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By CHRIS HAVEL
It was essentially accepted that the Denver Broncos posed serious challenges to the Green Bay Packers in pass rush and pass coverage.
Not many figured the Broncos’ running game and an allegedly over-the-hill QB named Peyton Manning would fare as well as they did in a battle of previously unbeatens.
Certainly the Packers didn’t plan on getting stymied by the 6-0 Broncos coming out of the bye week, but that’s what happened in Denver’s 29-10 victory Sunday night at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium.
The Broncos honored longtime owner Pat Bowlen, 71, with a place in their Ring of Fame. Then they celebrated by defeating the Packers in every phase except special teams.
Denver (7-0) executed a game plan to perfect on both sides of the ball. The Broncos’ pass coverage blanketed Green Bay’s receivers while the pass rush harassed Aaron Rodgers into the lowest passing yardage game of his illustrious career.
Rodgers hit on 14 of 22 passes for only 77 yards. And he seemed to be dazed after accidentally being kicked in the side of his helmet by teammate Bryan Bulaga while he was being brought down by a Denver defender.
Whether Rodgers was woozy or merely weary after being chased by a dogged Denver defense isn’t clear. What is obvious is that the Packers – when confronted by a top-notch, playoff-caliber defense – seriously misses receiver Jordy Nelson.
Unfortunately, Nelson, his big-play capability and the security blanket he provided Rodgers aren’t coming back until next year.
Meantime, the Packers’ offense must make do by being smarter in terms of down-and-distance, working to move the chains rather than trying to strike for a big play (especially on third-and-short) and failing to sustain a consistent running attack.
Furthermore, the tight ends must improve. Look at what the Broncos did with their TE’s last night. That is one thing that the Packers should take away from the game film.
Richard Rodgers and Justin Perillo combined on three catches for 22 yards. That’s a decent drive’s worth, but hardly an entire evening’s worth.
The offense also sputtered with three fumbles. They lost none but killed three drives in the process. And the Packers’ wide receivers were shut down by the Denver secondary, led by Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, Jr., who smothered James Jones and Davante Adams all night long.
Jones and Adams combined for two catches for 10 yards. Randall Cobb, the lone weapon, finished with a quiet six catches for 27 yards. Given what Packers fans have grown accustomed to with Mr. Rodgers amazing career, the fact that he threw for just 77 yards is mind-boggling.
The Packers’ loss was humbling, according to head coach Mike McCarthy, who admitted Denver head coach Gary Kubiak had his team playing much faster, and much better, from the start.
“I haven’t had my butt kicked like this in a long time,” McCarthy said.
While Green Bay’s offense struggled against Denver’s best-in-the-NFL D, the Packers’ defense never got a handle on Manning or the Broncos’ running game.
Manning threw for 340 yards on 21 of 29 with no touchdowns and a Damarious Randall interception. His QB rating of 96.9 was good enough to down Green Bay.
“I felt we beat a good football team tonight,” Manning told reporters. “It took the whole team … great job by the defense.”
Indeed, Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips proved prophetic when he bragged on secondary, calling it the best he has ever coached in decades in the NFL. DeMarcus Ware, whose sack and forced fumble led to a Broncos’ safety, called it “a big measuring stick” for Denver.
“It’s a good defense … a really good defense,” Rodgers said. “They have a good pass rush. They cover well.”
The Packers didn’t measure up, but this isn’t the end of anything. It’s the start of what McCarthy hopes is a realistic look at where they are and where they need to be. A wake up call.
The Packers haven’t played their best, most complete game yet. And to this writer, they quite likely have played their worst.
Their run defense looked out of sorts while making the Broncos’ Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson look like the dynamic duo.
The Packers’ response to the loss will be interesting. They don’t have much time to lick their wounds because the Carolina Panthers (6-0) could be undefeated (they play the Colts on Monday night) when they host Green Bay for a Sunday noon game.
The greater concern isn’t the Packers’ defense so much as it is the offense. McCarthy and play-caller Tom Clements need to figure out how to incorporate the tight end to some effect. They also need to attack the middle of the field. Not all NFL defenses can rush and play coverage behind it as well as the Broncos. In fact, they may be the best defense by a fair amount.
However, the Packers now understand the challenge that awaits them when they get into the postseason. A playoff-caliber defense isn’t going to sit back and let Rodgers dice it up. It’s going to attack and stop the run on the way to the quarterback.
Perhaps Andrew Quarless’ return will help a pedestrian tight end crew. Maybe GM Ted Thompson will pull off a trade for San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis.
Once upon a time the Packers – and Mike McCarthy – were high on Davis. But that was a long time ago, and Thompson’s history suggests he’ll ride it out with the current personnel.
Either way, the Packers have a much clearer picture of their inadequacies. And here’s hoping they will address those. Time has proven that they can, and will.
A bounce-back victory against a first-rate defense like Carolina’s would do much to quell the concern at 1265 Lombardi Avenue.
Chris Havel is a national best-selling author and his latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio (www.thefan1075.com). Havel also hosts Event USA’s MVP Parties the evening before home games.