FOXBORO - You think the Patriots defense has had some problematic performances? The Packers may be even more pockmarked by their defense's work in the season’s first seven games.
Save for the outlier 22-0 win over the Bills, the Packers have allowed fewer than 29 points just once (season-opening, 24-23 win over the Bears). The 3-3-1 Packers have allowed 31 to the Redskins and Lions, 30 to the Niners and 29 each to the Vikings and Rams.
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Add to that the fact the Packers dealt away safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a former Pro Bowl selection who’d played every defensive snap for them this season (and did last year) and there’s a hole that needs filling.
The Packers are coming off a half-good performance against the Rams in L.A. last week in which they kept the Rams out of the end zone for almost the entire first half. A second-half flurry by the Rams and a late turnover L.A. turned into a field goal allowed them to stay unbeaten but the Packers got after Jared Goff for five sacks.
Mike Pettine, the Packers defensive coordinator who knows the Patriots so well from time spent in the AFC East, blitzed Goff liberally. But that’s Goff. Good player, but not at the level of Tom Brady when it comes to figuring out what’s coming and how to defeat it.
Still, Bill Belichick expects to see some pressure just to test it out.
“If you can’t handle it, then Coach Pettine will just keep firing them in there,” said Belichick. “So, yeah, they give you a lot of different looks. There’s a lot of different combinations that they use to pressure, and the ones that we’re working on this week, we may not even see those.
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“We might see something else or could be different guys, different players in different spots, so it’s not quite the same identification that you had on film from another game, and sometimes that’s confusing,” Belichick acknowledged. “You know, a guy’s a safety and now he’s a linebacker, he was a nickel and now he’s a corner, and he was a corner and now he’s a dime and so forth. So, making sure that we have the right guy – you know, make sure that we know who we have, that we have a hat on a hat. Then you have to block them. I mean, that’s the other part of it.”
Mike Daniels, a defensive end in the Packers 3-4, is one of the league’s better and more underappreciated interior defenders. Same with their nose tackle, Kenny Clark. Linebacker Blake Martinez led the NFL in tackles last season and he’s a three-down linebacker who can cover ground. Aging Clay Matthews has become a liability in coverage but is still a factor in the running game.
One way to neutralize their impact is to get them off the field with personnel. With Sony Michel still dinged, Shaq Mason out with a calf injury and Marcus Cannon questionable with a concussion, the Patriots figure to be in spread mode, trying to play to their strengths with James White, Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon and Chris Hogan in space and Rob Gronkowski – depending on health – hitting the Packers in the seam.
Green Bay has the personnel to play plenty of defensive backs – six of them played more than 65 snaps last week against the Rams. Their best secondary defenders are rookie Jaire Alexander – a very good matchup corner – and Tramon Williams, who plays slot corner. Jermaine Whitehead and Kevin King are the other corners that Brady could target.
Belichick minimized the expected impact of Clinton-Dix’ departure.
“They have a lot of experienced players back there. Certainly, Whitehead’s done a good job for them in a lot of different roles,” he said. “[Josh] Jones is a very talented player that I’m sure has more than enough skill to play that position – not sure where exactly they are on him. But, I mean, give him a good opportunity to play, I think he would play more. If it’s Williams, it’s Williams. I mean, they have a lot of depth at cornerback with the two rookie corners. So, they have a lot of options. They play a lot of defensive backs anyway, so we’ll have to be ready and see how it unfolds, but obviously, they did what they thought was best to do for their team. I totally respect that, and they have a lot of good young players and depth in the secondary, so I’m sure they’re planning to move some of those guys up.”
The key for the Patriots will be getting it out quickly, staying in second-and-manageable and moving the chains. The more extended drives they have the better because in matchups with teams that have a brilliant quarterback like Aaron Rodgers, possessions are at a premium and three-and-outs are death.
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Going against a coordinator like Pettine, who knows Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels so well, the chess match will start early. Do the Packers dare New England to run by flooding the field with defensive backs and clogging the intermediate area?
If that’s the case, look for a big game from Josh Gordon. He may be the matchup that emerges on the perimeter. So far this season, the Patriots go-to has been either White, Gronk or – last week – Edelman who is re-emerging. If Green Bay allocates its personnel to them, Gordon could feast.
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