By Nick Shook
Read full post on NFL.com
Green Bay has, as head coach Mike McCarthy said after the Packers‘ latest loss, its “ass against the wall.” The sixth defeat on the season was the Packers‘ fourth straight, and also the second consecutive dreadful performance in the secondary.
The Packers have allowed 670 yards and seven touchdowns through the air in their last two games, surrendering 89 points to opponents in two road defeats. It’s a far cry from Packers teams of past years that put up plenty of points on offense and relied on veterans such as Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams to lock it down on defense. Instead, they’re too often left watching various defensive backs end up chasing opponents in vain or with their faces full of turf as the other team finishes in the end zone.
So what’s going on in Green Bay’s injury-riddled secondary? We took a closer look at the last two games to see just how other teams are treating the Packers like the Swiss cheese hats their fans wear in the stands.
Against Tennessee, Green Bay relied heavily on Cover 1 schemes that lean on tight man coverage. It exposed what is perhaps Green Bay’s most glaring weakness, as multiple targets found open field and pay dirt against the coverage. The Titans‘ Tajae Sharpe, Rishard Matthews, Kendall Wright and Anthony Fasano all scored touchdowns against man coverage, either in Cover 1 or Cover Zero blitz calls.
Too often, Packers defensive backs get caught peeking in the backfield, losing track of their man in the secondary. It happened to Quinten Rollins on Sharpe’s touchdown, and to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on a play-action fake that resulted in Fasano’s score. In other scenarios, Green Bay decided to pressure quarterback Marcus Mariota with blitzes, leaving defensive backs in one-on-one situations that they ultimately lost. Micah Hyde wasn’t able to keep Matthews from scoring on a route up the seam of the field, and couldn’t stop Wright from scoring on a deep out route, catching the ball and reaching out across the pylon to score for Tennessee.
Green Bay blitzed on 31 percent of pass plays against Tennessee (10th highest in the NFL), allowing Mariota to complete 7 of 8 passes for 109 yards, two touchdowns and a perfect passer rating. The Packers ditched the blitz the following week, sending pressure on just 12.5 percent of pass plays (eighth lowest in the league), and even then, Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins still completed all four of his attempts on these downs for 53 yards and a passer rating of 118.8 (tied for 10th highest in the league in Week 11).
It wasn’t until it was too late that Green Bay discovered it struggled mightily in man coverage, switching to a mix of Cover 1 and Cover 2 zone later in the loss to Tennessee. The Packers attempted to cut down on the mistakes in the following week against Washington, all but ditching Cover 1 in favor of Cover 2 and 3 looks. It worked early, limiting Cousins to shorter completions, but a return to Cover 1 man late in the opening drive left Hyde again stunned after DeSean Jackson torched him on a deftly run post route down the middle of the field, 12.91 yards away from any semblance of help from Clinton-Dix, for a score.
The Redskins didn’t take long to notice the switch in coverage, calling a heavier dose of routes down the deep middle of the field in the open area against Cover 2. Jordan Reed caught the first pass late in the second quarter against Cover 2 on a delayed post route for 26 yards, and was open again in the third after Hyde’s momentary peek in the backfield left Reed open over the middle for a gain of 28. Cousins feasted on the middle third of the field, throwing for 291 yards and finishing with a 157.9 passer rating on passes in that area.
Green Bay opted to mix Cover 2 with man coverage underneath, but against the speedy Jamison Crowder, Rollins was no match. Crowder ran a streak down the middle of the field, splitting the safeties each covering half of the field and burning Rollins (Crowder hit a top speed of 19.33 mph to best Rollins, who was running 18.70 mph at the same time), who was playing man coverage, to haul in a 44-yard pass from Cousins for a touchdown.
Even in situations in which Green Bay deployed four defensive backs deep in Cover 4, the Packers couldn’t execute the golden rule of safety play: don’t let anyone get behind you. Pierre Garcon sped past Rollins, who took one instinctive step toward his quarter of the field and spent a half-second too much off Garcon’s pace, which allowed the receiver to sprint ahead of the defender and catch a lob from Cousins that traveled a league-best 49.4 yards in the air on a 70-yard touchdown that again left the Packers flummoxed.
There were also the moments when Green Bay was flat-out caught out of position, or in an mismatch that only spelled doom. There was the switching of man coverage between safety Morgan Burnett and linebacker Joe Thomas on Reed and Crowder, leaving the linebacker to attempt to blanket the speedster — a battle he’d lose 99 times out of 100 when guarding a streak — which resulted in a 53-yard completion from Cousins to Crowder that landed the Redskins at Green Bay’s 1-yard line.
Then, on a play that ended in a sack of Cousins for a 4-yard loss, two Packers defensive backs could be found in the same quadrant of the end zone, leaving three-fourths of the field clear for Jackson, who was wide open but out of sight of Cousins. The nearest defender, cornerback LaDarius Gunter, was 9.7 yards away, covering Reed at the 11. It was harmless miscommunication at best, and a concrete, glaring example of Green Bay’s issues at its worst.
The resulting conclusion is simple and disheartening for Packers fans. Green Bay doesn’t just struggle in man coverage — it can’t execute. Whether it’s Hyde, Rollins, Gunter, Burnett, Demetri Goodson or even Clinton-Dix, it just isn’t consistent enough to be viewed as a reliable tactic. And even in zone coverages, miscommunication or confusion too often results in blown coverages, leaving wide sections of the field open for opposing receivers to frolic.
Without Damarious Randall, the Packers are down to just three healthy corners and have been forced to use safeties (such as Hyde and Burnett) as Nickel and Dime corners. Players are playing out of their usual position, being forced to pick up different assignments on the fly, and it shows in coverage mistakes, both massive and minor, and these ugly numbers.
To say the Packers miss Randall would be an understatement. Green Bay needs help all over its secondary, and with six weeks left in the regular season, there isn’t any in sight.
Other notes from Week 11 in Next Gen Stats:
1. Before we move forward, here are a few more nuggets on Cousins, who was near the top of almost every quarterback category this week. Cousins led the league in Week 11 in average air distance per completion (25.4 yards), longest completed pass (49.4 yards in air distance), average air yards to sticks on all downs (+4.1), and average air yards to sticks on third down (+10.4).
2. The Dolphins‘ DeVante Parker caught all eight of his receptions when lined up wide for 79 yards, which accounted for 90 percent of Miami’s pass plays in the comeback win. Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans accounted for the most yards when lined up wide with 105 on six catches (84 percent of pass plays). Cincinnati’s Tyler Boyd led all receivers lined up in the slot with six catches for 54 yards (88 percent of pass plays).
3. Xavier Rhodes flipped the Vikings‘ game against the Cardinals on its side when he intercepted Carson Palmer and took it 100 yards for a touchdown. On the return, Rhodes traveled a true distance of 121 yards and reached a max speed of 22.4 mph, besting any other top speed on a scoring play and ranking as the second-fastest ballcarrier of the year. It was also the longest distance traveled on a scoring play, until teammate Cordarrelle Patterson broke that record later in the game with his kickoff return for a touchdown that covered a total distance of 135 yards.
4. The Rams handcuffed Jared Goff in his pro debut, as the rookie’s average air yards per completion was fourth-lowest in the league in Week 11 at 4.1 yards. Goff also only had five attempts of 10-plus air yards.
5. The Titans led the league in blitzing percentage, sending five or more rushers on 43.3 percent of defensive downs, resulting in just one sack. New Orleans ranked second at 40 percent, but managed to take down Cam Newton twice.
7. Ezekiel Elliott entered the Cowboys‘ record books Sunday, but what might be even more impressive is how he did it. Close to half (40) of Elliott’s 97 rushing yards came against eight-plus defenders in the box. Elliott had the most non-red-zone carries (nine) against a stacked box in Week 11. Throw everything at him — it’s still difficult to stop Zeke.