Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Rejuvenated Eddie Lacy, Photo by Jim Matthews, Press-Gazette
The difference between a win and a loss on Sunday was dramatic.  With a loss, the Packers would have trailed the Vikings by 2 games plus the tiebreaker, making a 5th consecutive division crown unlikely, and pushing the Packers very far in the direction of a Wild Card playoff spot, if they even made the playoffs.  A win, on the other hand, put them back in first place in the division, while controlling their own destiny for the division and even a number two seed, which comes with a much-needed bye.  So the convincing 30-13 win over the Vikings was a huge win for the struggling Packers.

The Packers looked better to me in every aspect of the game.  The offense finally looked more in sync, with Rodgers getting off more passes quickly, with fewer passes that were poorly thrown, and with a resurgent Eddie Lacy (at last!).  The defense, which had not registered a sack during the three-game losing streak, got six of them on Sunday.  And on special teams, the Packers had a nice Jeff Janis kickoff return, and Mason Crosby was flawless (if only he could have gotten the decisive kick last week against the Lions).

The Packers now have a short week before hosting the Bears on Thanksgiving night.  This will truly be an historic game.  It will be the first time since 1923 that the Packers have hosted a Thanksgiving game, the game will have serious playoff implications for the Packers (as it is likely every game will for the rest of the season) and of course the Brett Favre Ring of Honor ceremony will take place at halftime, with Brett Favre and (hopefully) Bart Starr in attendance.  Since I can't go to the game, I really hope that they show the ceremony on the broadcast.  When you think of the turmoil that other teams have had over the years at QB (think of the Bears, or the Lions, for example), you realize how blessed the Packers have been to have three outstanding, long-term, Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era.

As for the upcoming game against the Bears, I find it so easy to get caught up in Packers-Bears nostalgia.  How many of these do you remember?  Halas and Lombardi, Ditka and Butkus and Gregg and Starr and Nitschke.  More recently, Gregg and Ditka as coaches, Payton, Favre, Singletary, Sharpe, Rodgers, Cutler, and so many others I have left out.  You have the 49-0 whipping of the Bears in 1962 (the first Packers game I ever attended), the Instant Replay game in 1989, the Favre Halloween monsoon game in 1994, the Favre 99 yard TD pass to Brooks in 1995,  the game in 1999 where Walter Payton's ghost helped the Bears to block what would have been the game-winning field goal, the 2010 season NFC Championship Game, and the 2013 game marking the return from injury of Rodgers and Cobb, with the Rodgers to Cobb TD in the closing minutes clinching the division for the Packers.  So many of those Packers-Bears memories involve Brett Favre, so it makes sense that the Favre ceremony will take place during a Bears prime time game.

Let's not forget that this game is the chance for the Packers to finally tie up the all-time record with the Bears.  For all my life, the Packers have always trailed the Bears in all-time wins (while leading them in all-time Championships for most of that period!).  But now the record is 92-91-6 in regular season games, or 93-92-6 including playoff games.  A win Thursday evens the ledger.  The last time the Packers actually led in the series was 1932.  Favre and then Rodgers have been so good against the Bears that sometimes it is possible to forget how big a rivalry this is.  When you stop to realize that the NFL has put a Bears-Packers game in Prime Time for 10 years in a row, it becomes apparent that this is still probably the best rivalry in the NFL.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.  Here's hoping we have another Packers win over the Bear for which to give thanks.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

How Long Will the Losing Streak Last?

Press-Gazette Cover, 11-16-15
The 24 year streak is over, as the Lions beat the Packers last Sunday, at Lambeau Field, by the score of 18-16.  I subscribe to a bunch of Packers' podcasts, and sometimes I get behind in listening to them, as happened this week.  It is strange to listen to the pre-game podcasts after the game, because almost everyone thought the Lions' game was a mere technicality on the way to the tougher match-up at the Vikings this weekend.  There was generally some recognition that the streak can't last forever, and that, obviously, someday, the Lions would win again in Wisconsin, but most (including me) were pretty sure that last Sunday was not about to be the time.

The most prescient comment, in hindsight, was almost a throwaway line from Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Bob McGinn, on his Packers Podcast.  He first quoted Ron Wolf on the streak, who said some years ago, "How can that happen?  The ball has to bounce your way so many times for that to happen."  McGinn then quoted a retired Detroit writer who had said, again a few years ago, "It probably will end some time when people least expect it to end," and McGinn added, "like this weekend."

It is hard to believe, even after re-watching the game, that the Packers let this one get away from them.  There was a time in the second quarter when my wife Judy and I discussed the fact that the Packers, as mediocre as they looked, were still outplaying the Lions by far.  But they were one missed tackle away from being behind, since the score was 3-0 Packers at the time.

That is close to what happened, too.  The Lions tied up the game at the end of the half, and then ran the second half kickoff back to the Packers' one yard line, and never looked back or trailed after scoring the touchdown on that one-yard drive.

Right before the start of the second half, Aikman and Buck were discussing whether Mike McCarthy might take back the play-calling duties, given that they were not able to get much going in the first half.  Aikman said: "There's part of me that thinks he won't, because he's not one who reacts quickly."  Isn't that the truth?  You could say the same about in-game adjustments.

My Lions' fan friend Al, who wasn't able to watch the game until the middle of this week, passed on a few comments:
"My team tried mightily to give the game away, as is their pedigree.  Two botched extra points and only 10 men on the field for the failed field goal attempt.  The Lions got away with some questionable non-calls on pass interference.  But I have to give the defense credit otherwise.  They were hitting hard and putting a lot of pressure on Aaron."
Indeed they did.  You would have thought that the 2015 Lions, missing Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, and DeAndre Levy, might not put so much pressure on Rodgers, but they did.  Rodgers got hit way too many times.  It's not because of the Mike Ditka Packers sweater curse, either.  Part of it is due to indecision on Rodgers' part, part of it is due to receivers not getting open, and part of it (I know I have been harping on this for weeks) is due to Tom Clements not calling enough quick release and misdirection plays.  Plus the Lions played very well on defense.  But whatever the reason, Rodgers is getting beat up.

The suspicion that many of us had that there is something wrong with Rodgers seems now to have been confirmed, as Mike McCarthy admitted this week that he is "banged up."  He apparently has both a shoulder injury and a leg injury, but Rodgers won't say how long the shoulder has been bothering him.  Which of course just feeds my conspiracy theory that he has been hurt for some time.

The 2015 season is rapidly starting to look like a lost season.  A little hard to believe after a 6-0 start.  But I can't see a realistic scenario where the Packers end up with home field advantage in the playoffs, since the Panthers are still cruising along at 9-0.  If the Packers lose to the Vikings on Sunday, winning the division looks unlikely, too.  So then you are looking at a possible Wild Card slot, and (even though the Packers won the Super Bowl as a Wild Card 5 years ago), that is not a formula likely to take the Packers far into the playoffs.

I have no remaining confidence in the Packers' ability to win a game, much less a game on the road.  So let them prove me wrong on Sunday in Minnesota.  I hope they do.  But until they do, I am picking the Vikings.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Time for the Packers to Stop the Slide

Press-Gazette Cover, 11-9-15
I had just about finished this post on Friday, when the news of the terrorist attacks in Paris started hitting the screen.  All of a sudden, a two-game Packers losing streak didn't seem like such a big deal after all, and I decided to wait a day before posting this.  Prayers for the victims and survivors, comfort to the families, and may France and the west be "impitoyable √† l’√©gard des barbares de Daesh" (ruthless against the ISIS barbarians).  Having gotten that off my chest, back to football.

*    *    *    *

Cam Newton rips down and destroys an expensive Packer fan banner in the stadium (and the fan reports him to the police, and the Panthers later agree to replace the banner).  Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Julius Peppers yelling at each other on the sidelines, with B.J. Raji and Mike Pennel doing some pushing and shoving to try to break it up. Randall Cobb and Aaron Rodgers arguing with each other on the sidelines.  Rodgers, upon seeing that he had missed a wide open Cobb on the decisive play of the game, throwing his tablet to the ground (and apparently destroying it in the process).  Packer fans are in full panic mode after the Packers lose 2 games in a row for the first time since 2010, this one by the score of 37-29 to the still-undefeated Carolina Panthers.  Then later this week, Eddie Lacy gets demoted to RB number 2.  All is not well in Titletown, that is for sure.

Will a visit by the Lions make everything OK?  Well, it will take more than a win against the Lions to make everything OK with the Packers.  But the Lions have not won in the state of Wisconsin since 1991.  This sets up a sort of a football Rorschach test.  Glass-half-full types would say, the Packers are not about to lose to the Lions in Green Bay, particularly not this year's Lions team, which is in disarray at 1-7.  While glass-half-empty types would say that the Lions are due after all those years.  Or, here is another Rorschach test.  The Packers' 6 wins have come against 6 teams, none of which currently have a winning record (the best among them are the Seahawks and Rams at 4-4).  While the Packers' two losses have come against teams that were undefeated at the time of the games.  Does that make you feel better or worse about the 2015 Packers?

Put me in the glass-half-full group.  I expect the Packers to beat the Lions, but I have to be honest in saying that nothing would shock me after the last two games.  And it is good not to forget that the Lions were 11-5 last year and only lost to the Cowboys in the playoffs on a controversial play.  So it is not as if they are as bad a team as their 1-7 record would suggest.

As for the Packers, everybody knows that there is something wrong with Eddie Lacy and with the receivers.  Eddie Lacy is some combination of too fat/too out of shape/too injured.  I love Lacy, but it is probably a good thing for right now that Starks is going to be the starter.  Starks has looked much better than Lacy for several games in a row.

The problem with the receivers is a little different.  The receivers who are starting are not very fast, and the receivers who are fast are not playing much and don't seem to have the trust factor with Rodgers or the coaching staff.  I do think that this will improve over time as some of the players continue to get healthier after their injuries (Cobb, Adams, Montgomery) and as the faster players gain more trust (Janis, Abbrederis).

But what about Aaron Rodgers?  My wife Judy has been saying for weeks that there is something wrong with him.  I did not think so at first, but I am coming around to her point of view.  He frequently seems jumpy in the pocket.  He seems to hesitate in pulling the trigger on passes (I saw this several times in the Carolina game - instances where he had open receivers available to him).  Why?  Is that a conscious decision by Rodgers, because he is looking for a longer pass, or the play call by the coaches?  Even when he does pull the trigger, he is frequently just a little off target, more so than we are used to.  It would be a violation of league injury policies for Rodgers to be injured and for the Packers not to report it.  So let's not assume that that is the case.  But if it is not, then what is the answer?  Could it be that he is taking too many hits and sacks, and getting inadequate protection from the offensive line, and that this has affected his psyche?  Perhaps, but that would not be a good answer.

Beyond this, the coaching staff continues to under-perform.  Once again, I saw insufficient offensive plays designed to take the pressure off of Rodgers (screen passes, draw plays, roll-outs, slants and other quick release passes).  They were a little better on this against the Panthers than against the Broncos, but I want to see more protective and creative play calls against the Lions.

And the defense, which a few weeks ago looked like one of the best in the league, now looks like one of the worst.  They have not had a single sack in the last two games, and they have given up 1,475 yards over the last three games.  I have never been a member of the "fire Dom Capers" club, but I might be getting closer to it if things don't improve.  They need to be more aggressive.  They need to get after Matthew Stafford.  He is not likely to look like Cam Newton when under pressure.

The next four games, all against division opponents, will in effect decide how the 2015 season will go.  To borrow from Kevin Greene in Super Bowl XLV, "it is time."

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Bouncing Back Against the Panthers

Packers Arrive in Charlotte, Photo by Duke Bobber, Packers.com
In the first of two consecutive road games for the Packers against undefeated opponents, the Packers crashed and burned last Sunday night at Denver, losing 29-10.  Among many other problems for the Packers, Aaron Rodgers could not find anyone open downfield, took many hits and sacks, and scored a career low of 77 yards passing.  But stop and think, how many times on Sunday night did the Packers run plays on offense that were designed to take the pressure off of Rodgers?  I am talking about screen passes, draw plays, quick release passes, play action passes, outlet passes to a running back?  I re-watched the game, and the answer is, not nearly enough.  Part of the Packers' problem on Sunday night was that their game plan was, in some ways, too aggressive, involving too many long-developing offensive plays.  But they couldn't get away with them against a defense as good as that of the Broncos, so eventually Rodgers had to throw the ball away, and/or get hit in the process.

At that point, two additional problems kicked in.  The first has been a "problem," off and on, since Rodgers has been the starting quarterback.  Rodgers is cautious, occasionally to a fault.  He doesn't like to take reckless chances.  When he had Jordy Nelson available, he had the trust he needed to throw a ball up and count on Nelson to make a play.  I am calling it a "problem" here, but it is also his greatest strength.  Unlike his predecessor, who we all remember had a tendency to make a huge mistake at the wrong time, Rodgers is much more careful about throwing the ball up for grabs.  But when the Packers fall into a 17-0 hole against the number 1 defense, as they did Sunday night, something has to change and, I am arguing, you have to take some chances and give the receivers the opportunity to make a play, even if you don't have the same degree of trust in them that you have in Jordy Nelson.

Speaking of things needing to change, the second problem was (to my eye, anyway) the lack of in-game adjustments.  Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers have both frequently been criticized for not making enough in-game adjustments.   Some of us hoped that relinquishing the play-calling duties might free Mike McCarthy up to concentrate more on broad strategy issues during the game, rather than having to focus on calling each individual play.  But there was no evidence of that on Sunday night.  Either McCarthy is too stubborn to try to adjust his game plan during the game, or if he was adjusting the game plan, then either Tom Clements, in play-calling, or Aaron Rodgers, in calling audibles, was undermining the adjusted game plan.  

Obviously, if the Packers had to lose their first game, it is just as well that they would lose to an AFC opponent, since that loss has no playoff implications.  But now they travel to Charlotte to face the undefeated Panthers, knowing that a loss there will put the Packers two games behind the Panthers, plus a tie-breaker, in the race for home-field advantage.  So this is the game that really counts.  The Panthers, meanwhile, had an interesting game of their own this past week.  They were beating the Colts so badly that I actually turned off the game to do other things.  I then noticed that the Colts had closed to within 3 points with less than a minute to go.  They tied it up, went into overtime, exchanged a pair of field goals, and then Luck was intercepted on a tipped ball, resulting in the winning field goal for the Panthers.

The Panthers are probably playing better than the Packers have over the last few weeks, but the Packers have a more talented team.  If they play up to their talent level, the Packers should win this game easily.  But it is hard, as a fan, to have a lot of confidence in the Packers right now.  They have won 6 out of 7 games, sure, but they have looked at least somewhat bad in each of the last 4 games.  The Packers have something to prove, to me and to the rest of their fan base.  Let them show that they can bounce back after a tough road loss (they do have a pretty good record of doing this).  Let them show that they can make in-game adjustments when things are not going their way.  Let them show that they can insert some plays, when necessary, to take some pressure off Rodgers.  And let them show that they can stick to a balanced offense even when they have some trouble making it work.  Go ahead, show us.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Battle of the Unbeatens

Image by NBC Sports

Where, exactly, do the Packers stand as they finish their bye week and charge into the rest of the season?  The objective metrics say they are in great shape.  They are 6-0, one of only two remaining undefeated teams in the conference.  They have scored 164 points, while giving up only 101.  Only two teams (Patriots and Cardinals) have a greater margin of points scored over points given up.  On defense, the Packers have more sacks than any team in the NFC, and trail only the Broncos in sacks.  On offense, only Brady and Palmer have more TD passes than Rodgers (and those two have played 7 games, not 6).  Among full-time starters, only Brady has fewer interceptions.

And yet . . .  somehow it does not feel as if the Packers are in great shape.  From the fact that the offense has struggled now for three games in a row, to the fact that the defense, previously dominant, gave up a record-setting number of yards to Philip Rivers and the Chargers before the bye, there is a real sense that this team is fortunate to be sitting at 6-0.

Maybe they are, in some sense.  But I have always admired the teams that find a way to win the games that could easily have gotten away from them.  And I have frequently complained, in years past, when the Packers found ways to lose games that they could have, or should have, won.

The current Packers team is not only finding ways to win games, they are getting help from the most unexpected places.  Jordy Nelson is out for the season, Davante Adams has missed several weeks, and Ty Montgomery is injured in the middle of the game?  Jeff Janis steps in and makes a couple of big plays.  (Speaking of unexpected, could anyone have predicted, as of July of this year, that James Jones would be averaging a touchdown per game for the Packers?)  The Packers lose several defensive backs in free agency, and then Morgan Burnett misses several games?  No problem, Damarious Randall not only makes the game-preserving play on fourth down, he actually baits Philip Rivers into making the throw so he can bat it down.

State of the NFC North:

It has been obvious for weeks that only the Vikings (4-2) pose a serious division challenge to the Packers this year.  The Bears are 2-4, while the Lions have the worst record in the league at 1-6.  My Lions fan friend Al points out that it has gotten so bad that there is a petition pending to revoke the passports of the Lions while they are in London for their Sunday morning game.  I can't support that petition, since a new Lions team constructed from scratch could turn out to be better than the current team.  But anyway, the point is that the Packers' first goal is to win the division, and they are in great shape to do just that.

Sunday Night Game

The Sunday night game against the Broncos has the makings of a classic.  Two 6-0 teams meeting in a nationally televised game.  Two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, meeting each other for the last time, unless they happen to meet again in Super Bowl 50.  A lot of Packers-Broncos history, from the Monday night blizzard game back in 1984, to Super Bowl XXXII, to the Monday Night overtime game won on the bomb from Favre to Jennings on the first play of overtime in 2007.

The Packers' biggest problem will be when the Packers have the ball and the Broncos' are on defense.  The Broncos' defense is ranked no. 1 overall.  while the Packers' offense is in the top half of all teams.  Here, the bye week could make a major difference for the Packers since, in my view, injuries have been a big part of the Packers' struggles on offense.  Davante Adams has missed more time than he has played, while Randall Cobb has been hobbled by a shoulder injury, and both Eddie Lacy and James Starks have struggled with injuries.  Thanks to the bye, Adams should be back and fine, Cobb should be better, and so should Lacy.  So the Packers will have a better chance of getting the running game going, and of stretching the field with outside deep balls to Adams.

On the other side of the ball, if you think that the Packers have under-performed on offense, you should take a look at the Broncos' offense.  They are in the bottom 5 and you can't really blame it on injuries, either.  Peyton Manning is clearly nearing the end of his career, and does not seem to have the zip on the ball, or the accuracy, that he used to.  The departure of Julius Thomas to Jacksonville hurts, because he was and is one the best tight ends in the league.  And they can't seem to get the running game going, either.

Having said that, I have the uncomfortable feeling that Manning will turn it around at some point, and look like the old Peyton Manning, even if he can't maintain it for the rest of the season.  Could Sunday night be the game where he turns it around?  Let's put it this way - a nationally televised Sunday Night game, after a bye week off, is a pretty good candidate for a game in which Manning looks rejuvenated.

So I expect to see the Broncos bring out not only their formidable defense, but an offense that looks much better as well.  I am betting that the Packers' off-day on defense against the Chargers was a bit of an anomaly, and I am also betting that the Packers' offense will be improved with the return of healthy (or at least healthier) Adams, Cobb and Lacy.  The bottom line is: obviously this game could go either way.  But I like the Packers' chances, in what will likely be a very close game.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Packers Charging into the Bye Week

Quinten Rollins' Pick 6 - Photo by Jim Biever
For the second week in a row, the Packers' defense had to carry the day, as the Packers struggled on offense, but came away with a 24-10 win over the Rams on Sunday.

There now seems to be a clear game plan to stay close to the Packers, for teams that have the horses on defense.  They have to have a strong front line, to put some pressure on Rodgers without blitzing, and to keep him from stepping up in the pocket.  Then they have to play a lot of Cover Two defense, which is generally effective against a West Coast Offense, and has always been frustrating for Rodgers.

But there are some problems with this strategy.  First, most teams don't have a strong enough front line to make this work.  And second, even if you can keep the Packers' offense somewhat in check, you still have to deal with the Packers' newly dominant defense.  So these past two weeks, the 49ers and Rams have caused problems for the Packers' offense, but they had no answer at all for the Packers' defense, which has allowed a total of only 13 points in those two games.  And maybe a third problem with this strategy is this: even if you have the defense to play this game against the Packers, the Packers have traditionally beaten this strategy with the deep outside threat.  In past years, Jordy Nelson was the guy who most frequently provided that threat.  That won't happen this year, but if the Packers can develop that threat, either in Davante Adams when he returns, or in Jeff Janis (who has the speed but not the trust of Rodgers or the coaching staff), or in Ty Montgomery (who has the trust but not necessarily the speed) there may be no stopping the Packers' offense.

The Packers intercepted Nick Foles 4 times (thanks in large part to a ferocious pass rush), once for the pick-six depicted in the photo above, and they sacked Foles three times.  I realize that the Packers gave up 159 yards rushing to Todd Gurley, but 95 of those yards were in the second half, i.e., many of them were garbage-time yards, and they produced a total of 0 points.  Time will tell if the Packers can continue to play like this on defense, but so far they look very good despite the defensive injuries sustained this year.

Sunday, the Chargers come to Green Bay, on a short week after their Monday night game.  This will be the last game before the Packers' bye week, and it would be a huge plus to be 6-0, with two weeks to get healthy before their trip to Denver for a Sunday night game.  The Chargers already trail the Broncos by three games after five weeks, so they would love nothing more than to be able to beat the Packers and at least keep pace with the Broncos for another week.  And the Chargers do have a good offense; in fact Philip Rivers leads the league in passing yards.  But his offensive line was a mess Monday night, and is still expected to be on Sunday.  That, combined with the way the Packers have been rushing the passer while keeping the running game mostly contained, is not a good combination for the Chargers.  I was not all that impressed with the Packers' offensive game plan last week, and I assume they realize, just like the fans, that it was lacking.  I expect them to correct this on Sunday, come out with a much better game plan, and put up a lot more points.  I think this should be a big win for the Packers.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Packers Fast Start - 4-0 For the First Time Since 2011

The Packers' Game Day Captains, Plus a Photo-Bomber
The Packers' first visit to the 49ers new stadium was a success, as they beat the 49ers 17-3 on Sunday, in the process beating Colin Kaepernick for the first time.

On the way into the stadium, we spent some time talking with an old-timer 49er fan.  He dated back to the days when the 49ers played in Kezar Stadium.  He was in a somber mood, apparently expecting the 49ers to lose to the Packers, but also lamenting the way that everything has changed since the move to the new stadium.  Ordinary fans were priced out of the market for season tickets, he said, this changed the demographics of the people who own season tickets, and to make matters worse, now that the team is on the down-slope, people will stop caring and jump off the bandwagon.  He told us that his $10,000 worth of PSLs are now only worth about $2,000 if he were to re-sell the rights to his season tickets (apparently you can sell the rights to 49ers season tickets, unlike the situation in Green Bay).

And sure enough, the atmosphere in the stadium was different.  You can't really compare the way the fans react to a team that is obviously losing its way, as the 49ers now are, to a team on the upswing, as the 49ers were the last couple of times the Packers played the 49ers at Candlestick Park.  But we certainly noticed the difference, from the empty seats scattered all over, to the exodus of the fans starting early in the 4th quarter, to the lack of enthusiasm shown for their adorable little stadium gimmicks, such as chanting "Aah-oo!, aah-oo!, aah-oo!" after a first down.  Want more proof?  The 49ers owner could not offer to give away some extra tickets to the Packers game without getting roasted by 49ers fans for having dismantled the team.  I mentioned last week that the 49ers seemed to be in serious disarray as a franchise, but I am not sure I realized how bad it really is.  Peter King tallied it up this past summer and came to the conclusion that of the 25 most important 49er players and coaches, 14 of them left this off-season.

The image to the left (taken at the stadium on Sunday) reflects a sort of inside joke in our family.  Starting with the great Joe Montana days, people started referring to the "49er Faithful."  We considered it a joke, because in 1980 you could walk in and buy season tickets; that is how "faithful" the fans were before the 49ers won their first Super Bowl.  Most of them seemed to think that NFL history started sometime around 1980.  Anyway, it looks like a new era for the "faithful" is now beginning, and for someone like me who lived with the insufferable 49ers fans and media for years, I welcome it.

Despite all of that, the 49ers played very well on defense, and kept the Packers' offense in check better than any other team this year so far.  Rodgers' accuracy may have been a bit off by comparison to other games, there were a couple of dropped passes, and Don Barclay continues to be less than ideal as a replacement for Bryan Bulaga, but I think most of the credit goes to the 49ers defense.

On the other side of the ball, though, the Packers' defense probably had its best game of the year.  They obviously set out to stop the run by playing safeties close to the line of scrimmage, in effect daring Colin Kaepernick to beat them with the passing game, or by scrambling.  They succeeded in stopping the conventional running game (Carlos Hyde gained only 20 yards), Kaepernick could not beat them with the passing game (he only had 160 passing yards and was sacked 6 times), and they did an admirable job of containing Kaepernick's scrambling, holding him to 57 rushing yards, with no rush longer than 12 yards.  I did not anticipate that the Packers' defense would play this well this soon, especially considering the injuries they have sustained.  But they are doing it and, I might add, playing with more creativity and aggression than they did at times last year.

The Packers now return home for a pair of home games, against the Rams and Chargers, both currently having a record of 2-2.  If the Packers can win both those games, a good likelihood given the Packers' record at home, they will be 6-0 heading into the bye week.  The Rams have a very strong front seven, and if Don Barclay continues to play in Bulaga's absence, they will get some pressure on Rodgers.  But, interestingly enough, despite the reputation of the Rams' front seven, at this point the Packers' defense is outperforming the Rams' defense in rushing defense, passing defense, and points allowed, while the Packers' offense is similarly outperforming the Rams' offense in all those categories.  I don't see any reason not to expect a Packers' victory this week.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Packers On the Road Again to California

Best Game-Day Attire Ever
Maybe I am crazy, but I had almost the opposite reaction from everybody else to the Monday Night Chiefs game, which the Packers won, 38-28.  I heard lots of people talking about Aaron Rodgers' game, using words like "surgical" and "masterful" and "at the very top of his game."  We went to the game, and I did not come away with that impression at all.  Sure, he had a good game, but I did not see it as one of his best of all time.  I probably am putting too much emphasis on his early missed passes (he missed his first three) and the pass that should have been intercepted in the early third quarter, which would have broken his streak of home games without an interception.  So I re-watched the game when I got back to California, and I have mellowed a little.  I still don't think it is one of his best games ever, but maybe watching the game with Jon Gruden's superlatives being drummed into my head has helped me to realize some of the finer points that I might have missed in the stands.

Turning to the defense, everybody (including me) was happy with the way the Packers' defense performed for the first 2.5 to 3 quarters.  But I have heard a lot of complaining about "taking the foot off the gas" and going into "prevent defense" mode way too early in the game.  I can see that point, but I think it is severely overstated.  This game was effectively over at halftime (when the score was 24-7), and then it was again over toward the end of the third (when it was 31-14), and then it was really over when it was 38-14 with 12 minutes left.  (And if they had not blown all their time-outs, it would have been over one last time when the 4th and 18 pass came up short but was treated as a first down anyway.)  But it just didn't feel as if it was really over.  And the only reason it didn't feel that way was because of the traumatic experience of last year's NFC Championship Game.

But this game never approached, in my view, the circumstances of that game.  It was never as close (the Chiefs trailed by at least 16 points until they reduced their deficit to 10 points with 1:25 left in the game).  While you can never say never, the chances of scoring another 10 points in 1:25, with 2 time-outs, is close to zero.  It would have required 2 successful onside kicks, and at least one very fast score (broken coverage, or a defensive back falls down, or whatever).  I just wasn't that worried.  Also, while you can say that in some sense the Packers were playing more of a prevent type defense late in the game, it wasn't the kind that drives me crazy, where they rush 3, put no pressure on the quarterback, and let him take short passes for granted.  Here, even after the two-minute warning, the Packers were still rushing 4 or 5 on every play and occasionally blitzing.

Having finally beaten the Chiefs in Lambeau Field for the first time in history, the Packers have now beaten every team there but one: the Houston Texans.  I don't know when they will next come to Lambeau Field, but I look forward to it.

When you live over 2,200 miles away from Green Bay, you don't often get to see back-to-back Packer games in person.  But that is what we get to do this week, when we venture up to Santa Clara to see the 49ers' new stadium, keep our streak alive of going to every Bay Area Packers game since 1980, and hopefully witness the exorcism of the Kaepernick evil spirit from the Packers once and for all.  While the 49ers played well against the Vikings in week one, they have looked like a mess the last two weeks.  I was never a fan of Jim Harbaugh, but he seemed like a much better coach than the new guy.  There must be some fairly serious disarray in that organization, given that they got rid of a good (but obnoxious) coach, turned Kaepernick from a Packers-killer into somebody who seems to have regressed substantially, and have seen at least 10 players retire or leave in free agency, apparently just to get the hell out of there.

I expect Clay Matthews to play most of the game at inside linebacker, probably assigned just to keep tabs on Kaepernick.  I expect the Packers to play well on offense (the 49ers defense has taken some severe hits in retirements and free agency) and I expect the Packers' defense to continue to play well, and aggressively, and hopefully put this game away early.  I am looking for a big win to take the Packers to 4-0.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Packers Are 2-0 Thanks to the "Next Men Up"

Photo from Seattle Times Sept. 21, 2015
For the last couple years, no team has been more of a thorn in the side of the Green Bay Packers than the Seattle Seahawks.  I still shudder when I think of the "Fail Mary" game and the monumental collapse in the NFC Championship game.  It was no surprise when the NFL put the Seahawks-Packers game in prime time.  In the rematch of the NFC Championship game, the Packers (finally hosting the Seahawks in Green Bay) won the game, 27-17. They concentrated on keeping Marshawn Lynch in check, did so successfully and led for most of the game.

But if any of us thought at halftime that the second half would be easy, we made a bad call on that.  Right after halftime, it seemed that the Seahawks had made better halftime adjustments, and scored on successive drives to take the lead, 17-13, primarily by getting Russell Wilson moving around, and having him take off with the ball when necessary.

At that point, it was the Packers' turn to adjust their game plan, which they did by making frequent use of the no-back backfield on offense.  James Starks, who had replaced Eddie Lacy early after Lacy injured his ankle, needed a rest anyway.  But more importantly, the no-back set allowed the Packers to line up with Randall Cobb, Richard Rodgers and even Ty Montgomery in the backfield,  creating uncertainty if not confusion by the defense as to where they might go on pass routes.  This adjustment led to the Packers retaking the lead on a clutch fourth quarter drive, with a TD pass to Richard Rodgers, followed by a 2 point conversion to Rodgers.  The Packers then salted the victory away by wiping almost 5 of the last 7 minutes off the clock and scoring a a field goal at the two minute warning to reach the final score of 27-17.

To me, the largest story line of this game was "next man up." James Jones is only in Green Bay because of the season-ending injury to Jordy Nelson, and he was again a large factor in his second game back.  Tackle Bryan Bulaga hurt himself in practice and missed the game. Don Barclay, who many times has struggled when pressed into action, played pretty well.  He was the weakest player on the offensive line, but he played better than we might have expected.  Eddie Lacy was knocked out of the game in the first quarter with an ankle injury, and James Starks looked really good in relief.  Davante Adams was knocked out temporarily, and came back gimpy late in the game, but rookie Ty Montgomery (who has appeared primarily as a kick returner up to now) played the no. 3 wide receiver for a while and looked good, made some plays, and broke some tackles.  Defensive tackle Josh Boyd was knocked out of the game (and lost for the season), but Mike Pennel and Datone Jones picked up the slack.

But most impressively, in part because of the loss of linebacker Sam Barrington in week 1, second year player Jayrone Elliott got extra snaps, and boy, did he make the most of them. All he did was generate two turnovers, first intercepting a Wilson pass with one hand, and then later stripping the ball on a passing play to clinch the game.  This is the same guy that Matthews and Peppers started calling "the Playmaker" last year, while the trainers started calling him "Shakespeare."  Why, you ask? "Because all he does is make plays."

 After two weeks the Packers lead the division at 2-0, the Vikings are 1-1, and the Bears and Lions are 0-2.  The fact that the Seahawks are 0-2 is a nice added bonus.  Obviously it is a long season, but the two game lead, plus a tiebreaker, over the Seahawks makes it much less likely that the Packers would have to go back to Seattle for a hypothetical Championship game.  A very nice start to the season, fully consistent with McCarthy's desire to get off to a faster start this year.

The Chiefs come to town next Monday night, as the Packers play their second consecutive home night game.  The Chiefs were poised to go 2-0 themselves, before giving up a fourth quarter touchdown to tie the game, and then fumbling the ball and the game away in the closing seconds.

The Chiefs will be a tough matchup for the Packers.  I am sure that we all remember the Chiefs spoiling the Packers' perfect season a couple of years back. They obviously have some talent.  Andy Reid is an excellent coach.  Alex Smith is not a bad quarterback, but he is no Aaron Rodgers.  Jamaal Charles is excellent, except when he fumbles away the ballgame.  But I don't think they have the same number of playmakers as the Packers have.  And I think that will be the difference in the game.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Off to a Good Start!

This Week's SI Cover Photo
The Packers' 2015 season is off to a good start with their 31-23 victory against the rival Chicago Bears.  As a result of this win, the all-time scoring in Packers-Bears games shifts to the Packers, maybe for the first time in my lifetime.  After 189 games, the Packers have scored 3,208 points, while the Bears have scored 3,207.  For as long as I can remember, the Packers have trailed the Bears in won-loss record.  But thanks to the Favre and Rodgers eras, they finally can tie it up this year.  The current record is Bears 92, Packers 91, with 6 ties.  So the Favreapalooza on Thanksgiving night will be the chance to pull even in the win-loss record.

One interesting development in the game was Aaron Rodgers pulling off a couple of unusual plays, for him.  The first was Favre-like, when he flipped the ball backhanded over the defender to Eddie Lacy.  And the second was almost like an option play, where he normally would just run, but at the last minute he pitched the ball to Richard Rodgers.  I wonder if, now that Rodgers seems fully healthy, he is realizing that he needs to be a little more careful about taking shots now that he is in his 30's.

The story of the day, of course, was James Jones.  After his one year stint with the Raiders, they cut him this spring.  The Giants signed him and he lasted there through the preseason, getting cut on the last cutdown day.  He signed with the Packers the next day, and was the player of the game 7 days later in beating the Bears.  I wonder if the Giants tried to trade him to the Packers?  Everybody knew that the Packers might be interested in him, after all.  Maybe they tried, and the Packers called their bluff by not offering a trade.  In the real world, a player who gets cut twice within four months has very little trade value.  But he was just what the doctor ordered for the Packers.  Jones caught two touchdowns that counted against the Bears, and another that was called back on a holding penalty.  For those who are still fixated on Jones' tendency in his early years to drop easy passes (and you know who you are), let's also remember that in his last year with the Packers he had reduced his drops to three in the entire season.

Clay Matthews made the game-preserving interception in the fourth quarter, cutting right in front of Martellus Bennett, catching the ball like a receiver, and returned it 40 yards (some of those yards were lost on a penalty).  Matthews continues to be the Packers' biggest playmaker on defense, and he played most of the game at inside linebacker, where he has obviously learned some of the finer points of the position in the offseason.  If, as the news suggests today, Sam Barrington is now lost for the season, expect to see even more of Matthews at the inside position.

All was not good in this game.  The Bears were in the game until the Matthews interception.  The Packers gave up way too many rushing yards, mainly to Forte, their tackling was suspect, and they didn't totally destroy Cutler as they sometimes do.  They will need to play a lot better against Seattle on Sunday night if they want to end up at 2-0.  But I refuse to see the glass as half-empty after one game.  Sure, the Packers blew the Bears out last year, to the tune of 93-31.  But that was an aberration.  The Bears generally play the Packers tough, as they did on Sunday.  To go on the road against your oldest rival, and come back with a win, is good enough for me, especially when many of your starters are rusty from lack of play in the preseason.

From what I saw of the Seahawks game on Sunday, they were not exactly on top of their game, either.  We all know that the Packers were the better team for 55 minutes of the NFC Championship game last year, on the road.  (Don't get me started again on the last 5 minutes.)  Both teams have lost some good players since then, to injury, free agency, and holdout.  But change the venue to Lambeau Field, and I like the Packers' chances.