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, Bills vs. Packers: Mike Pettine’s defense dominates third down A trend emerged over the first three games of the Green Bay Packers’ 2018 season.While the overall numbers painted the picture of a team still largely unable to halt opponents with regularity, a closer look revealed that the Green Bay defense thrived on third down with 4 or more yards to go. Forcing those situations proved to be the challenge at times, but once there new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine could dial up exotic blitzes and consistently short-circuit drives.Against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, Pettine and his defense put on a show on those third-down situations. The Packers forced third-and-4 or longer an impressive 13 times, eight of which resulted in a stop. That third-down defensive success largely won the game for Green Bay and, given the context of the previous three weeks, suggests meaningful progress for the unit after just one quarter of the season.But those numbers don’t fully illustrate the Packers’ third-down dominance. All three of the Bills’ turnovers -- two interceptions and a fumble loss -- came on third down and at least 4 yards to go. Pettine’s exotic blitzes, particularly his affinity for rushing defensive backs, turned the defense into a play-making unit.And perhaps that explains why Aaron Rodgers referred to the defensive performance as “championship” level during his post-game press conference. During the Packers’ best defensive seasons under previous coordinator Dom Capers, the group finished near the top of the league in turnovers. Those takeaways hadn’t totally evaporated in Green Bay over the past few years, but that production needs to improve in order to take the pressure off an offense that remains a work in progress. Forcing more long third downs seems like a reliable way to up those numbers.Ultimately, the Bills present one of the weaker challenges on Green Bay’s schedule, and that factors into any discussion of Sunday’s shutout. At the same time, a good defense should give up few if any points to an offense led by rookie quarterback Josh Allen and arguably the worst collection of offensive talent in the league, and the Packers pulled it off with minimal mistakes.Aaron Jones shows off more than just his running abilityMidway through Aaron Jones’ rookie season, it became clear that the UTEP product had the skills and physical tools to lead the Packers’ ground attack. Injuries derailed that effort, but even so, it seemed Jones would take over the backfield during his second season.Despite missing the first two games of 2018 with a suspension, Jones has once again emerged as a dangerous part of the Packers offense. In his season debut, he led the team with 42 rushing yards on just six carries. Jones built upon that start with an 11-carry, 65-yard performance against the Bills, which also featured his first touchdown of the year. Already, he has moved ahead of Ty Montgomery in rushing yards on the year. At some point over the next week or so, Jones should eclipse Jamaal Williams as well.Since he entered the league, pass blocking has proven to be the biggest obstacle standing between Jones and a larger role. He finished third among the Packers’ running backs in snaps during Week 3, and he remained in a timeshare with Williams and Montgomery seven days later despite far superior production.However, the existing split could change in the near future. Against Buffalo, Jones showcased improved pass protection and willingness to take on difficult blocking assignments. The best demonstration came on third-and-1 with 8:26 remaining in regulation. With Rodgers’ back turned to the defense during a play fake, the second-year running back came up and de-cleated defensive end Trent Murphy, ensuring the necessary time for the play to develop. Such a “wow” moment would have seemed inconceivable a year ago, but Jones appears to have made a concerted effort to develop that part of his game.Blocks like that could encourage the coaches to increase Jones playing time in the future. He might never reach Williams’ proficiency as a pass protector, but Jones only needs to earn the trust of Rodgers and the staff to further tilt the backfield rotation in his favor.Aaron Rodgers’ wheels returnFrom the moment Rodgers returned from his Week 1 knee injury, it became evident that he lacked the mobility to extend plays and punish defenses with his legs. Though Rodgers did scramble at times against the Minnesota Vikings and Washington over the past two weeks, such plays made up a smaller percentage of his plays than usual.Though Rodgers’ knee probably remains significantly below 100 percent healthy, he looked more comfortable and mobile against the Bills Sunday than at any time since the injury. The veteran quarterback scrambled five times for 31 yards, including a 15-yard sideline scamper that set up a field goal just before halftime. Just as importantly, Rodgers looked fluid and comfortable moving around in the pocket, working outside the play design when necessary.Those developments, combined with the fact Rodgers’ practice workload increased this past week, suggest that the most dangerous version of the Packers’ quarterback could return soon barring a setback. The next two weeks feature matchups with the Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers, two teams with middling-at-best pass rushes, followed by Green Bay’s bye. If Rodgers can safely navigate that stretch, he could look fully recovered in time for the all-important Week 8 tilt with the currently undefeated Los Angeles Rams.Packers Snap Counts: Jaire Alexander cashes in on playing time in Oakland The Green Bay Packers got their first long look at first-round rookie Jaire Alexander on Friday night against the Oakland Raiders, and the results were mainly positive. Alexander intercepted a pass early in the game, played over 50% of the defensive snaps, and also took all of the punt returns as he flashed the talent, athleticism, and intelligence that made him a first-round draft pick.Joining him with an impressive performance was his draft buddy, Josh Jackson, who is pushing to be more than just the team’s fourth cornerback this year. Another interception for Jackson got overturned by penalty, but he consistently stuck with his receivers and looks like he’ll turn out to be a steal in the second round.On the other side of the spectrum was the Packers’ offensive line. Without any of the five preferred starters, the line helped to eliminate the coaching staff’s ability to evaluate the remainder of the offensive personnel by providing little running room for the running backs and consistently allowing pressure on the two quarterbacks who lined up under center.Here’s how the playing time broke down on Friday night.OFFENSE (76 plays)QuarterbacksDeShone Kizer 44, Brett Hundley 32With the performance of the offensive line on Friday night, it’s probably a good thing that the Packers didn’t put Tim Boyle under center. Kizer and Hundley were at least able to evade the oncoming pass rush with their mobility on occasion, something Boyle probably would have been unable to do. Hundley had a few nice throws on the first drive of the game Womens Jimmy Graham Jersey
, finding Geronimo Allison for 9 and 31 yards before seeing Lance Kendricks drop a would-be touchdown. After that, however, Hundley was running for his life. Kizer had to do the same, taking over after halftime.In all, the five combined sacks that the two quarterbacks took don’t do justice to the pressure they were under all night, and it’s tough to evaluate either one in this game.Running BacksJoel Bouagnon 29, LeShun Daniels 16, Aaron Jones 14, Ty Montgomery 10, Bronson Hill 7, Aaron Ripkowski 6, Joe Kerridge 3The Packers finally got Aaron Jones on the field in a preseason game and he showed once again that he’s the most explosive running back on the team. He carried the ball five times for 18 yards but showed good burst on a few carries. Daniels got a nice audition in his first action since signing on Saturday, leading the team with five carries for 23 yards.Bouagnon once again got the most reps, but had poor production with five carries for ten yards. If anything, he was more productive as a receiver, with four catches for 27 yards. Ty Montgomery left the game after one series with a foot injury.The fullbacks appear to be getting phased out of the offense. At this point, it would not be a shock if the Packers don’t have one on their final 53.Wide ReceiversMarquez Valdes-Scantling 51, J’Mon Moore 46, DeAngelo Yancey 38, Equanimeous St. Brown 36, Geronimo Allison 24, Adonis Jennings 17Each Packers rookie receiver has had nice moments in the preseason now, thanks to Moore’s performance on Friday. He caught four of eight targets thrown his way for 62 yards, but none of the incompletions can be blamed on him. His best grab was a stretching catch up the right sideline from Kizer, where he knew he would be taking a hit from an oncoming safety immediately after the catch. Moore’s suddenness in his routes make it clear why the team likes him so much and he is showing that if he can catch the ball reliably, he can definitely be a solid weapon in the passing game.Neither of the other draft picks caught a pass on Friday, however. MVS led the way in snaps but had just three targets and no receptions while St. Brown didn’t have a catch on two targets.Allison played most of the first half and the opening drive showed why he is the team’s number three wideout. He caught a ball on a beautiful comeback route for a first down early on the drive, then beat his cornerback on a go route for a 31-yard gain.Meanwhile, Yancey continues to see significant snaps without any production, as he was targeted just once.Tight EndsRobert Tonyan 21, Marcedes Lewis 19, Lance Kendricks 19, Emanuel Byrd 18, Ryan Smith 6After Tonyan’s big game last week, it was Byrd’s turn against the Raiders; the second-year pro caught three of five targets from Kizer for 25 yards and set up a go-ahead field goal in the third quarter with two of those catches. The rest of the tight ends seemed to be largely staying in to protect the quarterbacks, who were unable to stay upright with a standard five-man protection.Offensive LinemenAdam Pankey 76, Lucas Patrick 51, Jason Spriggs 51, Dillon Day 45, Kyle Murphy 39, Kofi Amichia 38, Byron Bell 31, Alex Light 24, Austin Davis 24And now we get to the offensive line. Pankey and Patrick probably had the best days of the group, despite their full workloads. Pankey started the game at guard, then moved out to right tackle late in the game when Murphy was pulled, seemingly for an injury. Patrick started at center and played there for most of the game as the Packers seemingly wanted to get a look at another backup option for Corey Linsley. For the most part, those two were acceptable and looked like the best linemen on the field.Kyle Murphy, however, was not. He was beaten with power and with speed regularly from the right tackle spot, and was legitimately so bad that he may have played his way off the team. He was also called for a pair of holding penalties, though one was a clear bad call by the referee as the Raiders player slipped on his own. Jason Spriggs was better on the left side, but that’s a low bar to clear. Frankly, Pankey looked better at right tackle when he came in for Murphy, though he was playing against the Raiders’ third-stringers.It’s clear that the Packers have issues with their backup tackles Authentic Randall Cobb Jersey
, who cannot seem to hold up against opposing starters. That’s a problem that many NFL teams have, however, and it’s unlikely that there will be many if any more appealing options made available after final cuts.DEFENSE (70 plays)Defensive LinemenKenny Clark 34, Montravius Adams 34, Muhammad Wilkerson 31, James Looney 26, Dean Lowry 16, Joey Mbu 13, Tyler Lancaster 11, Conor Sheehy 3The Packers’ starting defense played a fair amount in the first half as Clark surprised us by leading the unit in snaps. In fact, he led the team in tackles as well with five. Adams was disruptive at the point of attack, while Wilkerson still appears to be getting up to speed in the defense. The reserves largely played well without any standout performances.Outside LinebackersReggie Gilbert 37, Vince Biegel 31, Kyler Fackrell 27, Kendall Donnerson 18, Chris Odom 15, Clay Matthews 13Gilbert was again the star of the pass rush group, recording the Packers’ only sack of the game (a strip-sack of Derek Carr on the first drive of the game) to go with four total tackles. Biegel had his best preseason performance with four tackles of his own plus another on special teams; he was consistently in on the play in run support, though he needs to flash more rushing the passer.Donnerson recorded a tackle for loss and three tackles while Matthews had a free run at Carr at one point but got too deep and could not bring him down.Inside LinebackersAhmad Thomas 39, Greer Martini 37, Blake Martinez 37, James Crawford 13, Marcus Porter 3, Naashon Hughes 3Any question who the Packers are looking at for roster spots at this position should be finished. With Oren Burks being a surprise scratch, Thomas and Martini rotated in next to Blake Martinez, with Martini on the field on base downs and Thomas coming on in sub packages. If Burks is out for any length of time, both will be on this team barring the signing of a veteran free agent; they both have a good shot even if Burks’ injury is minor.SafetiesKentrell Brice 37, Josh Jones 31, Jermaine Whitehead 29, Raven Greene 26, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix 13, Marwin Evans 5Whitehead returned from an absence over the past week and played his usual versatile role, lining up at safety, in the slot, and at dime linebacker. Greene had his first flash play of the preseason, forcing a fumble on a scrambling E.J. Manuel that Martini recovered. He also recorded three total tackles. Jones had three tackles as well and added a great stop as a gunner on a punt return.CornerbacksJaire Alexander 37, Josh Jackson 33, Herb Waters 29, Josh Hawkins 25, Quinten Rollins 22, Demetri Goodson 21, Lenzy Pipkins 8, Tramon Williams 7, Donatello Brown 6The Packers got good production from both Alexander and Jackson, as the former got his first extended playing time of the year and justified it with an athletic interception in the first half. He also took sole possession of punt return duties and although he only returned one punt for no gain, he was alert in nearly drawing a kick catch interference penalty and cleverly blocked a gunner on one punt that ended up rolling into the end zone.Jackson got a second pick-six of the preseason, but saw it wiped out by a holding penalty on Waters on the other side of the field. Jackson added a pass breakup, as did Hawkins.The Packers have five spots decided already: Alexander, Williams, and Kevin King appear to be the starters with Jackson and House the primary backups. A sixth corner is likely, with the team perhaps even keeping seven; but the identity of those players remains unknown, with none of the other options emerging as a player who must be kept on the roster.