“Penalties,” McCarthy said. “I just watched it before I came in here and it made me sick, just to watch that game again and to feel that you came away on the short end of it. Clearly the penalties was the biggest factor in the outcome of the game, and there is no way around it.”
No, there isn’t. The Packers committed a franchise-record 18 for 152 yards in that last-second Week 3 loss in Chicago. A touchdown on offense was wiped out by a holding call and two interceptions were nullified by flags.
“We make one of them, the game is probably over,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
It was an ugly, yellow evening.
Fortunately, it served as a bit of a wake-up call in that category for the Packers, who continued their more rule-compliant ways in Sunday’s win over the Giants. Green Bay was called for just three penalties for 31 yards against New York, the ninth time this season – and eighth time in 12 games since the first Chicago contest – the Packers have been flagged three or fewer times in a game.
“Since then we have been very disciplined,” McCarthy said. “We emphasize it every week and it’s important for us to be the most disciplined team when we play here Sunday at 3:15.”
That discipline has been evident on both sides of the ball.
In games against San Francisco and New England, the defense didn’t have a single penalty. In fact, the two defensive penalties called in the Giants game marked the first time in the last nine contests that the defense was flagged more than once. The defense hadn’t been called for multiple penalties since the Miami game back in Week 6.
“To me that’s a real credit to our guys because we’re playing with more poise and discipline than we did earlier in the season,” Capers said. “You show them the results – when we have penalty-aided drives, the percentage of people scoring points against us goes way up. We’re hard to score points on if we don’t help them out.”
Meanwhile, the offense hasn’t had a penalty in the past 10 quarters, dating back to the second quarter in Detroit in Week 14. The offense also went penalty-free at Minnesota’s Metrodome in Week 11, with the one penalty by the team that day a franchise-low in 28 games played in that stadium.
Offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said the coaching staff has been emphasizing reducing penalties since offseason workouts in May. But it may have taken the 18-penalty debacle in Chicago for the message to truly take hold.
“I can’t really attest, … was the noise an issue, … I can’t remember if we were audibling a bunch,” Philbin said in recalling the first Bears game. “But I know we were late off the ball a couple times, that caused some holding penalties. We had some false starts. We had the whole gamut in that game. But I think just like anything else, you just roll up your sleeves, buckle up your chinstrap and get back to work.”
The nine games with three or fewer penalties this season matches the team’s best total since 1967, and it also surpasses the total of such games under McCarthy in his first four seasons combined (seven). The Packers were among the five most-penalized teams each of the last three years, including the most-penalized squad last year.
But this year they’re currently tied for fourth in fewest accepted penalties with 74 and rank third in least penalty yardage with 587. If the Packers are called for five or fewer penalties in the regular-season finale on Sunday, they’ll finish with the fewest penalties as a team since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. The 1983 and 2001 squads were flagged just 80 times each.
Most important, the Packers are 7-2 in those nine games with three or fewer flags this season, and another disciplined outing could set that team record and potentially lead to another must-have win.
When Giants quarterback Eli Manning hit a pair of big-play touchdowns – 36 yards to Hakeem Nicks and 85 yards to Mario Manningham – to wipe out Green Bay’s early 14-0 lead in less than seven minutes during the second quarter, McCarthy and Capers both felt their players did what they had to do.
That is, both those on the field on defense and those on the sideline, forgot about the miscues quickly and didn’t dwell on them, which helped prevent the momentum from staying on the Giants’ side.
“One of the things I did like is after they hit those two big plays, and they really came back-to-back on us, I don’t think the guys flinched,” Capers said. “I just think they went back to work.
“When we came in at halftime, we talked about going back out and trying to set the tone, and we had five of our takeaways in the second half. Those things kind of have a multiplying effect, and that worked well for us.”
In addition to the five turnovers, the defense also forced two punts and allowed just one field goal over the course of the next eight possessions.
“No one blinked,” McCarthy said. “We talked about just stay the course, pick each other up. We’re going to hit some bumps in the road here, we’re going to hit some red lights in the course of this game. Just keep playing, and I thought our guys did a great job of it.”
The defense not only held the Giants to just a field goal the rest of the game, a span of 35 minutes, but it forced two punts and five turnovers over the course of the next eight possessions.
The stat has been kept in team annals only since 1976, but first-year punter Tim Masthay has a chance to set a new single-season franchise mark for net punting average with one game to go.
On his 63 punts this season, Masthay’s net average is 37.8 yards, just ahead of the 37.6 mark that Jon Ryan posted in 2007, which stands as the top number.
The challenge, of course, is that Masthay will have to maintain that average in another cold-weather game and with one of the league’s most dangerous return men in Chicago’s Devin Hester on the other side next Sunday. Hester returned a punt for a touchdown against the Packers in the first meeting, the worst blemish on Masthay’s net average for the year.
“I don’t know if you can ever be totally ready,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “What a great challenge, great player. It looks like he’s probably at his finest. I’ve gotten to see him up close and personal now for five years. Dynamic guy. I look at him as their first play of offense in the return game.”
Masthay acquitted himself well in the cold against the Giants with a 39.0-yard net average on five punts. His best effort came at an important time, as he hung a long, 54-yarder that had to be fair-caught by Aaron Ross at the Giants’ 17-yard line in the fourth quarter. At the time, the Packers led 31-17 with 11 minutes left, and McCarthy and Slocum credited the kick with shifting the field position at a key moment.
“I think he learned something during the San Francisco game in that when the weather is poor, you’re going to have a bad drop,” Slocum said. “The thing I think is important is that the rest of your technique be sound and you have to power through those bad drops and force that punt to be a decent punt. As opposed to backing off because the drop is poor, and then you end up with a terrible punt.
“We need to finish strong. He’s done a great job I think the last portion of the season. He’s really continued to improve. We’ve limited the number of returns our opponents have had, and he’s kicked the ball in positions where when they have had returns, we’ve been in position to cover them.”
It is believed to be a first in the McCarthy era – a player getting more than one game ball from the coaching staff for his efforts in a single contest.
McCarthy announced on Monday that running back John Kuhn would be given a game ball both on offense, for his first career three-touchdown effort, and on special teams, for a four-tackle performance.
“I think he’s making the push like everybody else on our football team,” McCarthy said. “He’s one of our leaders. He’s a tough guy and well-respected in the locker room, and he’s really stepped to the forefront.”
Some of his special-teams work went rather unnoticed but was no less valuable.
“I thought he did a great job running our punt team,” Slocum said. “Actually, we had a problem with one of the protections and he stepped in there and hit the guy that wasn’t really his assignment. He played with great energy and effort and was very productive.
“I think it speaks to what he’s all about. He’s impactful on offense, playing quite a few plays in there, and then he goes out and plays on just about everything we’re doing special-teams wise. He plays very hard.”
Other game balls went to quarterback Aaron Rodgers on offense, nose tackle B.J. Raji and linebacker A.J. Hawk on defense, and defensive back Brandon Underwood on special teams. Fellow defensive back Jarrett Bush was given the “Big Hit” award.
McCarthy already has declared fullback Korey Hall (knee) and safety Atari Bigby (groin) out for this week’s game.
Whether or not the defense gets either defensive end Cullen Jenkins (calf) or outside linebacker Frank Zombo (knee) back remains to be seen.
McCarthy said this week was the target for Jenkins’ return, but his status remains iffy. It appears it will take the full week before it will be known whether Jenkins can play. He has missed the last three games.
Zombo will be on the same schedule as last week, when he was given a chance to practice on Friday after rehabbing all week. Zombo had a setback last Friday and was inactive for the Giants game, but he’ll be given another chance to return to practice this Friday.