Saturday, December 3, 2016

Running the Table?

Davante Adams TD, Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today
The saying goes that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  If that is so, the proof of Aaron Rodgers' comment that the Packers would run the table would have to begin with a single win, as it did on Monday night at the Eagles, 27-13.  And it was certainly a pleasure to watch a Packers win, for the first time after a four-game losing streak, and an even greater pleasure to see the Packers play well in all three phases of the game.  All four if you count coaching, as both McCarthy and Capers seemed to have excellent game plans in the same game!  Which doesn't happen all that often.

Although, to be honest, after the first two drives of the game, the game looked like it might be another one of those no defense, 48-47 affairs, with the last team with the ball winning the game.  But the Packers' defense (and, for that matter, the Eagles' defense to a lesser extent) settled down rather nicely.  And even the special teams contributed, especially with the punt downed at the one yard line (although the kick was very close to being a touchback).  Since the Eagles ended up scoring a FG on the drive, it is good that they had to go all the way from the 1 in order to score.  A touchback could easily have led to a touchdown.

Davante Adams put on a show again on offense, catching 5 passes for 113 yards and 2 touchdowns.  It is safe to say that he won't spend any more time on my fantasy football bench.  You can certainly make a case that Adams is the best performer on offense right now, other than Rodgers himself.  Rodgers was driving us all crazy just a few weeks back, but the adjustment that was made over a few weeks, to move toward a quick-release, dink and dunk offense (and I do not mean that as an insult, but as a compliment in the context of this season), with occasional shots down the field, has really brought him back on the right path.  Argue it however you will, I think he has looked good to excellent in 5 of the last 6 games, with the Titans game being the major exception.  So even though they lost 4 of those games, it is hard to put those losses all, or even mostly, on Rodgers.

So are the Packers in a position to run the table, squeak into the playoffs, and make some noise in the playoffs?  It's a little hard for me to see that happening.  For starters, I don't think it is reasonable to assume they can win all their remaining games, even though three of the five are at home.  I especially have a hard time seeing them beating the Lions in the dome in week 17.  Yes, I know, the Packers were leading the Lions 31-3 in the first game before the Lions started their comeback.  But it is hard to argue that the Lions have not played as the better team for the rest of the season to date.

Still, who knows?  It has been a crazy season in many ways.  You can think back to the improbable 2010 Super Bowl run, but in fairness, even though the Packers truly had to sneak their way into the playoffs that year before getting hot, they still had a 7-4 record after 11 games, unlike this year's team's 5-6 record.  As of today, the Packers would have to leapfrog over 4 other teams (Saints, Vikings, Buccaneers and Redskins) just to sneak in as the 6th seed in the playoffs.  That is a tall order, but they have 5 weeks to do it.  Getting by the Lions to win the division would be even better, but bear in mind, the Lions have won 6 of their last 7 games, so that is no small task.  But apparently Brett Favre, on his SiriusXM radio show, has predicted that the Packers will win the North.

The Packers play the Texans at Lambeau Field tomorrow.  The Texans have a better record, at 6-5, and lead their division, so they are not pushovers.  But they have won only once on the road (at the Jaguars), have lost two in a row, and of course are without the great J.J. Watt for the rest of the season.  Brock Osweiler, who everybody expected to take over for Peyton Manning in Denver, went to the Texans instead.  But he hasn't played all that well, throwing more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (12), despite having some quality receivers (Hopkins, Fuller, Fiedorowicz).  So maybe the Packers will have another few chances for takeaways tomorrow.

I think the Packers should win this game.  That would be very welcome, as it would keep the chances for a playoff berth realistic.  Go Packers!


Friday, November 11, 2016

Get a Grip, Fans!

Mike McCarthy, Speaking for All of Us, photo by Mark Hoffman, USA Today
Real life intruded to prevent me from posting anything about the Packers' loss to the Falcons last week (Falcons won, 33-32), and so now I have two unfortunate losses to look back on before turning to the Titans game this Sunday.  The Falcons game, as it turned out, was a tremendous disappointment.  I had come to expect the Packers to lose that game, especially when I saw the inactive list before the game.

And then came the Colts game (Colts won, 31-26).  That one I expected the Packers to win.  They were at home, the Colts have not been playing up to expectations, they don't have a very good offensive line, I was assuming that the Packers would get back Montgomery and maybe Cobb and maybe Matthews, so I just didn't see them losing the game.  But they did, obviously, starting with the opening kickoff which even the NFL Sunday Ticket didn't give to us since the local station was carrying the Packers game and they were still in commercial at the time.

Games like this make some people crazy.  Here was the Facebook status of one of my Packer fan Facebook friends shortly after the game.  Remember, this is a Packers fan, not some troll or some Bears fan or whatever:

"THE PACKERS ARE GARBAGE ..... GET IT THROUGH YOUR HEADS."  

Long ago, when I was a law clerk working in the Federal Court of Appeals in Chicago, I learned that typing your motion or brief in all caps definitely adds extra persuasiveness to your position.  In those days, petitioners and brief-writers couldn't easily change the size of the font, but if they could have, all caps and huge font size would really have been extra super duper persuasive.  

Look, I am not trying to make fun of my Packer fan Facebook friend, but rather I am trying to make the point that people need to get a grip.  The Packers are not playing very well right now.  They don't have the killer instinct, or they would have at least found a way to win one of the last two games against the Falcons and Colts.  You might even say that they are a mediocre team at 4-4.  Maybe being a 4-4 team is the very definition of mediocrity.  They certainly are not as good as I assumed they would be at the beginning of the year.  Right now, I am not confident that the Packers will even make the playoffs, much less make any noise in the playoffs.  But I think it is a little early to give up on the season.  If they start to turn things around right away, they can squeak into the playoffs, and as they showed in 2010, once you get in, anything can happen.


This week they travel to play the Titans.  It is always harder to win on the road, other things being equal, but this game is a chance to start to turn things around.  The Titans aren't exactly tearing up the league, either, at 4-5, although Marcus Mariota at QB is looking better all the time, and DeMarco Murray is one of the best running backs in the league.  But they give up a lot of points, and they have only beaten Cleveland and Jacksonville in their home stadium.  So let's just say that the Packers win the game, and have another week to get Clay Matthews (who will not play this week) and some of the other players healthier going forward to additional games.  5-4 looks a lot better than 4-5, and if the Vikings happen to lose again, what with the Lions being on bye, we could have a three-way tie for first in the North after Sunday.  


Best Performer Last Sunday, Photo by Mike De Sisti, USA Today

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Dude Meets the Dirty Birds

Our neighbor Suzanne, in a completely unrelated context, recently said that nothing we do is random.  When I saw the photo of Aaron Rodgers wearing The Dude's sweater from The Big Lebowski, I thought the same thing.  Rodgers didn't just happen to pull that sweater out of his closet because it was a little chilly Thursday night.

Rodgers is a fan of the cult classic, The Big Lebowski, as disclosed in the radio show he used to have with Jason Wilde of ESPN.  So if this was no accident, what was he trying to tell us?  I interpret it as this year's version of "R-E-L-A-X."  Packer-focused media, even including obscure blogs like this one, have been obsessed with the question, "what is wrong with Aaron Rodgers?"  If The Dude abides, as the catch-phrase from the movie states, then Rodgers is telling us that he, too, abides, meaning he lives in his State of Dudeness, unbothered by all the slings and arrows hurled at him by his critics.

At any rate, despite a slow start in the first half, with the Packers moving the ball but not scoring enough points, Rodgers ended up completing 39 passes of 56 attempts, with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions, and the Packers beat the Bears 26-10.  And it could have been much worse for the Bears.  Rodgers could easily have had 5 touchdowns, since Cobb had a TD in his hands on the first drive until the ball was knocked out of his hands, and had another in his hands at the end of the half, but could not quite get the second foot inbounds.  And of course this was despite the absence of a single running back on the roster with any game experience with the Packers.

But still, all is not right with Rodgers and Thursday's game doesn't really change that.  As Heath Evans said on NFL Network, his pass placement is still bad at times.  And he is still missing more passes than he should.  Just take Rodgers' TDs to Davante Adams.  On the first one, the ball should have been placed outside, and instead it went inside.  Only Adams' extraordinary catch through the defensive back's arm saved the TD.  On the second TD, there was a defensive screw-up and nobody was within 5 yards of Adams.  But Rodgers threw a pass that required Adams to make a diving, rolling catch to make.  Despite this, Rodgers still looked sharper on Thursday night than he has all year, with the possible exception of the first half of the Lions game.  I realize that it was "only" against the Bears, and that the Bears are a pretty bad team right now.  Still, this is where the Packers are right now, and I can only hope that they continue to improve.

With the long home stand over, the Packers now head to Atlanta to meet the on-again, off-again Falcons.  Everybody knows that Atlanta was the site of what was probably Rodgers' best game ever, when he torched the no. 1 seed Falcons in the 2010 playoffs on the way to winning Super Bowl XLV.  The last time they met (in Green Bay in 2014), the Packers barely staved off a furious comeback by the Falcons to preserve the win.  The Packers led 31-7 at the half, but after a furious and record-setting onslaught by Julio Jones, they were lucky to end up winning, 43-37.  And anyone who saw it will never forget the final Packers game ever at Milwaukee County Stadium in 1994, when Favre ignored his coach's orders and decided to dive for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown, as depicted in the accompanying photo.
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Photo

With the Packers missing at least 3 defensive backs for this game (Sam Shields, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins), how in the world will they defend against Matt Ryan and especially Julio Jones?  Mere preparation may not be enough, and Micah Hyde says they will be praying for a way to stop Julio Jones.  I will be praying, too.  I'm not sure that will be enough.  Even though the Falcons have lost two close games in a row (to the Seahawks and Chargers), they obviously have a lot of firepower on offense.  They have scored 23 or more points in every game this year, and they scored over 40 points twice, something that the Packers have not done all year.

On the other hand, their defense is yielding plenty of points.  With one exception (the Broncos), the Falcons have given up at least 26 points in every game.  So this has the makings of a high-scoring game, assuming that the Packers can keep up their end of the bargain.  I suspect it will be the Packers mounting the furious comeback this time, and that, just like the Falcons last time, it will fall short at the end.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Getting Ugly - Time for a Turnaround

"Sweetness" photo from www.Packers.com
Before getting to the miserable Cowboys-Packers game, which the Packers lost 30-16, I will start off with a little Brett Favre joke, since this game was yet another Brett Favre tribute game, celebrating the receipt of his Pro Football Hall of Fame Ring, and the unveiling of his name on the stadium wall.  (As a semi-facetious aside, maybe it is time to stop having Favre tribute games, since the Packers look terrible whenever he is there for a game.)  The ceremony, which is worth a watch, can be found here.

Anyway, during the bye week, we spent a few nights in Arizona visiting family and friends, including a night at a beautiful resort in Scottsdale.  At breakfast, our waitress was a colorful woman from Wisconsin, who asked us as soon as she found out we were from Wisconsin if we were Packer fans. She proceeded to regale us with stories about how every team that stays at that hotel loses (the Patriots in the Super Bowl where the Giants ended their undefeated season, the Wisconsin Badgers, and the Packers in the playoffs vs. the Cardinals).  She then told us this joke, which she also told to Mike Holmgren when he stayed at the hotel.

Remember when Brett Favre retired, and then unretired and got traded to the Jets?  Then he got himself in trouble when he was caught sending pictures to that female reporter?  Well, did you hear what Deanna Favre said when she found out about it?  "Oh, those pictures were intended for me, but you know Brett, they were intercepted."

Which brings us back to the game.  No. 1 rushing offense meets no. 1 rushing defense.  Who comes out on top when the irresistible force meets the immovable object?  Sunday afternoon, it was not close.  The Cowboys' rookie sensation Ezekiel Elliott ran all over the Packers.  Let's face it, the Packers looked bad on both sides of the ball.  The defensive backs looked bad.  Sure, there were injuries that got worse during the game, but they did not play well Sunday.  The defensive line didn't make its presence known like it has done in other games.  The linebackers were relatively quiet, other than Julius Peppers knocking the ball out of Dak Prescott's hands early in the game.  Speaking of Dak Prescott, the game plan designed for him would have been a good plan for the Packers.  Lots of short, quick-release passes (you can call them dink and dunk if you want), punctuated by periodic shots down the field.  He missed some of those passes down the field, and he did give up his first interception of the year, but overall he thrived in this offense and looks as if he is the real deal, making things interesting when Tony Romo is healthy again.

But what is the deal with the Packers' offense?  The offensive line seems to be protecting Rodgers so well that sometimes I wondered if the broadcast feed had frozen, as everybody seemed to be standing still.  But in general, he was unable to do anything with the time they gave him.  Most of the pass plays seemed to be long-developing routes, which you would think would be fine given the time he was getting, but either the receivers weren't getting open, or Rodgers wasn't pulling the trigger.  And when he did pull the trigger, he was missing more often than not.  Given his sudden and unexpected loss of accuracy, this offense just isn't working.  They need to go with the dink and dunk, fast-release, screen pass, etc. game plan, then taking those periodic shots downfield.  Right now, opposing defenses don't seem to think they have to fear the long pass, they drop into a Cover-2 defense, and are prepared to concede the underneath passes, which the Packers seem to have no interest in taking.

The Packers' first drive, which ended in a field goal, was better than most of their other drives in the game, precisely because they combined the running game with the short passing game.  Later in the game, Rodgers was too frequently seen just standing around in the backfield looking for the big play, or trying to get the Cowboys to jump offside.  It is as if he just isn't content taking the available short passes to march down the field gradually.  Sure, he missed some of those short passes when he did try to take them, and receivers dropped catchable balls, but a strategy of marching down the field in small chunks would have been much more successful than what we saw out there.

On a short week, the Bears come to town for the first of their two annual meetings.  The Packers are incredibly banged up, with the following players either being out or at least questionable for tomorrow's game: Starks, Lacy, Adams, Cobb, Cook on offense, and Shields, Randall and Rollins on defense.  There are no gimme games in the NFL, particularly not when the team is not playing well, and with that many injuries.  And especially not in a rivalry game between storied rivals like the Bears and Packers.

Right now, neither team is playing well.  The Bears, at 1-5, have beaten only the Lions, and last week they let a win get away against the Jaguars.  Leading 13-0 at the start of the 4th quarter, the Bears were outscored 17-3 in that quarter and ending up losing, 17-16.  Can the Bears be just what the doctored ordered for the Packers, letting them end their homestand on a win and have a week and a half off to prepare for their next game?  Who knows, but I sure hope so.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Cowboys Are Next Up!

"How Can This Not be a Catch?"  Photo by Rob Carr, Getty Images
The Packers, after their week off of rest and relaxation, won their game against the Giants last Sunday night, 23-16.  This was not really unexpected, as the Packers have had a great record of winning the games following byes under Mike McCarthy.

In the first half, things looked good on both sides of the ball, with the defense largely shutting down the Giants, holding them to a pair of field goals, despite their offensive weapons including Odell Beckham, Jr., who maybe has finally gotten the message about keeping his act together on the field.  The offense looked pretty sharp, but not overpowering.  There was lots of Eddie Lacy, lots of Davante Adams, a really dominating performance by the offensive line, and many of the rhythm passes, quick release, screen pass plays, and unusual formations that seem to work to the Packers' advantage.  There were too many dropped and missed passes, and of course Rodgers' two interceptions, but overall, the offense was above average in the first half.  The interceptions were the only thing keeping the Giants in the game.

The second half was less inspiring, except for the bruising, never-say-die, keep-the-pile-moving 13 yard run by Aaron Ripkowski.  Other than that, there was lots of sputtering on offense.  It didn't help that Lacy missed the latter part of the game, but even before that, Rodgers seemed to struggle against the Giants, who seemed to be playing more zone coverage in the second half, and even the dreaded Cover-2, although that is sometimes hard to tell from the broadcast tape.  When the opposition adjusts its game plan in the second half, the Packers have to do a better job of adjusting to the adjustment.  The Packers were never in serious jeopardy of losing this game, so "all's well that ends well," but the Packers really don't need to keep making it as hard on themselves (or their fans) as they do.  If the Giants had recovered Starks' fumble with 2:41 to go, or if Cobb did not make the 3rd down catch on the next play (the one where he got folded up like a lawn chair), this game could easily have been tied.  And we all know the Packers' recent record in overtime.

Meanwhile, with the Cowboys coming to town for another rematch of the "how can that not be a catch" game, the Packers will have their hands full.  The Cowboys, at 4-1, are no joke, and that is without Tony Romo (or could that be a plus?) and with Dez Bryant missing a lot of time.  At this time, it looks increasingly unlikely that Bryant will play on Sunday, but that still leaves them with rookie phenom running back Ezekiel Elliott, no. 2 receiver Terrance Williams, and no. 3 receiver Cole Beasley.  Both of them are a significant dropoff from Bryant, but they are serviceable.  Rookie QB Dak Prescott has impressed, he seems to be playing better each week, and (amazing for a rookie) he has not thrown an interception in his first five starts.

It is another Favre tribute game, and the last one did not go too well.  At least the weather should be better this time.  If the defense plays like it has so far this year (top 10 in overall defense and number 1 in rushing defense), all they need is more consistency on offense and they should win this game.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

More Like It!

Davante Adams' Lambeau Leap. Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today
It  was great to see the Packers get off to a fast start against the Lions. Despite the fact that they were missing 5 starters on defense, the Packers raced to a 31-3 lead late in the first half. They are taking a lot of heat for almost letting the game get away from them since the lead narrowed to 34-27 late in the 4th quarter, and needed a couple of first downs on offense to make sure the Lions did not get the chance to tie the game. They got them, and closed out the win.

My favorite play of the game was Ty Montgomery's kickoff play. Those Stanford players are smart! Ty Montgomery turned an obscure rule about when a ball is deemed to be out of bounds to his advantage, by being certain to touch a kickoff ball bouncing around near the pylon while his feet were out of bounds, thereby rendering the ball out of bounds and giving the Packers the ball at the 40 yard line. He explained that any kick returner would know that rule (and indeed, Randall Cobb did the same thing a few years ago), but he is being way too modest. I have seen NFL kick returners do really stupid things from lack of knowledge of the rules. The announcers were in the process of explaining all the mistakes Montgomery had made when the ref announced the penalty against the Lions. So the "professional" announcers had no idea what the rule is. Good for Montgomery and Cobb for knowing the rule, and good for the Packers' special teams staff for teaching it.

Another favorite play was Damarious Randall just stealing the ball right out of Eric Ebron's hands in the second quarter and returning it over 40 yards the other way. It reminded me of maybe the earliest Packers' play I can remember - Jesse Whittenton stealing the ball right out of a player's hands, and then returning it the other way. Although I don't remember the opponent, this was most likely his steal of the ball from Alex Webster of the Giants in 1961.

The great thing about this game in the first half was the stinginess of the Packers' defense (especially against the run), while the Packers' offense suddenly became deadly efficient, scoring on all 5 drives of the first half (not counting running out the clock at the end of the half). All of the things I wanted to see took place in that first half: quick release passes, more emphasis on the running game, much less dancing around in the pocket waiting for something to open up.

So what exactly happened in the second half? Was it more of the "kill the clock offense" and "prevent defense" that I have complained about in past years? In watching the game a second time, my answer is, "yes and no." On offense, they certainly ran the ball more than they usually do, but on the other hand, they were getting first downs that way, so it wasn't exactly the dreaded "run, run, pass, punt." On defense, they weren't playing the traditional, everybody deep sort of prevent defense, but there is no question that they switched more to a loose zone coverage defense in the second half, in an effort to prevent most long gains. You can certainly say that the overall strategy worked: they won the game. And the Lions never had the ball with the chance to tie the game, as the Packers were able to run out the final 3:34 after the Lions scored to make it 34-27. But is is frustrating watching a 28 point lead almost get away from the Packers. I would like to see a little more aggressiveness, on both sides of the ball, at least part of the way into the third quarter.

Well, the unusual 4 game home-stand now continues with the Giants coming to town on Sunday night. The Giants have done lots of damage to the Packers over the last 10 years, but I think this time will be different. The Giants were pretty well dismantled by the Vikings on Monday night. While that probably says more about the Vikings potentially being the real deal than it says about the Giants, the Giants certainly have their problems, especially on defense. And it is now clear that if you succeed in getting under Odell Beckham's skin, he will effectively take himself out of the game. I look forward to another Packers win Sunday night.  I certainly expect that the game will be more entertaining, and more enlightening, than the debate between two pathetic candidates that will be showing at the same time.

More Like It!

Davante Adams' Lambeau Leap. Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today
It  was great to see the Packers get off to a fast start against the Lions. Despite the fact that they were missing 5 starters on defense, the Packers raced to a 31-3 lead late in the first half. They are taking a lot of heat for almost letting the game get away from since the lead narrowed to 34-27 late in the 4th quarter, and needed a couple of first downs on offense to make sure the Lions did not get the chance to tie the game. They got them, and closed out the win.

My favorite play of the game was Ty Montgomery's kickoff play. Those Stanford players are smart! Ty Montgomery turned an obscure rule about when a ball is deemed to be out of bounds to his advantage, by being certain to touch a kickoff ball bouncing around near the pylon while his feet were out of bounds, thereby rendering the ball out of bounds and giving the Packers the ball at the 40 yard line. He explained that any kick returner would know that rule (and indeed, Randall Cobb did the same thing a few years ago), but he is being way too modest. I have seen NFL kick returners do really stupid things from lack of knowledge of the rules. The announcers were in the process of explaining all the mistakes Montgomery had made when the ref announced the penalty against the Lions. So the "professional" announcers had no idea what the rule is. Good for Montgomery and Cobb for knowing the rule, and good for the Packers' special teams staff for teaching it.

Another favorite play was Damarious Randall just stealing the ball right out of Eric Ebron's hands in the second quarter and returning it over 40 yards the other way. It reminded me of maybe the earliest Packers' play I can remember - Jesse Whittenton stealing the ball right out of a player's hands, and then returning it the other way. Although I don't remember the opponent, this was most likely his steal of the ball from Alex Webster of the Giants in 1961.

The great thing about this game in the first half was the stinginess of the Packers' defense (especially against the run), while the Packers' offense suddenly became deadly efficient, scoring on all 5 drives of the first half (not counting running out the clock at the end of the half). All of the things I wanted to see took place in that first half: quick release passes, more emphasis on the running game, much less dancing around in the pocket waiting for something to open up.

So what exactly happened in the second half? Was it more of the "kill the clock offense" and "prevent defense" that I have complained about in past years? In watching the game a second time, my answer is, "yes and no." On offense, they certainly ran the ball more than they usually do, but on the other hand, they were getting first downs that way, so it wasn't exactly the dreaded "run, run, pass, punt." On defense, they weren't playing the traditional, everybody deep sort of prevent defense, but there is no question that they switched more to a loose zone coverage defense in the second half, in an effort to prevent most long gains. You can certainly say that the overall strategy worked: they won the game. And the Lions never had the ball with the chance to tie the game, as the Packers were able to run out the final 3:34 after the Lions scored to make it 34-27. But is is frustrating watching a 28 point lead almost get away from the Packers. I would like to see a little more aggressiveness, on both sides of the ball, at least part of the way into the third quarter.

Well, the unusual 4 game home-stand now continues with the Giants coming to town on Sunday night. The Giants have done lots of damage to the Packers over the last 10 years, but I think this time will be different. The Giants were pretty well dismantled by the Vikings on Monday night. While that probably says more about the Vikings potentially being the real deal than it says about the Giants, the Giants certainly have their problems, especially on defense. And it is now clear that if you succeed in getting under Odell Beckham's skin, he will effectively take himself out of the game. I look forward to another Packers win Sunday night.  I certainly expect that the game will be more entertaining, and more enlightening, than the debate between two pathetic candidates that will be showing at the same time.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Still-Rusty Packers Looking to Improve

Montgomery Blocks the Punt, Photo by Evan Siegle, Packers.com
Well, it turned out that the Packers were not quite ready to shake off that offensive rust against the Vikings just yet, and instead of winning a close game, they lost one instead, by the score of 17-14.

Oddly enough, the Packers looked pretty good on both sides of the ball in the first quarter.  Yes, on offense, Rodgers did not have his usual accuracy, and missed some passes, the Vikings dropped an easy interception, there was the weird play where Davante Adams fumbled the ball, it was recovered by Minnesota and then fumbled right back to the Packers, there were the now-obligatory blown timeouts early in the game, and the Packers were very lucky to recover Rodgers' strip sack fumble.  So it was not all sweetness and light, by any means.  But they still led by 7-0 at the end of the first quarter.  The defense was pitching a shutout at that time, having held Adrian Peterson to one yard rushing, while applying consistent pressure on Sam Bradford.  Even the special teams helped out with a blocked punt.

But it all went downhill starting in the second quarter.  Sam Bradford seemed to start feeling more comfortable in his role as the Vikings' new quarterback, and he started to take good advantage of the Packers' stacking their defense to stop the run.  Rodgers continued to miss passes I would normally expect him to complete, but worse yet, he started to get happy feet in the backfield, jumping around, holding the ball too long, and then either misfiring his passes or getting sacked in the process (he was sacked a total of 5 times in the game).  At times, he seemed better at drawing pass interference and defensive holding penalties on long passes than he was at completing those passes.  While drawing defensive penalties is a part of every quarterback's tool bag, it is not as much of a plus when the passes are off the mark, since the quarterback is never sure that the defensive penalty has been called.

And then, after multiple bullets dodged, and with clear chances to pull out a win, the Packers ended up failing in their last 2 opportunities to win the game in the closing minutes.  In the first case, Rodgers held the ball too long, was strip sacked, and this time the Vikings finally recovered the fumble.  And then the final chance was lost on an ill-advised pass that was intercepted with  less than two minutes to go.

What to make of this?  There are lots of explanations that can be made, from the downgrade on the offensive line when Josh Sitton was cut, to play-calling, to there being something wrong with Rodgers.  Let's start with play-calling - I am not happy with it.  Where are the quick passes, the slants, the draw plays?  There are too many deep drops, resulting in Rodgers getting twitchy and getting hit back there.  In re-watching the game, the Packers had the most success when they got rid of the ball quickly, but all too many times Rodgers was running for his life in the backfield.  In the same way that running the ball can open up the passing game (and vice versa), I would argue that the short passing game can open up the deeper passing game.  If the defense is repeatedly burned on short passes for 5 yards a pop, pretty soon they start playing closer to the line of scrimmage and that is when receivers have an easier time getting open long.  This seems pretty basic, but it is as if Mike McCarthy forgot to call many short or quick-release passes.

As to Rodgers, he is not playing like the Rodgers we are used to.  Are his skills declining?  That is possible, but plenty of other quarterbacks (from Favre to Brady to Manning) have continued to play well until they are much older than Rodgers is now.  My theory is that sitting Rodgers for all but a couple of series in the preseason turned out to be a real bad idea.  He is playing with rust, he is playing like he might play in the preseason, and he is playing without having good chemistry with his receivers.  Speaking of chemistry, I am definitely not fond of the peevish look Rodgers frequently had on his face during this game, yelling at J.C. Tretter, gesturing at receivers, etc.  I'm not sure that he was enjoying himself at any time during this game, and it carried over into the days after the game, when he was showing frustration and irritation when interviewed in the locker room.  The linked article contains a shockingly long recitation of statistical areas where Rodgers is underperforming from his career averages, from passing yards per game, to passing yards per pass, to passer rating.  

Meanwhile, the season moves on as Detroit comes to Green Bay, with the Packers hoping to start a new home winning streak against the Lions, after having their long streak ended last year.  Both teams are 1-1 for the year, and both teams lost out on chances to win last week, with the Lions having led 15-3 at the end of the third quarter, only to end up losing 16-15.  Both teams are banged up, especially on defense, and both teams are probably playing beneath their own expectations.  Which team will rise to the occasion, and avoid the dreaded 1-2 start?  I am going with the Packers.  Not only do they have the home field advantage, but the Lions are giving up lots of passes and touchdowns to tight ends.  While Jared Cook and Richard Rodgers have not done much to impress so far this year, this is an excellent opportunity for them to come out and do some damage.  If the Packers' offense can improve at all over Sunday night's game, the Packers should win the game.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Packers Start Season With a Win

Green Bay Press-Gazette Cover
It has been a long time since my last post.  I just could not find the motivation in the off-season or the preseason to have much to say about the Packers.  But now that games that actually count have returned, I am back and raring to go.  When people ask how good the Packers will be this year, I say that I expect them to be good, in the playoffs, and have a shot at the Super Bowl.  The trouble is, I say that every year.  But since that is true every year, maybe my optimism is justified!

On the offensive side of the ball, the three big questions for me were: how will Lane Taylor do replacing Josh Sitton; how will Jordy Nelson look; and will Jared Cook make a difference at tight end?  Oddly enough, we got the clearest answer about Lane Taylor in the Packers's 27-23 win over the Jaguars.  He looked fine.  Unlike past replacement guards and tackles who have created real problems, with Rodgers running for his life and/or getting hammered back there, Taylor seemed to be doing a very respectable job of protection.

Nelson looked good, but had none of his explosive plays, as we have seen in the past.  It may be that he has lost a step over his year of recovery, but I think it is way too early to conclude that now.  The starters on offense got almost no time together in the preseason, and of course Nelson got 0 snaps in a preseason game.  So if the offense looked a little rusty, it makes sense.

Well, actually it goes beyond looking rusty.  There was confusion on offense, there were unnecessary timeouts.  The spectacle of Rodgers trying to call a second time out on the same play, and ending up with a delay penalty, is something I won't forget soon.  One more play like that and they will need to put Rodgers through the concussion protocol.  He just doesn't make mistakes like that.

As to Jared Cook, I have been expecting big things of him this year.  You know the argument.  Cook is a top quality tight end, but has never had a top quality quarterback.  The Packers have an important role in their offense for a dependable, big tight end, but have not had a top quality tight end since the forced retirement of Jermichael Finley.  Well,  Cook made very little impact in the first game, but he looked primed to do big things.  He was responsible for a big gainer without catching the ball, by drawing a long pass interference call down the field.  I think Sunday night against the Vikings could be his big debut.

On defense,  I had two main questions: whether shifting Clay Matthews back outside will create the kind of disruption that he supplied before switching him inside.  The early returns are pretty good.  Especially early in the game, Matthews was exactly what I remembered, getting one sack and stopping another play for a loss.  While he was not as big a factor after the first quarter, I wonder if the hot and humid conditions had anything to do with it (or, for that matter, with Julius Peppers' seemingly entering the witness protection program during the game).

My other question was whether the defensive line would be serviceable in light of B.J. Raji's "retirement" and Mike Pennel's short term suspension.  It was.  The line helped to provide pass rush all day, while doing an even better job of protecting against the run.

All in all, to come up with a win in an opening day road game, under insanely hot and humid conditions, against an up and coming team with three excellent pass-receiving weapons, is a pretty good start to the season.

The Packers' unusual (weird might be a better word) schedule this year continues with another road game, opening the Vikings' new stadium on Sunday night, before returning home for a four game home stand, packaged around an early bye in week 4.  The Packers are slight favorites against the Vikings, so I didn't really understand why so many people seem to assume that the Vikings will win.  Sure, new stadium, high emotions, blah blah blah.  But the Packers are still a better team, particularly after the Vikings lost Teddy Bridgewater for the season.

I watched the Vikings' opening day win against the Titans.  Shaun Hill was at quarterback for the Vikings in the opener, and I can easily understand why the Vikings reportedly will switch to the recently-acquired Sam Bradford for the game against the Packers.  Hill did very little for the Vikings, managing to engineer 4 field goal drives.  The other 13 points in the Vikings' 25-16 win were created by defensive scores, an interception return and a fumble return.  My prediction is that the Packers will shake off a little of the rust, and look much sharper on offense, probably winning a fairly close game.  If they manage to accomplish that, with 4 home games coming up, they will be in great shape.

Friday, January 15, 2016

All About Rhythm


Photo by Jim Biever, Packers.com
In the first 17 minutes of Sunday's game, the Redskins scored in almost every way possible - a safety, a field goal, and a touchdown with a missed extra point.  While they were building their 11-0 lead, the Packers had one completed pass in 8 attempts, one first down, and they ran the ball 4 times for a total of 5 yards.  (The wind was against the Packers in the first quarter, but still . . .)  Who would blame Packers fans for saying "here we go again."

But when things changed in the second quarter, they changed for good.  All of a sudden, there was more variety in the passing game, which suddenly seemed in sync and, most importantly, in rhythm, for most of the rest of the game.  And of course, as soon as that happened, the run game improved, too.  Funny how that works.  When the defense can't just sit back there and dare Aaron Rodgers to throw the ball, opportunities pop up all over the place, leading to the convincing 35-18 win.

Once again, Randall Cobb was one of the key players.  By lining him up in the backfield occasionally, starting in the second quarter, the Packers in effect forced the Redskins out of their base defense and into a nickel defense (because they were worried about where Cobb might go, and felt the need for an extra defensive back).  Another key was the fast tempo, either the no-huddle, or a sort of mushy, semi-huddle near the line of scrimmage.  Put the uncertainty about who is lining up where together with the fast tempo, and you have a recipe for problems for the defense.  The Redskins were caught with 12 men a couple of times as they tried to make substitutions, leading directly to one of the touchdowns, and generally putting the Redskins in a position where they sometimes felt that they just could not take the risk of substituting.  This combination left the Redskins at times with the wrong personnel on the field, which then opened up the running game, in which Eddie Lacy had his longest carry of the season.  It also seemed to make the game fun again for Aaron Rodgers, who seemed to relish the challenge of keeping the Redskins off balance and taking advantage.

A final key on offense was J.C. Tretter.  When Bakhtiari was again inactive at left tackle, everybody knew that the Packers would not put Josh Sitton over there again.  So backup center Tretter was the man, and although the game started inauspiciously for him (he gave up the sack for the safety to start the scoring), he quickly adjusted his footwork and was solid for the rest of the game.  I don't think it is much of a stretch to say that regardless which offensive lineman goes out with an injury, Tretter should be the first option to replace him.

You can argue, as does Rob Demovsky of ESPN, that there are three reasons the Packers can win in Arizona, Aaron Rodgers as the best player on the field, a resurgent if not outstanding defense this year, and much-improved special teams.  There is merit in all three of those reasons.  The Packers' prior game at Arizona, as bad as it was, was not really an accurate representation of the difference between these two teams.  The Packers' offensive line was a mess that day, they got behind early, Rodgers was getting mauled as a result of the Cardinals' strong defense and the Packers' porous offensive line, and then things just snowballed.  If you replay that game 100 times, the Packers might lose by 30 or more points only a couple of times.  The Cardinals' were a much better team that day, but the difference was not as great as it looked.

The question is, if the Packers are a better team than showed up three weeks ago, can things swing the other way so far that the Packers can actually win the game?  Well, let's count the factors.  The Packers' offensive line is in much better shape, even if Tretter has to play left tackle again, but if Bakhtiari plays, they may have their starting line intact for the first time in a long time.  The convincing win over the Redskins puts a little confidence back in the heads of the Packers, adding a little weight to McCarthy's "we're nobody's underdogs" bluster.  B.J. Raji looks like he will be back, whereas he missed most of the prior Cardinals game.  Jayrone Elliott and Sam Shields may be back, and Shields in particular has been sorely missed.  And the Cardinals put two players (including starting DT Alex Okafor) on injured reserve this week, despite not having played a game in the last two weeks.  On the negative side, it looks doubtful that Davante Adams will be able to play, which is a shame since he has finally started to look like the Davante Adams we expected all year long.  And of course, the Cardinals are a much better defensive team than the Redskins.

Let's just leave it at this: if the Packers plan to win the game, they can't just waste the entire first quarter, like they did last week.  The offensive line has to play better from the start, Rodgers needs to get rid of the ball quickly, and with some rhythm in the passing game, the running game has to be strong enough to keep the Cardinals pass rushers from pinning their ears back, and receivers have to catch the contested passes.  On defense, the Packers need to put some hits on Carson Palmer, early and often, and see how he performs when it is not just pitch and catch back there.

I still have to predict that the Packers lose this game, and go into off-season mode next week.  But funnier things have happened than an upset in this round of the playoffs, and they certainly have a chance.