Cleveland D makes life difficult for Green Bay
GREEN BAY—The Green Bay Packers won a football game Sunday, but offensively they did not resemble the crew that has blown through lesser opponents as if they were playing a game of catch.
The 357 yards they gained were probably their most difficult of the season.
Missing vital cogs James Jones (knee) and Randall Cobb (broken leg) and playing most of the fourth quarter without tight end Jermichael Finley (neck), the Packers rumbled, stumbled and bulled their way in wet conditions to a 31-13 victory at Lambeau Field.
“You have to remind yourself after a win like this where it wasn't the cleanest game for us that it's tough to win in the league,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “I'm proud of our guys.”
Scoring touchdowns on their first two possessions and their last two possessions (not counting a kneel-down) and just a field goal in between, the Packers resembled both a team that can overcome any kind of injury and remain potent offensively and a team that has finally reached the limit of how thin it can be stretched.
The Browns came into the game having shown a strong commitment to stopping the run by continually bringing a safety down into the box, and knowing that the Packers would be trying to win with second-year pro Jarrett Boykin and rookie Myles White in the Jones and Cobb spots, they were even more resolved not to let rookie running back Eddie Lacy repeat his 120-yard performance against Baltimore last week.
The Packers are not a team that is so stubborn that it continually runs into eight-man fronts, and it was evident when Rodgers opened the game with seven straight pass attempts. It only took four to get the Packers from the Cleveland 40 to the end zone on its first possession, in part because Finley was playing as if he was possessed.
Accounting for most of the yardage in the drive, he beat coverage for a 26-yard gain and then broke three tackles after a short catch and bulled his way into the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown.
The second touchdown drive foreshadowed how things would go until midway through the fourth quarter with Rodgers trying to keep Finley rolling but at the same time making sure Boykin was getting the ball and Lacy wasn't being ignored. He led an 11-play, 56-yard touchdown drive, but seven plays were for 6 yards or less.
“It's always a conscious effort to throw it to the open guy,” Rodgers said. “And tonight he (Boykin) had more opportunities. (Cornerback) Joe Haden is one of the top corners in the league, if not the top guy, and he was on Jordy (Nelson) all night.
“That makes it a tough matchup, so I wanted to make sure Jarrett got some opportunities when he got going early—and Jermichael. We tried to feature those guys a little bit and came back to Jordy here and there throughout the game.”
Lacy ran hard and with patience, but facing eight-man fronts, his longest run of the day was 13 yards. He finished with 82 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries, averaging just 3.7 yards an attempt.
It was a struggle to move the ball on the ground against a Browns defense that ranked tied for seventh in the NFL in fewest rushing yards allowed per game. With Rodgers playing without the reliable Jones and Cobb, he had to give Lacy the ball in some eight-man situations.
“That's something we knew they liked to do,” guard T.J. Lang said. “They're playing linebacker more than they're playing deep. You just have to adjust to their safeties. That's why they have such a good run defense.
“They had some good stops and stats weren't as good as they had been, but we were still productive.”
While Rodgers was getting Boykin involved and Lacy some work, Nelson and Haden were battling as if they were angry siblings. Opponents would be nuts not to put their best guy on or double-team Nelson because Boykin isn't fast enough to beat a team deep and White hasn't played enough to be a factor yet.
Nelson caught just five passes for 42 yards but got the best of Haden on a slant route for a 1-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. He came in averaging 17.9 yards per carry and averaged just 8.4 against Haden.
“I was expecting that, I planned for that,” Nelson said of facing Haden. “It was a good matchup. We had a good time. We were talking a little bit there at the end, having fun. He's a good player. You want to have those battles. You want to see how you measure up with some of the best out there.”
Nelson wasn't much of a factor until late, so Rodgers, who completed 25 of 36 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns, went to Boykin more than anyone else. The problem was that most of the yardage the Packers were piling up wasn't leading to touchdowns.
It wasn't until Boykin did what he does best, which is run with the ball in his hands, that the offense found the end zone again. After Finley took a wicked shot to the head and neck area and was carted off the field, Rodgers went to Boykin down the left sideline.
Boykin caught the ball at the 22, juked cornerback Buster Skrine and safety Tashaun Gipson, and powered his way down to the 1-yard line. It was the kind of play the Packers needed more of last week when it seemed that he and Rodgers were out of sync.
“I felt like we were on a better rhythm today,” Boykin said. “It was just a little bit of dialing in, him giving me what he wanted me to do, and me focusing on what I needed to do.”
Boykin secured the game for the Packers when he caught a pass from Rodgers at the 6 and ran over Skrine, reaching the ball over the goal line for his first career touchdown. When he was done, Boykin had caught eight passes for 103 yards, becoming the fourth receiver this season to top the 100-yard mark.
How long Finley will be out and how the offense will deal with his absence if it's an extended period is something coach coach Mike McCarthy and Rodgers will have to deal with this week as they prepare for a Sunday night game against Minnesota at the Metrodome.
“We enjoy it when things are going well, but when things go bad we just expect someone to go out and make a play,” Nelson said. “That's what we're trying to stress to our young guys. I think the veterans understand it.
“We don't ever panic on the sidelines. Just keep doing what you're doing. Do your job.”