Friday, October 21, 2011

Ponder-ing the Vikings Game

(Green Bay Press-Gazette photo of Charles Woodson and Al Harris embracing after the game)

"Boring." That is the description that a family member, and the Packergeeks, both used to describe the Packers' 24-3 win over the Rams last week, bringing the Packers' record to 6-0, and leaving them as the last undefeated team in the league.  I didn't really agree with that, until I tried to watch the game again, and found myself day-dreaming about other things.  But hey, boring isn't a bad thing when your team is 6-0.

One of the more "interesting" plays in the game was turned in by Sam Shields.  He made a great play on the ball to intercept Sam Bradford's pass in the end zone.  But he ended up getting a concussion after running around in the end zone trying to decide whether to try to return the ball.  I have to say that was one stupid play on his part. Watching it on TV, it is always difficult to know what the player sees, or thinks he sees, from his angle. Here he makes a great play to intercept the ball in the end zone, but instead of either running the ball out, or kneeling to end the play, he ran all the way from one edge of the end zone toward the other, evidently trying to find a seam to run the ball out. Instead he was hammered on the play and did not return. That is one painful way to get a touchback.

The Packers continue to look pretty much unstoppable on offense, although I suppose it sounds strange to say that when the team did not score in the second half.  But when you are ahead 24-3 at halftime, and when the opponent does not score in the second half either, it might be a little obsessive to worry much about that.  On defense, the Packers continue to give up way too many yards, and have not seemed, all year, to be as dominant as they were at times last year.  But, for whatever reason, they seem to be able to make plays and stiffen in the red zone.  The challenge for the defense would be to learn to play that way on the rest of the field, so you don't have to come up with the big play in the red zone.

"We're 7 days from being 7-0, and that's our message."  When I first saw this quote from Mike McCarthy, I almost cringed.  Bulletin Board Material!  And I suppose it is bulletin board material.  But on second thought, this is just the new Mike McCarthy, the one we have seen since late last season.  The one who said "we are nobody's underdog" in connection with the game against the Patriots.  The one who had the team measured for Super Bowl rings the night before the Super Bowl.  The one who has an empty frame in the team meeting room, waiting for the portrait of the next Packer Super Bowl Champions.  He seems to have a strategy here, that expressing high expectations for the team, and challenging them to meet those expectations, serves as motivation.  Motivation is a funny thing, but this technique seems to be working.  You would think that at this level, players can motivate themselves, and that nobody needs emotional halftime speeches to get ready to play the second half.  You would think that a player like Aaron Rodgers doesn't need to use long-ago perceived slights as motivation to play better, but he does, and it also seems to be working.  As long as the Packers continue to win most (or all!) of the games against good teams, and avoid letdowns against the bad teams, they are going to continue to win a lot of games.

Since joining the NFL in 1921, the Packers have been 6-0 only 5 other times, and in all 5 of those seasons, they won the league’s championship:1929, ’30, ’31, ’62 and ’65.  And here is another obscure stat for you:  5 of the last 6 teams to start 6-0 have made it to the Super Bowl.

The Vikings have announced that they are benching Donovan McNabb, and that Christian Ponder will be the starting QB for the rest of the year.  It will be interesting to see how he plays.  It is a daunting task to make your first start against the undefeated defending World Champions.  On the other hand, you' have nothing to lose in that circumstance.  You are expected to lose the game, and everyone will understand if you do.  It is all upside, just like when Cam Newton lost to the Packers and all anyone could talk about was how good he looked.  I expect the Packers to be 7-0 going into the bye week, so the stats junkies should get ready to pour through the record books looking for 7-0 teams and how they do.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Packers 5-0 on the Way to 7-0?

(Photo from the Green Bay Press-Gazette.)
Since I am late in writing about last week's Packers-Falcons game, which the Packers won 25-14, I will offer a few comments about the game before turning my attention to the next couple of games.

When the Falcons got the opening kickoff, and started at the 20, one thing I did not expect to happen was for them to go on an 80 yard, 13 play drive to score a touchdown, then recover a Ryan Grant fumble to end a promising drive, then go on another long drive to go up 14-0.

On the one hand, I did believe, going into the game, that the Packers exposed the weakness of the Falcons' defense in the playoff game last year.  And when the Falcons lost 30-12 to the Bears in week 1 of this year, my view of the Falcons' weaknesses were reinforced.  But on the other hand, they were the no. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs last year, they still have Michael Turner, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Matt Ryan on offense, and now they have added Julio Jones.  So starting with a 14 point lead, they were going to be tough to beat, especially since the Packers were never behind any team all of last year by more than 7 points.

But then just like that, the game changed.  We maybe did not realize it at first, because the Packers' first three scoring drives resulted in field goals, not touchdowns.  But the bottom line is that the Packers shut out the Falcons during the last 43 minutes of the game, while going on 6 scoring drives of their own, putting up 25 unanswered points.  There were big passing touchdowns to Jones and Jennings, and there were a total of 4 field goals.  The Falcons could not stop the Packers, all they could do is just contain the damage.

How did the Packers change things around so thoroughly?  To counteract the loss of OT Chad Clifton early in the game, the Packers started rolling Rodgers out more, and keeping an extra blocker in the backfield on many occasion, just to make sure he did not get killed back there.  Rodgers spread out the ball to 12 different receivers during the game, keeping the Falcons off balance.  And most importantly, after the Grant fumble on the first drive, the Packers never gave the ball away again.

On the defensive side, the Packers seemed to keep the Falcons guessing at all times.  Sometimes they would rush only 3 or 4, dropping everybody else in coverage, and at other times (increasingly as the game went on), they would bring extra pressure on Ryan.  He was very active in changing plays at the line of scrimmage, but he could not out-think Dom Capers, and was picked off twice, and pressured into bad throws many times.

All in all, it was a great example of the Packers' coaching staff adjusting their game plans on the fly, adapting to the changing circumstances on the field.  It was, in some ways, the Packers' best game of the year.  My biggest concern at this point is that everybody is getting a little too confident about the Packers.  My buddy Dick Karth said that this was one of the most impressive games he has seen.  Noted Packer blogger Jersey Al, on the Cheesehead Radio broadcast this week, said he is as "giddy as a schoolgirl" about the Packers.  That is fine, I feel pretty good about the Packers myself.  I just hope that the players are not reading all of their own press clippings, especially going into potential "trap games" like they have both this week against the 0-4 Rams, and next week against the 1-4 Vikings.

As one would expect, the danger is not lost on the coaching staff, which has gone out of its way to remind the Packers of their loss to the 0-7 Buccaneers two years ago.  I don't expect the players or the coaches to let that happen again.  The Packers are too good to lose to the Rams at home, and I would be nothing short of shocked if they do.  The Vikings game next week is a little different, because it is a rivalry game, and it is on the road.  Still, I really expect the Packers to be 7-0 next Sunday night, heading into a well-deserved bye week.

Some interesting notes on the Rams game: Rams Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo was the Defensive Coordinator for the Giants at the time of that painful NFC Championship game after the 2007 season (also known as Favre's last game for the Packers).  So he is a pretty good coach, but I don't think that he has the horses at the moment.  Former Packers Al Harris, Brady Poppinga, and Josh Gordy all play for the Rams.  It appears Al Harris may start against the Packers, and I would expect a very warm welcome from the crowd.  He was a great player for the Packers during his prime, and he left only because of a combination of injury and advancing age.  I don't think I will ever forget his "Thank You Note" to the fans when he was released.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Packers and Lions Both Still Undefeated

(Photo from the Green Bay Press-Gazette)

The Packers finished the first quarter of their season on Sunday, by beating the Denver Broncos by the score of 49-23.  Based on the way the Lions and Packers finished last year, I am not surprised that they are both doing well so far this year.  But I am stunned that there are only two 4-0 teams left in the NFL, and they are both in the NFC North!  Unless one of these teams goes on a losing streak, every game the Packers and Lions play becomes important.  Neither team wants to fall behind the other with both looking so good.

It would be tough to overstate how great Aaron Rodgers looked in this game.  He became the only quarterback in history to throw for more than 400 yards, and throw four touchdown passes, and rush for two touchdowns in a single game.  James Starks did a credible job rushing with Ryan Grant sitting out this game, and the wide receivers stepped up when the Broncos decided to make sure that Jermichael Finley did not have a repeat of his 3 touchdown performance against the Bears.  I have to admit that when Donald Driver was taken off on a cart in the second quarter, I thought he would be out for some time and, given his age, it certainly seemed possible that we had just witnessed the end of his career.  When he came back into the huddle at the beginning of the second half, and ultimately scored a touchdown, the sense of relief, admiration and inspiration in the stadium was palpable, even just watching it on TV.  He is one of the good guys, and will always be remembered as such.

Meanwhile, problems continue on the defensive side of the team.  The problems are most glaring when long passes are completed against the Packers, and so the obvious solution is better secondary play.  Even Dom Capers seems to attribute the problems to changes in the secondary, with Morgan Burnett stepping in to replace Nick Collins.  While this undoubtedly is part of the problem, I don't think that the defensive backs are the only problem.  From my viewing of the game, I come down on the side of those who say that the problem starts with the lack of pressure on the quarterback (for example, take at the game summary by the Packergeeks).  Unlike during the run to and through the playoffs last year, the Packers' defensive line is just not getting enough pressure on the quarterback - or at a minimum, they did not get enough pressure on Sunday.  Was it the failure to sign free agent Cullen Jenkins during the off-season, who signed instead with the team formerly known as the Dream Team?  Was it the injury to Mike Neal?  Obviously, both of these contributed to the problem, but so far, Dom Capers has not found the solution.  When three or four rush the quarterback, the quarterback usually has plenty of time to sit back and wait for something to develop.  Only when Capers sends additional rushers does the quarterback have to rush his passes, and then of course there are fewer guys left in coverage, so it is easier to complete the passes.  If you saw the Jets-Ravens game on Sunday night, you saw an example of pass rush by the Ravens that was so overpowering there was not much Mark Sanchez could do.  When they blitzed, they got there so fast Sanchez had little chance to unload the ball, and even when they didn't blitz, they still got enough pressure on him to disrupt things.  I have not seen enough of that from the Packers this year.

What a pair of prime time games we have coming up this week.  Sunday night, it is the Packers returning to the home of last year's no. 1 seed Atlanta Falcons, hoping to repeat their performance from last year in the playoffs.  On Monday night, the undefeated Lions host the NFC North Champion Bears.  Lots of potential playoff implications in these two games.  For the Falcons and the Bears, it is a chance to start to recover from their disappointing 2-2 starts, and get back over .500 for the year.  For the Packers and the Lions, it is a chance to go to 5-0 and state a solid case for being elite teams in 2011.  For both teams, it will be another significant test, after starting out with the same record against similar teams.

The Packers have beaten two good teams (Saints and Bears), and two mediocre teams (Panthers and Broncos).  The Lions have beaten two pretty good teams (Buccaneers and Cowboys), and two mediocre teams (Chiefs and Vikings).  The major difference is that the Lions have had to stage startling comebacks in two of their games (Vikings and Cowboys).  This shows that the Lions have learned how to win, and that they never give up.  But it also shows a weakness, in falling so far behind to one bad team (Vikings) and to one pretty good but nicked up team (Cowboys).  They can't keep that up forever.  Either they get better in the early stages of games, or they start falling short in their furious comebacks.  The Lions are better than the Bears, and they are playing at home.  I think they will be 5-0.  In the case of the Packers, I acknowledge the power of the "revenge" factor for the playoff game last year, but the Packers overcame the same factor against the Bears.  The Falcons offense just does not seem as strong as it was last year (they only scored 12 and 13 points in their two losses), while their defense seems just as vulnerable as the Packers showed it to be last year.  I think the Packers will also be 5-0.