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The Eleventh Day of NBA Christmas

A Blueprint to Take Down the Mighty Packers

The rest of the league should be thanking the Chiefs for discovering a formula for how to beat Green Bay

It might have come with 5.5-to-1 odds attached to it, but Kansas City’s stunning 19-14 victory over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday was no fluke. The Packers’ 19-game winning streak came to an end when they were clearly outplayed by the Chiefs, who fired their head coach after losing five of six while being outscored by 90 points. In fact, it was probably a small upset that the margin of victory wasn’t any bigger, as the Packers only got to 14 against a prevent defense that was up two scores inside of five minutes to play, while the Chiefs made some curious decisions near the goal line to deprive themselves of points. (We’ll talk about those in our weekly coaching section.)

The Chiefs shouldn’t get to have all the fun, though. There are plenty of teams out there who would like nothing more for Christmas than a win over the Packers, and we’re going to help them out. After our first blueprint on how to beat the Eagles turned out to be a rousing success, let’s go back to the well and break down the three steps that the Chiefs used to end a truly impressive winning streak.

1. Avoid turnovers.

Oh, stop snickering. We know that avoiding turnovers is a good way to beat every NFL team. It’s just especially important against the Packers. How special? Well, let’s consider how rare it was that the Chiefs did not turn the ball over once against the Packers. The last time that happened was in Week 15 of the 2010 season, when the Patriots beat the Packers, 31-27. That was, not coincidentally, Green Bay’s last loss. In their subsequent 19 victories, the Packers forced at least one turnover in every game, averaging 2.7 takeaways per game.

Green Bay’s defense essentially lives off of turnovers; if you remove their food source, they shrivel up and die. Before last week, the Packers defense allowed the league’s sixth-most yards per drive and 13th-most points per drive, while forcing teams to punt less frequently than any other defense in football. They got away with it by creating takeaways on 21.9 percent of possessions, the highest rate in the NFL. The bulk of those turnovers came on interceptions, which they grabbed to finish off 18.5 percent of drives. That was the highest rate in the league, and New England’s second-best interception rate was at just 12.9 percent. That’s just an incredible level of dominance; before this week, those second-place Patriots were closer in interception rate to the 21st-ranked Panthers than they were to Charles Woodson & Co.

The Packers will always be among the league leaders in interceptions. They force teams to throw a lot, they play an aggressive style of pass defense, and they have ballhawks at cornerback. But they’re not going to end 18.5 percent of drives with interceptions going forward.

2. Attack the weak links up the middle.

One way to avoid throwing interceptions to cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields, of course, is to avoid throwing at them altogether. Charles Woodson lurks on the interior and has a team-high seven interceptions by suddenly appearing out of nowhere to gobble up passes, but in general, you’re going to want to attack the Packers by throwing to the middle of the field. Because of injuries, the Packers are starting rookie sixth-rounder D.J. Smith at middle linebacker while journeyman Rob Francois circulates in the rotation alongside A.J. Hawk, perpetually a liability in pass coverage. Behind them is solid young safety Morgan Burnett and injury replacement Charlie Peprah, who is prone to getting lost in coverage and is a prime target to isolate with deeper routes.

The Chiefs don’t have a great quarterback, but Kyle Orton is good enough to identify those weaknesses and attack them in a variety of different ways. They used play action to get Orton out of the pocket and allow him to see the field on crossing routes, making it harder for Woodson to pop out behind a linebacker or a lineman for an opportunistic pick. Orton found little-used tight end for Leonard Pope for two big gains, and they both took advantage of backups. The first was a play-action pass that saw Pope simply travel up the seam behind Smith, who was looking in the backfield and seemed to have no clue that Pope was running free. That went for 39 yards. Later, a play-action pass on second-and-inches saw Pope run a corner route to Peprah’s side of the field; with Peprah locked up by the play action and trapped in the middle of the field, it was pitch-and-catch for Orton and Pope.

Even beyond those two passes to Pope, virtually every successful pass play for the Chiefs came off of play action and went to a receiver exploiting the middle of the field. They isolated Woodson in man coverage and actually picked on him a bit, but the throws Orton made were to open receivers. Of course, going to play action means that you have to protect your quarterback while the fake occurs, and the Chiefs did a great job of keeping Orton upright. Orton dropped back 31 times, but he wasn’t sacked and was knocked down just once. The Chiefs didn’t do a great job running the ball, with their halfbacks averaging just 3.4 yards a pop on their 25 carries, but this was a case where play action really did slow down the defenders and create confusion in the secondary.

3. Pressure Aaron Rodgers around the edges and keep him in the pocket.

On defense, there’s only so much you can do to stop the Packers. The Chiefs benefited from an obscene number of drops from the Green Bay receivers, most notably Jermichael Finley. That’s a little trick that helped the Giants stay close against Green Bay two weeks ago. When Finley and Jordy Nelson are making spectacular catches, there’s not much you can do to stop the Packers. It remains to be seen whether they continue to struggle without top wideout Greg Jennings, who should be out for the remainder of the regular season.

What you can do, though, is force Aaron Rodgers to remain in the pocket. When Rodgers slips out of pressure and gets to the edge, his ability to improvise into something incredible with his receivers is downright scary. If you’re rooting against the Packers, that moment where Rodgers is scrambling and about to throw the ball 40 yards downfield is the most terrifying moment in sports. Keeping him in the pocket is mandatory.

That’s a little easier to do nowadays, since the Packers are down to bare bones at offensive tackle. Starting left tackle Chad Clifton hasn’t played since Week 5 after suffering a hamstring injury, and there’s no news as to when he might return. The starter at right tackle, 2010 first-round pick Bryan Bulaga, sprained his knee during the Chiefs game and is due for an MRI on Monday. Those are the first-stringers. Backup tackle Derek Sherrod came in for Bulaga and suffered a nasty broken leg that will end his season, forcing the team to move left guard T.J. Lang to right tackle while inserting Evan Dietrich-Smith (he who was stomped by Ndamukong Suh) at left guard. Right guard Josh Sitton just got back from a sprained knee, so the only healthy lineman who was playing in his Week 1 position by the end of the game was center Scott Wells.

With backups at tackle, the Chiefs simply manhandled the Packers. Backup left tackle Marshall Newhouse has been competent this year, but Tamba Hali just beat him up. The star pass rusher sacked Aaron Rodgers three times and knocked him down on two more attempts, while Newhouse was lucky to get away with at least two clear holding penalties. On the other side, situational rusher Allen Bailey had a key sack of Rodgers on a third-and-10 at midfield.

The Packers might not get their starting five offensive linemen back at anything resembling 100 percent for the rest of the way. If they don’t, it’s going to be that much easier to keep Rodgers in the pocket and prevent him from destroying your defense with scrambles.

Thank You for Not Coaching

For this week’s most confounding coaching decisions, we turned to our followers on Twitter, who alerted us to a variety of different blunders. While there are a few common threads we’ll ignore (John Fox being ultra-conservative, Tom Coughlin challenging out of sheer desperation), there are still plenty of situations to break down, thanks to the usual hodgepodge of curious game-calling choices. And we’ll start with the Packers-Chiefs tilt, where @JoeConte pointed out that Romeo Crennel repeatedly bungled his short-yardage decisions.

On the opening drive, the Chiefs had two chances from the one-yard line and decided to throw passes with Kyle Orton both times. With a 0-0 game against the best offense in the league, they chose to kick a field goal. Sure, we know that the Packers ended up scoring just 14 points, but you can’t dance with the champ! A 3-0 margin with 54 minutes to go is essentially never going to hold up.

Before we go any further, let’s note that the math here is very simple. The average team will score on these carries 56 percent of the time, so your expected outcome by scoring is (7 points * .56) = 3.92 points. You can’t score 3.92 points by kicking, so you’re essentially giving up a full point by kicking. The Packers have also allowed teams to convert in 75 percent of power runs, the third-worst rate in the league. So our 56 percent estimate is conservative. You also get the benefit of backing the Green Bay offense up inside their 1-yard line as opposed to giving them the result of a kickoff, which is an average of about 22 yards. Based on the average number of points a team scores with a drive that starts from the 1-yard line as opposed to the 22-yard line, you’re adding about another full point of value. By kicking instead of going for it, in even an average situation, you’re basically throwing two points in the garbage. When you’re playing an offensive juggernaut and it’s early in the first quarter, well, you simply can’t throw points away.

It would be one thing if Crennel just had no faith in his team’s short-yardage capabilities, but he changed his mind on Kansas City’s first drive of the second quarter. Again, the Chiefs failed on second-and-1 and ended up facing a fourth-and-inches with 3:28 left. They were up 6-0; again, you can’t assume that a nine-point lead is going to hold up against a dominant offense. This time, for some reason, Crennel chose to go for it. It was the correct decision, but what was different about this situation as opposed to the first one? The Chiefs were promptly stuffed when they ran a simple handoff up the middle.

That would all have been weird enough, but Crennel got to face a third decision in this same vein! With a 9-7 lead early in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs were faced with a fourth-and-goal from the Green Bay 2-yard line. It’s harder to convert from the 2-yard line, but not by much — the conversion rate falls from 55.2 percent to 48.6 percent. That’s still an expected total of 3.4 points, so it’s better than a field goal, and you still get the superior follow-up situation of pinning a team extremely deep in their own territory (something that a dominant Chiefs pass rush might have appreciated). You’re giving up 1.4 points by kicking. This decision was more defensible because it pushed the lead outside of one field goal, but there was 11:28 left in the game when Crennel chose to kick as opposed to going for it. Color commentator Daryl Johnston chimed in to say that it was a good decision because the Chiefs had been stuffed on the previous drive, which is one of the dumbest things you’ll hear a commentator say all year. Stories will be written today about how the Chiefs won under the leadership of Romeo Crennel, but don’t buy it. They won in spite of him.

Next, @hudd07 noted one of the more obviously poor decisions of the week: Hue Jackson choosing to take an extra point when the Raiders scored to go up 27-14 with 7:47 left. Of course, the Raiders promptly allowed two touchdowns in those final seven minutes of the game, and when the Lions booted an extra point through on the second score, they had themselves a 28-27 victory.

The biggest problem here is that there really isn’t any upside to kicking the extra point. What’s the difference between having a 12-point lead and a 13-point lead with less than eight minutes to go? In what situation is that 13th point going to protect your lead? If the Lions score a touchdown and kick two field goals? Detroit’s almost never going to get a chance to enjoy three possessions in eight minutes at the end of the game, and if they only have two possessions, it doesn’t matter whether they’re down 12 or 13; their only shot of winning comes by scoring two touchdowns. It’s an absolutely meaningless 13th point, while having a 14-point lead obviously has some significant value. In fact, the two-point model generated by footballcommentary.com suggests that a team in Oakland’s situation should go for two unless their chances of succeeding are below 11 percent. The only other situations in the six-to-nine-minutes-left time frame where a two-point conversion is a more obvious move, according to that model, is when a team scores and needs a two-point conversion to tie the game, or when a team scores to take a five-point lead and needs a two-point conversion to go up by a touchdown. Every coach on the planet would go for two in either of those situations, including Jackson. This question was about as obvious, and Jackson totally shirked his responsibilities by kicking. It was a tactically naive move that ended up being a huge factor in why his team lost on Sunday.

In the late game, @sportstar6ms wondered why the Ravens decided to stock up on timeouts as they headed into the second half. It’s a mystery to us as well! When Philip Rivers completed a pass to Malcom Floyd that put the Chargers on Baltimore’s 1-yard line, there was 1:54 left and the Ravens had all three of their timeouts. Passing on stopping the clock in that spot is incomprehensible; if the Chargers score a touchdown, the Ravens would have more than 90 seconds and, depending on when San Diego scored, up to two timeouts to try to drive down the field with a two-minute drill. Even if the Ravens stuffed the Chargers three times and used all their timeouts, the Chargers would have almost surely kicked a field goal and the Ravens would have had a full minute to try to score. It’s a decision with virtually no risk, since you don’t get to keep your timeouts, and the possible reward of points. Did John Harbaugh really have that little faith in his offense? Or did he just screw up?

And finally, one from us: Jim Caldwell, we would have thrown the challenge flag in the third quarter of your Colts’ victory over the Titans. With 6:31 left in the third quarter and a 17-6 lead, Titans kick returner Marc Mariani muffed a kickoff out of bounds at the 1-yard line, putting Tennessee in a rough spot. On their first play from scrimmage, Chris Johnson was hit right at the plane of the end zone and fell backwards for a loss. The refs mysteriously marked the run down as a two-inch gain while Caldwell, as is his wont, looked confused.

It’s no sure thing that the play was a safety, but was it a situation where Caldwell should have used a challenge? Absolutely. The first rule of challenges, as we’ve spoken about repeatedly, is that they need to be high-reward. A safety and a change of possession for your team is just about as high-reward as a challenge can get. Giving up a challenge and a timeout with just under 20 minutes of challengeable time left to go in the game is a little risky, but it would have been Indianapolis’ first challenge of the game. Even if the attempt had failed, it’s hard to figure that the Colts would have needed to challenge two additional plays in the ensuing 20 minutes. If you’re ever going to throw the flag, that’s the time.

Phuerto Skelton

OK, so we’re all a little disappointed after Tim Tebow didn’t lead the Broncos to a dramatic comeback victory over the Patriots. Fumble aside, Tebow played some pretty impressive football, and he’s showing more and more as a passer each week. That’s great, but we bet you still need your fix of Tebow theater after missing out on this week.1

For a week, then, let’s all get on the John Skelton bandwagon. He’s the store-brand Tim Tebow! Skelton took the route less traveled, too, growing up in El Paso before heading to, of all places, the Bronx, where he played quarterback for Fordham. He spent four years as a big-armed, relatively inaccurate passer for the Rams before the Cardinals grabbed him in the fifth round of the 2010 draft. Nobody loved big-armed, relatively inaccurate passers more than the 2010 Cardinals, and when they got sick of Derek Anderson and Max Hall, they gave Skelton four starts.

Skelton completed just 47.6 percent of his passes (who does that sound like?!?), but he only threw two picks in 126 attempts. He went 2-2, notably beating the Broncos 43-13 in a game where he failed to throw a touchdown pass; Kyle Orton’s offense turned the ball over six times, the Cardinals kicked five field goals, faked a sixth for a Jay Feely score, and ran the ball for 211 yards and three touchdowns. Skelton’s other win was a 27-26 win over the Cowboys where the Cardinals returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the first quarter.

This year, Skelton’s been … weird. He’s started five games and played virtually all of a sixth, and in those games, he’s 5-1. Those wins have come by a combined 18 points, and they’ve required two Patrick Peterson punt returns for touchdowns. Two of the wins (Rams, Cowboys) have seen the opposing team miss a field goal that would have won the game at the end of regulation.

You would think that a quarterback winning so many close games would follow the Tebow strategy; he’d keep his team in it by avoiding mistakes, doing whatever the opposite of throwing caution to the wind is, and eventually pulling out games with a late drive. That is the biggest difference between John Skelton and Tim Tebow. Tebow does an impressive job of avoiding turnovers. Skelton seems to embrace them. He’s thrown a whopping 10 interceptions in just 191 attempts, for a pick rate of 5.2 percent. That’s the highest rate in football for a quarterback with as many pass attempts as Skelton. He took two safeties in one game against the Rams, one on an intentional grounding call, and completed just 55.4 percent of his passes. And all these numbers were worse before he had his best game of the season on Sunday, going 28-of-46 for 313 yards with a touchdown and a pick against the Browns.

So we know that Tebow can run the ball and, to some extent, avoid turnovers. That’s what he does well. What does Skelton do? Well, he’s a passable scrambler, too, running for 103 yards on 19 carries in those six games. Beyond that? The natural inclination is to say that he looks better than Kevin Kolb, but it’s hard to argue that; Kolb’s completed 57.7 percent of his passes and averaged 7.7 yards per attempt, while Skelton’s completed just 53.8 percent of his throws and is hitting for 7.0 yards per attempt, about league average. The only place Skelton’s really better than Kolb is in handling the pass rush, since Kolb gets sacked at a league-high rate of 10.6 percent, while Skelton’s at a merely below-average 7.6 percent.

The reality is that Skelton’s a flash in the pan, winning close games while really not making much of a contribution to the victories. There are guys who come out of nowhere to win a few games while putting up middling or unlikely numbers pretty much every season; players like Craig Krenzel in 2004 and Danny Kanell in 1997 are similar examples to the work that Skelton’s been doing. Unless Skelton dramatically arrests his interception rate and improves his accuracy, he’ll join them in the list of early-career wonders who quickly fell off and failed to launch serious NFL careers.

Until then, though, he makes for a cheap, effective replacement for Tebowmania. His winning run has helped push the Cardinals all the way back to .500 after a 1-6 start, and if they can beat the Bengals this Saturday, the Cardinals have a shot at playing against the Seahawks in Week 17, with a playoff berth for the winner on the line. If that happens, it will likely mark the end of Kolb’s tenure in Arizona, since the Cardinals can get out of his deal without significant financial ramifications by declining a $7 million option bonus on Kolb in March.

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.


Previously from Bill Barnwell:

The Collapse Of The Colts Has Been Years In The Making
The Possible Destinations For One Peyton Manning
The Randomness of the NBA’s 66-Game Season

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell