The Burnett Experiment
The Packers played their best - and most fun - game of the season on Monday night, and while they are still big underdogs to make the playoffs, beating a quality team like the Eagles on the road was their biggest impediment. It is entirely possible, and in fact likely that the Packers will catch the Vikings next week, as Minnesota faces Dallas on Thursday while the Packers get a relative cupcake in the Texans. Things are looking up, but only if the Packers can translate some of the strategies they employed against the Eagles into future success. They disappointed me before when they all but removed Ty Montgomery from the offense even after necessity proved him to be an excellent offensive weapon, but there is reason to think that some of this will stick.
Aaron Rodgers’ Brilliance
The Eagle defense has been very good until recently, especially when they get a lead. Their linebackers are outstanding, and they excel at taking away the middle of the field, and the short passing game, but they are only the 22nd best team against deep balls, and while the Packers have struggles all season with big plays, they were able to exploit the Eagles big weakness by bombing away repeatedly. On deep balls Rodgers was 4/7 for 113 yards and a touchdown, including several brilliant pitch-and-catches with Davante Adams who continues to improve every game.
During their recent losing streak the Packers struggled with opening drives, often beginning with predictable running plays and more often than not going 3-and-out. On Monday they called passes on 8 of their first 10 plays, and used a variety of screens, combination routes, and pick plays to spring receivers.
With the Philadelphia corners primed to have to jump inside of crosses or crash down on short balls, they were unable to recover when Rodgers let it fly deep, and after they hit a few big plays the Philly defense was essentially defeated. I would have enjoyed seeing them crack the 30 point barrier, but the main reason they topped out at 27 wasn’t the Eagle defense, it was an amazing, clock-killing 20-play drive that began with 10:18 left in the game, and ended with a Mason Crosby field goal inside of the two-minute warning. The Packers did not have a ton of possessions in this game, but they were extremely efficient with the possessions they did have.
Will the offensive creativity and newfound big-play ability carry over? It’s hard to say because in some ways, the Philadelphia defense encourages the bad habits of the Packer offense, and allows those bad habits to be successful. That said, there were enough deception plays, and enough short rhythm throws to make me cautiously optimistic. The Eagles are excellent at taking away tight ends and the Richard Rodgers and Jared Cook combined for just 3 targets and 7 yards, but most of that was by McCarthy’s design. The single most important thing that happened early in this game was a concentrated effort by McCArthy to get Rodgers easy throws, and after a few well-schemed connections, and he looked like his old MVP self for the first time all season. Next week will tell us a lot about whether this was simply an aberration, of if a 2010-like run is possible.
Morgan Burnett, Linebacker
I wrote about Clay Matthews last week, and how he is wasted at outside linebacker. Versatility is key to a Dom Capers defense and Matthews’ ability, when healthy, to cover a ton of territory, makes everyone else’s job easier. The problem against the Eagles was that Matthews clearly wasn’t healthy. He was checked out by team physicians numerous times and appeared to have some sort of shoulder injury. I don’t know if it was schemed during the week, or a reaction to Matthews injury, but Dom Capers moved safety Morgan Burnett to inside linebacker for much of the game, and it worked brilliantly.
Carson Wentz may turn into something special in the future, but right now he is simply not a threat down the field and the Packers were able to play up and shrink the field. Burnett was a big part of that. Here, he reads a screen pass perfectly, evades two potential blockers, and blows up the play.
Here is the same play from the All-22 camera. You can really see Burnett’s patience in waiting for the play to develop and making sure no one strays into the pass pattern, while avoiding the pulling lineman.
Burnett has been a very good player for the Packers, but was having a bit of a down year. In this game, Capers emphasized his ability as a run-stopper and he responded by leading the team in tackles and making several big plays that don’t necessarily show up in the stat sheet.
This is a fascinating development for the defense. If Burnett can pull off a Leroy Butler impersonation going forward and be what I thought Matthews might be, this defense can make a quantum leap. With Matthews ailing, Julius Peppers played on 73% of snaps and looked like the Peppers of a decade ago, registering a sack and creating constant pressure. Matthews, Peppers, the always brilliants Mike Daniels, and Nick Perry all had sacks and that pressure, along with the return of Damarious Randall, finally translated into good secondary play. The Eagles are by no means world beaters on offense, but this was still an impressive defensive performance by the Packers.
The Texans are just a mess despite leading the AFC South. By point differential, which is often a better judge of true team quality than wins, they are the third worst team in the AFC, but given that they play in an awful division, that may actually be optimistic. To understand why the Texans are a mess, look no further than who they are paying.
JJ Watt is the league’s best defensive player when healthy, but he’s out for the year with a back injury and there is some speculation that he may never play again. Their second-highest paid player is quarterback Brock Osweiler, who, by basically every metric from passer rating to QBOPS to DVOA, is the worst regular starter in football. Their third-highest paid player is left tackle Duane Brown, whose main job is to protect the league’s least valuable quarterback. It’s almost impossible to overcome a complete lack of production from that much cap space, and they can be forgiven for Watt’s injury, but signing Osweiler to a huge offseason contract was an enormous misstep that will hamstring the franchise until at least 2018.
The Texans are, and should be built on the defense of Watt, and a good secondary. In fact, given the total lack of Watt this season, their current defensive ranking of 14th is actually impressive. The problem is that if you are going to employ someone of Osweiler’s caliber, your defense has to be top 5, and a better use of Osweiler’s paycheck may have permitted that. The Texans have weapons on offense, and even a cheap, caretaker quarterback would probably have supported a decent defense. Lamar Miller is an excellent running back, and Deandre Hopkins is a top 5 receiver, along with promising rookie Will Fuller. With Osweiler it simply doesn’t matter. No team can overcome league-worst quarterback play, and the Packer defense should feast on the Texans’ offense this weekend.