Packers hope to limit big plays from Green, Bengals
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
GREEN BAY—It's logical to think Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green is going to put up some gaudy numbers Sunday.
After all, he's facing the 30th-ranked pass defense of the Green Bay Packers.
But expecting him to put up big numbers and have his team win is a completely different matter.
The Packers secondary has taken a bruising from a long line of outstanding NFL receivers over the past two-plus seasons, including Pierre Garcon's eight-catch, 143-yard performance for Washington on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
It should follow that with these big performances come victories, but the truth is they don't.
Aside from San Francisco's Anquan Boldin dominating the season opener two weeks ago at Candlestick Park and Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne single-handedly dismantling the defense last year at Lucas Oil Stadium, most of the 100-yard-plus receiving games against the Packers have come in losing efforts.
Of the 17 receiving performances since the start of 2011 that could be characterized as “big” days, 13 of the games ended in victory for the Packers.
Garcon, Calvin Johnson (three times), Marques Colston, Victor Cruz, Kellen Winslow, Vincent Jackson, Brandon Lloyd and Steve Smith all had all-pro days against the Packers and lost. They created tremendous consternation among Packers fans with their pumped-up numbers, but they weren't able to exit in victory.
“Those are just the go-to guys on their teams,” Packers cornerback Sam Shields said when reminded of the performances. “Guys like that are going to get theirs. That's just reality. We just try hard not to let them get too much, up the field, big plays and things like that.
“They catch the slants and hitches and digs; we tackle and get them down. But a long post and a touchdown, that's what we try to avoid, the '9' routes and deep balls like that.”
In support of Shields' argument there is one statistic related to the recent top receiving games that stands above all others, and that is touchdowns. Of those 17 performances (playoffs included) against the Packers, seven did not feature a receiving touchdown.
Seven others featured one touchdown.
As the 49ers' Michael Crabtree (nine catches, 119 yards, two touchdowns) and the New York Giants' Hakeem Nicks (seven catches, 165 yards, two touchdowns) showed in playoff victories over the Packers each of the last two seasons, having big yardage numbers and scoring multiple touchdowns is the recipe for victory.
“Our goal is to eliminate big plays, basically keep points off the board,” safety M.D. Jennings said. “It's always good to get the win, that's the most important thing. But you can't get caught up in how many yards you give up. You learn from mistakes, but you have to move on.”
It is not good policy to let another team dominate through the air even if it isn't throwing for touchdowns, because it generally means a team's defense is on the field too long and its offense is on the bench. The Packers have had a lot of those days since winning Super Bowl XLV after the 2010 season. They have been fortunate their offense has been so good.
But while defensive coordinator Dom Capers would prefer those big passing days don't happen, he tends to play the odds and force teams to beat him with long, sustained drives. In the Boldin performance, the Packers could have won if they had found a way to stop him after he caught the ball.
“He made some plays,” Jennings said. “We should have gotten him on the ground. It should have been a catch and a tackle. We were missing tackles on him. You have to give credit where credit is due.”
Capers admitted after the San Francisco loss in Week 1 that he might have put too much emphasis on stopping the running of quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running back Frank Gore. He did not match up cornerback Tramon Williams with Boldin because it would not have worked in the scheme he had devised to stop Kaepernick.
Last week, he got back to a more balanced plan, returning to the blitzing and man-to-man coverage he has used in his tenure in Green Bay. Garcon had a field day working between the 20-yard lines, but not one of his eight catches for 143 yards resulted in a touchdown.
“Whether we win is all that matters,” cornerback Davon House said. “I mean, how we look at it, we don't want anybody to have 200-some yards. But we know things like that happen.
“As long as we're not giving up explosive plays, they can catch 5-yard slants on third and 10. We'll give them that and tackle them. We just can't give up the big plays.”
Capers has matched Williams on Johnson several times and played with a safety shadowing over the top. He used Charles Woodson as a stopper as well. When he knows a quarterback is going to go to a receiver eight to 10 times in a game, he has to do something to limit the damage.
But it's not often that he constructs an entire defensive plan to stop someone from piling up 150 yards receiving. That partially explains why talented receivers like Green wind up with good numbers.
As soon as safety Morgan Burnett suffered a hamstring injury, Capers had to move players around and it affected the pass defense. With Burnett probably out again this week, there may be some more tweaks to the lineup, including a possible switch from Jerron McMillian to Chris Banjo at one of the starting safety positions.
House, the biggest of the team's corners, may also see increased playing time, especially if Capers decides he wants to match up Williams with Green the entire game or on third downs only.
Regardless of the changes, the philosophy remains the same. Keep the ball in front of you. That is the mantra again this week in preparing for the indomitable Green, who in his first two seasons in the NFL had 14 catches of 40 or more yards and 18 touchdowns.
“Just keep him from getting the deep balls,” Shields said. “He's another great receiver. He's going to catch balls. There are going to be a lot of things that happen in that game, and that's part of football. Our main goal is to keep the big plays from happening.
“They're going to catch a little. Get them down and get to the next play. Live for another play.”
Part of the reason Capers' plan against Kaepernick was out of character is that he rarely believes one player can beat his defense. In the case of Green that may or may not be true, but if he constructs his defense to completely shut down the third-year star, he's going to open the gates for pass-catching tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert.
Together the two have 19 catches for 214 yards this season.
“In the NFL, a lot of guys can make plays,” Jennings said. “You can't put the whole defensive game plan on taking away one guy. All skill players are capable of making plays. They have good tight ends, some money invested in those guys, some good football players.
“We'll try to be well-rounded and mix it up.”
And, at all costs, keep them out of the end zone.