GREEN BAY, Wis. – Call some of it empty yardage if you must, but considering what the Green Bay Packers face on Thursday, one thing from Sunday’s win over the Washington Football Team sticks out:
Taylor Heinicke: 10 rushes for 95 yards.
It’s not that Washington’s quarterback changed the game with his running; the game wasn’t close -- although the Packers’ 24-7 win at Lambeau Field would have been a little closer had Heinicke not unnecessarily dived for the end zone only to come up a yard short and then failed on a fourth-and-goal sneak from the 1-yard line.
And some of it - 13 yards on the game’s final play - was empty yardage.
But Packers coach Matt LaFleur and defensive coordinator Joe Barry have to worry what Kyler Murray will think when the Arizona Cardinals quarterback watches film in advance of Thursday’s showdown in Phoenix (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox).
“Yeah that's gonna have to be a major point of emphasis, because we knew that going into this thing, what he was able to do with his legs,” LaFleur said of Heinicke. “And for him to still be able to do that, that was a little bit disappointing.”
While Murray hasn’t been prone to running as much during the Cardinals’ perfect 7-0 start to the season, and he hasn’t put up the gaudy rushing numbers he did in 2020 (when his 819 yards rushing were second among quarterbacks, behind only Lamar Jackson), the danger is ever present.
Murray averaged 6.2 yards per carry and had 11 rushing touchdowns in 2020. This year, he has averaged only 2.7 yards per carry but has three rushing scores. He had just six runs for 10 yards in Sunday's win over the Texans.
“K1, he’s a different animal,” said Packers inside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, who played for the Cardinals last season. “His scrambling ability is just a little bit different than the guys we’ve played over the past two weeks.
“I got to practice against him every day last year for a year straight, so I understand what type of player he is and I understand what we’re going up against. We just have to come up with a really good plan to contain him. With a player like that, you can’t stop him. You just have to try to contain him.”
At least the Packers (6-1) are trending in a direction on defense that should please LaFleur and take some of the early heat off Barry, whose unit failed to come up with a red zone stop in any of the first six games of the season.
While the Packers allowed 430 yards on Sunday -- 63 yards more than any other team has put up in a game against them this year -- their defense turned things around in three specific areas: sacks, takeaways and inside the 20.
They sacked Heinicke four times, and Rashan Gary was in on three of them (one full sack and two half sacks), including a strip sack fumble that Dean Lowry recovered. Kingsley Keke had 1.5 sacks and Lowry shared one, giving him at least a half sack in three straight games.
Gary’s fumble was one of four the Packers forced on Sunday, although it was the only one they recovered. They needed production from him given that fellow outside linebacker Preston Smith missed his first game in seven years (ending a streak of 102 straight), and fellow edge rusher Za'Darius Smith remains on injured reserve.
The other takeaway came from cornerback Chandon Sullivan on a day when two of their top three cornerbacks (Jaire Alexander and Kevin King) did not play. Sullivan’s came in the red zone, where the Packers finally turned things around.
The Packers may get King and Preston Smith back in time for the Cardinals. However, they could be without Barry, who tested postiive for COVID-19 on Monday.
After allowing 15 touchdowns in 15 red zone trips by opposing offenses, they came up with four straight stops on Sunday.
“Our best defenses over the years, I think, have been opportunistic ones,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, noting the 430-304 disparity in yardage. “We had a bunch of turnovers forced, and guys around the football. That’s kind of been maybe some of our better defenses where we kind of toughen up in the red zone, force some turnovers and give us the ball back. That was a lot of big plays for those guys.”