Green Bay Packers games are best thought of as basketball games. The Packers are going to score often. Their opponents are going to score often. Defensive play is more appropriately measured in stops and turnovers, not necessarily points allowed. Every forced punt is a success. Keeping the score close gives either team a chance to win in the final seconds.
By basketball standards, the New York Giants played extremely well against the Packers on Dec. 4 at MetLife Stadium. Their offence generated plenty of fast-break-style points with long receptions. Their defence produced its share of stops. Just as in a basketball classic, the team that had the ball last won. That turned out to be the Packers, 38-35, but the Giants played them tougher than just about any other opponent this season this side of the Kansas City Chiefs, who handed Green Bay its only loss.
Here is a deeper look at just what happened in that Week 13 game: the strategies, the mismatches and the tendencies that each team will try to exploit – or cover up – when they meet in a divisional playoff game Sunday at Lambeau Field.
THE PIERRE-PAUL FACTOR Packers left tackle Marshall Newhouse was incapable of blocking Jason Pierre-Paul when the teams met in the regular season. Pierre-Paul was credited with two hurries, flushed Aaron Rodgers from the pocket on several occasions and regularly collapsed the left edge of the Packers’ line on running plays. The 12-year pro Chad Clifton (hamstring, back) is expected to replace Newhouse on Sunday. The 35-year-old Clifton is a minor upgrade. He looked rusty in the regular-season finale against the Detroit Lions, and he does not have the quickness to counter Pierre-Paul’s moves.
The Packers rarely give their left tackles help in pass protection, and running back James Starks made one critical mistake when blocking against the Giants: On a third down late in the first quarter, he focused on a non-blitzing Mathias Kiwanuka while Pierre-Paul knifed past Newhouse and forced Rodgers to throw an incomplete pass.
Fullback John Kuhn fared better. On one Rodgers scramble late in the first half, Kuhn chipped Pierre-Paul, then nailed Justin Tuck to give Rodgers running room, making him one of the few people who can claim that they blocked two great pass rushers on one play. But Kuhn was used sparingly in passing situations, and the Packers want five fast receivers running pass patterns so they can test the depth of the Giants’ secondary.
COVERING FINLEY Green Bay tight end Jermichael Finley causes matchup problems for every team, and he was the focal point of the Packers’ game plan against the Giants. Jacquian Williams, the Giants’ rookie linebacker, often drew Finley in coverage, with mixed results. Williams gave up a touchdown to Finley, but that was after Finley got open in Williams’s zone while Rodgers scrambled, making the play almost impossible for even an experienced defender to stop. Williams also allowed a 24-yard catch on an out route to Finley late in the game, but he fared better when stopping shorter routes, and redirected Finley with a hearty shove on one third-down stop in the third quarter.
Justin Tuck dropped into zone coverage on a few occasions, and his presence seemed to surprise Finley, who once tried to block him. Finley can outrun any Giants linebacker or safety on a deep pass up the seam, so defensive co-ordinator Perry Fewell typically kept a safety deep on Finley’s side of the field. That solves one problem while causing others.
CHIPPING AWAY AT MATTHEWS Unlike the Packers, the Giants often used extra pass protectors to slow Green Bay’s blitz. Jim Cordle entered the game as a sixth offensive lineman on several pass plays, blocking Charles Woodson when he blitzed off the edge on one long completion to Victor Cruz. (Mitch Petrus, who was forced to start in Week 13 because of multiple injuries, is likely to replace Cordle in that role Sunday.) On two of the Giants’ most successful pass plays, Travis Beckum’s 67-yard touchdown and Hakeem Nicks’s 51-yard catch in the third quarter, Jake Ballard stayed in as a blocker while Ahmad Bradshaw chipped a rusher on the edge before releasing to run his pass route.
Extra pass protectors are a necessity when facing linebacker Clay Matthews, the best defender in the league when it comes to disengaging from blockers. On a second-quarter play in which quarterback Eli Manning fumbled, the Giants tried to block four rushers with just five offensive linemen. Kareem McKenzie delivered a fine initial blow to Matthews, but he ripped away from the block and spun behind Manning.
GETTING BALLARD INVOLVED Wide receiver Mario Manningham was injured in Week 13. His presence Sunday will prevent the Packers from using Woodson as a blitzer as often as they would like. With free safety Nick Collins injured, the Packers must be more conservative in their pass coverage, especially against an opponent with a full complement of wide receivers.
If Woodson is not threatening to blitz off the edge, Ballard can be used as a receiver more often. When not blocking, Ballard caught three passes for 47 yards in Week 13, and he came within inches of catching a touchdown pass.
With Ballard involved, Finely contained and Pierre-Paul matching Matthews hurry for hurry, the Giants can force another shootout that ends, like a great basketball game, when someone sinks a three-pointer in the final seconds.