Soft, finesse OL costs the Green Bay Packers in short yardage
Nov 29, 2010 ~ by Gary D’Amato, Journal-Sentinel
~Atlanta — By any objective measure, the Green Bay Packers’ rushing game was an abject failure Sunday.
The inability to gain 1 yard on two occasions at or near the Atlanta Falcons’ goal line probably cost the Packers 11 points in what became a stinging 20-17 loss at the Georgia Dome.
Beyond the quantifiable, however, the Packers’ ineptitude on the ground against the NFL’s sixth-ranked rushing defense caused coach Mike McCarthy to all but abandon the run in the second half (six attempts by running backs).
It also raised legitimate questions about whether Green Bay is capable of making a deep playoff run if the offense continues to be one-dimensional.
Subtract quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ 51 yards on called keepers and scrambles and Green Bay totaled 26 rushing yards. In the first half, Packers’ running backs gained just 4 yards in five attempts, with a long run of 4 by Brandon Jackson.
“What did Brandon have? Ten carries? Twelve maybe?” asked offensive coordinator Joe Philbin.
Told Jackson finished with 10 carries for 26 yards, Philbin said, “That tells you right there it’s not very good.”
The Packers had topped the 100-yard rushing mark just three times this season but for the most part were able to do enough on the ground to keep defenses honest and, when necessary, the chains moving. Not Sunday.
“It’s frustrating, but it comes down to fundamentals and execution, and we just weren’t able to do it,” said right tackle Bryan Bulaga. “We’ve been pretty good at it the last couple weeks, but we just weren’t able to get it done today.”
It was in short-yardage situations in the red zone where the inability to convert was most glaring.
On the Packers’ second possession, they faced a third-and-1 on the Falcons’ 4-yard line, trailing, 3-0. Dimitri Nance, who gained 37 hard-fought yards against Minnesota the week before, took the handoff and was met almost immediately by Falcons linebacker Coy Wire for no gain.
“I hit the hole, and a linebacker was right there,” Nance said. “I just couldn’t get it converted. It was just tough to get yards. They did a pretty good job in stopping us.”
Mason Crosby kicked a 22-yard field goal to tie the score, but the Packers, playing on the road against one of the NFC’s top teams, needed touchdowns.
McCarthy took the blame for the call on Nance’s run.
“That’s a bad play selection on my part, the first third-and-1 down there when we kicked the field goal,” he said. “They substituted their goal-line defense late.”
Midway through the second quarter, with the score still 3-3, the Packers started at their own 15 and drove 83 yards on eight consecutive pass plays. But they couldn’t get the final 2 yards on the ground in two tries.
On first and goal, Rodgers’ pass bounced off the hands of fullback Quinn Johnson and fell incomplete. Rodgers then kept for 1 yard, making it third and goal at the 1.
With Johnson and Jackson lined up behind him, Rodgers kept again and was hit at the goal line. He tried to reach for the end zone, and linebacker Curtis Lofton knocked the ball out of his hands and into the arms of teammate Mike Peterson.
“It’s frustrating,” said center Scott Wells. “Any time we get in the red zone we expect to get touchdowns. When we’re on the 1-yard line we expect to get a touchdown. So it’s frustrating to not get that.”
In the third quarter, on second-and-1 from the Packers’ 41, Rodgers pitched to Jackson, who was dumped for a 6-yard loss by cornerback Brian Williams. The next time the Packers tried to run, on second-and-1 from their own 29, Jackson lost 1.
“I don’t know if we had a lot of quantity to get a real good feel (for the running game),” Philbin said. “But a couple times we had second-and-1s and we ended up in third-and-6. I was disappointed about those, for sure.”
For most of the second half, the Packers abandoned any pretext of running the ball and spread the Falcons’ defense with four- and five-receiver formations. That actually helped the running game, with Jackson gaining 12 and 4 yards on consecutive fourth-quarter carries.
But once again, when the Packers needed 1 yard, they couldn’t get it. On third-and-1 from the Falcons’ 41, Rodgers threw incomplete to James Jones deep down the right sideline. On fourth-and-1, Rodgers was blitzed and Donald Driver couldn’t make a diving catch of his low, hurried throw.
“Frankly, I didn’t like what I saw in the running game, and we felt very good about the match-ups outside,” McCarthy said. “That’s why we went so much spread.”
The Packers did tie the score on Rodgers’ heroic fourth-and-10 touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson with 56 seconds left, but the Falcons answered with Matt Bryant’s game-winning field goal.
Jackson actually lost 3 yards on his first five carries before gaining 29 on his last four, when the Packers were spreading the field.
“We’ve got some things that we need to fix in the run game,” said guard Daryn Colledge.
The Packers don’t need to pound the ball 35 times a game, and that’s not their identity, anyway. But they’ll have to get more production out of their running game in December and beyond, especially when they need 1 yard for a first down or a touchdown.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in here that’s in panic mode over the short-yardage situations,” Bulaga said. “It’s just that we need to execute in those situations. We showed we could do it the three weeks before this game. We know we can do it. We just need to execute better, and things will start clicking.”
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