GREEN BAY—Clay Matthews asked the question rhetorically after the Eagles game, and the best chance to answer it could come Sunday against the Giants.
“We keep continuing to harp on this – they say they come in bunches, much like sacks,” Matthews said last week. “But … Where are they?”
Matthews, of course, was asking about turnovers, a weekly staple of Packers defensive play in recent years that has been in horribly low supply in 2013.
That old cliché about coming in bunches occurred only once this season, when the Packers took the ball away from the Bengals on four straight possessions back in Week 3. The problem is those four takeaways, which took place in about half a quarter’s span of game time, account for half of the defense’s total for the season.
In the other 35½ quarters of play, the Packers have taken the ball away only four other times, and they just ended a 14-quarter drought this past Sunday when Mike Daniels’ sack and Tramon Williams’ strip of Eagles QB Nick Foles was ruled a turnover via replay challenge.
Will that fourth-quarter fumble finally be the start of another “bunch”? Will the Giants, who lead the league with 28 giveaways, be the team to help the Packers get back to their takeaway ways?
Those are the questions being asked this week, but with as much caution as optimism. Safety Morgan Burnett warned not to “go out trying to chase things that aren’t there,” while Williams added that losing discipline within the scheme will only “make things worse.”
Head Coach Mike McCarthy, who runs daily turnover drills in practice from the start of training camp, sounded much the same alarm.
“We don’t want to go up there and start jumping routes and be exposed to double moves or anything like that,” McCarthy said. “We need to play our defense, play with vision, play to our leverage, and just make plays on the ball.”
That’s been the most frustrating aspect of the struggle. Defenders have been in position to make plays and haven’t made them. Two long TD passes by the Eagles last week had two defensive backs in coverage against one receiver on underthrown, eminently intercept-able passes, and both resulted in touchdowns instead.
The Giants are a different team now than the one that started 0-6, but even during their current three-game winning streak, they’ve turned the ball over five times and had a punt partially blocked.
New York QB Eli Manning leads the league with 16 interceptions this season, including three that have been returned for touchdowns, but he has rebounded in a big way from rough patches before. The Packers know this, and given the defense’s turnover production this season, the unit is in no position to take anything for granted.
“If we focus on all the bad he’s done just this year, we’ll get an unpleasant surprise,” Daniels said. “This man has two Super Bowl rings. He’s done something right.”
The Packers offense has its own area to get right, and that’s in the red zone. A season-long lack of efficiency has only gotten worse since the loss of QB Aaron Rodgers to injury, as the offense has scored just one TD in six red-zone trips with backups Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien at the helm.
Last week’s Philadelphia fumble, recovered at the Eagles’ 13-yard line, wasn’t converted into points when receiver Jordy Nelson’s diving attempt on fourth down was ruled incomplete, highlighting an 0-for-4 day in the red zone.
“We’ve gotta score points,” said receiver James Jones, who had a close call of his own against the Eagles, getting only one foot down in bounds on a third-down catch in the end zone, leading to yet another field goal try. “I can’t give you excuses, I can’t give you a reason why.
“We’ve gotta make a play, man. My foot’s out, they say Jordy didn’t catch it. Tough plays, but we’ve gotta make ’em.”
The failure to convert that turnover into points against the Eagles was only magnified because turnovers have been so few and far between this season. The opportunity was so rare.
That’s what must change first, and then perhaps the rest will fall into place, too.
“Throughout the year, everything is not going to go good. Obviously, we’re experiencing that right now,” Williams said. “But at the same time, things can turn around. We always feel every week we go into a game, it could be that week, so hopefully it is that week.” Additional coverage - Nov. 15