Sunday, September 25, 2011

Finley: Unstoppable!

(Photo from the Green Bay Press-Gazette)

Just as I thought, when the Packers meet the Bears with Jermichael Finley in uniform, and in the absence of a flurry of penalties, the Packers win the game, pretty convincingly.  Finley was just about unstoppable, scoring all three Packer touchdowns, apparently the first Packer tight end 3 TD game since Keith Jackson (Whoa Nellie!  I am referring to the player, not the announcer) scored three touchdowns in the season opener in 1996.  Sunday's game was not as close as the 27-17 final score would suggest.

The Packers' passing offense was aided significantly by a 92 yard rushing day for Ryan Grant.  After missing all three Bears games last year, I am sure it felt great for Grant to be such a contributor.  The defense managed to hold Matt Forte to 2 yards rushing, and while Cutler got a lot of yards, the Packers sacked him 3 times and intercepted him twice.  Woodson played a lot at safety in this game, returning to his cornerback position when the Packers were in nickel pass coverage.  Neither Woodson nor Matthews had gaudy stats in this game, but both were steady contributors, and Matthews in particular was very disruptive, as the TV announcers mentioned.

Meanwhile, I cannot imagine the disappointment of the Bears' coaching staff and players over the result of their masterful trick punt return play.  With a minute left in the game, and trailing by 10 points, the Bears uncorked a beauty of a play.  The Packers had been punting away from Devin Hester all afternoon, and did so again, punting to the Packers' left sideline.  But Hester, on the Packers' right side, sprinted  further to the Packers' right side, acting as if he was waiting for the ball to come to him.  Every Packer player, except punter Tim Masthay, bit on the fake, assumed that Masthay had mistakenly punted to the Packers' right side, and they all swarmed to Hester's side.  Meanwhile, Johnny Knox fielded the ball on the Packers' left sideline, and headed up field, with one lead blocker taking out Masthay, the only guy who realized the ball was over on the left side.  It would have been a touchdown, but for an absolutely meaningless holding infraction by Corey Graham, blocking one of the gunners early on in the play.  He didn't need to hold anybody; whoever he held probably was 20 yards or more away from the play at the time.  Now even if the Bears got the touchdown, they would have had to recover an onside kick and score a field goal to tie up the game.  But it was a beautifully-designed play, one of the sweetest special-teams plays I have ever seen, and it was screwed up by a needless penalty.  Even Aaron Rodgers and Greg Jennings were raving about this play.

So the Packers are 3-0, which, as we were told, means that there is a 76% chance they will make the playoffs.  In the case of the 2011 Packers, I think the chances are a little higher than that.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Watching the 2010 Packers-Bears Week 3 Game

Just for the heck of it, I decided to re-watch the Week 3 game between the Packers and the Bears from last year.  I knew, without looking up the details, that the Packers would lose by 3 points, and that there were something like 18 penalties against the Packers in the game.  Painful as it was to watch, I think I gained some extra perspective by watching the game again.

The reason I chose to watch this Bears game is that it is the only one the Packers played against the Bears last year with Jermichael Finley.  Since the Bears play a lot of Tampa-2 defense, Jermichael Finley (or any top flight tight end) should be a large factor in the game, getting open over the middle.  And he was.  The Packers ended up losing the game anyway, but having another shot at the Bears with Jermichael Finley in the lineup makes me think good things should happen.

First Quarter.  The first quarter ended with the Packers leading 7-0.  The Bears had two possessions during this quarter, both of which were extended by penalties on the Packers.  Yet the Bears missed a field goal, and then Cutler was intercepted in the end zone.  Rodgers looked sharp, but there was no running game to speak of (remember, this was after Ryan Grant went out for the season, and before the Packers started using Starks).  The Packers got good pressure on Cutler, and sacked him once, as I recall.  So far, so good.

Second Quarter:  The Packers continued to outplay the Bears, getting a couple of sacks on defense, forcing a 3-and-out, and gave up a touchdown only after a Hester punt return set the Bears up in great position to score.  On offense, the Packers scored only a field goal, and started mis-firing more frequently than in the first quarter.  Rodgers was intercepted on the Hail Mary pass at the end of the half, which doesn't really count.  Most ominously, by my unofficial count the Packers only had 6 penalties in the first half.  Lots more to come.

Third Quarter: There were no scores in the quarter, but penalties started to have a real impact on the game. A Jermichael Finley TD was nullified by a holding penalty, and then Julius Peppers blocked the field goal try.  The Bears got down to the 1 yard line, but threw an incomplete pass on 4th down.  Six penalties in the quarter.  At the end of three quarters, Packers, 10-7.

Fourth Quarter:  And then came the decisive fourth quarter.  Hester returned a punt for a touchdown on the second play of the quarter, giving the Bears their first lead.  The Packers scored on a long touchdown drive.  A Finley TD was nullified by penalty (of course) but then Rodgers ran it in.  The Bears tied it up on a long drive, where a nullified interception and 30 yards of penalties contributed heavily to the drive.  Then, James Jones was stripped along the sidelines, and McCarthy wasted a precious timeout challenging the play, despite the fact (1) that it happened right in front of him; and (2) the fact that there was no chance it would be overturned.  This led to the go-ahead (and winning) field goal, after McCarthy decided to mount a heroic goal line stand instead of letting the Bears score, which would have given Rodgers a final chance.

So what does this tell us for this week's game?  It tells me that the Packers should win.  They had more yards than the Bears last year, more first downs, and more sacks.  It was only the penalties, poor special-teams play, and the poor decisions by McCarthy in the fourth quarter that let the Bears win the game.  Since then, the offensive line is much better (and so there should be fewer holding and offsides penalties), McCarthy's decision-making at the end of games is improved, and the special teams play is (at least a little) better.  Oh, and we have a better running game this time.  The loss of Nick Collins is a problem, and somewhere down the road they may lose a game because of it.  But I don't think it will be this week.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Déjà Vu

(Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Photo)

In the words of the immortal Yogi Berra (my favorite baseball player as a kid), "It's déjà vu all over again." Just like last year, the Packers are 2-0 after two weeks, leading into their week three matchup at Chicago. True, last year the Bears were also 2-0, and by beating the Packers they took control of the division, kept it almost all year, and ended up as the NFC North Champ for 2010, sending the Packers on the road in the playoffs. This year, if the Packers can beat the Bears at Chicago, they would put the Bears two games plus a tie-breaker behind them. That would be a nice result.

(There is another little problem down the road for the Packers - the Lions are also 2-0, looking every bit as good as we expected they might be this year. But since the Packers don't play them until Thanksgiving, there will be plenty of time to talk about the Lions later.)

As for the Bears, I admit that they surprised me in Week 1 by beating the Falcons, and beating them solidly. Sure, you can say that the Falcons have a problem on defense, as the Packers illustrated in the playoffs last year. And you can certainly criticize the Falcons for trading as many draft picks as they did for wide receiver Julio Jones, rather than addressing their defensive problems. But it is quite another thing for them to be picked apart by Jay Cutler, who may very well deserve more credit than I usually give him. Speaking of Cutler, as I was driving around late last night, I heard an ESPN Radio guy make the observation that the Bears need to do something about their offensive line, “or they are going to get Jay Cutler killed back there.” He added, “maybe that is the plan.” I paid just enough attention to the Bears game Sunday to realize that, despite getting sacked repeatedly, Cutler and the Bears’ offense made enough good plays to keep it close into the third quarter, but this time the Saints pulled away.

Against the Panthers, the Packers’ offense looked good, after getting into a 13-0 hole in the first few possessions. A fumbled kickoff return by rookie Randall Cobb contributed to the problem, but even without that the Panthers had a TD drive and another field goal drive to create the 13-0 lead. Rodgers was pretty close to flawless in parts of the second half, the running game was reasonably productive, and I really like the change-up in running styles created by playing both Ryan Grant and James Starks. Jennings, Nelson, and Finley did most of the damage in the passing game (which presumably means James Jones will continue to be irritated at the paucity of passes in his direction). Driver only caught one pass, but it was the pass that gave him the record in pass receiving yardage as a Packer, surpassing James Lofton. (He wrote a very gracious letter of thanks to the Packer fans, as noted here.) He may be nearing the end of the road, but he continues to be a contributor. For the second week in a row, he was the “hands” team guy to go up high and grab the onside kick in the closing minutes of the game.

The Packers’ defense is beginning to look like it could be a problem. Mike Neal missed the game on the defensive line, and is likely to miss a “significant” number of weeks with his injury. The Packers made what seemed at the time to be a good decision by also making Tramon Williams inactive, giving him an extra week to heal up. After all, they were playing a rookie QB, what could possibly go wrong?

When it became apparent that last week’s game was not a fluke, and that Cam Newton is the real deal, the absence of Williams became more problematic. And when Nick Collins was taken off the field strapped to a plank after a scary looking injury, things got even more troublesome. We just learned this afternoon that Collins is out for the season, which is terrible news, but I am thankful that he was well enough to return to Green Bay and attend the team meeting to tell his teammates the bad news.

So here we go - Packers and Bears in Week 3, just like last year, with injuries becoming problems for the Packers, and with a lot on the line.  Déjà vu.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Great Opening Night Win

So we decided to take a little journey to the land of the opening night hoopla.  I have been to opening day games before, and there is always a special, "back to football at last!" sort of flavor to the first game, or even to the first home game.  But I have never been to an opening night Thursday game, much less to a special, Thursday night opening game with everyone watching, and with a concert outside the stadium, colored cards for visual stunts taped to the seats, etc. Plus, the last two Super Bowl Champions facing off, Rodgers vs. Brees, the Packers' long list of receivers vs. the Saints' long list of receivers, fireworks being shot off, the whole nine yards.  You could certainly say that the game had a playoff feel to it.

Last week I wondered if the Packers would remember lessons learned from last year and stay aggressive.  Early returns suggest that they remember very well.  They started the game in a modified no-huddle type of offense, which worked so well during the pre-season and at times last year, and drove right down the field for a touchdown on the first drive.  A fumble recovery led to another quick touchdown, before the pace of the game settled down a bit.  They were also aggressive enough on defense to put a lot of heat on Drew Brees.  You could perhaps criticize Mike McCarthy for going a little bit into his shell on the last couple of offensive possessions.  I suppose that if the game goes down to the very last play with the winner in doubt, maybe it is fair to say that McCarthy went conservative a little too early.

Except for those last couple of possessions, the Packers' offense looked great.  Do did the Saints' offense.  Stuck in traffic on the way up to Green Bay, I heard various predictions on the radio about how the offenses are always behind the defenses at this time of year, so the score would probably be something like 17-13.  Yeah, right.  These offenses were on fire, in a way that I thought was not a poor reflection on the defenses so much as it was a sign of excellence on the offensive side of the ball.

Speaking of which, stuck in traffic again on the way back from Green Bay, we heard some Bears fan call in to NFL Satellite Radio, licking his chops about how bad the Packers' and Saints' defenses are, and predicting a 3-0 record for the Bears after facing the Falcons, Saints and Packers.  Talk about whistling past the graveyard!  I think 1-2 or 0-3 are far more likely.  We shall see, but despite the fact that the Bears won the division last year, played the Packers very tough, almost knocked them out of the playoffs, and almost beat them with their third-string quarterback, I am just not sold on the Bears.

Of course, there were some bad things in the game, like the old special teams problem rearing its ugly head, and some unnecessary penalties.  There was a scary-looking injury to Tramon Williams, but it appears that it is not as serious as it looked.  On the whole, what a great way to start the season for the Packers.  And for the NFL and NBC, I don't know how they could have asked for a better game.  On the offensive side of the ball, the Packers got a lift from the return of Jermichael Finley, and the combination of Ryan Grant and James Starks looks like it should be productive.  And then there was Randall Cobb.  A rookie, backup receiver and kick returner, scores his first two touchdowns on a huge stage, ties an all-time kickoff return record, and becomes the first NFL player born in the 1990's!

The Packers' defense, despite giving up 34 points, came up with two huge stops to save the game - first on a 4th and inches play late in the third quarter.  The Packers must have smelled a pass, because they came after Brees, chased him backwards about 20 yards, before he finally got rid of the ball on a short pass that had no chance of resulting in a first down.  Then, after an interference call on A.J. Hawk on what should have been the last play of the game, the Saints got one final chance, with zero seconds left, to get the ball in the end zone from the 1 yard line.  Maybe because of the 4th and inches failure earlier, Sean Payton decided to switch things up and try a dive by Mark Ingram over the center of the line.  But the Packers, this time, smelled the run (one of the defensive linemen said something about seeing the Saints' offensive linemen clenching their fists, and they knew it would be a running play).  So the defensive linemen went low, to avoid being pushed backwards, and four linebackers and defensive backs went high to stuff Darren Sproles Mark Ingram for no gain.  Final score: Packers 42, Saints 34.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Thoughts on Packers-Saints Opener

Having watched the Packers' preseason games this year, I have mixed feelings leading up to Thursday night's opening game.  On the one hand, the Packers' starters looked pretty good in all four games, especially on offense when they were in the no-huddle.  On the other hand, the Packers ended up behind in all 4 games, lost one, and had to have the second and third-stringers stage rallies to win the other three.  So what does that tell us?  Probably very little.  While I think Mike McCarthy was trying to win every game, his primary focus had to be on player evaluation (given the limited preseason evaluation time available), and on keeping his starters healthy which, for the most part, he did.

It seemed to many of us that Mike McCarthy evolved as a coach last season, culminating in him putting together a six-game win streak to become World Champions.  I felt that McCarthy and Dom Capers got to a point where they had enough confidence in their starters (even their starters after all of the injuries), that they felt comfortable enough to have all options on the table (onside kicks, aggressive blitzing packages, aggressive offensive play-calling including the no-huddle offense).  That evolution was a long time in coming and, in fairness, would not have been a good move earlier in the Aaron Rodgers era when McCarthy didn't have as much confidence in his offense, and when Capers knew that his defense was not quite ready.

Now the question is: will the coaches remember those lessons learned, and continue with the aggressive approach they used at the end of the season?  Or will they start out playing their cards close to the vest, hoping to come out of their shells later?

I thought back to an interesting article from February, in which the author, Mike Spofford, describes a conversation McCarthy had with Aaron Rodgers before the Super Bowl.  McCarthy told Rodgers that he (McCarthy) would be the aggressive one with the play calling, but Rodgers would have to be the disciplined one with the decisions.  Not to pick old scabs off old wounds, but can you imagine McCarthy, or Mike Sherman, putting the burden on Brett Favre to be the disciplined one?  Yeah, neither can I.

So the challenge for McCarthy is to continue that same approach Thursday night.  The Saints are a great football team, despite their shocking playoff loss to the Seahawks.  If McCarthy and the Packers come out playing tentatively, the result could be bad.  They need to come out aggressively and take the game right to the Saints.  With Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant back, and with the emergence of James Starks, it is hard to see how the Packers' offense can be contained, so long as Aaron Rodgers gets some time.  And even after the loss of Cullen Jenkins, there are still enough playmakers on defense to cause some problems.