When the Packers lost this weekend, it had the feeling of the chair being pulled out beneath them. A Steelers team that had only won twice on the road managed to out-physical and out hustle Green Bay down the stretch to seal a victory. Despite putting up 31 points -- the second highest single-game total since Aaron Rodgers fractured his collarbone -- the Packers gave up over 30 points for the third time in the past four weeks. While the Bears' loss later that evening rendered the result irrelevant, the effects of the Steelers game will have real ramifications when Green Bay travels to Chicago to close out the regular season.
The defense can no longer stop top receivers
At times earlier this season, the Packers defense demonstrated its ability to take out or at least slow down their opponent's top receiver. There is perhaps no better example of this than Sam Shields masterful performance against A.J. Green, shutting out the Bengals star receiver the entire first half and yielding only 46 yards and a touchdown (most of which came on one play).
It no longer appears that Green Bay's defense is capable of producing such a performance.
Steelers' star wideout Antonio Brown recorded six catches for 105 yards against the Packers, but the totals should have been even higher. And two plays, Ben Roethlisberger badly missed Brown, who seemed to run past his coverage more often than not. The receiver's success can't be blamed on any one defender either, as everyone from Tramon Williams to Sam Shields to Micah Hyde took turns trying to corral Brown.
This is a particularly troubling development for a team that faces Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in less than a week. Those two wideouts have combined this year for 180 receptions, 2562 receiving yards, and 18 touchdowns. Even with Jay Cutler's struggles since returning from a high-ankle sprain, Marshall and Jeffery project to have monster performances against the Packers' secondary this weekend.
Don't expect Clay Matthews to return before next season
It's no secret that the Packers are among the most conservative teams in regards to player health. The fact that Rodgers continues to sit out while both he and his head coach campaign for him to play illustrate how deeply rooted this philosophy is within the organization. That same philosophy will keep Clay Matthews out of uniform for the rest of the 2013 season and any postseason games the Packers may have.
Matthews initially missed four games while recovering from a broken thumb, an injury he suffered sacking Lions' quarterback Matthew Stafford. Upon first returning, Green Bay's medical staff required him to wear a full club cast over his right arm. As we noted at the time, Matthews' inability to use both hands rendered him mostly ineffective. In the weeks since, his performances have been inconsistent, and now Matthews has reinjured the thumb in what Mike McCarthy described as "repeat injury." Not only is this unfortunate occurrence likely to weigh on Ted Thompson as he decides the fate of Rodgers, but it also probably will end Matthews season.
Without Matthews, the defense will continue its downward trajectory as it will force Mike Neal, Andy Mulumba, and Nate Palmer (if he's healthy) into larger roles for which they are unqualified. Even at his lowest points this year, Matthews forced opponents to run their offense away from his side of the ball. Without his presence, the Bears and any opponent Green Bay may face the rest of the season will possess greater options when attacking their defense.
M.D. Jennings is a habit the Packers can't quit
On both of the Steelers first two possessions, Packers safety M.D. Jennings committed a plethora of mental mistakes from taking poor angles to misreading plays altogether. The combination of his blunders brought about his benching for second-year defensive back Sean Richardson. While Richardson's play couldn't be described as world beating, his ability to play in the box allowed Morgan Burnett to play centerfield where he is most comfortable. After making this change, the Packers defense significantly slowed down Pittsburgh's offense and helped the Packers gain the lead.
Shortly thereafter, Jennings returned to the field, and the defensive mistakes returned. Jennings was responsible for many of the Steelers' big plays in the second half, including the gimme touchdown pass to tight end Matt Spaeth. For a player who earned his roster spot on the back of his coverage ability, Jennings appears unable to stick with even the slowest footed of receivers. Not only does his play continue to jeopardize the Packers' secondary, but the team remains committed to giving Jennings most of the snaps regardless of performance.
It's hard to believe the Packers defensive staff is pleased with the performance of any of the safeties lining up next to Morgan Burnett. However, Jennings appears to be the only one they trust, and as a result he continues to earn playing time over the better performing Richardson. Make no mistake; neither player deserves to start for the Packers. However, at least Richardson appears to be an NFL-level talent. On a defense full of holes, none are more glaring than safety.
The Packers were too quick to give up on the screen pass
In the time since Rodgers' injury, the Packers have considerably altered their play calling. One very notable area of change has been the willingness to utilize screens. These plays are effective with quarterbacks like Matt Flynn as not only are they low difficulty throws, but they also take advantage of the run-after-the-catch skills of Green Bay's running backs.
Early in last Sundays' game, the Packers ran such a screen for tailback James Starks. On the play, he wiggled past an initial defender while guard T.J. Lang plowed over two more on a pull, creating an additional 10 yards for Starks to run through. The 23-yard gain was the Packers' second biggest play of the game, setting up a score a few plays later. While Green Bay called a few bubble screens to James Jones and Jarrett Boykin later on, the screen was essentially abandoned. While they should never be a huge part of the offense, two or three more sprinkled through the game could make all the difference while Rodgers is out.
Andrew Quarless is quiet after back-to-back big games
After spending most of the season dormant, Andrew Quarless exploded for two weeks with identical six-catch, 66-yard, one-touchdown performances against the Falcons and Cowboys. Regardless of who's quarterbacking for Green Bay, an athletic, playmaking tight end can have a significant impact on the offense, especially in the red zone. With the Steelers among the league's worst defenses in defending the tight end, he was posed for yet another huge game.
Unfortunately for the Packers, Quarless was shut out until their final drive, finishing the game with only one catch for 19 yards. This dud could mean a lot for Green Bay and the player in the coming months. If Quarless is unable to respond this weekend with a better showing, he enters the offseason appearing to be merely a flash in the pan. In more finite terms, it could cost him millions per year and dramatically shorten his next contract. Quarless needs to negate his poor game with another exceptional game this weekend against the Bears if he hopes to finagle a long-term deal to stay in Green Bay.
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