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Tom Oates: Packers’ flaws on full display in sloppy loss at Washington

September 25, 2018

LANDOVER, Md. — Clay Matthews is paid to make big plays and, so far this season, he’s been doing just that. Problem is, the NFL referees keep taking them away.

It happened again Sunday when the Green Bay Packers outside linebacker sacked Washington quarterback Alex Smith in the third quarter with the Packers trying to rally from a brutal first-half performance.

As with a similar Matthews hit on Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins last week, out came the penalty flag for roughing the passer. And with the flag came another wave of outrage for the NFL and its referees, who seemingly are trying to legislate rushing the passer out of the game.

It’s safe to say the national debate over what constitutes a legal hit on the quarterback will rage for another week. It’s also safe to say the ongoing discussion over refereeing will obscure the growing suspicion that the Packers aren’t a very good team. At least not yet, they aren’t.

Green Bay’s 31-17 loss to Washington Sunday at rain-soaked FedEx Field revealed every performance and personnel wart the Packers have. The outcome dropped their record to 1-1-1, which seems fitting for a team that has been a model of inconsistency, looking good at times, so-so at times and really bad at times.

In the first half at Washington, the Packers looked really bad. The offense kept stopping itself and the defense hemorrhaged big plays as the Packers trailed 28-10 at halftime. They played better − well, on defense anyway − in the second half but had multiple chances to make it a one-score game and weren’t up to the task.

It’s possible the Packers’ slow start can be traced back to playing five quarters in steamy conditions against NFC North Division rival Minnesota the week before. The fact that Minnesota fell behind 24-0 before dropping a 27-6 decision to Buffalo Sunday lent some support to that argument. Not even the Packers agreed with that, however.

“We’re not going to use that as an excuse,” Matthews said. “Of course, you could say five quarters of play, the heat, playing a division rival (took it out of us). You could use any of those excuses, but we’ve got to play better. We’ll get back to the basics, fundamentals.”

The Packers have seldom been fast starters under coach Mike McCarthy, but their up-and-down nature so far has been different. Their youth and depth have been tested and neither has passed the test. New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine hasn’t yet waved a magic wand and made everyone forget about the departed Dom Capers.

Indeed, in the first half Sunday, the defense looked eerily similar to the Packers’ recent defenses under Capers. With young cornerbacks and suspect safeties, the defense allowed five plays between 20 and 50 yards, four of them passes, three of those passes to tight ends. On one of Washington’s four touchdown drives − average length: 81.5 yards − in the opening half, three different Packers cornerbacks were penalized for pass interference.

The defense forced four straight Washington punts in the second half, but that only made the slow start seem worse because it might have been avoided.

“We just came out and laid an egg in the first half,” Matthews said. “It’s kind of like (McCarthy) said, it’s the fundamentals. Strictly speaking on behalf of the defense, it’s the missed tackles, the missed assignments. It’s them making more plays than we did. Obviously, we came out in the second half, and you’ve got the stats as far as what we were able to do on how many third downs and keeping them off the board until the very end, but we dug ourselves in too deep.”

The Packers offense drove 75 yards for a touchdown to start the second half and closed the gap to 28-17, then spent the rest of the game squandering opportunities to get closer. Between penalties, dropped passes and sacks, their drives stalled every time.

Wide receiver Randall Cobb and tight end Lance Kendricks ended drives with dropped passes. Later, Cobb had the ball ripped out of his hands after a catch, a fumble that cost Green Bay another opportunity.

Cobb also dropped a third-down pass on the Packers’ opening drive of the game, but he was in no mood to use the wet conditions as an excuse.

“I played terrible and I didn’t give us an opportunity to win,” Cobb said. ”(The wet ball) has nothing to do with it. We’ve played in these conditions before. It’s on me.”

Actually, it was on everyone. Washington exploited Green Bay’s backup offensive linemen after tackle Bryan Bulaga and guard Justin McCray left with injuries. The prized rookie cornerbacks looked a bit star-struck in their first road game and safety Kentrell Brice, a first-year starter, has been a liability in coverage.

McCarthy didn’t sugarcoat the mistakes, but he insisted the Packers need only to go back to the fundamentals to succeed.

“We’ve got work to do,” he said. “It’s week three. I’m in tune with the patterns of everything that we do football-wise. I would say that come the four-quarter and overtime of last week, some of that carried over to the first half. But I thought our guys did a good job of setting their jaw. The defense gave us plenty of opportunities in the second half.”

Unfortunately for the Packers, they weren’t good enough to take advantage of them.

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