The strict, close-minded strategy was thwarted yet again. Michael Jordan used and abused Bryan Russell, and by the time Jerry Sloan slid Jeff Hornacek over for extra help, it was too late. Last Sunday provided another cold reminder that maybe — just maybe — it's time for the Packers to change its embedded identity in coverage.
For the past two years, an overriding sentiment has controlled Green Bay's aggressive, man-to-man defense: Don't go there. You are who you are. We're in too deep to ever think about going back now.
But why? Why not admit this is a pure boom-or-bust formula that can be adjusted through the season? It's stubborn. The Packers have been burnt badly in crucial games that a.) Cost the Packers homefield advantage by losing at Dallas; b.) Cost the Packers their season and (maybe) this unit's last real shot at the Super Bowl; and c.) Cost the Packers an absolute gimmie at home on Sunday.
That's what the strategy has done, though. The Packers have lived and died by matching its cornerbacks man-to-man on the edges. Manning up Charles Woodson and Al Harris on elite receivers is not a bad tactic. Green Bay certainly has reaped the benefits of this duo's physical play. In an era when cornerbacks are the elementary nerds oh-so easy for referees to pick on every Sunday, the Packers fight back. The in-your-grill, bump-and-run style is — by theory — a clever way to fight the power.
Unfortunately, the Packers have failed to escape this strategy at the most inopportune times. Neither the Dallas Cowboys nor the New York Giants boasted elite No. 2 receivers worthy of outside attention. Leave the Amani Toomers and Patrick Craytons of the world alone on a cornerback — and blanket extra help to the No. 1 wideout. Shade Nick Collins or Aaron Rouse toward Terrell Owens and Plaxico Burress. Seems simple enough. Designate a linebacker or nickel back to bump or shove that No. 1 receiver on crossing routes. Give the premier wide receiver optimal attention, rather than casting away Al Harris (last year) or Charles Woodson (this year) on a deserted island.
Secluded in one-on-one coverage, Harris was owned by Terrell Owens (seven receptions for 156 yards, one touchdown, one juvenile splash of popcorn into his face) and Plaxico Burress (11 receptions for 154 yards and one more ego-building performance for Burress' never-ending power trip).
Apparently, the coaching staff was blinded by last season's season-killing red flags. On Sunday, Green Bay faced the most one-dimensional receiving unit in the NFL and used the same old one-on-one strategy.
Forget that Roddy White accounts for 53 percent of Atlanta's passing production with 454 yards. Forget the obvious fact Matt Ryan consistently locks in on White from the snap — disregarding other receivers. No other receiver on the Falcons has 10 catches. It seemed all too perfect: the wide-eyed rookie zeroing in on one receiver. Triple-cover the receiver. Blitz the quarterback into oblivion. Turnovers, Lambeau Leaps, a return to the NFC elite. Bratwurst, anyone?
But, no. The Packers painfully matched a cornerback on White one-on-one, only sliding help to White after he torched the defense for eight receptions, 132 yards and a touchdown in the first half. That's what doomed Green Bay on Sunday. Not Aaron Rodgers' sore shoulder. Not the questionable holding call on Jermichael Finley. Not even Michael Turner wearing the defense down as the game progressed.
Ryan exploited Green Bay's prehistoric scheme in the first half to bury Green Bay's injury-ravaged defense.
Ryan blooped a 37-yarder over Woodson on the first play from scrimmage. Three plays later, White abused rookie Pat Lee for 19 yards. Later in the drive, he beat Tramon Williams for an 8-yard catch to set up the opening score. The carnage continued throughout the first half against an array of Packers cornerbacks, as Green Bay finally used Woodson as a shadow in the second half to shut down White.
By then, though, the Packers were in a 17-7 hole. Never mind that Green Bay held White to zero catches with its new coverage scheme in the second half. The damage was on.
There's still time. At 2-3 in a JV division, the Packers can resurrect their season.
Still, lurking on their schedule is a smattering of game-breaking No. 1 receivers: Reggie Wayne (Oct. 19), a Tarvaris Jackson-less Bernard Berrian (Nov. 9), Steve Smith (Nov. 30), Andre Johnson (Dec. 7), Roy Williams (Dec. 28). If Devery Henderson (31.7 yards per catch) gets one-on-one coverage on any play on Nov. 24, Ted Thompson should depart his club suite and hand someone a pink slip right on the field. Enough's enough.
After the 27-24 loss to Atlanta, Williams — who is filling in for Harris — said Green Bay had the book on Roddy White.
"Yeah, he hurt us," Williams said. "We knew about him coming in, but he just kind of got loose, I guess."
But knowing isn't enough for the staff. With a banged-up secondary vaulting fringe cornerbacks and a hobbled Woodson in bigger roles, Green Bay can't afford to put any cornerback on an island. Green Bay must be willing to scratch a stubborn identity when facing premier No. 1 wideouts. Green Bay better. Or this season will continue to sink deeper than anyone expected.
Tyler Dunne is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.