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Game Observations: Packers Overcome Slow Start to Down Jets

On Sunday, the Green Bay Packer survived an early scare, and came back from down 18 points to beat the New York Jets 31 to 24.  Here are a few observations, and some thoughts on the Packers’ week three game against the Detroit Lions.

What I Liked: Defense Tightens Up

By the time 20 football minutes passed Sunday, the Jets had scored 21 points.  While the first seven followed an early turnover, the two ensuing Jets scoring drives were each over 80 yards, and took 6 and 17 plays, respectively.  Following a lackluster performance in Seattle, the Packers defense looked beyond poor.  It looked pathetic.

However, following that early onslaught the defense significantly tightened the reigns. Notably, Dom Capers moved Clay Matthews to the middle of the field and had him act as a shadow for Jets quarterback Geno Smith.  He also reportedly quietly moved Green Bay into a more traditional 4-3 look, contrary to virtually his entire coaching career.  Not coincidentally, Smith played far worse from there forward, and appeared on multiple occasions to consider running, only to hesitate at the sight of Matthews waiting for him on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

The Packers have had real difficulty with running quarterbacks and read-option plays in the last two seasons, and it seemed defensive coordinator Dom Capers finally learned from those games.  Moving Matthews to shadow was a direct response to continued weaknesses against mobile quarterbacks.  It works, and the Packers made a number of stops to close out the game, giving up only three more points.  While the Jets offense is anything but a juggernaut, any sign of life from the Green Bay defense is a good sign.

What I Hated: Offensive Line Woes

Poor Aaron Rodgers.  It seems that every season Green Bay must reinvent their front five on offense, and experiment either with inexperienced players, or with players playing out of position.  Sunday was no exception, as Derrick Sherrod started at right tackle for the injured Bryan Bulaga, and rookie Corey Linsley made his second start at center.  The Packers were unable to get any running game going for the second straight week, no small blow for an offense hoping to rely more on second year running back Eddie Lacy.

Worse, Sherrod was downright terrible at right tackle in pass protection.  Over and over Jets defenders easily ran around him on the outside edge.  The Packers committed help for Sherrod the entire second half, and it did help shore up the protection for Rodgers.  Despite that move, Rodgers was under pressure all game.  He was sacked four times, and took off running on another six occasions.  While Rodgers was effective with his legs, converting some key third downs with his feet, undoubtedly the Packers hope that he can stay in the pocket rather than take off running to keep plays alive.  The line has got to get better in both facets of the game.  Hopefully Bulaga returns next week and helps make that happen.

What Concerns Me Moving Forward

While Green Bay’s passing numbers ultimately proved impressive, Rodgers relied heavily on his excellent connection with wide receiver Jordy Nelson to make that happen.  Nelson caught nine passes for a career high 209 yards.  Those nine receptions included two or three very difficult catches, and a couple of deep connections taking advantage of the soft spot along the sideline between the cornerback and the safety in the cover 2 defense employed by the Jets.  One such deep pass resulted in a game-winning 80-yard touchdown.  Those are the sort of plays that only a veteran receiver that enjoys real rapport with his quarterback can make.  It is only a good thing that Rodgers has Nelson as an option.

However, this is the second straight game in which Nelson has had nine receptions.  He was targeted 16 times, the most Rodgers has ever targeted one receiver, after being targeted 14 times in Seattle.  I cannot personally recall a Packer quarterback relying this much on one passing option since 1994, when Brett Favre and Sterling Sharpe hooked up 94 times (incidentally, the lowest total for Sharpe in three years).  While a few of the NFL’s best offenses over that span have relied upon one central receiving figure, it is not the norm.  Typically an offense is more healthy, and more unpredictable, if the ball is spread out more effectively in the passing game.

Green Bay lost Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones, and Jermichael Finely in recent seasons, and may be that the loss of talent is finally catching up with the team.  Good signs from Davante Adams were welcome, but Rodgers could use some reliable help from the so-far silent Jarrett Boykin and rookie Richard Rodgers, among others.

What Encourages Me Moving Forward

Julius Peppers looks like he can play the 3-4 outside linebacker position, even covering Jets running back Chris Johnson well on a fly pattern.  He was also given the chance to play more with his hand on the ground.  Jamari Lattimore appears to have raw talent at middle linebacker.  Tramon Williams has started the year very well at cornerback.  The defensive line has been a weakness, but Mike Daniels played a terrific game Sunday, and was certainly the best player for Green Bay on that side of the ball.  Capers moved Clay Matthews away from his usual position, a sign of rare flexibility.  Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix continued to find himself in the right spots at the right time, though he could work on his finishing ability.

The point: though no one should get too far ahead of themselves based off a good performance against a bad team, the Packers’ defense finally showed spark.  If they can continue to improve, I have little doubt the offense will follow suit.

Next Week

The Packers travel to Ford Field next week to take on the Detroit Lions.  Last season the Packers were utterly dominated in Detroit, losing 40-10 on Thanksgiving Day.  The offense was pathetic without Rodgers.  The MVP is back this year, but the problems a season ago started up front, and Matt Flynn faced heavy pressure all day.  The offensive line must play better for the Packers to win, preferably behind a productive running game.  Absent that sort of effort, odds are that the Packers will find themselves with a losing record three weeks into the season.