Rodgers' Packers vs. Brady's Patriots: Three Things We Learned
It was advertised as a game for the ages - Rodgers and Brady, McCarthy and Belichick - and Sunday's showdown between the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers put on display both drama and stellar individual performances. Those who had been predicting a scoring shootout were surprised to see a scoreless third quarter, and just 10 total points scored in the fourth quarter, the Patriots scoring a touchdown and the Packers a field goal. While the Packers were able to edge the Patriots 26-21, both teams remain contenders in the playoff race that is now underway. Let's take a look at some important things we learned from one of the best games of the season thus far.
The Packers offense is more than pass plays to Nelson and Cobb
We saw the Packers turn more to Eddie Lacy in the running game during last week's 24-21 win over the Vikings, and that trend continued this week. The Packers handed the ball off 24 times for a total of 108 rushing yards, and 21 of those carries went to Eddie Lacy. Averaging 4.5 yards per rush, the running game wasn't explosive for the Packers (one run over 20 yards) but it was steady, and most importantly, it forced the Patriots to play closer to the line than perhaps they might have. Aaron Rodgers loves when the secondary slides up closer.
In addition to the continued commitment to the run game, the Packers saw a pair of young weapons emerge. The rookie wide receiver from Fresno State Davante Adams led the team in receiving with six receptions for 121 yards. Adams certainly would have had a touchdown in the fourth quarter if he could have held on to a bullet pass from Aaron Rodgers on a slant route, but he still turned in a commendable performance. Another rookie, tight end Richard Rodgers (no known relation to Aaron Rodgers), came up big as well with a 32 yard touchdown reception in the first half. By game's end, 63% of Aaron Rodgers' completions had gone to receivers other than Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb.
The Great Schemer Out Schemed? Or Players Out Played?
The discussion surrounding Patriots head coach Bill Belichick inevitably includes talk about his ability to scheme for an opponent's weaknesses and make adjustments during the game. In the first half of Sunday's game, the Packers showed multiple never-before-seen looks on offense.
Wide receiver Randall Cobb took two handoffs in the backfield. Cobb also caught a 33 yard pass on a wheel route and converted a 3rd down on an out route, both out of the backfield.
In another wrinkle, the Packers lined up both Randall Cobb and wide receiver Jarrett Boykin in the backfield, with Cobb in the position of a fullback and Boykin lined up deep. Out of this formation, Aaron Rodgers faked a handoff to Cobb to the right side and then threw left to Boykin on a swing pass. The play ultimatley netted 6 yards and put something else in the minds of Belichick and his defenders to consider. These plays kept the Patriots defense on its' heels and opened up the field for the Packers' base route concepts.
The Patriots, however, were not without their own wrinkles. Who played running back this week? Well, the only rushing touchdown for the Patriots came from Brandon Bolden. If you haven't heard of Bolden before, it may be because before today's game he had just 11 career carries in his three seasons in the league. Bolden finished the day with three carries for 17 yards. The Patriots relied more heavily in the run game on newly reacquired running back LeGarrette Blount, who was released by the Pittsburgh Steelers just two weeks ago. Blount finished with a 5.8 yards per carry average, and certainly reminded us all why he is dangerous. Blount gives the Patriots the ability to close out a game and control the clock with the running game.
On defense, the Packers used a variety of players to cover the big, loud and dangerous tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski led all Patriots receivers with seven catches for 98 yards, but he didn't find the end zone and didn't take the game over as he did against the Indianapolis Colts. He didn't go bouncer-mode and throw anyone out of the club. One Packers defender in particular who had success against Gronkowski was rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Clinton-Dix was one-on-one with Gronkowski on multiple occassions and broke up a pass in the end zone that could have gone for a touchdown. Gronkowski got his yards, but the Packers defense would have to consider their performance against him a success.
For the Patriots, the defense didn't do anything too exotic. On a few plays they moved outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich to the inside to generate more pass rush. Their scheme for Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb was to put either Darrelle Revis or Brandon Browner on them man-to-man. They mixed up who covered who. On a crucial play right before the end of the first half, Nelson burned Revis for a 45 yard touchdown.
Ultimately, we heard a lot about scheme in this game, but the outcome came down to one-on-one battles. Revis went one on one with Nelson and had a lot of success, but was ultimately burned. The Patritos lined up Gronkowski on the outside to exploit size mismatches, but Packers' corners rose to the occasion.
Homefield advantage in the NFC Matters
One thing is certain, the Packers are a different team at home than on the road. Most Vegas bookies favored the Packers by three largely due to the homefield advantage. The quiet atmosphere when Green Bay goes on offense allows Aaron Rodgers to talk to his line and receivers. There is a peaceful air about Lambeau Field when the offense is on the field.
Now, of course, every team prefers to be at home. However, for some teams the tangible advantage of being at home is greater. For the Packers it is noticeable. It has also been important for another NFC heavyweight, the Seattle Seahawks. I don't need to describe for you the well-documented upper hand the Seahawks have at home, and it would seem after Thursday night's beat down of the 49ers that the Seahawks are ready to make a run and play at home this January. It is clear that in the NFC, the team that is able to gain homefield advantage will be in great shape come playoff time.