entire season, that clarity has eluded me.  They have great statistics, and are about to host the Championship Game after securing their conference’s top seed.  And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that their path to this position was cushioned.  They were the only team in their division to finish above .500, and, during their 13-3 regular season only played 4 winning teams – going 2-2 in those games.

They lost in overtime to a good, but not great, Indianapolis team, and had their lunches handed to them in their previous matchup with the Buccaneers – their opponent this Sunday.  Even their two victories against winning opponents come with caveats.  They beat a very good New Orleans team – but that was in Week Three while the Saints defense was still figuring itself out.  They also beat a dangerous Tennessee team – but that was Week 16 after their defense had already collapsed (not to mention the fact that the Titans were clearly thrown by playing in the snow).

Now they have a playoff win against a defensively compromised team that was also missing its top wide receiver on offense.

I still don’t feel that this team has been truly challenged – certainly an unusual observation to make about a team about to host its conference’s Championship Game.  Since I also have some lingering questions about Tampa Bay, it should make for an interesting matchup.

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 Will to Keep Running the Ball

Although they went into the half trailing 14-6, the Baltimore Ravens had sent their rivals in Pittsburgh a clear message.  Repeatedly during that first half, Baltimore’s featured back, Alex Collins slashed the Steeler defense right up the middle.  That the Ravens couldn’t cash in on this production came from the fact that Baltimore had no answer for the Steeler blitz schemes.  Joe Flacco wasn’t sacked, but he finished the first half just 9 of 16, with Baltimore converting just 2 of 7 third downs.

But, with Collins providing the spark, Baltimore had gained 57 yards in 14 rushes – and average of 4.1 yards per.  It would certainly seem to be an advantage to build on.

Baltimore ran the ball exactly twice in the second half.

I could probably write about this every week.  In an NFL that is increasingly passing-centric, the will to keep running the ball is becoming increasingly rare.

In Baltimore’s case – even though they went into the half down by just 8, the Steelers opened the second half with an impressive 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ate up the first 8:14 of the second half.  Six of the plays on the drive were runs (three times as many runs in that drive than Baltimore would attempt for the rest of the game).

Emotionally, that drive was damaging, but the reality of the situation was that the Ravens trailed just 20-6 with still 6:46 left in the third and the entire fourth quarter left.  More than enough time to run their offense.  But the will to keep running the ball failed them.  So, even though they struggled protecting Flacco – and even though their running attack was the most effective aspect of their offense in the first half – the Ravens folded up their running game. 

Flacco threw the ball 21 times in the second half, getting sacked on two other drop backs.  With little time to look downfield, Joe’s tosses became mostly a series of short dump offs.  He completed 14 of those passes, but for just 97 yards.  The Ravens finished the second half with just 99 yards of total offense, on its way to a 23-16 loss (gamebook) (box score).

Playing with the lead, Pittsburgh wasn’t shy about pounding the Baltimore defense.  Although they never gained more than 5 yards on any single second half run, Pittsburgh nonetheless ran 17 times in the second half – earning just 40 yards with those attempts (2.4 per).  Nonetheless, the Steelers converted 6 of 9 third downs and controlled the ball for 20:14 of the second half.

Seattle is Willing

In stark contrast is the game the Seattle Seahawks played at home against the Los Angeles Chargers.  Seattle has re-committed to the run, and even with primary hammer-back Chris Carson nursing hip and thigh injuries – and even though they spent the entire second half trailing by as much as 15 points, the Hawks never stopped running the ball.  Of their 32 running attempts on the day, 15 came in the second half.  They finished with 154 rushing yards, and 35:41 of possession. 

Seattle did lose this game, 25-17 (gamebook) (box score), but were throwing into the end zone from the Charger 6-yard line as the game ended.  As with the Ravens, the Seattle passing game couldn’t take advantage of the production from the running game.  The Chargers denied Seattle’s receivers any down-the-field opportunities, forcing Russell Wilson into an endless string of dump-off passes.  Tyler Lockett finished the game with 3 catches for 22 yards – none longer than 9 yards.

The Chargers – who racked up 160 rushing yards of their own – had just enough to hold them off.  Both of these teams will be in contention down the stretch, and one of the reasons will be their commitment to balance.

Both play defense pretty well, too.  The Chargers and Seahawks combined to go 1-for-13 on third down in the second half. 

A final thought about this game:

Seattle is now 1-2 at home this year.  Every game in Seattle they show the noise decibel graphic (the highest I think I remember seeing was 106 – which is good and loud).  You also get plenty of shots of the crowd cupping their lips with their hands in a desperate attempt to affect the game with sheer volume.  In the first place, of course, just screaming is an artistic achievement of dubious merit.  More than that, though, the effect seems to be negligible.  Some years ago, it was much more effective than it has been recently, as the league seems to have mostly adjusted.  The Chargers didn’t seem overly disturbed by it.  Seattle has also lost at home to the Rams – a division opponent that comes into Seattle every year and seemed not to notice the noise.  But you Seattle fans, you keep on screaming at the top of your lungs – you’re so cute when you’re just senselessly yelling.

Rodgers v Brady

Already this season, there have been several marquee quarterback matchups – many of which have absolutely lived up to the hype. 

Back on September 16, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Pittsburgh Steelers engaged in an entertaining 42-37 contest (won by KC).  In that game, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 452 yards and 3 touchdowns, but was out-done by rising star Patrick Mahomes, who threw for 326 yards of his own.  And 6 touchdowns.

Then on September 23, the New Orleans Saints finally subdued the Atlanta Falcons 43-37.  In that matchup, Matt Ryan gave the Saints all they could handle, throwing 5 touchdown passes among his 374 yards.  Not quite enough, as it turns out, as Drew Brees threw 3 touchdowns of his own among 396 passing yards.

The New England Patriots have already been involved in two such free-for-alls.  They had their own encounter with Kansas City, winning 43-40 behind Tom Brady and his 340 passing yards – just barely overcoming 4 more touchdown passes from Mahomes and his 352 passing yards.

They followed that game the next week with an exciting 38-31 conquest of Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears.  Trubisky threw for 333 yards in the defeat.

My favorite so far this year has been the September 27 contest between Jared Goff and the LA Rams and Kirk Cousins and Minnesota.  In this back-and-forth game, both quarterbacks executed at a remarkably high level.  Cousins completed 36 of 50 passes for 422 yards and 3 touchdowns (without an interception).  His passer rating for the evening was an impressive 117.2.  His team lost.

Goff completed 26 of 33 for 465 yards and 5 touchdowns (also without interception), leading the Rams to a 38-31 conquest.  His passer rating that game was a maximum 158.3. 

(You will hear many commentators refer to 158.3 as a “perfect” score.  It is, of course, not perfect.  Jared did miss on 7 passes.  It is more accurate to refer to that number as the maximum rating, as the system will not permit a higher rating.  If Goff’s night had been perfect – if he had completed all 33 of his passes for 619 yards and 7 touchdowns, the passer rating system would not – indeed could not – reward him with a higher rating.)

Brees and Goff also met up in Week 9 in another game that lived up to the hype – that game will be looked at in a bit.

And so, last Sunday night – as two legendary quarterbacks squared off – much of America was hoping for a similar shootout.  Again, the Patriots and Brady would be involved – this time opposite Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

This time, though, the expected shootout never developed.

Both of the legendary throwers did well.  Rodgers finished the night 24 of 43 (55.8%) for 259 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Brady threw for 294 yards on 22 of 35 throwing (62.9%) and 1 touchdown.  Rodgers’ receivers – who seem to be a rather ordinary collection this year- repeatedly had difficulty beating their man coverage assignments.  Rodgers spent much of the evening scrambling around in the backfield waiting for a receiver to come open before checking the ball down.

As for the Patriots, they spent the evening re-discovering their running game.  Even with top running threat Sony Michel on the sidelines, New England still ran the ball 31 times for 123 yards and 3 touchdowns.  James White got a few more carries than usual (12), and the Patriots continued the re-purposing of receiver/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson as a running back.  Patterson finished the day with 11 rushes for 61 yards and a touchdown.

Patterson may have been as impressive as anyone on the field.  Now in his sixth season, the talented Mr. Patterson – who has never quite found his niche as a regular in the offense – may have finally discovered himself at running back.  Cordarrelle is a violent, take-no-prisoners, downhill runner.  In fact, if you kind of squinted as you watched him running with the ball, you might swear you were watching LeGarrette Blount.  He even has a similar weakness.  When the defense could get him going sideways, his impact was much less.  If the Patterson at running back experiment continues, this could have very interesting long-term repercussions.

In the end – as usually happens when the Patriots take the field – New England walked off the victor, 31-17 (gamebook) (box score).  One way or another they almost always figure out a way to beat you.

Deferring a Mistake?

Let me begin by saying that I am a big fan of deferring after winning the coin toss.  Often you will hear coaches and commentators chat about the opportunity to end the first half with a score, and then open the second half with another.  Sound philosophy, but I maintain that even if you don’t end the first half with that score, you still want to begin the second half with the ball in your hands aware of what has to happen in the second half for you to win the game.

Therefore, it came as no real surprise that – after the Los Angeles Rams won the toss against New Orleans – they deferred.  Five minutes and 35 seconds later, the Rams watched as running back Alvin Kamara completed a 10-play, 75-yard drive by skirting left end for an 11-yard touchdown run.

Nothing the Saints could have done could have worked better to engage the home crowd.  From time-to-time throughout the rest of the game, the Rams would momentarily silence the crowd.  But the rest would only be momentary.  The Saints continually re-sparked them.  Perhaps, when you’re on the road against one of the most dynamic offenses in the league, deferring may not be the best option.

As opposed to the Seattle crowd, the fans in the Superdome had just come to watch and enjoy a football game.  Their contribution was less outright noise, and more a contagious energy that the home team clearly feeds off of.

Three minutes and 17 seconds into the game, New Orleans coach Sean Payton upped the anti.  After a third-and-two run came up short, Payton kept his offense on the field.  In fact, he kept backup quarterback Taysom Hill in the shotgun, trusting him to throw the pass in this critical situation.  It looks like he wanted to throw to starting quarterback Drew Brees – who had lined up at receiver.  But when Hill wasn’t completely sure, he pulled the ball down and sprinted 9 yards for the first down, punctuating the run by lowering his shoulder and driving Ram defensive back Lamarcus Joyner backward for the last couple of yards.

In no uncertain terms, the Saints, the Rams, the crowd at the Superdome and all the fans watching on TV understood that Sean Payton was coaching this like a playoff game.  He had no intention of trading field goals for Ram touchdowns.

The Saints went on to score touchdowns on 5 of their 6 first half drives (the other ending with a turnover), going 5-5 in the red zone.  This was all part of a first half, offensive orgy, the likes of which the fans tuned in hoping to see.  Neither team punted, and the first half saw 52 points scored and 557 yards of offense.

To this point, most of the offense favored the Saints, who carried a 35-17 lead into the locker room.  To the Rams’ credit they didn’t let the game end like that.  Rarely behind at all this season, the heretofore undefeated Rams came roaring back.  Trailing 35-14 at one point, Los Angeles evened the game at 35-all with still almost ten minutes left in the game.

After turning around the organization last year, the Rams are back this year intent on proving that they are as good as anyone in the game.  They left that lingering impression, even as New Orleans pulled away late for the 45-35 win (gamebook) (box score).  The game’s clinching play came with about 4 minutes left when Michael Thomas slipped in behind Ram corner Marcus Peters.  Brees (who finished the game with 346 passing yards and 4 touchdowns) lobbed the ball over Peters’ head, and Thomas did the rest on a 72-yard catch-and-run touchdown.

Prominent in this game is an officiating trend that I find quite disappointing.

The game is tied at 14 in the second quarter, with 13:14 left before halftime.  The Rams, facing fourth-and-four, are setting up for a field goal (they are on the Saint 16-yard-line).  But it’s a fake.  Holder Johnny Hekker took off with the snap and raced around right end, stretching the ball toward the first-down marker.  The spot was not generous, and the ball was marked short.  The Rams challenged the call.

Looking at the replay, it looked for all the world that Hekker had extended the ball past the marker, but after review, the call stood. 

Later, the tables seemed to balance a bit.  As Ram running back Malcom Brown weaved down the sideline for an 18-yard touchdown, it appeared – on replay – that he had clearly stepped out at about the eight-yard line.  Again, the call on the field (touchdown) was upheld.

The NFL has made no secret that this year they are making a sustained effort to back the call on the field.  I confess myself perplexed by this.  There are certainly problems with the replay system as it’s now run, but one of the problems is not the replay replacing the official’s correct call with an incorrect one.  The one constant in the system is that the replay (most of the time) gives a clearer view of what actually happened on the play.  Wherever possible, replay gets it right.  The most fallible element in the equation continues to be the human referees.  Why we are now treating them as mostly infallible makes little sense to me.

Pack Not Quite Back

The Sunday before, Packer quarterback Brett Hundley melted down on his home turf, tossing 3 interceptions and taking 6 sacks in a disappointing 23-0 loss to Baltimore.  Now there was about 4:25 left in the game as Hundley and the Packers broke the huddle.  The visiting Pack was facing off against one of the best and hottest teams in the NFL, Green Bay stood first-and-10 on the Pittsburgh 16, trailing just 28-21.

Green Bay is the middle stop on what I have called “back-up quarterback week”. (On Thursday we dropped in on Houston and Tom Savage).  Off to a 4-1 start with Aaron Rodgers behind center, the Packer season tilted suddenly in Week Six when a broken collarbone removed Rodgers from the equation – possibly for the season.

Into the breach stepped Hundley – a fifth-round pick out of UCLA in 2015.  Having thrown just 11 career passes before that fateful game, Brett was tossed into the middle of what has turned out to be a fairly brutal schedule.  After Minnesota (currently 9-2), Hundley’s first two career starts were against New Orleans (8-3) and Detroit (6-5).  After facing the 3-8 Bears in Week Ten, Hundley’s education tour led him against Baltimore (6-5) and now Pittsburgh (who started the day 8-2).

Of the teams he has faced so far, three of the six boast top-five total defenses – and Baltimore and Pittsburgh are numbers two and three in pass defense. But Hundley is a confident kid.  After being a bit overwhelmed by the Vikings and Saints, he rebounded nicely in his next two games.  He completed just 30 of 58 passes in those first two games (51.7%) for just 244 yards – an average of just 4.21 yards per pass and 8.1 per completion.  His 1 touchdown pass in those games was more than offset by 4 early interceptions, and his 39.7 passer rating was a concern.

But in his games against softer defenses in Detroit and Chicago, Brett was 44 of 63 (69.8%).  While this was much better, the down-field attack was still lagging.  He totaled just 457 yards in the two games – an average of just 7.25 yards per attempted pass, and only 10.4 per completion.  He threw no interceptions in those two games, but also threw just 1 touchdown pass.  Still, for someone making just his second and third career starts, his 95.8 passer rating was encouraging.

And then came the Baltimore game.

Understandably, few fans or pundits expected much from Hundley against the elite Steeler defense.

The Game of His Life

The Steelers opened the game with a 59-yard, 12-play, 6:46 touchdown drive to take a 6-0 lead (the extra-point was missed).

Now it was Hundley’s turn to answer.  After two running plays gave Green Bay a first-down on the Steeler 48, Brett threw his first pass of the game – a five-yard out to Davante Adams.

The drive seemed to stall immediately, as a running play gained nothing and Hundley seemed to take his eighteenth sack in just 178 drop-backs.  But Pittsburgh cornerback Artie Burns was flagged for a penalty that gave Green Bay a first down on the Steeler 38.

Two plays later – with the Packers facing a second-and-11 – Pittsburgh dropped into a cover-three zone.  At least 10 of the Steelers dropped into cover-three.  Cornerback Burns trumped his earlier mistake by chasing Adams back over the middle, leaving his deep third of the field uncovered.  Hundley looked up to find receiver Randall Cobb running all alone up the left sideline.  Seconds later, Hundley had tossed a 39-yard touchdown pass, and the Packers had a 7-6 lead.

After an interception gave the Packers the ball back at their own 45, a one-yard run and an incompletion put Green Bay at third-and-9.  The Steelers faked a blitz.  Five defenders started toward the line at the snap, but linebacker Ryan Shazier fell almost immediately back into coverage, looking for the running back he was supposed to cover.  But that first step in would prove fatal.  That running back – rookie Jamaal Williams – already had three or four steps on Shazier.  Shortly after Hundley flipped Williams the ball, center Corey Linsley peeled back and picked off Shazier.  Jamaal then found an alley and bolted the rest of the way for a 54-yard touchdown.  There was 1:22 left in the first quarter and Hundley had already thrown for 98 yards and two touchdowns (on only 3 completions).  The Steelers ended the quarter with 10:41 of possession, but trailing 14-6.

But Brett was not done.

The rest of the first half would pass uneventfully, and Green Bay’s first possession of the second half came down to a third-and-3 at their own 45.  The Packers defeated Pittsburgh’s single-high coverage with outside vertical routes from Jordy Nelson on the left and Adams on the right – the twin vertical routes preventing safety Mike Mitchell from committing to either side.  Adams shed cornerback Coty Sensabaugh with a slick stop-and-go, and Brett hit him in stride up the sideline.  From there, Davante eluded the late-arriving Mitchell and outran the rest of the defense for the 55-yard touchdown.

The game was 32 minutes and 54 seconds old, and the Packers had stunned the Pittsburgh defense for 3 touchdown passes of at least 39 yards – two of them over 50 yards.

To that point of the season, Green Bay had produced no touchdown passes of 35 yards or more, and only 2 over 30 yards.  In Brett’s first 158 passes, he had managed just 2 touchdowns and only 4 completions of more than 30 yards, none longer than 46 yards.  Through his first 12 passes against the Steelers, Brett already had 3 touchdown passes and 170 yards on 9 completions.

Back Come the Steelers

At that point, though, the game turned decisively in the favor of the Steelers – and especially their defense.  Reverting to simple man coverages and basic zones, the Steelers stopped trying to confuse the rookie, opting instead to force him to hold the ball long enough for the Steeler pass rush (second best in the NFL at the start of the night) to get home.  The strategy worked as well as could be hoped.  The next 8 times Brett dropped back he went 0 for 5 with 3 sacks.  Over their next three series, Green Bay ran a total of 13 plays netting 0 yards.  During this stretch, the Steelers never reverted to blitzing, finding ample pressure with simple line stunts that Green Bay struggled to adjust to.

So now, there are just less than nine minutes left in the game.  The Packers are seven points down, and are starting on their own 23.  But now their approach has changed.  Instead of giving the pass rush a shot to disrupt him, Hundley would line up in the pistol and fire at the first receiver that broke open.  This approach would depend on Hundley’s ability to quickly recognize and accurately react to what the Steller defense would present him.

As exciting as the earlier big plays had been, if I were a Packer fan I would be even more excited by Hundley’s performance in this last drive.

On first down, Pittsburgh got cute again.  They brought cornerback Mike Hilton off the corner.  The defense became a zone-blitz, with four rushers coming from Hundley’s left and the presumed rushers on his right dropping into coverage.  But the rushers from his left gave tight end Richard Rodgers a brief opening.  Hundley saw it immediately and had the ball in Rodgers’ hands before Shazier could slide over and close the window.  That play picked up 25 yards and put the ball on the Packer 48.

Now the Steelers dialed up one of their rare blitzes, but wanted to play zone behind it.  With Bud Dupree coming untouched from the edge, Hundley rolled away from the pressure and noted that Hilton – responsible for the right flat – was slow getting into his zone.  He tossed the ball to a wide-open Cobb for 12 more yards. And suddenly Green Bay was on the Steeler 40 with 7:28 left.

A one yard run left Brett with a second-and-9.  From a single-high man look, the Steelers dropped into zone coverage.  Again, Hundley saw it immediately.  With a quick glance to his left, Brett caused Shazier to take a step in that direction, widening the gap between him and Dupree (who had the right flat) just enough open a seam in the zone for Davante Adams to pop through for a 12-yard reception.  First-and-10 Packers on the Pittsburgh 27.

With both corners lined up 12 yards off the receivers, Hundley picked up 7 easy yards on a quick toss to Nelson lined up wide left.  A run and another short pass to Nelson (with Jordy stretching for the chains) picked up the first down at the Steeler 16 with still more than four minutes to go.

But here the Steelers would make their stand.  A running play was buried in the backfield for a 2-yard loss.  Hundley’s second-down pass flew over the head of a well-covered Adams.  On third-and-12, a dump pass to Cobb got half of the yardage.  Now it was fourth-and-6 with the clock spinning under three minutes to play.  The Packers decided to go for it, but spent their second time out when they didn’t like the defense that they saw.

Now down to one time out, still trailing by seven with 2:50 left, The Packers came out with an empty backfield, with Nelson, Geronimo Allison, and Rodgers lined up to the right of the formation, and Adams stacked behind Cobb to the left.  Pittsburgh played man coverage across with two high safeties.  This allowed Adams a one-on-one opportunity against William Gay, who he beat quickly with an inside-outside move.  Hundley delivered the ball perfectly, and the Packers had first and goal at the Pittsburgh 4.  Seconds later, Jamaal Williams soared over the goal line, and the game was tied.

No Joy in Green Bay

The game wouldn’t finish in story-book fashion though.  Green Bay would get one more possession starting on their own 18 with 1:20 left and just the one time out.  After a first-down sack, the Pack went conservative – a short pass and a run – and punted, playing for overtime.  With 17 seconds left, Pittsburgh moved from their own 30 to Green Bay’s 33 on two sideline throws to Antonio Brown (who finished with 169 yards and two touchdowns on 10 catches for the day).  One play later, Chris Boswell ended the evening with a 53-yard field goal.

After controlling the ball for 19:05 of the first half, after going 3-for-4 on third down in the second half, and after Le’Veon Bell racked up 114 yards from scrimmage (53 rushing and 61 receiving) in the second half alone, Pittsburgh still needed a long field goal as time expired to subdue the Packers (gamebook).

Aftermath

For the Steelers, they are now 9-2 and three games ahead in their conference with five to play.  They currently hold the top seed in the conference – getting a strength of victory nod over the Patriots.  Those two will meet in a significant contest in a couple of weeks.

Green Bay is now 5-6 and has four teams ahead of them for the final playoff spot in the NFC.  A 9-7 mark will probably not get you in on the NFC side, so the Pack – as they had to last year – will pretty much have to win out to stand a chance.

For the next two weeks they will face the 4-7 Buccaneers and then the 0-10 Browns.  After that, the schedule gets nasty, again.  They go into Carolina to play the 8-3 Panthers, then face the 9-2 Vikings at home, before ending the season on the road in Detroit (6-5).

The intriguing thing about this concluding schedule is that Aaron Rodgers – who was throwing the football prior to the game – will work out tomorrow (Friday) to see if he could return to the practice field Saturday.  If healthy, Aaron would be eligible to come off IR in time for those last three games.

So, if the improving Brett Hundley can keep this team alive with wins against two lesser opponents, this Green Bay team may well have playoff hope.  It’s still a very long shot, and the Pack has no margin for error anymore.  But the pieces are there, at least, for another fantastic finish.

Life After Mr Rodgers

Week Six became an official week of mourning in Wisconsin when Aaron Rodgers went down and out with a broken collarbone.  The expectation is that Rodgers will miss the rest of the season.

I don’t intend to chronicle every major injury that occurs during the season, but a few weeks ago when Houston lost J.J. Watt for the season, I pointed out that his loss went beyond his on the field contributions.  The same is true for Rodgers.  Like Watt, he was the face of his franchise and one of the marquee faces of the NFL.  Any team that loses its starting quarterback faces a long season.  When that quarterback is, arguably, the best in the game, it casts a pretty long shadow over the rest of your season.

I fully believe everyone in the Green Bay organization completely understands the magnitude of this loss.  To their credit, they are not whining or looking back.  They have saddled up the new man and expect to win games with him.  It was evident in the post-game press conference (after last week’s 26-17 loss to New Orleans[gamebook]) that Head Coach Mike McCarthy truly expected his team to win that game.  One of the best signs to come out of the New Orleans game is the resolve of the coaching staff.  This will not be a lost season.  It was also heart-warming to watch the Green Bay faithful embrace the new guy.  There is another very interesting development to come out of this game.  But first let’s introduce the new guy.

Let the Brett Hundley Era Begin

Drafted in the fifth round (#147 overall) in 2015 out of UCLA, Brett Hundley started for the Bruins in his freshman year.  After three seasons at the Bruin helm, Brett passed on his senior season to enter the draft.  In 1241 college passes, he completed 67.4% of them for almost 10,000 yards (9,966 to be exact), a 75-25 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and a 150.8 passer rating.

He also ran for 30 touchdowns (in 40 games) and caught a touchdown pass – so Brett has some tools.

Before this season, he had only appeared in four games, completing just 2 of 10 passes with an interception.  This season he appeared in the end of the Week Four victory over Chicago, completing his only pass for 0 yards.  Then, a week ago Sunday, he saw his first extended action in the NFL against Minnesota.  The results were less than inspiring (18 of 33 for just 157 yards with 3 interceptions).

Making his first start, Brett led the Packers on touchdown drives in two of his first four possessions last Sunday.  Halfway through the second period, Green Bay led 14-7.

It was downhill after that – and ultimately there wasn’t enough production from Brett and the passing game.  The first half ended without a completed pass to either of Green Bay’s top two receivers (Jordy Nelson or Davante Adams), and Hundley finished the day 12 of 25 for just 87 yards, with no completion longer than 14 yards.

But alongside Hundley’s growing pains was another very interesting development.  The resuscitation of the Packer running game.

Yes, That Was the Packers with 181 Rushing Yards

Last year’s 10-6 team ranked only twentieth in rushing, and didn’t crack the 100-yard mark in any of their playoff games.  They had no runner that managed even 500 yards for the season.  The last Packer team to have any real commitment to the run was the 2014 team, led by their last 1,000-yards rusher, Eddie Lacy (that team went 12-4, losing the NFC Championship Game to Seattle in overtime).  When you have a passer like Rodgers, it’s hard to commit strongly to the run.

But now, with one Aaron on the shelf, the Packers have to run the ball.  And Sunday afternoon a new Aaron emerged.

Hello Aaron Jones

The Packer’s fifth-round draft pick this year was invested in running back Aaron Jones from UTEP.  Like Brett, Aaron skipped his senior year after 35 college games and 4,114 rushing yards (a 6.3 average per carry).  He ran for 33 touchdowns and caught passes for 7 more.  He first came to the nation’s attention when he chalked up 125 yards in a Week Five win in Dallas.  But Sunday was his coming out party as well.  In his first game as the centerpiece of the offense, Jones showed great burst and finished with 131 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.

With 44 yards from Hundley, the Packers piled up 180 rushing yards through the first three quarters.  But the passing game’s inability to convert those yards into points forced Green Bay to shelve the run game in the fourth quarter.

Heroes on the Line

But while Jones was good and Hundley had his moments, the revelation of this game was Green Bay’s offensive line.  Mostly recognized only as the big guys protecting Rodgers, this group has been generally under-appreciated.  Right guard Jahri Evans has been named to 6 Pro Bowls, but the rest of the group has combined for only one such honor (David Bakhtiari last season).

Given, now, the chance to run the ball as the main cog of the offense, the entire line – including the less recognized Brian Bulaga (RT) and Corey Linsley (C) showed that they could possibly be a dominant run-blocking line.  Particularly impressive, I thought, was left guard Justin McCray.  Undrafted out of Central Florida, the rookie lineman opened large holes in the middle of the Saint defense, and pulled with great authority.  In the long run, his emergence might be as important as any on an otherwise disappointing day in Green Bay.

Also worthy of note is tight end Martellus Bennett.  Not the most enthusiastic blocking tight end I’ve ever seen, Bennett is, nonetheless, quite effective.  On most of the productive running plays, it was Bennett who was neutralizing New Orleans’ star defensive lineman Cameron Jordan – including Jones’ two longest runs of the afternoon (his 46-yard touchdown sprint in the first quarter, and his 21-yard run around right end in the third).  On that last run, Bennett was one of three tight-ends on the right side and was pivotal in opening up the sideline for Jones.

Bennett also threw my favorite block of the game.  On the play before the 21-yard run, Martellus lined up on the left side and tossed DE Trey Hendrickson to the ground like he was a stuffed animal.  Bennett is an excellent receiving tight end – and apparently a better blocker than people may realize.

For this to have much meaning, Hundley and the passing game will have to gain enough effectiveness to allow the running game to pound people for the full four quarters.  But if Green Bay can mount a top-ten running game to go with the air attack once Rodgers gets back, this could bode very well, indeed, for the Packer future.

Meanwhile in New Orleans

The flip side of this story isn’t so rosy for the Saints, who won the game but were pushed around in the run game again.  Now allowing 114.2 rush yards a game (dropping them to twentieth in the league), and now allowing 4.9 yards per rush (ranking them thirtieth out of thirty-two teams), run defense remains a persistent shortcoming for this team.  In the six games they’ve played so far, only the Dolphins and the Lions have failed to run for at least 119 yards against them (and neither of those teams tried very hard).

In watching them play, it doesn’t look like a problem that will just go away.  The two inside linebackers, Craig Robertson and A.J. Klein are much better in coverage.  Against the run, neither shows great instinct. Neither distinguished himself as a tackler, either.  Starting right defensive end Alex Okafor is very quick on the pass rush, but is undersized and a liability against the run.  By the second half, Hendrickson was playing in his place on running downs – with only marginal improvements.

As long as the offense can put points on the board and force other teams to keep throwing the ball, the Saint defense should hold up pretty well.  But, eventually, this will rise up and bite them.

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.