I issued an earlier warning here on total Packers halfway into the season. Green Bay had just stolen a game from the Cardinals, which placed them at a commanding seven wins and one loss. While most everyone else was celebrating the team’s good fortune, I was disturbed. Here’s the cautionary message I dispatched in my October 31 posting:
“. . .I couldn’t help but notice how the Packers assumed an all-too-familiar defensive posture for much of the second half that allowed the Cards to move freely down the field at the cost of using up a lot of time. I believe that Murray had only about 71 passing yards in the first half, but finished the game with 274. Fans have seen this strategy employed by the Pack for much of the past decade or more. I believe that what the Packers employed for most of the second half was a classic prevent defense, which basically allows short completions in exchange for discouraging long completions, and so the game time expires before the opponent can outscore the team that has a sizable lead. You can argue that it worked, but I despise it in all but exceptional cases.”
After watching the Packers nearly blow another big lead on Sunday, I checked to see how many others in the media saw what I saw – but I came up empty. I even Googled “Packers prevent defense”, but came up with no recent matches. The search did, however, produce one not-so-recent hit, from back in late 2016. Here’s what one pundit posted, under the heading “Packers Should Abandon the Prevent Defense”, on 12.22/16:
“The thrilling victory by the Green Bay Packers over the Chicago Bears was great, but it tended to mask one of the most exasperating flaws of the team during the entire Mike McCarthy era: overuse of the prevent defense.”
That pundit went on to detail how the Packers, with a minute left in quarter three, and having established a commanding 27-10 lead, then employed their customary prevent defense strategy. The post related how the Bears responded by generating a 75-yard TD drive, in two and a half minutes, and without ever getting into a third down situation. Green Bay, having lost its momentum, replied with a three-and-out, taking barely two minutes off the clock. The Bears proceeded to reel off a 9-play, 78-yard TD drive, consuming only three and a half minutes. It was now 27-24. A second consecutive Green Bay three-and-out followed, and the Bears still had 5:42 left on the clock. This time they engineered a 14-play,75 yard drive. Thanks to Micah Hyde (playing the Darnell Savage role) knocking down an otherwise 4-yard TD pass, the Bears had to settle for a field goal that tied the game.
To summarize, in 15 minutes the Bears offense, which for the first three-fourths of the game had been impotent, ran off 29 plays, which gained 221 yards, and scored 17 points. Yes, a talented Green Bay team, which went on that season to the conference championship game, allowed a lousy Bears team (3-13), and a below-average quarterback (Matt Barklay) to pass for 362 yards on the day. It took Aaron Rodgers to prevent a calamity: in the final 1:17 he drove the team down to where Mason Crosby kicked a 32-yard winning field goal as time expired. By the way, that game took place on December 18. It all sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
What will it take for the Packers’ head coach – who is the one accountable for such a strategy – to wake up and recognize the disadvantages of employing a prevent defense after Green Bay has dominated a weak opponent and run up a healthy lead? Can’t LaFleur see that the strategy breaks his team’s momentum – both offensively and defensively? It provides the losing team with sudden and positive momentum and confidence. It allows lesser quarterbacks to get into a short-pass rhythm, and look like All-Pros as they complete pass after pass without defensive resistance. At the same time it diminishes the influence of the better quarterback on the game’s outcome. It also is no coincidence that the team in the lead suddenly cannot get a first down to save its life – but that’s a phenomenon that would take more time to develop.
It allows the opposition to run off long drives with few prospects of facing third or fourth downs. Defenses become static and predictable. Those quick and short completions hinder a team’s pass rushers from putting any pressure on the opposing quarterback. By playing off and behind receivers, defensive backs are prevented from knocking down passes or making interceptions. As we saw on Sunday, having defenders playing back also allows mobile quarterbacks to easily gain 10 to 15 yards by taking off running – and usually getting out of bounds and stopping the clock.
The similarities of that 2016 Bears game, and the 2021 Cardinals game, to Sunday’s Ravens’ game are eerie – and depressing. I assume readers have by now correctly surmised that I was the author of that post of five years ago. Though I remain a big fan of coach LaFleur, I have to say it: coach, you managed Sunday’s game just the way Mike McCarthy did against the Bears five years and one day ago.
Coach LaFleur, on Sunday, with 9:26 left on the clock you permitted an inferior team (due to missing players) to run off a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown. Then after the first of two three-and-outs, and with 2:23 remaining, you enabled the Raves to pull off a 7-play, 49-yard touchdown leading to that two-point conversion attempt. It was so easy that the Ravens still had 42 seconds on the clock, and an unused timeout.
This team needs to do better, and play smarter, than that. With a two-touchdown lead and four minutes left, maybe a prevent defense is appropriate, but not with almost ten minutes remaining. And by the way, how can anyone tell a prevent strategy is been employed? When the two outside corners are 10 yards off the line of scrimmage on every play, and the two safeties are 20 yards or so back (taking them completely out of the action) it’s pretty safe to say you’re looking at a prevent defense.
The media has been reporting the game as a “furious” and stirring comeback led by young and talented Huntley. Wrong. It was a thoughtless and miss-timed strategy, gifted to Harbaugh and the Ravens by the gracious leave of Coach LaFleur.
This game needn’t have been a few Darnell Savage fingertips away from a loss to a team missing its star quarterback and a boatload of other players. That makes it twice on the year that prevent defenses should have resulted in losses, but for a stroke of luck – dumb luck.