Last night, we bore witness to one of the most one-sided and surprising shellackings of the entire season. The “chic Super Bowl pick” Green Bay Packers were mercilessly dismantled by the “don’t deserve to be 6-0” Denver Broncos. At least, that’s the running storyline. Luckily for you, I’m here to set the record straight.
Last night’s game wasn’t defined by what the Broncos did, it was defined by what the Packers didn’t do. It was the kind of loss that made me question Aaron Rodgers, Mike McCarthy, and the braintrust behind them. Last night should not have happened, and the results speak more to the hubris of Gang Green than anything the Broncos did well.
Let’s start with the Green Bay defense. The Packers came into the game with one of the league’s stingiest scoring defenses, having let up only 33 points in the previous three games combined. Clay Matthews was everywhere after switching to an inside linebacker role, and the young secondary was outperforming expectations. You know, until last night.
Something I’ve learned from watching Bill Belichick for 15 years is that, on defense, you absolutely have to specifically game plan for your opponent. You have to take something away and give them something else. If you just try to “play defense,” any good quarterback is going to shred you with audibles and hot routes. Two years ago, against the record-setting 2013 Broncos, statistically the greatest offense in NFL history, the Patriots gave up over 200 yards rushing to Knowshawn Moreno. They also held Peyton Manning to 19/36, with only 150 yards and two touchdowns, in a season where he averaged 342 yards and 3.44 touchdowns a game. Guess who won?
This brings us to last night. The Packers, try as they might, didn’t seem able to cover anyone. They’d load the box against the run and Manning would audible to a short pass. They’d sag off and Manning would audible into a run. They consistently lost the pre-snap mind game because they didn’t have their own asses covered on the back end, and since Peyton runs the majority of his offense out of the shotgun he has the flexibility to audible as he pleases. As everyone knows. Because Peyton has been in the league for 18 years. And everybody has watched him yell “OMAHA” roughly a billion times. This was not a new game plan for the Broncos.
What should Green Bay have done? Double cover Demaryius Thomas consistently, for one. Drop more into coverage, and mix it up more. Beg them to throw deep on you. Most importantly, you have to force him to throw the throws he’s struggled on all year. He doesn’t have the arm strength to throw passes outside consistently, especially in the short game, and only 9 of Manning’s passes came outside the numbers last night. It’s not rocket science. This is basic cornerback technique and game plan. Manning has struggled to throw the ball anywhere but short and over the middle this year. Force him to throw it outside, where he can’t get the required zip to bullet the ball past breaking corners. Collinsworth, King of the Idiots, kept commenting about how much better Peyton Manning looked. He didn’t. He just had time to throw and open receivers to throw to. Manning is at a point that he cannot throw it with any zip unless he can fully step into his passes. He was able to do that almost every single time last night because there was no pressure up the middle. Which is surprising, because pass-rushing savant Clay Matthews now plays the middle linebacker role and should have been blitzing consistently up the gut. What, are you scared that Manning is going to take off on you? The Packers went into this game feeling impressive on Defense, and apparently forgot they were playing another undefeated team with a quarterback who will punish you if you don’t scheme specifically to stop him. Peyton has been one of the worst quarterbacks in the league this year when he doesn’t have the time to step into his throw. Come up with a gameplan that applies pressure and forces him to make plays. Force him to move. Get him off balance. You know, do what every single other team in the league has done to Manning this season. He threw an NFL high 10 picks through 6 games, against the Ravens, Raiders, Chiefs, Lions, Vikings, and Browns. If they can do it, you can too. Shame on you, Dom Capers.
As bad as they were on defense, they were even worse on offense. Rodgers was a career-worst 14/22, with 77 yards (no, you are not reading that wrong), no picks, and no touchdowns. Eddie Lacy racked up a whopping 38 yards on 11 carries. Randall Cobb, their leading receiver, racked up 26 yards on 6 catches.
Let’s go back to the Patriots for a moment. Last week, the Patriots played one of the few defenses that is legitimately comparable to Denver’s. The Jets have the best cornerback in the league, Darrelle Revis, along with Calvin Pryor, a young stud at safety, Antonio Cromartie, a hyper-athletic #2 and the League’s worst dad, and Buster Skrine, who might be the league’s most overqualified slot corner. They have a front seven with multiple all-stars and top-10 picks. It’s a scary group. So, what did the Patriots do? They abandoned all pretense of running the ball, and instead had Brady spread out the defense and pick them apart. Even with a mind-numbing 12 drops (including one that was in the end zone off both hands of Julian Edelman), they won the game fairly comfortably. It’s the same thing they did last year in the playoffs against the Ravens and the Seahawks. They won all three games without establishing the running game, or really even attempting to. Mike McCarthy (or whoever is now calling plays because McCarthy was deemed too incompetent after the NFCCG meltdown) seems to miss the fact that if you spread a defense 5-wide, you’re going to find a mismatch somewhere. This is the NFL in 2015; it’s different than it was before. Adapt.
At the end of the day, though, the person who I think is most to blame for this loss is Aaron Rodgers. This has been the season of A-Rodg, as the noticeable decline of Peyton Manning has led to Aaron Rodgers assuming the pedestal aside Tom Brady as the (fairly) undisputed two best quarterbacks in the league. Most analysts (myself, a diehard Tom Brady fanboi, included) would put Rodgers above Brady. Rodgers simply does things with his legs and that cannon of an arm that other people are not capable of. It’s ridiculous. Unfortunately, he was badly exposed last night, and it was an exposure that will be hard to recover from.
Mentally, Aaron Rodgers looked flummoxed. He was uncomfortable in the pocket. For the first time in any game that I’ve watched, he did not look like he was in command of the game. And, worst of all, play after play after play I watched the Packers run similar route packages that they always run – routes that have the liberty of taking longer to develop thanks to the homegrown offensive line and Rodger’s gifted legs and arm. And, every time he dropped back to pass with one of those plays called, he was pressured and didn’t get what he wanted. In other words, he let Denver’s defense dictate the game instead of forcing them to scramble and come up with answers. He allowed his receivers to run routes that play to the strengths of the Denver secondary, instead of hot routing them to take Talib and Harris out of their comfort zone. Brady and Manning have proved that you really don’t need to be an elite athlete to be one of the League’s best quarterbacks. Brady’s deep ball hasn’t worked since he was spoiled by Randy Moss, and Manning’s arm has been a noodle since his 25th neck surgery. What they can do is take 10 seconds before the snap, look at a defense, and completely redirect their offense to beat it. When you can throw open 5 yard passes every time, and release the ball in that magical 2 second window, you can nullify a defense. You can nullify a pass rush. You can even nullify the league’s best corners.
Brady and Manning have made a career of this, and that’s where Rodgers fell short last night. He has three receivers who all can do damage out of the slot. He has two running backs who are both adept pass catchers and pass blockers. And, once again, Randall Cobb MIGHT BE THE BEST SLOT RECEIVER IN THE LEAGUE. GET HIM THE BALL. Pick plays, rub plays, bubble screens, jet sweeps, just do something, anything, to get the ball in the hands of your playmakers. Don’t just go out and do the same thing you do every week. Otherwise, you’re just feeding the lion.
Yes, the Broncos sport the best defense in the NFL. Then again, so did the Seahawks last year. In the modern NFL, it might not matter, and that’s what makes Rodger’s performance all the more surprising.
(featured image taken from: http://cdn-jpg.si.com/sites/default/files/2015/11/01/mmqb-rodgers-aaron-sack-broncos.jpg)