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Day-After Notes: Fourth-Quarter Breakdowns Most Upsetting

For everything that went wrong on Sunday in Tampa, the most disconcerting thing to Coach McCarthy was that the team struggled so much in the fourth quarter. Because after suffering through seven losses by four points or less in 2008, the Packers dedicated a significant portion of offseason workouts, training camp, and the regular-season practice structure to late-game situations. - More Mike McCarthy Press Conference Transcript - Nov. 9


Tampa Bay KR Clifton Smith broke off an 83-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter on Sunday to set up a Buccaneers touchdown.

For everything that went wrong on Sunday in Tampa, the most disconcerting thing to Head Coach Mike McCarthy was that the team struggled so much in the fourth quarter.

Because after suffering through seven losses by four points or less in 2008, the Packers dedicated a significant portion of offseason workouts, training camp, and the regular-season practice structure to late-game situations. While that appeared to pay off in a last-minute victory to open the season against Chicago, it hasn't carried over since then, and the late breakdowns, in all phases, cost the team a game it should have won on Sunday.

"We need to play our best football in the fourth quarter," McCarthy said. "We have a tremendous amount of time that has been spent in our training in two-minute, both offense and defense, and we didn't answer the bell. Those are the things we'll look at today. Those are the things that we'll address as players and coaches and we'll move on to Dallas."

At the time the Packers took a 28-17 lead with just under 13 minutes left in the game, the defense had allowed Tampa Bay just 186 yards of offense while the offense had put up 350 total yards.

But then the worm turned. The defense allowed two touchdown drives, one of just 17 yards after a long kickoff return, and another of 72 yards that gave the Buccaneers their first lead. Taking out five yards from a defensive penalty, that's 84 yards - or nearly half of Tampa Bay's total to that point in the game - on two drives.

And then the offense, over the course of three possessions (prior to the final desperation drive in the final 35 seconds) gained just 32 yards, gave up three sacks, committed one crucial penalty, and threw a fourth-down interception. The 32 yards came on 14 offensive snaps, or barely more than two yards per play, when prior to that the average had been almost seven yards per snap (350 yards on 54 plays).

"The worst body of work that we had was the last two possessions of the game, no question about it," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "Certainly we weren't perfect in the other areas, but we did have a lot of production, we moved the ball well.

"But we didn't finish the game well. We had opportunities and didn't have the production. They played better at the end of the game than our offense, there's no question about that."

The special teams weren't immune either, of course, as the 83-yard kickoff return by Clifton Smith jump-started Tampa Bay's comeback from the 11-point deficit.

On Sunday and again on Monday, McCarthy questioned whether he might have worked the players too hard after a tough loss at home to Minnesota the previous week, and whether that workload, combined with the first game this season in 80-plus degree heat, contributed to fourth-quarter fatigue for the team as a whole.

"I felt in the fourth quarter that our energy level wasn't what it was in the first three quarters, and that's something that I have to take a very close look at because they had a good week of work," McCarthy said.

McCarthy said he definitely noticed a lack of pass rush by the defense in the fourth quarter compared to earlier in the game, and the pass protection on offense again broke down after allowing only two sacks through the first three quarters.

"To have as much production on offense as we did in the first three quarters, and then...the last two series on offense and defense and the long kick return to me are huge indicators of what happened yesterday."

Momentum kicks in

For the second straight week, the Packers' fortunes changed on momentum-turning plays in the kicking game.

Against the Vikings on Nov. 1, the Packers had rallied from a 24-3 deficit to get within 24-20 when Minnesota kick returner Percy Harvin busted loose for a 48-yard return, setting up a Vikings' touchdown that restored their two-score lead. It was Harvin's second long return of the day, and the breakdown sapped some energy from the comeback effort.

On Sunday, Tampa Bay's Smith did almost the same thing, stealing the momentum with his long kickoff return right after the Packers had taken a 28-17 lead. The Buccaneers got going at that point and dominated the rest of the game.

"To me it was basically the same in that the returner made one move, got vertical, and we did not make him deviate (from) his path," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "You have to do that with these guys because they're too fast and too explosive. That's where there's common ground, and it's something we can't do if we're going to be successful covering kicks."

The kicking game also had an earlier breakdown, allowing a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown. That tied the game at 14 after the Packers had scored touchdowns on two of their first four offensive possessions.

"The momentum swings, the field positions swings that we've had two weeks in a row has definitely factored in the outcome of the game," McCarthy said.

O-line unsettled

McCarthy was rather straightforward but purposefully vague on Monday after another week of pass protection problems that led to six sacks.

"I am not committed to a starting five today," he said.

While the options may be somewhat limited with center/guard Jason Spitz going on injured reserve Saturday and right tackle Mark Tauscher leaving Sunday's game with a sprained knee, McCarthy did address the possibility of giving rookie T.J. Lang a chance to crack the starting lineup.

{sportsad300}Lang has started two games at left tackle in Chad Clifton's place while Clifton was out with an ankle injury, but whether left tackle is where Lang will play from here on out isn't clear. Lang played left guard throughout training camp and was also thought to be a possible right tackle prospect after being drafted in the fourth round out of Eastern Michigan, though he's had very limited work there.

"I think T.J. has warranted (a look)," McCarthy said, without specifying a position. "I'm a little concerned about the musical chairs that once again we have played on our offensive line. I think that's not a positive. I think it's been a deterrent of trying to gain continuity of getting five guys in there starting together. It's definitely something that we talked about this morning and it's definitely something that we'll look at."

Injury update

Tauscher, who started his first game Sunday in place of Allen Barbre, fortunately doesn't appear to have a serious injury, even though it's to the same knee that was surgically reconstructed in the offseason. McCarthy said there's a "slight chance" he'll play this week, but if he can't, he shouldn't miss more than a couple of games.

Linebacker Aaron Kampman sustained a concussion in the game and his availability for this week is uncertain. Kampman said this isn't the first concussion he's had, but the first since early in his career. He wouldn't elaborate on his recovery, except to say that he needs to get some rest.

Both Jeremy Thompson and Brady Poppinga worked at outside linebacker on Sunday in Kampman's absence.

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