Benny Sieu/USA TODAY

Rivers Puts Packers’ Pass Defense Through Exhaustive Test

Crossing routes, screen passes, dump offs, and deep balls. The Packers were tested inside and out by the Chargers’ Philip Rivers on Sunday. Despite the quarterback’s epic effort, the Packers got a little help from a key injury and a big play from a rookie to take another victory at Lambeau Field.

The Green Bay Packers’ pass defenders had every reason to be exhausted. Yet, with one final pass defection and celebration, the looks on the faces in the locker room, and an upcoming bye week on the schedule, this was pure elation.

The record will show that no opposing quarterback has ever thrown for more completions or more attempts in any game against the Packers than the San Diego Chargers’ Philip Rivers on Sunday. Furthermore, it would take 23 seasons to find another team who ran more plays in a game against the Packers than the Chargers before a record crowd of 78,434 at Lambeau Field.

But for the Packers, the only numbers that mattered were on the scoreboard and in the red zone. There, the Chargers fell short in a 27-20 decision that moved the Packers to 6-0 on the season.

“It was a competitive match, but we kept them out of the end zone and that’s what was most important,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy as part of his opening comments in his post-game press conference. “You get in games like that where you’re giving up a lot of yards, at the end of the day it’s about field goals versus touchdowns. That was obviously a big part of this game.”

The Packers’ defense certainly saved their best for last. Rookie Damarious Randall’s deflection of a pass intended for running back Danny Woodhead in the end zone ended the Chargers’ final drive at the Packers’ 3-yard line with just 15 seconds left. Trailing by seven, the Chargers had driven 77 yards on 10 plays in just 2:17 before the Packers’ final stand.

“You’ve just got to keep on pushing,” said Randall of the emotions of the final defensive play. “They’ve got some guys that can make plays and they did on us earlier and we just kept pushing.”

The Chargers ran Woodhead twice in three plays after reaching the 3-yard line. It was a curious decision in that for much of the game the running play – including two fumbles from running back Melvin Gordon – was but an afterthought.

Rivers finished with 65 pass attempts and 43 completions, both the most ever in a game against the Packers. His 503 passing yards were the second-highest output ever against the Packers, matching Ben Roethlisberger in a 2009 game at Pittsburgh.

Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers threw what seemed like his entire playbook at Rivers from various blitzes and pass rushes to six- and seven-defensive back packages. The Packers hit home for three sacks in the game, but Rivers most often got the ball out quickly. Seven passing targets caught at least three passes, and where there was a mismatch in the passing game, Rivers found it.

“We were in a lot of man-to-man (coverage) and they were running some man-to-man beaters,” said Randall. “I mean, they’ve got some good, good football players over there. And they were making plays.”

Added safety Micah Hyde: “We knew that on tape whether it was 39 (Woodhead) coming out of the backfield, their tight ends. They have two really good tight ends. They were going to have matchup problems and we were going to have matchup problems. We understood that. At the end of the day, we were trying to get off the field… They’ve thrown like that against some good defenses. We knew they were going to get some yards but our ultimate goal is when they get down there to hold them to three points and that’s what we did.”

The Chargers converted just 2-of-6 opportunities in the red zone despite rolling up 548 net yards. That had Rivers saying afterwards that his offense “should’ve scored 40” on the Packers. The Chargers’ first touchdown of the game – a 1-yard completion to Dontrelle Inman – came on a risky call by coach Mike McCoy on the final play of the first half. Two other times – including Randall’s final deflection – the Chargers turned it over on downs in the red zone.

“It’s very hard to stop a team, particularly the way they’re built,” said McCarthy. “Like I said, I thought their red zone, when we were going through the red zone meetings, I though red zone was a tremendous strength of theirs, and our defense played big down there.”

Had it not been for a third-quarter injury, Chargers receiver Keenan Allen might have joined Rivers in the Packers’ opponent record book. He had 14 catches (in 15 targets) for 157 yards before being ruled out with a hip injury.

After Allen left, Packers cornerback Casey Hayward thought the Chargers tried to get their tight ends involved more. After a slow start, Antonio Gates finished with nine catches for 95 yards.

But if the Packers were weary from covering all day, it failed to show up in the final plays. Rivers completed seven straight passes to move his team into position to tie the game. But the Packers backed off a blitz on second-and-goal from the 3 forcing an incomplete attempt to Gates and then pressure from Julius Peppers on Rivers aided Randall’s game-saving deflection.

“Philip was trying to no-look me a little and I was just staying true to my zone and I was just hoping my teammates would be there for theirs,” said Randall.

In all, the Chargers posted 26 first downs passing and ran 89 offensive plays. Not since the 1987 season has an opposing team run more plays against the Packers. In that 17-17 tie at Milwaukee County Stadium, the Denver Broncos used overtime to run 95 plays. John Elway was 30 of 48 but the Broncos also ran the ball 45 times. On Sunday, the Chargers ran just 21 times.

If not the defense then, at least one player on the Packers admitted some sort of exhaustion from watching Rivers take his shots at the Packers pass defense.

“It’s been a long day, I’m tired, a lot of standing on the sidelines,” said Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. “They had the ball for 38 minutes. It’s a lot of walking around in circles. If you would have had a tracker on me, on my iPhone, I probably would have had about 1,500 steps or so at least. You know what, I’m happy. We’re 6-0. There’s room for improvement. We had 49 plays tonight, that’s well below our standard. They had the ball for 38 minutes, but at this point, we don’t need to win pretty every week. We’d like to and we’re going to get graded to that standard. You set the bar pretty high with the pretty wins. When you have a game like tonight – 49 plays, the inefficiency in the passing game – it’s not going to be the best meeting when we come back next Monday, but they all count the same. We’ll take all of them.”

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