Packers’ improved D faces tough test with Russell Wilson
GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) Mobile quarterbacks can force top pass rushers like the Packers’ Clay Matthews to make a tough choice.
Matthews can rush with his typical wild abandon at the risk of the letting the passer slip out of the pocket to extend a play or run for a gain. Or Matthews can hold his ground to limit the quarterback’s mobility, allowing more time in the pocket.
These are decisions that must be made on the fly Sunday when Green Bay tries to contain Seahawks run-pass threat Russell Wilson in the NFC title game in Seattle.
”You’ve got to have a feel for it. Obviously, you have to play this game for a little while as well as study offensive tendencies, and a little bit of that is luck, too,” said Matthews, holding a notebook and tablet computer in his hand before a defensive team meeting.
”You’ve got to understand when you can go and when you can’t,” Matthews said. ”If you do go, you better make the play.”
Something that didn’t happen often enough for the Packers’ liking when the teams met in the league opener in September. Wilson threw for 191 yards and two touchdowns while running for 29 yards on seven carries – respectable numbers at first glance.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers had a more worrisome statistic on his mind. The goal this weekend is try to get Seattle into third-down situations of more than six yards. Capers said the Packers allowed ”something like eight third-and-2 to 5s” in September.
”When you four-man rush Russell Wilson, he’s got a feel and he knows there’s going to be an open seam in there,” Capers said. ”If he feels pressure he has a real good pocket instinct in terms of stepping up and sliding and buying time for his receivers to uncover.”
But the Packers have changed on defense since that first meeting.
The bye week at midseason gave them time to think about tweaks to improve a then-league worst run defense. They gave Matthews more snaps at inside linebacker after he had played almost exclusively on the outside during his six-year career.
Sam Barrington got more time next to Matthews inside. Veteran A.J. Hawk’s playing time was reduced gradually.
The moves also allowed more snaps on the outside for Nick Perry and Mike Neal when Matthews went to the middle. Julius Peppers, who turns 35 on Sunday, handles the other outside linebacker position, though his playing time has also decreased down the stretch, presumably to help keep him fresh in the playoffs.
The changes worked.
Peppers had six tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles last week against Dallas playing in 60 percent of Green Bay’s defensive snaps. Overall, Green Bay is allowing 93 yards rushing per game in its last nine games, 60 yards less than the average for the Packers’ first eight games.
The improvement against the run coincides with better production by the Packers’ own running game in the second half of the season.
”Their defensive numbers have flipped, and their offensive numbers have flipped to the point … that’s a real powerful message that you send about what you do at the line of scrimmage,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said.
The Packers’ new alignment supplemented improvements at safety, where Morgan Burnett has played well especially in run support and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has had a good rookie year. Up front, tackle Letroy Guion has become a key cog playing alongside Mike Daniels.
Now it’s time to test those tweaks against Wilson. The Packers haven’t faced a mobile quarterback really since Oct. 19, when they shut down the then-struggling Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton.
”Well, I mean, we’re an athletic bunch up front and that’s definitely part of it,” McCarthy said when asked how the midseason changes might affect the defense against Wilson. ”We’re not going to invent anything this week.”
Matthews and Barrington could be employed as a spy on Wilson. If cornerbacks Sam Shields and Tramon Williams handle Seattle’s receivers in single coverage, it could also allow a safety to help keep an eye on Wilson.
The Packers just hope they don’t end up with the same result as the previous two postseasons. They were booted from the playoffs by the San Francisco 49ers and agile quarterback Colin Kaepernick each time.
”Why does everyone keep bringing up Kaepernick? Just put (Kaepernick and Wilson) in the group of mobile quarterbacks,” Matthews said.
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