Second Read: Defensive lines star in hard-fought Packers-Lions showdown
You may not have tuned in to Sunday's Green Bay-Detroit game expecting to see a pass-rushing clinic, but that's more or less what you got. Billed as a matchup of two top offenses, the NFC North clash turned into a grind-it-out affair, mainly because both defensive lines came to play.
The Packers' pass rush was supposed to be MIA sans Clay Matthews -- and, to a much lesser extent, Charles Woodson. Sunday, they dropped Matthew Stafford five times and pressured him on at least a dozen of his 39 passes.
Green Bay's success (as it usually does, even with Matthews around) started in the trenches, where both nose tackle Ryan Pickett and end B.J. Raji had strong games. With that duo commanding extra attention, it turned the rest of the Packers' defense loose, both through the interior of Detroit's line and around the edges.
The two biggest victims: right guard Stephen Peterman and rookie left tackle Riley Reiff. Peterman was the one Pickett abused for much of the day, including on a Matthew Stafford interception -- a play in which Pickett just bullrushed Peterman back into Stafford, forcing an errant throw.
Reiff, meanwhile, had significant issues protecting Stafford's blindside after stepping in for an injured Jeff Backus. He allowed several hurries and committed a pair of holding penalties (one declined).
Detroit, meanwhile, generated the majority of its success from its DT spots. The star there: Nick Fairley, who came up with two sacks and proved too much for either Evan Dietrich-Smith or Josh Sitton to handle.
But what of Ndamukong Suh? Jim Schwartz said that Suh played his best game ever in Week 10 against Minnesota. That's arguable -- especially because he was better Sunday against Green Bay. Suh had a pair of QB hurries and three tackles, but his biggest contribution came by engaging repeated double teams, giving Fairly advantageous one-on-one matchups.
Suh and Fairley's play allowed Detroit to put pressure on Aaron Rodgers without bringing extra blitzers, a strategy that has paid off against Green Bay's offense before.
A few more observations from Week 11:
1. Figuring out Matt Ryan's miserable day: Your latest evidence that football is unpredictable comes from Atlanta's QB, who threw for more than 400 yards in Week 10 and lost, then came back with a five-interception showing Sunday ... and won.
So, what the heck happened to make Ryan suddenly turnover-prone? Well, let's toss the first one out -- Ryan's pass was a touch behind Roddy White, but it hit the reliable receiver in his hands, and White proceeded to bobble the ball up into the air for a pick.
It's hard to call any of Ryan's other four picks fluky, though. Instead, a lot of the credit lies with Arizona's pass rush, which helped pressure Ryan into a couple mistakes and created a couple of others. Ryan's second pick, for example, would have been a completion for a solid gain, except Darnell Docket wisely gave up on his pass rush to get in Ryan's passing lane. By doing so he managed to tip Ryan's pass into the arms of William Gay.
Ryan's fifth and final pick came under similar circumstances -- stymied at the line, Dan Williams threw his arms up as Ryan released his pass, swatting the ball into the air for Sam Acho. Ryan also felt pressure on his third INT (intended for Tony Gonzalez) and his fourth (a rollout for Roddy White).
Considering that Ryan entered Sunday with just four batted passes all season, according to Pro Football Focus, the Cardinals' ability to take away his targets was impressive. Ryan suffered from some misfortune, but Arizona's D constantly found itself in position to make plays.
2. BenJarvus Green-Ellis finally hits the century mark: Even during Green-Ellis' most productive season as a pro (1,008 yards rushing in 2010), he topped 100 in a game just twice. He is what he is as an NFL running back ... and that is a guy who will grind out some yards for you but is not much of a threat to break off a big play.
There's no shame, then, in the fact that he needed 25 carries Sunday to get to 101 yards -- the 4.0 yards-per-carry average his best since Week 1. The Bengals wisely took what the Chiefs gave them on the ground, and almost all of that came between the tackles. More than three quarters of Green-Ellis' 100 yards were gained on inside runs, with his longest of the day (a 21-yarder) hitting the A-gap between the center and guard.
Cedric Peerman also provided a couple of nice carries up the gut, as the Bengals had a relatively easy time pushing the Chiefs' front off its spots.
3. Dallas Clark abuses Carolina's linebackers: Vincent Jackson had an outstanding day for the Buccaneers on Sunday, but they don't escape Carolina with a win if not for Clark's best game of the season. Clark had seven grabs for 58 yards (both season-highs), plus the game-winning touchdown catch in overtime.
Tampa Bay utilized Clark in a variety of ways Sunday -- he motioned into the backfield as a fullback on multiple occasions, played with a hand in the dirt in traditional tight end fashion, lined up in the slot and split out wide as a receiver.
The Panthers victimized Tampa Bay once in those spots: On Josh Freeman's pick-6, he was trying to loft one to Clark, who had slipped out of the backfield from his "fullback" spot. But when Tampa Bay managed to get Clark aligned with a linebacker, Carolina had no prayer.
A big part of the problem was that the Panthers offered Clark plenty of cushion -- he twice just sat down over the middle, in front of Luke Kuechly, for a pair of easy catches (nine and 11 yards). Then, in overtime, one-on-one with James Anderson, Clark made a nifty double move to come free in the end zone, capping his impressive day.
4. Is Julian Edeleman the Patriots' new No. 2 receiver?: An interesting offensive shift in New England this week, just days after veteran receiver Deion Branch was cut loose. Branch had played 48 or more snaps in four of the Patriots' last five games.
How'd the Patriots fill that gap Sunday? By reducing Brandon Lloyd's time and getting Julian Edelman on the field more. Edelman was on the field for 52 snaps, only five fewer than Wes Welker, and he paired with Welker for the majority of New England's two-receiver sets.
The lack of Lloyd is consistent with what's happened in recent weeks -- he had only eight catches combined in New England's previous three games. Moving forward, however, Lloyd may have to become a bigger factor, with Rob Gronkowski now missing.
5. Philadelphia's pass defense ... yikes: Either the Eagles' game plan was to try to keep Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris from running wild or the Eagles did not have a defensive game plan Sunday.
On Washington's first TD Griffin faked a handoff from the Philadelphia 6, then threw in the flat to a wide-open Darrell Young. Griffin had a second uncovered option in the back of the end zone, too. His second touchdown pass was just as easy. That one, a 49-yarder to Aldrick Robinson, started with Griffin play-actioning a run and then an end-around before firing long.
Nnamdi Asomugha was the closest Philadelphia defender, but I use the word "closest" in a relative sense -- Asomugha was no nearer breaking that play up than Andy Reid. Say what you will about Philadelphia's myriad issues, but the secondary's repeated struggles are among the hardest to figure.
6. Props to the Jets' offensive line: Fairly short and sweet here. The Jets' offensive line has been an Achilles' heel pretty much all season (probably longer). It got the job done Sunday in St. Louis, though, starting with the ground game.