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UCLA's quarterback clearly has the talent to succeed as an NFL starter. The question is whether or not he can avoid enough mistakes to become a superstar.

20 Oct 2017

Word of Muth: Gloom in Green Bay

by Ben Muth

This past Sunday, the Packers lost a game, their quarterback, and possibly their whole season over the course of 60 minutes against the Vikings. Aaron Rodgers went out in the first quarter and the Green Bay offense never really recovered. The Packers have been getting by with injuries all over the offense early in the year (Ty Montgomery, Bryan Bulaga, David Bakhtiari, and Randall Cobb, among others, have all missed time), but this Aaron Rodgers injury is clearly the biggest one yet. The worst part about writing about a team that has been dealing with these injuries is that it's hard to evaluate anyone, because they're all playing next to new people all the time.

You can tell the offense is out of sync, and you know the reason why (no one is on the same page), but it's hard to talk about who needs to fix what to get it going without Rodgers. Take this sack from the second quarter.

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I'm pretty confident this sack isn't on the offensive line. Doesn't matter if it's a man protection (where the offensive line would have the four defensive linemen and the Mike linebacker) or a half-slide protection (with the slide working left) -- the Packers line is taking everyone they can, and they are taking the five most dangerous rushers.

So, we're left trying to decide if the rookie running back (Aaron Jones, 33) misses the blitz pick-up or the backup quarterback (Brett Hundley) seeing his first extended action isn't aware of who is and isn't accounted for in the protection. Looking at it, my guess is Jones is supposed to scan linebacker to skinnies (skinnies are defensive backs) before he releases on his checkdown, and just misses the safety blitz even though Harrison Smith (22) showed it before the snap. After all, this type of play is why fantasy owners will curse coaches for not playing "stud" rookie running backs over less explosive veterans. If it was Rodgers, I would definitely think that was the case, but with an inexperienced quarterback it's hard to tell for sure.

It wasn't just Hundley and Jones who struggled in expanded roles. I thought Green Bay's struggles in the run game could also be blamed on a lack of familiarity with each other up front.

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I wasn't on the line of scrimmage, so I don't know what calls center Corey Linsley (63) made up front, but I do know that blocking the play-side linebacker on outside zone is something most teams try to do. The backside of the play isn't perfect (left guard Lucas Patrick, 62, is behind his block) but at least there's a plan. The play side is a mess and I think Justin McCray at right tackle (64) is the reason why.

There are two ways you can run outside zone as an uncovered offensive tackle against this look. You can either admit that you're not running true zone from before the snap and just work with the guard with your eyes on the inside linebacker (Eric Kendricks, 54) from the start. This leaves the tight end (Lance Kendricks, 84, no relation) on an island and leaves you susceptible to slants, but it shores up the middle of the play. Or you can run more of a true zone where you chase the tight end's block and turn upfield and inside after it has been established that the defensive end (Danielle Hunter, 99) is a contain player. It looks like the Packers are going with the second option here (the more pure zone option) but McCray chases for way too long.

Most coaches I've seen teach to give it three hard steps play-side before coming back into the B gap. If McCray does that he might be able to shove right guard Jahri Evans (73) off onto the linebacker and there would be a hole. But he doesn't take three steps, he takes eight steps before coming back inside, and the result is a short gain. These types of three-man combinations are tough and require a lot of reps for everyone to get the fit and timing right. I don't know how many right tackle reps McCray has this year -- an undrafted free agent out of Central Florida, McCray is listed at guard on the Packers roster -- but he looks a little lost on this play.

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Later in the game McCray had to play on the left side too. The run combos were a little messy on that side as well. This ended up being a nice gain because it was a good cutback by Jones, but it's clear McCray and left guard Patrick (another injury replacement, and another undrafted rookie) weren't on the same page. Again, I wasn't on the line, so I don't know how the Packers called it, with a pin-and-pull or a more traditional combo block, but I do know the plan wasn't to have two guys on the linebacker (Kendricks) and none on the defensive tackle (Shamar Stephen, 93).

It's hard enough to run the ball in the NFL when everyone is heading to the right guy. It's just about impossible to do it when you're blowing assignments and combinations.

It wasn't just cohesion in the running game that hurt the Packers offensive line. When you're playing backups -- and playing them out of position no less -- you are also going to get beat even when you are trying to block the right guy.

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That GIF is the textbook example of what can go wrong with playing a guard at tackle. McCray's set at left tackle is too flat and too wide. You can get away with that on the inside sometimes because everything is so congested and defensive tackles can't wiggle like defensive ends can, but if you set that flat and that wide in space you're going to get hurt bad and quick. You also need to know that as a tackle your help generally comes later rather than sooner. If McCray could have just stayed in front for a little bit, he would've gotten help from his guard eventually.

That pressure led to one of Hundley's three picks, and it wasn't the only time McCray got beat for a big play.

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This was on a fourth down from midfield in the fourth quarter and essentially ended the game for Green Bay. McCray's initial set is better here (he gets some depth), but after his first kick slide he just doesn't look comfortable in that space. Everson Griffen (97) wins the hand battle and comes around for the easy sack. The Rodgers injury is clearly the killer, but there aren't a lot of teams that could survive being down their first three offensive tackles either.

I originally chose to cover the Packers this season because I thought they would have a solid offensive line. With the injuries however, that just hasn't been the case. Both their tackles have been banged up all year, and their best guard has missed time too. The results haven't been pretty, and losing Aaron Rodgers won't help. It could be a long second half of the year for the Green Bay offense.

Posted by: Ben Muth on 20 Oct 2017

9 comments, Last at 21 Oct 2017, 11:25am by Dr. Mooch


by theslothook :: Fri, 10/20/2017 - 1:14pm

I'm curious how many reps backup linemen get in training camp. It would seem critical, much like dbs, that everyone is familiar w everyone else because the sum quality relies on the parts all working cohesively.

Anyone know?

by Guest789 :: Fri, 10/20/2017 - 1:55pm

Not just their top 3 tackles. At the start of the preseason, the Packers had Bahktiarai Bulaga, Spriggs, Murphy, and Barclay as their top 5 options. The latter 3 are all on IR. If you factor in Lane Taylor playing two games at LT before he got hurt last weekend, McCray is their SEVENTH option at tackle.

It's been a rough year.

by ammek :: Fri, 10/20/2017 - 3:15pm

I think McCray was actually their eighth option at tackle: Jahri Evans has shifted outside a few times in his long career, although exclusively (I think) on the right side. The fact that McCray, the eighth option, was protecting the quarterback's blind side is astonishing. If he has to go up against Cameron Jordan on Sunday, it's going to be way beyond gloomy.

It's possible that New Orleans will face a line composed of two undrafted rookies (McCray and Patrick), another undrafted player on his first contract (Taylor), and players chosen in the fifth (center Corey Linsley) and fourth rounds (Evans). That would surely make it one of the most unheralded units ever to take the field. Bear in mind that the Packers will also have a fifth-round quarterback making his first start and perhaps an undrafted rookie (Aaron Jones) at running back. That's not a lot of draft value.

It can't be enjoyable to analyze the flaws of undrafted rookies and practice squad escapees. I always learn something from Word of Muth, but even the announcers noticed McCray's poor set on that interception. Ben has done a thorough job here, but there simply isn't much more to say than McCray shouldn't be playing at this point in his career. On a personal level, it's frustrating to me that, having longed for Word of Muth to cover my team, it has happened in a year when even Troy Aikman can see what's going on.

by justanothersteve :: Fri, 10/20/2017 - 5:23pm

Minor quibbles. Aaron Jones was drafted in the fifth round. Lane Taylor is a veteran at this point on his second contract, having signed a three-year, $16.5 million contract extension. It's still plenty unheralded though and I share your frustration with Ben finally covering the Packers only to have the line completely in shambles.

by ammek :: Sat, 10/21/2017 - 3:25am

You're right; I misread. Thanks for flagging it up.

by ChrisLong :: Sat, 10/21/2017 - 10:14am

McCray has been a solid backup-level guard this year. Nothing spectacular but holding his own. Doesn't belong at LT though. Bahktiari apparently was on a pitch count against the Vikes which 1) I've never heard of for an offensive lineman and 2) is encouraging because that means he didn't come out of the game because of a setback and will play Sunday. Bulaga will be back also after clearing the concussion protocol. So Hundley will hopefully be a bit more comfortable this week.

by xydux :: Fri, 10/20/2017 - 6:56pm

Missed this last week. I always enjoy reading this. Thanks, Ben.

by Will Allen :: Fri, 10/20/2017 - 11:57pm

This is why preseason win projections are so tenuous. Even if your number ends up being in the ballpark, injuries have a decent chance of making you right for reasons different than what you projected.

by Dr. Mooch :: Sat, 10/21/2017 - 11:25am

On the first sack:
Pre-snap, Hundley walks up to the line to change blocking, and points directly at 54 in the offense's R side A gap. After the snap, 54 falls off into coverage, the back appears to slide into the L side A gap to block, and 55, in the L side A gap rushes before falling off to follow the back into pass coverage. If Hundley changed the Mike to 54, wouldn't we expect the center to pick up 54, and the back was in good position to protect the A gap, and Hundley retaining the obligation to throw hot when the DB comes off the end?