Green Bay Packers

Will Green Bay's Achilles Heel Be Exploited In the Playoffs?

Photo credit: Samantha Madar (USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

As has seemingly been the template for the Green Bay Packers this season, they built up a big lead and had to hold on late. Still, the Packers emerged with a 24-22 win over the Cleveland Browns on Christmas Day. Despite doing so in a losing effort, the Browns were able to amass 219 rushing yards. It was the highest total surrendered by Green Bay this season, a concerning trend for the Packers this late in the season.

It’s not just the total yards for Cleveland that was the issue. It was how few attempts it took them to get there. Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb gashed Green Bay all afternoon, with 126 yards on just 17 carries, better than 7.4 yards per attempt. Thanks to some long rushes by D’Ernest Johnson, the Browns had a team average of 8.76 yards per carry. But they only had 25 attempts as a team, mainly because the Packers were leading for most of the game. Running the ball was effective, and if Cleveland had committed to it more, Saturday’s game might have had a different outcome. At the very least, it may have calmed the nerves of inactive safety John Johnson, who sounded off on Twitter following the game.

Green Bay hasn’t been good against the run this season. They average 4.8 yards per attempt surrendered, which is the second-worst mark in the league. Thankfully for the Packers, they’ve had the lead more often than not. Most of their opponents have taken Cleveland’s approach and tried getting back into the game by passing the ball. Green Bay ranks firmly in the middle of the pack in terms of total rushing yards surrendered at 15th in the league. But in a one-game playoff against some of the best backs in the league, the run defense is most definitely a concern.

Three of the four divisions in the NFC have been decided with two weeks to play. The other, the NFC West, might get three teams in the playoffs. If you add the Minnesota Vikings into that mix, five of the seven teams the Packers could face in the NFC playoffs have a top-12 rushing attack.

This season, the Philadelphia Eagles have amassed the most rushing yards with multiple backfield threats, including Miles Sanders, who just broke his hand, Jordan Howard, and Boston Scott. They also have the mobile Jalen Hurts, who has run for 740 yards this season. The Dallas Cowboys are sixth, with Ezekiel Elliott looking like the Zeke of old, plus a dynamic game-breaker in Tony Pollard. Facing the San Francisco 49ers and Kyle Shanahan should give any Packers fan nightmares. Seemingly whoever he puts out there — Eli Mitchell, Jeff Wilson Jr., or the terrifying Deebo Samuel — would be in prime position to carve up this Green Bay defense.

The two teams with the lowest run totals — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 25 and the Arizona Cardinals at No. 25 — have multiple threats in the backfield that should keep Joe Barry up at night. The two teams on the fringe of the playoffs, Minnesota and the New Orleans Saints, might have the two best backs in the entire NFC in Dalvin Cook and Alvin Kamara.

If the past decade of Packers history is any indication, the offense won’t be the issue in the playoffs. Saturday’s game had shades of the NFC Championship game loss to San Francisco just a few years ago when Raheem Mostert (and a little Deebo Samuel) shredded Green Bay’s Super Bowl hopes with 285 yards. It was a game in which Jimmy Garoppolo famously threw only eight passes. Mix in the 157 yards on 25 carries that Marshawn Lynch racked up in the infamous Seattle Seahawks game in 2015, plus the 44 points that the Atlanta Falcons dropped on the Packers in 2017, and bad defense at the worst time has been what’s kept Green Bay from heading back to the Super Bowl.

What can be done to help? A healthy team, for starters. Adding Za’Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander back into the fold certainly can’t hurt things. Avoiding COVID-19 protocols with a bit of luck, too, would help. The fact of the matter is, Green Bay’s defense will need to play better in the playoffs. Being a No. 1 seed and only requiring two wins to get to the Super Bowl is certainly preferable, which can be done with two wins or one win and a Dallas loss. The Cowboys have two challenging games remaining against Arizona and Philadelphia. Whatever path that Green Bay hopes to have through the playoffs will require facing a potent offense and dynamic rushing attack. If this Packers team wants to get to the Super Bowl, another effort like Saturday simply won’t cut it.

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