“If you relax, I’ll be looking for new people. Put your foot on their throat.” — Bruce Arians, Cardinals head coach, to his team at halftime with a 31-7 lead over the 49ers. The Cardinals went on to win 47-7.
In many ways, the Green Bay Packers’ victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football was the very best sort of game for many if not most Packers fans — a game whereby a Packers’ victory seemed all but assured about midway through the second half. It was a meaningful game that the Packer faithful could watch and be relaxed about at the same time.
With Aaron Rodgers rolling through with yet another unworldly, transcendent performance and the defense playing with anger, routinely tackling Jamaal Charles at or behind the line of scrimmage and knocking down Alex Smith with some seven sacks, this was a game that Packers fans could watch without any real fear of losing. This against an upper tier Chiefs team that many slated to be a playoff contender.
And yet, by allowing the Chiefs to score three touchdowns from the 31-7 mark of the game late in the third quarter, there is reason for Packers fans to raise their eyebrows at Dom Capers and the 2015 Packers defense once again.
In the most practical terms, the folly of letting the opposing team march down the field at will in the fourth quarter has already burned the Packers — notably in the infamous collapse last year in Seattle, but that would not be the only instance. There is also, for example, last year’s regular season game against Atlanta, where after building a seemingly insurmountable lead of 31-7, Capers’ defense allowed Atlanta back into it, making the game far too interesting for comfort, with the final score of 43-37. After taking their foot off the pedal, Mike McCarthy and Capers allowed the Falcons to outscore the Packers 30-12.
This should have been regarded as embarrassment that is not to be tolerated going further and yet very little has changed in these fourth quarter scenarios.
Even more crucially, this novel approach has allowed seemingly beaten teams to undo the Packers in the waning seconds of close games as well. A 2009 regular season contest at Heinz Fields comes to mind immediately, whereby Rodgers and the Pack rallied to go ahead with under two minutes left, only to allow Roethlisberger and the Steelers to drive down the field, winning on a toes-in-bounds touchdown pass to Mike Wallace as time expired.
There are, of course, other examples.
Aside from the more practical concerns of giving beaten teams the chance, however remote, for an improbable comeback, this approach is a poisonous mentality that any self-respecting defense should reject out of hand. At a basic, philosophical level, it lacks professionalism.
The truly great defenses — such as the the Bucs just after the turn of the millennium, the stout Baltimore Ravens teams led by Ray Lewis, and even the Pittsburgh Steelers during their dynasty days — took pride in their defensive work. They cared about points against, as well as yards against and they cared a great deal.
The Bucs’ Warren Sapp, as loathsome of a human being as he was, should still be lauded for taking such pride in how stingy his Bucs defense was in allowing points. That very same professionalism is also observed in pretty much all major league pitchers, who — to a man — greatly care about their E.R.A., and take no solace in giving up a grand slam even when their own offense is putting up football scores of 10-14 runs.
And yet, this same pride and sense of professionalism has not been seen in our Packers defense in a great while.
It is obvious to see that, perhaps in the wake of last year’s collapse in Seattle, the Packers defense is playing with renewed vigor, playing angry by tackling hard and smacking down opposing running backs and quarterbacks. They are harnessing their anger and hatred in a controlled, constructive manner and harnessing these powers to win.
We saw it in week 2 against Seattle, as they rendered Marshawn Lynch a non-factor, and we saw it again in week 3.
All terrific news that is certainly a good harbinger for Super Bowl redemption this year. But as every team must strive for constant improvement as the season wears on in a bid to peak in the postseason, so must the Packers defense strive to take the same level of pride through to the end of the game, no matter what the score.
This folly of letting defeated teams march down the field in the fourth quarter instills a debilitating mentality that threatens to poison a promising harvest with the seeds of defeat. Moreover, given that comebacks of three scores or more are not entirely unheard of in the NFL, it is a very dangerous proposition in practical terms as well.
It’s one that has already cost us dearly once and made us vulnerable another time, both instances coming just last season.
As gratifying as it is to see Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, B.J. Raji, Mike Daniels, Jayrone Elliott, Nate Palmer and others playing with anger, they need to keep playing with that same anger and ferocity throughout.
Keep their foot on the opponents’ throats and the Packers will prove to be invincible.