Packers' defense comes of age
January, 9, 2011
By Kevin Seifert | ESPN.com
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesPackers cornerback Tramon Williams' interception sealed Green Bay's 21-16 win over the Eagles.PHILADELPHIA -- Forty-four seconds remained Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. The Philadelphia Eagles were out of timeouts but only 27 yards away from a potential winning touchdown. Big-play receivers DeSean Jackson, Jason Avant and Jeremy Maclin were spread out, from right to left, across the formation.
Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams, however, found himself lined up against reserve receiver Riley Cooper, a 6-foot-3 backup who caught only seven passes during the regular season and had been targeted on only two end zone throws. At the snap, Cooper began running a half-speed go-route that looked for all the world like a backside decoy. Surely, the Eagles wouldn't look his way and ignore their big-play trio.
Williams wasn't buying it, and the reason helps explain why the Packers were in position to take a 21-16 wild-card playoff victory.
"We watched these guys on film and they do a lot of that," fellow cornerback Charles Woodson said. "You have to pay attention to them. A lot of their deep routes, they kind of come off lackadaisical and then they take over. ... Maybe he tried to put Tramon to sleep. But obviously Tramon woke up pretty early this morning."
Indeed, Vick took a chance that Cooper could outjump Williams for the ball. But Williams calmly turned around, established position and intercepted the ball to clinch the game. That play is the best way I can illustrate why the Packers advanced to Saturday's divisional playoff round against the Atlanta Falcons. Unlike their 2009 postseason flameout, the Packers have both the skill and the scheme to play elite-caliber defense in the playoffs.
Their cornerback depth dropped off significantly beyond Woodson last season, and it showed in a 51-45 wild-card loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Sunday, however, Williams was the best pure cover man on the field. And the Packers' film study last week had prepared him for the exact situation he faced in the most crucial situation of the game.
"We know what kind of team we are," Williams said. "That's the frustrating part when you go out and put a performance up like the Arizona game last year. We came back this year and learned from it. We were put in a position to win the game by making a play defensively, and we won it."
A week ago, we put some pressure on the Packers' offense to step up after it managed 10 points in a playoff-clinching victory over the Chicago Bears. Against the Eagles, tailback James Starks broke through for 123 rushing yards and quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw three touchdown passes. It might not have been the kind of explosive performance that fantasy players have come to hope for from the Packers' offense, but it was more than enough for a Packers defense that has been remarkably stout all season.
The Packers, in fact, have scored at least 21 points in 10 games since the start of the regular season. They've won nine of them, thanks to a defense that has come of age.
"We've had some ups and downs on this roller coaster of a year," said linebacker Clay Matthews. "But hopefully we're peaking at the right time. ... You can say we're dangerous, but we're just playing at the level that we know how. It shouldn't surprise anybody the way we played."
Al Bello/Getty ImagesIn 2009, New England traded the pick that became Clay Matthews and ended up with Darius Butler instead.
Yes, Williams' interception was but the pinnacle in an all-day harassment of the Eagles' offense. It began on the first play from scrimmage, when linebacker Desmond Bishop broke free on a blitz and sacked Vick for a 9-yard loss. It continued with Matthews' embarrassment of right tackle Winston Justice, a one-sided slaughter so severe the Eagles finally benched him in the fourth quarter.
Vick threw for 292 yards and rushed for 33 more, but the bottom line for any defense is points. The Eagles' point total was 40 percent below their season average of 27.4, and it's worth noting that one of their two touchdowns came after they recovered a Rodgers fumble at the Packers' 24-yard line in the third quarter.
"We knew coming in that we wouldn't stop Vick," defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. "We just wanted to contain him. We always said, 'Make him earn every yard.' That was our thing coming into the game. I think that's what we did. ... He was pretty beat up by the end of the game. We got some licks on him. Vick is a tough guy. We got to him a lot. Our coaches did a lot to mix him up and confuse him."
And so it's instructive to look at how Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers approached Vick.
From the outside, it appeared the Packers' overriding goal was to give Vick as many different looks as they could.
"You've got to use all of your calls in a game like this," Woodson said.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Packers used at least five defensive backs on 57 of the Eagles' plays. (The other three came in short-yardage packages.) That personnel usage was almost identical to the teams' Week 1 meeting, a 27-20 Packers victory in which they used at least five defensive backs on every defensive snap, but they blitzed considerably more Sunday.
Within that nickel scheme Sunday, Capers offered every combination imaginable. He sent at least five pass-rushers on 41.9 percent of Vick's dropbacks. On eight plays, Capers rushed three or less men. Vick completed six of eight passes against that look, but I would argue the variety paid dividends in the long run.
"You can't bring pressure every time," Matthews said. "He's going to pick you apart. You can't drop into coverage every play. He's going to do the same thing. So what we had was a good balance of both."
I'm not letting the Packers' offense off the hook here. It'll need to do its part. But what the Packers demonstrated Sunday was simple. They are playing a brand of defense that can lead the way in a playoff game and -- provided adequate support -- win every time.
That's a combination that could take a team places. Next stop for the Packers: the Georgia Dome.