Or maybe it’s Dom Capers lack of defensive strategy that’s curious. Either way, the Green Bay Packers defense is a strange beast.
One second, they’re dominant. The next… eh, not so much.
We are talking about the third-ranked unit in the NFL, but Sunday’s win over the San Francisco 49ers showed just how Jeykl and Hyde the Packers defense can be.
In the first half, the Packers held the 49ers to 57 total yards and one first down. That would all go out the window in the second half, though, as Capers’ halftime adjustments seemed to be something called “let the 49ers back into the game.”
49ers quarterback Alex Smith would finish with 227 yards and three touchdowns. Tight end Vernon Davis, the 49ers main pass-catching threat, finished with 108 yards and a touchdown.
What’s puzzling about all of this is the Packers had been shutting down opposing tight ends with cornerback Charles Woodson. Woodson handled both the Cowboys’ Jason Witten and the Buccaneers’ Kellen Winslow the previous two weeks. Woodson covered Davis during the first half on Sunday, and the tight end caught only one pass for four yards. In the second half, Davis was able to almost single-handedly bring the 49ers back.
The 49ers played almost exclusively with three- and four-receiver sets in the second half, essentially abandoning their running game.
“We started in nickel, which didn’t have Woodson on Davis,” said Capers of the second half. “Then we gravitated to dime, which put Woodson on Davis. When you put the fastest guy on the team in there where linebackers have to cover him, that’s a pretty good match-up.”
So why didn’t the Packers adjust to have Woodson cover Davis in the nickel?
Well, they did, late in the game, but the 49ers were already back within striking distance at that point, thanks to Davis’ four third-quarter receptions for 80 yards.
Here’s another question. After the Packers so effectively pressured Smith in the first half, why did they abandon the blitz in the second half?
The Packers were all over Smith in the first half of Sunday’s game, racking up three sacks and holding him to five yards passing. In the second half, especially the fourth quarter, the Packers were regularly sending only three pass rushers despite the 49ers refusal to run the football. Needless to say, those three guys didn’t get much of a push.
The Packers tallied zero sacks in the second half, and gave Smith plenty of time to throw.
The combination of the mismatches on Davis with the inability to pressure Smith changed the game. Now, the inability to cover Davis in the third quarter contributed to the decision to stop blitzing, but it’s hard to see why Capers couldn’t have made some obvious adjustments to keep the pedal to the floor.
Al Harris, who was lost to a knee injury, went down in the fourth quarter, so Capers still had his full complement of defensive backs when the 49ers were staging their comeback in the third.
Even without Harris, there’s really only one pass receiver on the 49ers that’s a concern, and that’s Davis. Put Woodson on him for the entire game and keep blitzing. That’s what this defense is supposed to do – be disruptive.
Unfortunately, it’s looked quite passive at times this season, and the guy calling the defense is the only one to blame for that.