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Packers Friday Musings: Fourth-quarter offense has been a ghost in postseasons past

Failure to reach the end zone in the final quarter has been just as much a difference-maker in the Packers’ postseason losses as the defensive and special teams blunders.

Green Bay Packers vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2021 NFC Championship Set Number: X163504 TK1

NFL playoff football is here and the Green Bay Packers will get the envious opportunity of being the NFC’s only team to rest and advance this week. Despite the Packers’ stretch of unfortunate NFC Championship Game losses and a recent dip in home playoff success, they are still just two wins away from reaching the Super Bowl again this year.

What will be some of the keys to the Packers getting over the hump? Well, for starters, it is fourth-quarter offense. Today’s musings heading into a bye weekend focus on the team’s past postseason issues getting into the end zone, but also discuss a possible standout and an area of the team that needs quick correcting.

Could Whitney Mercilus be this postseason’s Erik Walden or Frank Zombo?

The Packers provided fans with a bit of a pleasant surprise this week at the outside linebacker position as both Mercilus and Za’Darius Smith returned to practice. After extensive injuries to both, it is easy to dream on each having an impact as the playoffs move along, even with tempered expectations.

Could Mercilus himself be this year’s version of the Super Bowl XLV season’s unheralded heroes Walden and Zombo? Like Mercilus, Walden was a veteran whom Packers picked up midseason in 2010 for depth. He had a minimal impact on the regular season from a stat perspective with just two sacks in nine games and two starts, but Walden’s handprint was all over Green Bay’s Wild Card win over Philadelphia. In that contest, Walden recorded five tackles, one quarterback hit, one sack, and a forced fumble to help the team’s defense. Meanwhile, Zombo, as an undrafted free agent, earned eight starts and tallied four sacks during the 2010 season. Inactive for the first three games of the playoffs, Zombo had a pivotal impact in the Super Bowl, recording five tackles, one quarterback hit, one sack, and two tackles for loss. At a time when the Packers badly needed rotational help at edge rusher, Walden and Zombo delivered.

After a torn bicep, it is difficult to assess when Mercilus could return to game action and how limited he will be. But even if available to spell Rashan Gary and Preston Smith, a productive and experienced player like Mercilus could have a surprising impact, even if it is for just one playoff game at a time like it was for Zombo and Walden. One thing is for certain: Mercilus worked hard to rehab his way back to the field again and that kind of motivation could help him become an upgrade over Tipa Galeai and Jonathan Garvin at some point during the postseason.

Special teams has been the headline, but the Packers’ safeties may be the team’s Achilles heel

For most of the season, Green Bay’s disastrous special teams play has soaked up the daily and weekly news. However, in recent weeks, the Packers have been much more consistent in many aspects of those units, from field goal kicking to return coverage. In its place, there has plenty of defensive inconsistency and much of it has stemmed from miscues in the defensive backfield.

After a stellar end to last season, Darnell Savage has been a disappointment thus far. While Savage has always struggled with angles as a tackler, this year has been eye-opening in many respects, including his missed interceptions against Minnesota that would have swung the game in the Packers’ favor and his rough outing against Baltimore’s Mark Andrews in coverage. Still, it has been the tackling issues and slot coverage in the last weeks of the regular season that have stood out the most, a spot where Jaire Alexander’s return could immediately pay dividends.

As easy as it can be to pile on Savage, Adrian Amos did not fare much better against Detroit and has also had some questionable play recently. The touchdown pass below was a result of a lack of communication between Amos and Savage, but especially due to Amos’ lack of awareness of the Lions’ best receiver settling into in Amos’ zone. The likely pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown was able to be diagnosed during pre-snap motion and the Packers still could not stop it.

Green Bay was also burned by two trick plays on defense. One appears to be on Chandon Sullivan, who has struggled in the slot himself in the latter portion of the season. The first play, however, again places blame on Amos, who ignored the running back wheel portion of the play and opted to cover the tight end near the line of scrimmage instead. The result was the entire deep portion of the field being left vacant for an easy Detroit score. While one would not expect the Packers’ first playoff opponent to run multiple trick plays like the Lions did, the Packers’ vulnerability provided a blueprint for an attack.

Green Bay’s options behind Amos and Savage do not provide much more comfort, as Henry Black has struggled mightily in expanded roles and Vernon Scott has been seldom used. It was particularly puzzling why the Packers did not try to bolster the team’s depth at safety during the offseason and especially after Will Redmond’s early injury. Now, as the team enters the postseason, Green Bay must hope that its current safeties step up their play when it matters most.

For all the defensive struggles, the Packers’ fourth-quarter offense has been a ghost in postseasons past

Yes, the defensive and special teams units have earned their share of storylines during the Packers’ postseason losses of the past decade. Botched onside kicks, horrendous run defense, and long touchdown passes allowed before halftime are just a few of them. Yet, often overlooked in those shortcomings has been Green Bay’s consistent offensive disappearance in the fourth quarter.

Since winning the Super Bowl, it has been a tough go for the Packers’ offense in closing out wins. Taking into account drives that began at the end of the third quarter and carried into the fourth, Green Bay has scored a touchdown on just six of 23 possessions in those eight playoff losses. A breakdown of those fourth-quarter outcomes is below.

  • Tampa Bay (2020 season) - punt, punt, field goal
  • San Francisco (2019) - touchdown (starting at end of third quarter), touchdown, interception
  • Atlanta (2016) - touchdown (starting at end of third quarter), punt
  • Arizona (2015) - punt, turnover on downs, touchdown on Hail Mary
  • Seattle (2014) - field goal (starting at end of third quarter), punt, punt, field goal
  • San Francisco (2013) - touchdown (starting end of third quarter), field goal
  • San Francisco (2012) - punt, touchdown
  • New York Giants (2011) - turnover on downs (starting end of third quarter), fumble, punt, interception

While a couple of the games above were of the lopsided variety, such as the 49ers in 2019, the fact is that most games have been decided by less than 10 points. Whether it has been untimely sacks, conservative playcalling, too much aggressiveness on third downs, or poor overall execution, the Packers have really struggled to score touchdowns with the game hanging in the balance and have settled for field goals after stalled drives.

For a Packers offense that has had red zone question marks throughout the season, it is imperative that the fourth quarter is more friendly this winter if the team wants to make a run to the Super Bowl. Perhaps the team can adopt surprising trick plays of its own or more fully utilize a healthy Randall Cobb in the slot this time around. But the offense’s fourth-quarter performance, and that of Aaron Rodgers himself, has been just as much the culprit of early postseason exits as the team’s other phases.