With nothing to play for, down two starter corners and both starting outside linebackers, and facing a top-10 offense looking to angle for position in the NFC playoff race, the Green Bay Packers defense could have been excused for laying an egg.
Instead, they held Case Keenum and the No. 6 passing offense by DVOA to just 130 yards through the air and 4-15 on third downs. They got key stops after turnovers to keep the game within reach for the Packers right until the end. Adam Thielen, one of the breakout stars of the season, caught just two of his six targets for 24 yards.
Without Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, Kenny Clark dominated inside with two sacks and three quarterback hits. Down Kevin King and Damarious Randall, Davon House and Josh Hawkins stepped up to start with Lenzey Pipkins and Isaiah Whitehead playing behind them. Morgan Burnett resumed his role in the slot.
But the real key was simple: when the Packers played man coverage, they got stops.
By my count, the Packers played pure man coverage on 15 of Case Keenum's 28 drop backs, more than half of the total. Against the man coverage, Keenum went 6/13 for 56 yards, threw his lone touchdown pass and was sacked twice. But against zone and combo coverage, Keenum went 8/12 for 83 yards and the Packers’ other sack, which wasn’t really a sack as Clark got credit for one chasing Keenum out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage.
Either way, the results speak for themselves.
And it’s a counter-intuitive notion, that down talent in the secondary it behooves the Packers to play man coverage. Shouldn’t Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs win those one-on-one matchups?
Sure they should. But the alternative is giving Keenum time to sit back and survey a zone defense. In fact, there was one particularly troubling moment for the Packers in the second half where the Vikings sent just two men out in the route, Green Bay dropped seven in zone coverage and somehow both receivers were open.
This was a 21-yard gain to Thielen, his lone impact play of the night.
What more evidence does Dom Capers need to understand this is not the way this Packers team should be playing? Even the touchdown required immaculate execution by quarterback and receiver.
Kyler Fackrell creates pressure in the face of Keenum. Burnett comes late from the backside. Josh Hawkins has Diggs across the field and keeps his leverage to the field which requires Keenum to make a pinpoint through to the back sideline.
He does. Diggs makes a toe-tap catch and it’s a touchdown, but it was as well-defended as the play could have been, not to mention Hawkins was the Packers fifth cornerback heading into the regular season.
If this is how teams are going to beat them, then tip your cap and go on to the next play. The Vikings practice too. Imagine how that could be different with Nick Perry closing down space in the face of Keenum and Randall chasing Diggs across the field. Or Kevin King using his size to make that throw even more difficult.
I’ve long argued this defense should be playing a more man-based scheme, and that was supposedly the plan when Davon House signed with the team. We always end up with excuses as to why the defense looks the way it does.
Now, Capers will have to find an excuse for why the defense hasn’t looked this way more often.