Friday, October 29, 2010

Huge Win Against Vikings

Just last week, I was making my familiar complaint about not putting pressure on the quarterback. In big games last year, the Packers seemed to mostly sit in coverage, allowing elite quarterbacks to carve them up. They lost all the games in which they did this. In the Redskins game, they did it again, and lost to Donovan McNabb and the Redskins. In fairness, the Packers were without this year's defensive MVP, Clay Matthews III, so Dom Capers had more limited options.

When it began to look like Matthews would be back against the Vikings, I wondered if the Packers would learn from last year's debacles against the Vikings, and put more pressure on Favre. Yes, they certainly did. I was at the game (more on that below), so I wanted to get a chance to watch the game again before commenting on this. But the reality is that there is a strong correlation between pressure on Favre and good things happening for the Packers. Take a look at the game highlights (on, here). Favre had one touchdown and three interceptions. On the touchdown, the pass is a quick one, but there is no extra pressure visible in the highlight. On the three interceptions, extra Packer rushers were either in Favre's personal space or on the way. This is not a mere coincidence.

There are no magic bullets in football. If you blitz on every play, good quarterbacks and offensive coordinators can find ways to beat you. My only argument is that without a judicious use of extra pressure on the quarterback, a team like the Packers is not good enough to beat an elite quarterback. With judicious blitzing, they have a fighting chance.

I had not originally planned to go to this game. We were going to be visiting our son on the East Coast, and getting to Green Bay on the way back to California would be complicated, since we were occupied in Providence on Saturday night. (While on the East Coast, we took a side trip to New York to see Lombardi on Broadway, a couple of nights before its official opening. I will report on that when I get a chance.) Our daughter (who lives in Chicago) encouraged me to stop back through Chicago and go to the game with her. In order to make that happen, I ended up getting four hours of sleep on Saturday night, and four hours of sleep again on Sunday night after driving back to Chicago. But what a great experience to be in Green Bay for this game. We got there in time to have dinner with old friends Laura and Mike at Curly's Pub in the atrium. Mike has always been a Packer fan, despite his Chicago upbringing, and Laura, a U.P. native, really should be a Packer fan, but for some reason roots for the Vikings. At least she had the discretion not to wear any of that purple stuff in the stadium.

In re-watching the game this week, I found that the TV broadcast did not come close to conveying the atmosphere in the stadium. Sure, you could hear the cheering and the booing, you could see the signs, you could see that people in the stands were excited, but that would be true of any game at Lambeau Field. But in the stands, the atmosphere was positively electric. The intensity was something that I can only associate with a playoff game.

This was obviously a huge win for the Packers. Whether they can keep the momentum going against the Jets, now one of the best teams in the league, remains to be seen. But at least they are in a position now to continue to contend for one of the top spots in the NFC.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Two More Losses, Vikings on the Way

A combination of travel and disappointment with two discouraging losses in a row have kept me from writing anything until now. It is a lot more fun writing about a game when there is something positive to talk about. But when the team loses two overtime games in a row, having had opportunities to win both games, it is a little harder.

Things can happen in any game. A player drops a pass he should have caught, a ball is stripped out at the worst possible moment, the ball slips out of the quarterback's hand. "That's why they play the games," as Chris Berman likes to say. But at a certain point, those things become a pattern, or at least suggest that there is some kind of a problem. And I think there is a problem. The most obvious problem is the injuries, but everyone has injuries during the year. And even though the Packers have had more than their share this year, it is no excuse for the way they are playing. Take our division rivals, the Bears. They lost their starting quarterback for a game a couple of weeks ago. Their backup quarterback, the very far over the hill Todd Collins, played poorly. He threw for a total of 32 yards, with no touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Not exactly the kind of stats that will usually lead to a victory. But the Bears won, by the score of 23-6. Matt Forte, the kicker (Robbie Gould) and the Bears defense made that happen.

No, I think the real problem is not injuries, but coaching. We are seeing repeated coaching mistakes: not putting pressure on the quarterback, not throwing the ball near the goal line, bad clock management, and lack of discipline leading to too many penalties.

One of my complaints last year was that the Packers seemed to hang back in coverage against elite quarterbacks, like Favre, Roethlisberger, and Kurt Warner. My feeling was that the Packers (either McCarthy or Capers) wanted to avoid looking bad on long pass plays resulting from the elite quarterback beating the blitz. But the result was less spectacular but just as bad: these quarterbacks picked the Packers apart when given the time to sit in the pocket and wait for the open receiver. Last week, against the Dolphins and without Clay Matthews, I saw the Packers doing the same thing. There was no pressure on the quarterback, and McNabb had plenty of time to pass. Coaches study game tapes. All they have to do is look at the tapes of the games against the Vikings last year to realize that the sit back in coverage strategy was not working. So try something else.

The only thing keeping the Packers in contention right now is the fact that there is no dominant team in the NFC. They may have lost three of the last four games, but at 3-3 they are still only a game behind the teams with the best records in the conference (the Giants, Eagles, Bears, Falcons and Saints). Clay Matthews is expected to be back this week, and even Atari Bigby and Al Harris may be activated. Donald Driver expects to play despite his injured quad. So they still have time to turn this around.

The Vikings don't have the magic they had last year, and Favre is hurting and much less effective. Some serious pressure on Favre obviously carries risks, but it also has the promise of causing Favre to make some of his trademark mistakes. If the Packers don't win this week against the Vikings, they will have squandered the chance to stay near the top.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Two Bad Games in a Row

My old college buddy Dick Karth (make that my very old college buddy Dick Karth) said it best:

"I didn't like what I saw on Monday night.

I didn't like what I saw on Sunday.

What I saw in both games is a football team with lots of talent and with almost the same ability to squander the talent as it has talent.

I saw a team that, if it doesn't get its act in shape, is going to be 12-4 or 11-5 (maybe 9-7) which will probably be good enough to make the playoffs, but then not get past the first round.

I don't like what I saw."
I was thinking more or less the same thing. If the Packers have this much trouble with the 0-3 Lions, how are they going to handle the 2-2 Redskins, with a proven veteran quarterback, on the road? Let's assume for the sake of argument that they can beat the 2-2 Dolphins at home in two weeks, but that brings Brett Favre and the Vikings back to town. They may be 1-2 now, but it is safe to assume that they will be suitably revved up and ready to go in three weeks.

Monday Night Bears Game

So, with that depressing intro, let's review briefly the last two games.

The Monday night game against the Bears was certainly a disappointment. In many ways, the Packer outplayed the Bears, and yet a flurry of penalties and, to a lesser extent, turnovers, made it impossible to win the game. The Bears prevailed, on a last-second field goal, by the score of 20-17.

To make matters worse, Mike McCarthy made a couple of critical errors in the closing moments of the game. First, he challenged the recovery of James Jones’ fumble, when there was almost no chance of having the call overturned. He had, maybe, a 1% chance of having the recovery overturned, and a 99% chance of losing a timeout in the process. I was prepared to cut him a little slack until I heard him say, in the post-game press conference, that he was right there near where the ball was recovered. If that is the case, he knew to a virtual certainty that the call would not be overturned, and his challenge amounted to a futile wish and a prayer.

Having blown the first timeout, anyone could see, once the Bears got inside the Packers’ 10 yard line, that the Bears would have a chip-shot field goal opportunity. What are the chances that Robbie Gould will miss a field goal when the line of scrimmage is inside the 5? Maybe 2% or so? If he makes it, and almost all the time is gone, the Bears win. What if the Bears score right away, on a touchdown? Well, the bad news is that the Packers now have to score a touchdown to tie the game, but the good news is that they have close to 2 minutes to do it. Anybody who figures out the odds will realize that the Packers had a better chance to win by letting the Bears score. But instead, McCarthy opted for the heroic goal-line stand and the loss of the game.

Sunday's Lions Game

I went to this game, with my wife, my daughter, and cousin Rob. For most of the first half, the Packers seemed in control of the game, even if they weren't playing particularly well. But during the last 36 game minutes, things spun almost completely out of control. For starters, the Packers gave up an 80 yard drive for a touchdown to make the score 21-14 at halftime. But take a look at the Packers' possessions and highlights for the rest of the game.
  1. Jordy Nelson fumbled the kickoff after the 80 yard drive, and the Lions recovered.
  2. Charles Woodson single-handedly saved the win with his interception for a touchdown. When I first saw it live in the stadium, I had a bad angle on the play and I was not sure he caught the ball. Luckily, he did.
  3. The Packers had a nice drive going, but after gaining 49 yards, to the Detroit 23, the drive ended with an interception.
  4. Three and out, punt.
  5. Fumbled kickoff, recovered by Detroit.
  6. Long pass on the first play of the drive is intercepted.
  7. The last drive, really the only good news on offense in the last 36 minutes of the game, found the Packers grinding out the last 6:32 of the game, getting 6 first downs in the process.
So what happened? Did the Packers, when the score was 21-7 against the winless Lions, figure the game was in the bag, and switch on the auto-pilot? I don't know, but as unacceptable as that would be, it is actually the better possible reason for how the game went. Because if that wasn't it, then I don't see how it can be argued that this team is as good as we thought it was.