Monday's game was an oddity for the 2014 Green Bay Packers. It marked the first time this season that they allowed an opponent to nearly come back after building a sizeable lead, in this case a 37-7 advantage at halftime.
Naturally, there are many questions surrounding how that large lead turned into a mere 6-point margin of victory. There isn't a neat answer, though much of the fault lies with the defense's execution down the stretch.
Execution errors fracture Packers defense in second half
In the same way holding an opponent to seven points in a half is impressive, 30 points is a tremendous amount to yield over two quarters. Rarely do both occur in the same game, yet that's exactly what happened to the Packers Monday night as Julio Jones exploited the secondary with little difficulty. While it didn't cost them the game, the failure of Green Bay's young players to execute the defense is a troubling issue that needs to be addressed in the coming weeks.
When it became clear that Jones could not be single covered by Sam Shields, Dom Capers began sending a safety over to help. For the most part this duty fell upon the rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix who held his own in pass coverage a week earlier against the near-indomitable Rob Gronkowski. With Clinton-Dix over the top, even an elite receiver like Jones shouldn't have been able to victimize the defense.
That's not how it played out, however. On Jones' 22-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth, Matt Ryan baited Clinton-Dix by looking down the receiver to his right before progressing back to Jones who had beaten Shields on a seam route. Ryan threw a dart, and though the rookie safety ran back towards the play it was too late. Jones hauled in the pass to bring the Atlanta Falcons within 10.
Clinton-Dix's struggles against Atlanta are not indicative of his play all season, nor were they the only issues that befell the Packers. Second-year linebacker Sam Barrington played the run well enough, but was beaten multiple times in pass coverage. That's not to say it's all on the players. Capers called a lot of zone on Monday even after the Falcons proved they could beat it. Still, when the youngsters execute the plays they generally work as planned. Clinton-Dix and the other defenders who struggled will have a prime opportunity to rebound next week in Buffalo.
Bakhtiari-Sitton combo drives running game
Eddie Lacy was heavily featured in the offensive game plan in the first half. The Packers ran the second-year tailback eight times before halftime, and he responded with 56 yards and a touchdown. While Lacy is due plenty of credit for that production, the blocking combination of David Bakhtiari and Josh Sitton are just as responsible for the success of those plays.
Of those eight rush attempts, five sent Lacy into the gap between Bakhtiari and Sitton. Lacy averaged 9.8 yards per carry on those runs including a 1-yard touchdown, a stark improvement over his 3.5 averaged on runs towards any other location in the first half. That disparity remained mostly intact after the second half as Lacy finished with 7.8 yards per carry on runs behind Bakhtiari and Sitton and an average of 3 on all others.
While Sitton's strong run blocking performance shouldn't shock anyone, Bakhtiari has regularly struggled in that area of the game. The coaching staff however has continually expressed confidence in his ability to improve, and that trust is beginning to pay off in a big way. Bakhtiari was responsible for only one bad run against the Falcons, a Lacy scamper that lost a yard. However, Bakhtiari responded on the team's following drive by making one of the key blocks on James Starks' 41-yard game-sealing dash.
Teams crave consistent run blocking when the calendar turns to December and beyond. Having such a luxury allows offenses to reliably move the chains when the outcome is still in the balance and to salt away the clock when it isn't. Right now, the Packers seem to be developing such an advantage with the left side of their offensive line.
Rodgers isn't the only Packer to make history Monday night
Given the perceived talent gap between the Packers and Falcons, it's no surprise that ESPN built their coverage around Aaron Rodgers and his 100th start. The century mark isn't a perfect point to analyze a career, but it does provide an easy excuse to compare Rodgers again to his predecessor Brett Favre.
And as the broadcast pointed out several times, the two have equal records through 100 starts (68-32) while throwing for a comparable number of yards and earning a Super Bowl ring. Though there are certainly some noteworthy deviations (Favre threw 50 more interceptions during that span), the conclusion remains that both were transcendent quarterbacks that are destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Yet Rodgers' 100th start wasn't the only significant achievement by a Packer on Monday.
With the victory over the Falcons, the Packers reached 10 wins for the sixth time under head coach Mike McCarthy. Only one active head coach has reached that threshold more times with their current team, Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots. McCarthy also ties the legendary Curly Lambeau for most 10-win seasons in Packers history, though that comes with the caveat that teams played fewer games during Lambeau's time.
Reaching double digits in the win column is a momentous occasion for any team. Doing so six times in nine years is worth recognition. McCarthy receives plenty of criticism for some of his play calling decisions, but he's an integral part of one of the league's most consistent winners. Along with Rodgers and GM Ted Thompson, he forms the nucleus of a machine that is built to compete in the short run and into the foreseeable future. Such is a rare breed in the parity ridden NFL.