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The Takeaway, Vikings vs. Packers: Dubious roughing penalty casts shadow over tie

A questionable roughing-the-passer penalty became even more dubious after referee Tony Corrente’s explanation.

Green Bay Packers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

A single play rarely determines the outcome of a football game, but one can often come to define it. Such a moment occurred during the final two minutes of regulation during Sunday’s NFC North tilt between the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers.

On the Vikings’ final drive of regulation, pass rusher Clay Matthews hit Kirk Cousins just as the quarterback released the football. Moments later, the ball fell into the waiting arms for rookie corner Jaire Alexander for the game-sealing interception. Alexander performed his first Lambeau Leap

However, while Alexander performed his first Lambeau Leap, the officials flagged Matthews for roughing the passer, a penalty which reversed the turnover and extended the Vikings’ drive. Eight plays later, Cousins threw his best pass of the afternoon to Adam Thielen, who corralled the ball for a touchdown. A successful extra point followed to tie the game at 29.

According to the pool report, game official Tony Corrente said Matthews “hit the quarterback, he lifted him and drove him into the ground.” He further elaborated that his crew’s flag “had nothing to do with the rule of full body weight. It has nothing to do with helmet to helmet. [Matthews] picked the quarterback up and drove him into the ground.”

Review of the play raises questions about Corrente’s entire explanation. Matthews did nothing to “lift” Cousins nor did the linebackers’ hit appear to apply any unnecessary force to “drive” him into the ground. Short of not hitting the quarterback at all, Matthews could have done nothing else to elude the flag and keep the Minnesota drive alive.

Certainly, other factors helped determine the outcome of Sunday’s game; The Packers’ decision to run inside zone on third-and-2 in the red zone during their first drive of the fourth quarter; Lane Taylor’s holding penalty negating a Jimmy Graham touchdown; Mason Crosby’s missed field goal at the end of regulation; Rodgers fumble on the run-pass option in overtime. But those examples all fall under the category of player performance. The misapplied penalty fell outside of either team’s control and had at least as much impact on the final result.

Ultimately, the NFL has muddied defenders’ understanding of the quarterback protections in a fashion quite similar to the old catch rule. Players don’t have a well-defined idea of what defines these illegal hits, and that lack of clarity has affected the outcome of games.

Packers can still separate from Vikings over coming weeks

Though the outcome of Sunday’s game leaves the Packers and Vikings with identical win-loss records, the two teams could easily diverge in the coming weeks.

Minnesota faces a tough upcoming schedule that includes back-to-back road games against the Los Angeles Rams and defending-champion Philadelphia Eagles. During the same stretch, Green Bay enjoys a favorable slate that features the hapless Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions. Myriad factors could recontextualize those contests. But as things stand presently, the Packers look like the better bet to lead the division when they hit their Week 7 bye.

Building a lead in the division race over the next months is critical for the Packers. Week 12’s rematch with the Vikings takes place at the formidable U.S. Bank Stadium, giving an edge to the reigning NFC North champions. Green Bay needs to establish a cushion before then in case Minnesota wins the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Aaron Jones set to return next week

The Packers’ running game improved over Week 1’s showing against the Chicago Bears, but that doesn’t mean the backfield rotation hit all its marks.

Jamaal Williams managed just 59 yards on 16 carries and couldn’t convert on a key third-and-2 during the fourth quarter. Ty Montgomery fared better statistically (31 yards on five carries), but his issues in pass protection and his ever-present risk of injury limit how much he can contribute in that role. As they did in the season opener, the Packers moved away from their ground attack early in the game, leaving Rodgers to attempt 20 more passes than the team’s final carry tally. That discrepancy can work in some situations, but the offense needs to find a better balance over the course of the season.

Fortunately for Green Bay, second-year running back Aaron Jones returns from his two-game suspension just in time to give the unit a shot in the arm. Jones doesn’t have Williams’ gift for pass protection nor Montgomery’s skills as a pass catcher. However, Jones averaged nearly 2 yards more a carry than them in 2017 and, when healthy, provides the Packers with its most dangerous threat out of the backfield.

Adding Jones won’t displace Williams and Montgomery entirely. Rather, the trio can work in concert to improve the ground game and keep each from taking on an overbearing workload. All three dealt with injuries last year that likely stemmed from overuse. Jones doesn’t need 300 carries to significantly impact Green Bay. His elusiveness and viability as a between-the-tackles runner add a dimension to the offense that can take pressure off the still-ailing Rodgers and the passing attack.