Today, we at Acme Packing Company continue our rundown of the best plays from the Green Bay Packers’ 2015 season with the middle part of our countdown - plays #6 and #5. First up, we find the play that seemingly validated all the preseason hype that one undrafted linebacker has built up over the past two summers.
Jayrone Elliott has had to fight for snaps on defense in each of his first two years, and in week two against the Seattle Seahawks at Lambeau Field, it seemed that he was on the precipice of a breakout. This play made it seem that he was destined for more than just a special-teams role. Although that did not happen over the rest of the 2015 season, he appears primed to take another step in 2016.
In the 4th quarter of a tight game, trailing by a touchdown with just seven minutes to go, the Seahawks were threatening to make one of their vintage comebacks against Green Bay. Lynch and Wilson were reeling off successful runs and threatening to bust out behind the read option as they had done so many times before. It was a simple 1st and 10 play after four successive runs, the last of which went for 13 yards on a QB keeper, moving the ball out to the Seattle 42. The problem with the next play are legion from Seattle’s perspective, and in retrospect this is almost certainly my favorite play of the year given everything that happened.
The Seahawks have been a perennial thorn in the side of the Packers for the entire Russell Wilson Era, but this is one of those narrative things that belies an important fact; the Packers have actually been very good against the Seahawks. Timing, as usual, is everything. The Seahawks were briefly able to solve the Packers the same way the vintage Harbaugh 49ers did with a steady dose of read option. The move to a super versatile Clay Matthews playing inside and out has rendered this strategy moot, and if not for the low percentage/high leverage Fail Mary, and the low percentage/high leverage Bostick blunder, we would think about the Legion of Boom very differently.
Last year the Seahawks were finally bitten by the Karma Police on a complete trainwreck of a screen pass. I have to admit...watching tape of this play is a guilty pleasure of mine. There is probably a defense to be written of this play. If Lynch managed to get himself open, and if the pass got through and if the blocking held up in the middle, maybe it’s a huge gain. Maybe it’s a touchdown. But the odds were stacked against it from the start.
Fans often clamor for more screen passes. Short passes seem easy, and running backs in space, with blockers, seem like big plays waiting to happen. In reality, screen passes are extremely difficult plays. They rely on high precision from quarterback and running back, deception from the line, and some setup from previous playcalling. This play might work in some alternate universe, but in this instance it was doomed almost immediately. Everything starts with Clay Matthews and Mike Pennel. They run a very successful Stunt against the interior line of the Seahawks. Tackle Justin Britt and center Drew Nowak are beaten immediately. Too immediately. Both sprint out right to set up for Marshawn Lynch, who has also sprinted out right with the intent of receiving a screen pass while cutting back towards the middle of the field. This particular screen is targeting the middle of the field, while setting up outside. The problem is that Britt and Nowak barely sell this at all, and that both Pennel and Matthews are on top of Wilson almost immediately.
Outside, things are going no better for the Seahawks. Datone Jones is matched up with right guard Gary Gilliam, and while Gilliam passes off Jones as part of the screen, he runs directly into the path of Lynch. His mission is to take out Packer linebacker Nate Palmer, who is making a beeline for Lynch almost immediately. Looking at Nate Palmer’s reaction to the play is fundamental to understanding why the play fails. Nate Palmer isn’t a terrible player, but he is at best average. Despite being average, he reads this play correctly immediately, and the reason he does so is that he can clearly see exactly what is happening in front of him. If you recall, the previous four plays were all running plays and all Green Bay defenders have their eyes on these two. A screen requires that people not pay attention to the RB. Palmer also has a clear view of the offensive linemen abandoning their posts. It’s entirely obvious what is happening. On a screen, the line needs to sell that they have been beaten. There is no deception here. And because of the actual pressure generated by Matthews and Pennel, Wilson has to make the throw when he does. That throw has to get through Pennel, Jones, Gilliam, and Jayrone Elliott who has at this point stood up and decided to watch and see what happens.
As previously stated, deception is key on a screen, and screens are generally designed so that player actually on the field cannot see them. Watching a game on my bigscreen at home, I probably yell “screen!” more than anything else on Sunday. I always feel momentarily clever, but it’s easy to see a screen from above. It is much harder when you instinctively charge by the person attempting to block you and then have to turn 180 degrees to chase a ball carrier. The biggest problem with this screen is that a ton of people can see it, including Elliott. It’s right in front of him. There is no hidden lineman coming to block him, just a left tackle not trying quite as hard as he should. The play creates a lot of traffic in front of Lynch, but Elliott’s view of Wilson is maybe the clearest of anyone. Wilson feels the pressure and tries to hit Lynch, but as soon as he saw the center and left guard take off, Elliott was watching for this. He displays amazing reflexes in jumping the route, but his great play was set up seconds earlier in the realization that something fishy was going on, that lineman were running in his general direction, and that a pass would soon follow.
Elliott made a great play and probably saved the game. He showed impressive athleticism, but more importantly, intelligent situational awareness. The Seahawks were a complete trainwreck and did everything wrong, but it is to the Packers, and Elliott’s credit that they punished them in the best way possible.
The Packers cemented an impressive early season victory over a hated rival, and Elliott’s play helped to calm the nerves of every Packer fan who saw it all unraveling. So much has gone wrong against Seattle it was nice to finally crush and destroy them for some bad play design. Elliott never really showed much the rest of the season, but in this instance he was the anti-Bostick, an unsung member of the defense coming up with a devastating clutch play.
#10: Damarious Randall’s interception and onside kick recovery
#9: James Jones beats Josh Norman on 4th down
#8: Randall Cobb busts a lung with a one-handed catch
#7: Aaron Rodgers clowns the 49ers’ defense