A historically troublesome play for the Green Bay Packers’ defense - which reared its ugly head at times last week in Miami – barely registered a pulse on Sunday at Lambeau Field, even against one of the quarterbacks who runs it the best in the league.
In the end, Cam Newton and the read-option play for the Carolina Panthers was basically taken out of the game plan. And it had as much to do with the Packers’ offense as it did the defense.
Jumping out to a 28-0 second-quarter lead, the Packers scored on four of their first five drives. But without the Packers’ defense forcing four three-and-outs in the Panthers’ first five drives, a convincing 38-17 victory might have never come so easy.
“That’s what we strive for, you know, we get real aggressive, trying to set the tone of our own,” said outside linebacker Clay Matthews. “I forget if the offense started out putting points up on the board and it was our job to respond. We did that.”
The Packers’ defense had every reason to play cautiously against Newton headed into Sunday’s game. The dynamic quarterback had just run for 107 yards on 17 carries in a 37-37 draw at Cincinnati last Sunday, his best day on the ground this season. On top of that, the Packers were exposed by the read-option their last time out by the unlikely combination of Ryan Tannehill and Lamar Miller in Miami.
Those two factors combined made the workweek a lesson in Read Option 101 in Green Bay, only the Panthers were unable to get into any type of game plan on the ground thanks to the Packers’ fast start.
“Any team that possesses the ability with a quarterback to run and pass can keep you on your heels, especially if you play around with him like we saw in Miami,” said Matthews. “So, we were able to get a big lead early in the game, force him to be one-dimensional, especially in the second half, and that’s when we can kind of pin our ears back and get after the quarterback. That’s exactly what we did - kind of dictate as opposed to the other way around.”
The Panthers ran the read-option on only a handful of plays in the game. Much of Newton’s 41 yards on seven runs was forced by the Packers’ pressure.
“I thought our defense controlled the line of scrimmage the whole game,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. “We penetrated. With these misdirection runs and all the things they do and just with the talent they have at quarterback, I thought the ability to play on their side of the line of scrimmage for the most part was a big advantage for us.”
So was the banged-up Panthers’ offensive line. Already without starting guard Amini Silatolu, the Panthers lost the other starting guard, Trai Turner (ankle), as well as left tackle Byron Bell (elbow) during the game. The Packers overpowered the Panthers with bull rushes and mixed their linebackers around. Matthews (one-half sack, one tackle for loss, one quarterback hit) and outside linebacker-mate Julius Peppers (five tackles, two QB hits, 1.5 sacks, one TFL) even moved inside to rush on a couple of occasions. Backups Nick Perry (one sack, one QB hit, one TFL) and Mike Neal were effective flushing Newton in the Packers’ NASCAR package, and defensive lineman Letroy Guion was a force on two short-yardage stops to force a turnover on downs to begin the second half.
Without top corner Sam Shields (inactive, knee) and Tramon Williams playing on a sore ankle, the Packers’ domination at the line of scrimmage helped the secondary, too. Cornerback Casey Hayward recorded an interception for the second straight game.
“The d-linemen are doing a great job getting pressure and I’ve just been able to read some of the quarterback and get my hands on a couple balls,” said Hayward. “I think that’s what I do the best – read and then when the ball touches my hands come up with the interception.”
The last time the Packers played Newton (2011 at Carolina) he threw three interceptions as a rookie against them but posted nearly 500 total yards (432 passing) in a 30-23 Packers win. This time around, coming off a season-high 284 yards passing vs. the Bengals, he had just 86 yards passing on 8-of-16 at halftime. He finished with 205 yards passing before backup Derek Anderson came in for mop-up duty in the fourth quarter.
Again, the Packers had trouble covering the tight end – Greg Olson went for eight catches in eight targets – but Panthers’ receivers caught only 11-of-24 targets to shut down any other offensive threat.
“We were in a flow,” McCarthy said of the first half. “I think the game of football has a lot to do with energy flow and rhythm and timing, whether it’s play entry to execution, in all those different areas. I thought (defensive coordinator) Dom (Capers) was aggressive and mixed the coverage. The four-man rush stuff was excellent. But we hit our targets. Defensively, we needed to stop Cam Newton. He was our focus all week. We have a lot of respect for what he does and what he does in that scheme. We were able to get that done. Offensively we wanted to get the ball on the perimeter and the statistic that jumped off the charts at me at halftime was I think we had 13 broken tackles at halftime. We executed our plan. Our players did an outstanding job. It was an excellent victory.”
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org