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How can the Packers' defense handle Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray and limit his explosive plays? It's easy to find an example.

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GREEN BAY - How in the world are the Green Bay Packers going to keep Kyler Murray from lighting up the scoreboard on them?

After Taylor Heinicke put up 95 yards rushing and led a Washington Football Team offense to 430 yards against the Packers on Sunday, is there much reason to think Murray and the unbeaten Arizona Cardinals won’t punish their defense possession after possession Thursday night?

The short answer is, probably not. Murray, after all, is in another stratosphere from Heinicke as a scrambling playmaker and passer.

“I’ve never seen (Murray) play baseball but seems like he made a really good decision because he’s a dynamic quarterback-football-player-athlete,” said last year’s MVP, Aaron Rodgers, of this season’s early MVP front-runner.

“Watched some of the runs, he had a run against L.A. (Rams) where somehow he gets the corner, it’s like third-and-16, and not just gets the corner but gets like 18 yards and gets out of bounds, he’s real slippery. He can really throw it, though. He’s got a great arm. We’re going to face a couple of these guys in the next few weeks, guys who are super athletic getting out of the pocket.”

Kyler Murray presents a lot of challenges with his arm and his feet

The questions for the Packers are many, starting with whether they’re athletic enough in the front seven to prevent Murray from making the back-breaking throws outside the pocket and scrambles for first downs that have been the key to Arizona’s 7-0 start.

Murray isn’t running nearly as much as he did last year (819 yards rushing on 133 carries in 2020, 126 yards on 43 carries through seven games this year), but he’s just as mobile and a better quarterback in his third year in the NFL. His 73.5 completion percentage leads the league, and his 116.8 rating ranks No. 2.

Playing this game on a short week surely doesn’t help Packers coordinator Joe Barry and his defensive coaches.

For instance, this might be the game to use Darnell Savage in the slot in the nickel defense. He’s the Packers’ most dynamic defensive back other than injured Jaire Alexander and would make the Packers far more athletic in the middle of their defense. He’d even be in position to spy on Murray occasionally.

But Savage has played the slot only a couple of snaps all season, which means he probably hasn’t practiced much there either. Would Barry and coach Matt LaFleur really build a game plan around that big a change in a short week when essentially all their limited time on the practice field is jog-throughs?

That would be a big roll of the dice.

Packers could learn from San Francisco's controlled rush, zone coverage approach  

But as for the general approach Barry is likely to take, and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray to implement as play caller in Barry’s COVID-illness absence, it’s easy to find the example. Arizona has been held under 30 points only once in seven games, and that was in a 17-10 home win over San Francisco in Week 5. Watching the replay of that game, the 49ers’ strategy defending Murray was obvious: They deployed as controlled a pass rush as you’ll ever see, rarely blitzed and played zone coverage almost every snap.

On their pass rushes, the 49ers' four-man front clearly emphasized staying in rush lanes and, on the outside, not going deeper than Murray’s dropback. In fact, the outside rushers rarely even went as deep as Murray’s drop. The only time star rusher Nick Bosa went past Murray, the 49ers paid for it. Bosa thought he had a shot at a sack with an inside move, but Murray nimbly avoided him, bought extra time with a scramble, then lofted a pass downfield that DeAndre Hopkins caught for a 30-yard gain at San Francisco’s 9-yard line. That set up the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.

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The controlled rush meant Murray played almost the entire game from the pocket whenever he threw. The heavy dose of zone coverage kept all the 49ers’ defenders spread evenly across the field with eyes on Murray at all times.

Murray didn’t have any scramble runs and picked up 16 yards on his three called runs, so he didn’t beat the 49ers with his legs. He had three scramble throws, and not coincidentally they produced his two biggest passes (the 30-yarder to Hopkins and a 33-yarder to Rondell Moore) along with one throwaway.

Now, it’s not like the 49ers are the only team trying to play that way against Murray. It helped that they have an excellent front seven that includes two outstanding defensive linemen (Bosa and Arik Armstead) and one of the game’s best middle linebackers (Fred Warner). Despite the controlled rush they sacked Murray twice with inside pressure and held the Cardinals to a manageable 94 yards on 27 rushes.

Green Bay seeks to 'eliminate big plays' from Cardinals

The Packers can’t match the 49ers’ talent up front. They’re just not athletic enough beyond Kenny Clark at defensive tackle and De’Vondre Campbell at inside linebacker. But that game video shows what might happen if Murray has to play from the pocket down after down after down, and the defense can occasionally push the pocket up the middle. Murray still had a solid game (104.1 rating), but holding the Cardinals to 17 points is a big win for any defense.

The question is whether the Packers can do the same with their nickel defenses — their standard nickel with two inside linebackers, and their “penny” personnel with a five-man front, one inside linebacker and five defensive backs.

“We have to let the front handle him (not) getting out of the pocket,” safety Adrian Amos said Tuesday, “but when you’ve got a mobile quarterback there are going to be plays he gets outside the pocket. It’s up to us to contain him as best we can and then eliminate those big plays, those scramble plays, and make sure we plaster into the receivers.”

The strategy for defending Murray is there on film. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is having the players and dialing up the best personnel groups to keep him from running wild and making big throws on the move.

With Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and possibly Seattle’s Russell Wilson (injured finger) on the back half of their schedule, this won’t be the last time the Packers will see a quarterback like this, either.

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