As the saying goes, you want to play your best football in December.
Did the Green Bay Packers do that? Did they begin to play their best football on the first day of December?
In snowy New Jersey, it would take more than three full quarters before the Packers would wrest full control over the New York Giants.
The glass-half-full point of view is that the Packers took care of business, beating a hapless Giants team starting a rookie quarterback by a score of 31-13.
The Packers’ bend-but-don’t-break defense rediscovered its thieving ways, setting up the Packers’ offense with three additional possessions via interceptions. The Packers would turn those into 10 points and cruise to victory.
The less-optimistic version goes like this: for a bulk of the game, the offense found itself stuck in too many unfavorable third-and-longs. They disappeared for stretches after a hot start. A few beneficial calls – some obvious, others more gratuitous – helped move the chains for a stagnant offense, too. Absent some terrible throws by rookie quarterback Daniel Jones, this game may have been too close for comfort considering the perceived talent disparities between the Packers and Giants.
Perhaps the pessimism is attributable to last week’s undressing. The Packers have the type of record that says they’re one of the NFC’s top teams, but, at least lately, they’re not showing that with enough consistency.
Is this just the first step towards forging the team’s playoff identity? We’ll see.
Onto the takeaways.
Secondary takes advantage of rookie quarterback
One of the early hallmarks of the Packers’ defense this season was its ability to force turnovers. In the first three weeks, the Packers created seven turnovers, which contributed to their hot start.
The Packers went back to playing that opportunistic brand of football, and it began when Kevin King intercepted Daniel Jones early in the second quarter.
The Packers would then intercept Jones in back-to-back drives in the fourth quarter. The first came by way of an overthrow. Jones targeted Sterling Shepard downfield on the right hash, but the ball sailed on him. Savage played the overthrow and came away with the pick. On the ensuing drive, Jones tried to hit Darius Slayton on the left sideline with Tramon Williams in one-on-one coverage. Williams’ stacked Slayton and played the ball as if he were the intended receiver.
It wasn’t the cleanest game from the Packers’ secondary, but the turnovers are great equalizers in football. The Packers did what they needed to do.
Aggressive Aaron Rodgers is the best Aaron Rodgers
Once again, Aaron Rodgers threw a touchdown pass on a “free” play. This time, it was the too-late attempted substitution that got the Giants with a too-men-on-the-field penalty. Though it’s a bit gimmicky, No. 12 operates like IBM’s Watson at quarterback. No detail goes unnoticed, and the Giants’ sloppiness gave the Packers a big score.
We’ve seen the games where the Packers aren’t getting free plays at the snap or free first downs because of the NFL’s whimsical approach to pass interference, illegal contact, and defensive holding. For as nice as it is to get those calls, it’s not something the Packers should rely too much upon. It’s a nice jolt for the offense, but it can’t be the offense.
Today, Rodgers completed 64 percent of his passes (21-of-33) for 243 yards and four touchdown passes. It was a fine effort. It’s hard not to notice, however, his “free” play touchdown to Davante Adams.
With a Giants defenseman scurrying to get off the field, Rodgers gets the snap in a hurry and sees the yellow flag. From there, he rockets a ball into tight coverage in the middle of the end zone.
When he wants to be – or rather when he’s forced to be – Rodgers can be a deadly downfield thrower, fitting the football into tight windows and registering multiple explosive plays on a single drive. The offense seems to stagnate when Rodgers plays too conservatively; he’ll take “shot” plays on play-action, and he’ll throw it downfield in man-to-man coverage along the sideline. But he generally waits for receivers to break open, which exposes him to the pass rush and removes the rhythm of the play’s initial concept.
Rodgers hates to throw interceptions, but he’s going to have to trust his receivers to make plays in tight coverage. He has the arm. Tipped balls might happen. Interceptions might happen. But to beat the 49ers of the world, this team is going to have to grow a little more comfortable taking some chances.
Packers struggle running the football
Save for a few tough runs by Jamaal Williams in the second half, the Packers couldn’t do much of anything against the Giants today. Some of that was to be expected. Entering today’s game, the Giants had only been giving up 3.9 yards per attempt, which is the sixth-best mark in the NFL.
Williams finished the game as the team’s leading rusher, carrying the ball 10 times for 41 yards. Aaron Jones could muster just 18 yards on 11 carries. Rodgers added 24 yards on three scrambles.
Kudos to Matt LaFleur and the Packers for not completely abandoning the run game; much of the offense is predicated upon the team’s ability to at least look like they’re going to run the ball. Still, the Packers will need to find some more consistency in the closing weeks of the season. The weather isn’t getting any better.
Interceptions aside, defense struggles
Like pi, Za’Darius Smith is a mathematical constant. Regardless of the opponent, he brings energy, motor, and, more importantly, production. Today, he hit quarterback Daniel Jones five different times. There’s a little more ebb and flow with his still-productive counterpart, Preston Smith; however, the Packers can almost guarantee a strong performance from No. 55.
The same can’t be said for the rest of the defense, though. Giants rookie tight end, sixth-round pick Kaden Smith, led the team in receiving, catching six passes for 70 yards. The Packers’ struggles with tight ends again reflect the year-long trend where this defense cannot, for a few reasons, cover the middle of the field. Their middle-of-the-field zone coverage struggles to attach itself to receivers entering or crossing into zones, so opposing quarterbacks have easy completions with too much frequency.
A couple key players struggled today, too. Blake Martinez collected tackles (10 today, which led the team), but it’s more about what he doesn’t do that contributes to the team’s struggles. On a fourth and short, Preston Smith contacts the ball carrier short of the marker, but can’t make the tackle. The Giants convert because the Packers, specifically Martinez, don’t fill. He’s also one of the reasons for the porous middle-zone pass coverage, as he doesn’t close throwing lanes well.
Kevin King is another player who struggled. He did get redemption with an interception, but teams are clearly targeting King in coverage and leaving Jaire Alexander more or less alone. King was beaten by Sterling Shepard on a double move for an 18-yard touchdown. Against shiftier receivers, King gives too much cushion; he’s most susceptible on comeback routes.
JK Scott rebounds
JK Scott had been really struggling the past month or so, but he finally put together a good game.
Scott punted the ball three times, averaging 46.7 yards. His longest punt went for 47 yards.
His first punt was fair caught at the Giants’ 11-yard line. His second punt was caught at the 9-yard line and returned to the 21. His last was his best. Punting from just inside his own 50-yard-line, Scott’s last punt of the game would hit the turf and stay out of the end zone. The Packers downed the punt at the 6-yard line.
Early in the season, Scott had been a useful weapon to flip the field when the offense wasn’t playing particularly well. While he didn’t have any field-flipping opportunities, he did keep the Giants playing deep into their own territory.
If Scott is going to break out of his slump, December is a great time to do it.
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