Aaron Rodgers threw for four scores, Tramon Williams and Charlie Peprah each had interception returns for touchdowns, and the defense held off a frenzied fourth quarter rally as the Green Bay Packers beat the San Diego Chargers, 45-38, on Sunday to remain the NFL’s lone undefeated team at 8-0.
Here are five observations from the game:
1. Defensive issues
There was optimism that the Packers defense might rebound after a bye week in which some key players were getting healthy and an adjustment or two could be made. That wishful thinking was dashed in San Diego with another disappointing performance. Philip Rivers threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns, and there were times in which the Chargers marched up and down the field seemingly at will. San Diego finished with 460 total yards on offense. So what are the issues? Or maybe the better question, what isn’t an issue? The Packers had breakdowns in both man and zone coverages on Sunday. Tramon Williams, Charles Woodson and Sam Shields were beaten several times, and each is having a considerably worse season than they did a year ago. No one in the front seven can consistently pressure the quarterback either. That’s a frightening combination for any pass defense. And don’t forget, the tackling has been atrocious through eight games. Mike Tolbert ran through several more arm tackles on Sunday.
At this point, it might be time to start considering that the Packers 2011 defense might be more like their ’09 version than ’10—at least in terms of yards and points. Even slightly above average offenses are going to move the football against the Packers. But you can’t overlook the fact that the defense got two stops—a punt and a pick—once the Chargers pulled with seven late in the fourth quarter. They have pushed “bend but don’t break” to its very limits, and to this point, the Packers defense hasn’t completely broken down. Turnovers have held this group’s head above water, as the Packers extended their NFL lead in interceptions with three more on Sunday. The defense gives plenty but they also take it away. That’s likely how the rest of the 2011 will go for the Packers on that side of the ball.
2. The Packers’ great equalizer
It’s been the same script all season long. As poorly as the defense has played at times in 2011, Aaron Rodgers and his mastery of the quarterback position continues to cure the Packers of many of their ills. “Mastery” isn’t an exaggeration either. With four more touchdown passes and 247 yards on Sunday, Rodgers became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 24 scores and 2,600 yards in his team’s first eight games. His 145.8 passer rating extended his own NFL record of starting a season with eight games above a 110-mark. Over his last two games, Rodgers has thrown seven touchdowns and just nine incompletions. There are so many other statistical amazements that I could throw at you, but the main point here is that Rodgers’ start to the 2011 season has made the Packers defensive difficulties a moot point. As long as Rodgers and the Packers offense remains this hot, the defense can take its time figuring out many of their problems over the second half of the season.
3. Two stretches seal the deal
How many times this season have the Packers put their foot on the gas and completely turn the tide of a given game? It happened twice on Sunday. The first came in the opening quarter after the Chargers had taken a 7-0 lead. Rodgers hit Jermichael Finley for a 5-yard touchdown to tie the game with 5:14 left in the first, then the Packers defense found the end zone on back-to-back interceptions that ended consecutive drives for the Chargers. Packers safety Charlie Peprah put the Packers up seven when he caught a deflected pass by Desmond Bishop and weaved his way 40 yards for a score, and just three minutes later Tramon Williams flashed in front of Rivers throw to the flats and jogged into the end zone without being touched to finish the 21-point swing. For a moment, the Packers had sucked the life out of the Chargers early momentum by scoring three times in the span of four minutes.
The second stretch came after the Chargers had clawed with four at 21-17. Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson for a 16-yard touchdown with 18 seconds left in the first half, then drove the Packers for a field goal after receiving the ball to start the third quarter. Rivers responded with a touchdown drive of his own, but the Packers immediately went back to work up 31-24. Touchdown strikes to James Jones (21 yards) and Greg Jennings (4) gave the Packers such a cushion at 45-24 that Wayne Larrivee felt comfortable enough to proclaim the “dagger” had been thrown. That wasn’t necessarily the case, but the those two stretches—a 21 point swing in the first quarter and 24-7 run in the middle portions of the contest—were enough for the Packers to claim the win in the end.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the Packers pull off stretches like this in 2011. In fact, it’s almost a weekly occurrence. Think back to New Orleans (21-7 start), Carolina (23 straight after falling down 13), Denver (stretches of 21 and 28 straight), Atlanta (19 in the second half and 25 straight overall) and Minnesota (23 straight from end of second to third quarters). When the Packers turn it on, they have the ability to leave teams in holes that are too much to dig out from.
4. Two schools of thought
I want to use this space to talk about two defensive players—Desmond Bishop and Charles Woodson—and how Sunday’s game demonstrates how each is trending in 2011. People are going to get on Bishop for a couple of failed attempts to cover Antonio Gates, but he again played well on Sunday in all other facets. Overall, I’m not sure there is a more overlooked inside linebacker in the game right now than Bishop. He’s having a terrific 2011 season and he should be under serious consideration for a Pro Bowl spot at inside linebacker. 11 tackles and a sack on Sunday only adds to his leads in both statistical categories for the Packers this season. His coverage of Gates was also the major factor in Peprah’s pick-six in the first quarter.
Woodson is a different story. Despite his five interceptions, Woodson has been a liability at times in 2011. According to Pro Football Focus, Woodson ranks in the bottom 20 of NFL cornerbacks in yards, yards after the catch, touchdowns, penalties and missed tackles. His blitzes that were so effective over the past several seasons have hardly made an impact in 2011. Coming into Sunday’s game, Woodson was PFF’s No. 94 ranked cornerback in the entire league, and his play against the Chargers certainly won’t help that ranking, as Woodson missed several tackles and had two big penalties in the fourth quarter. I think people want to give Woodson a pass because of the picks and his track record. But he’s a guy that is regressing at a much faster rate than most want to realize.
5. Underestimating the win?
Through eight games, there should be a level of concern about the way the defense is playing. I’m not sold on the fact that the Packers can repeat this season with that unit playing like it has through the first half of 2011. But let’s not overlook what the Packers did on Sunday. Despite traveling four hours and playing a desperate but inspired football team, the Packers left San Diego 5-0 on the road this season. You could make a pretty convincing argument that the Chargers are the most talented team the Packers have faced since hosting the Saints in Week 1, and despite playing the best offensive game of their season, it still wasn’t enough for the Chargers to win at home. The Packers made plenty of mistakes in their own right, but still held a 21-point lead on the road in the fourth quarter. Everyone deserves the right to pyschoanalyze the defense, but don’t lose sight of the fact that the Packers can now cross off one of the most daunting road trips they had on their 2011 schedule. There were plenty of NFL experts who thought the Packers would drop this game, too. The undefeated season marches on for the Packers in 2011 with arguably their best road win of 2011.
Other observations: Jordy Nelson continued his career year with five catches for 105 yards and a score on Sunday. He’s had a catch for over 50 yards in four games already this season, including a 60-yarder against the Chargers…Thanks to Rodgers’ 52 yards on the ground, the Packers rushed for a season-high 136 yards. James Starks averaged 5.1 yards on his 13 carries and finished with 66 yards…Some questioned bringing back James Jones this offseason, but he is going a long ways to earning that paycheck. He caught a 21-yard score, his fourth of the season, on Sunday…Most reporters at the game said that Qualcomm Stadium was anywhere from a third to half full of Packers fans. Those claims were verified on the Packers first series when John Kuhn converted a third down and the crowd let out a “KUHNNNN” chant that was as audible on the broadcast as it is when the Packers are playing at Lambeau Field…OLB Frank Zombo left with a hamstring injury.
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2