Turnovers and added pressure spark scoreless second half from Packers defense

Dec 25, 2022; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Green Bay Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas (29) celebrates with teammates after intercepting a pass from Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (not pictured) during the second half at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 25, 2022; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Green Bay Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas (29) celebrates with teammates after intercepting a pass from Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (not pictured) during the second half at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports /

Slowing the Miami Dolphins’ big-play passing game was always going to be a difficult test for a Green Bay Packers defense that has been mistake-prone this season.

As a team, the Dolphins entered Sunday’s Christmas contest with the second most big pass plays (passes of 20 or more yards) generated this season. Tyreek Hill had the most downfield receiving yards and receptions out of any receiver prior to the game, with Jaylen Waddle ranking sixth and seventh in those same categories. Both have also been really effective with the ball in their hands, ranking in the top 11 individually in yards after the catch per PFF.

So you can see the problem that Hill and Waddle posed this Packers defense: protect against the big play, which leaves room and YAC potential underneath, or try to take away the quick and easy completions but risk getting beat over the top.

Well, in the first half anways, it didn’t much matter as the Packers were beaten both over the top and underneath multiple times. By halftime, Hill had three receptions for 84 yards, and Waddle had two receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had 229 total passing yards and was averaging 15.2 yards per attempt. For some context, Tagovailoa leads the NFL in yards per attempt this season, with an average of 8.6.

"“In the first half, we had a couple of plays where there were some busted coverages, and they got behind us,” said Matt LaFleur after the game. “Those are two guys that are as electric as it comes in the NFL, and if you give them a sliver of light, they’re able to take a little 10-yard pass and make it a house call.”"

However, out of halftime, the Packers defense looked like a completely different unit — which was apparently sparked by Jerry Gray yelling at the secondary, something that is very out of nature for the usually calm and cool defensive backs coach — as they held the high-powered Dolphins scoreless.

"“That woke us up for sure,” Jaire Alexander said via ESPN of Jerry Gray’s fiery halftime speech. “He doesn’t really yell, but he was yelling at us then. And you see the results. He probably needed to yell at us at the beginning of the game.”"

It started with the defense being able to create more steady pressure up front, forcing Tagovailo out of the pocket and out of rhythm–an important element for him and this Miami offense that relies heavily on the quick passing game. As always, there was Preston Smith and Kenny Clark getting after Tagovailoa, but the Packers also had key contributions and pressures from Justin Hollins, Jarran Reed, and Devonte Wyatt as well.

Green Bay also took advantage of some gifts from Tagovailoa in the form of three interceptions. The first by Jaire Alexander was an overthrown ball intended for Hill, but the Packers were positioned well and had him swarmed with several defenders in the area, making the throw more challenging.

The second interception came on the following Dolphins’ drive by De’Vondre Campbell, who put himself in position by reading Tagovailoa’s eyes with him staring down Raheem Mostert. Green Bay’s third pick ended the game as Tagovailoa thought Rasul Douglas was going to take the underneath route, but he instead dropped back to take the deeper one.

"“I just think it comes down to all 11 playing the call and doing the best they can,” said LaFleur. “It seemed like we were getting a little bit more pressure up front on Tua, making him move out of the pocket. We knew he’s a guy that’s going to anticipate, and he’s going to let the ball go, but if you can read the quarterback the right way, that also gives you some opportunities defensively, and our guys did a great job of that.”"

The interceptions were obviously massive, but Green Bay was also able to limit Miami’s explosive plays in the second half as well, which helped hold them scoreless. Tagovailoa finished with just 81 passing yards in that second half while Hill had 19 receiving yards and Waddle 47.

In addition to the turnovers, Miami was also penalized eight times throughout the game. They are also a very pass-happy team that ranked last in rush attempts coming into Week 16, and that unwillingness to stick with the run game may have played in Green Bay’s favor as well, with Mostert averaging 5.6 yards per rush but only on eight attempts. He had two explosive runs on the opening drive, but again, credit to the Packers’ defense for locking in and containing him for the most part after that.

In total, the Packers had four turnovers, held Miami in check as well as scoreless in the second half while also allowing the Dolphins to convert just two of their seven third-down attempts. Although Miami didn’t see many third downs — or at least not early on — when they did, Green Bay was able to get off the field.

The three Packers’ interceptions all came during the fourth quarter of a close game, but we can’t forget to mention the massive fumble that Jarran Reed caused in the second quarter that helped turn the tide of the game. At that point, Miami was up ten points and at mid-field. The forced fumble and eventual recovery led to a Packers’ field goal, which made it a one-possession game going into halftime. Green Bay then opened the third quarter with a touchdown that tied the game.

This was a game that very much felt like it was going to get out of hand quickly in that second quarter. But behind an impressive second-half performance, the Green Bay defense was able to contain this high-powered Miami offense, giving Aaron Rodgers and Co. enough opportunities to put points on the board to secure the victory.

"“I thought collectively, all 11 being on the same page and making sure we aren’t giving them as much green grass out there,” said LaFleur. “Our guys did a good job of reading the quarterback. I thought Joe (Barry) did a really good job in the second half.”"