Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Packers' Best Game of the Year

Green Bay Press-Gazette Photo by Evan Siegle
Loss-Win-Loss-Win-Loss-Win.  Could a team be any more inconsistent than that?  Which team is the real Packer team?  The team of the collapse of epic proportions from the Colts game?  Or the team that went out and knocked off the unbeaten Texans, on the road, in convincing fashion?  I wish I knew.

Until the Texans game, you could say that the Packers had not performed particularly well in any game.  They lost to the 49ers, Seahawks and Colts.  The Packers were outplayed and out-coached by the 49ers.  There may be an asterisk next to the Seahawks loss, but you wouldn't want to have to defend the proposition that the Packers played well in that game.  And as for the Colts game, the Packers played a good first half, and then fell apart at the seams to lose the game.

What about the two previous wins?  The Packers beat the Bears solidly, but then again I am not really a believer in Cutler or the Bears, despite their division-leading 4-1 record, so color me somewhat unimpressed.  The win against the Saints was important and satisfying at one level, but (a) they barely beat the Saints and could easily have lost; and (b) the Saints are not the Saints of a couple of years ago.  So the Packers not only needed a win against the Texans, they needed a convincing one, for the sake of their own confidence and the confidence of their fans.  This game ought to do the trick.  The Texans were not only undefeated, they were looking like a Super Bowl contender.  They had one of the highest-powered offenses in the league, featuring Arian Foster and Andre Johnson.

Despite all that, the Packers outplayed the Texans from the first possession on, and won the game 42-24.  They looked good on offense, and on defense, and on special teams (other than the blocked punt that was recovered for a TD).  Alex Green did a solid if unspectacular job of replacing Cedric Benson, and the passing game looked the best it has looked all season, even if it is still not quite at the level of last year.  On defense, the Packers put pressure on Schaub all night long, sacked him three times, and intercepted him three times.  Both Foster and Johnson were kept in check, and Schaub finished with 232 yards, no TDs and 2 interceptions.

The frequently frustrating James Jones seems to be taking a step forward this year.  He has caught two TD passes in 3 consecutive games, including the sensational catch pictured above.  No Packers player has done that since DON HUTSON did it a long time ago.  That seems impossible to believe.  Jennings, Driver, Freeman, Brooks, Sharpe, Lofton, Dale, McGee, Dowler, and Howton never did it, but Hutson and Jones did?  That is pretty remarkable company.  Speaking of Packer records, how about Aaron Rodgers?  He tied the all time Packer record for TDs in a single game (6), set by . . . Matt Flynn last year.

The Packers lost another starter for the year (D.J. Smith) and several other players were knocked out of the game with injuries that looked less serious.  The backups played well, especially rookie defensive back Casey Hayward, who made two interceptions and looked great.  Now the Packers will finish their three game road trip at St. Louis, where the Rams are also 3-3.  The Packers are favored in this game, so you would certainly think that they have a good chance of winning 2 of 3 on the road trip, and getting above .500 for the first time this year.  Maybe the Packers have the rest of the league exactly where they want them, with a 3-3 record, just like they had in 2010.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Quarter Season Review

Photo from Facebook Timeline
With a quarter of the regular season behind them, where do the Packers stand?  They scratched their way back to even with a 2-2 record, by beating the desperate New Orleans Saints, 28-27, last Sunday.  But they came uncomfortably close to losing a second game in a row attributable in part to bad calls, this time by the returning regular referees. 

Late in the second quarter, the Packers led, 21-7, so it is unfortunate that they even put themselves in a position to possibly lose the game.  The big play allowing them to build the 21-7 lead was another trick play on special teams.  In the second quarter, on 4th and 1 from the Packers' own 17 yard line, McCarthy called a fake punt, a direct snap to John Kuhn who gained 5 yards and the first down.  I admire the gutsy nature of the call, and I am glad that Coach McCarthy has enough confidence in his players to make crazy calls like this.  But the key word is "crazy."  I just think this kind of a call, at that point in the game, is reckless.  The play worked, so McCarthy comes out as the hero.  I still think it is the wrong call.

At the quarter season mark, here are the things I like best about the way the Packers are playing.  I like the renewed emphasis on the running game.  It is an interesting question how Cedric Benson matches up with Ryan Grant, or with other Packer running backs in recent history.  (A satirical look at this question is here.)  But whatever the answer, the Packers seem to be working themselves into a state of mind where they are putting more reliance on the run.  This is a very good thing, given the sack totals against Rodgers this year when they forget about the run.  I like the gutsy calls on special teams, even though I happen to think the one discussed above was a reckless one.  It keeps the other teams guessing, and until the Packers start to get burned on these calls, there is no downside.  I also like the way the Packers are finding innovative ways to use Randall Cobb.  He is a really talented young player on a team that is overloaded with receivers.  So every time they find a different way to use him, it is a plus.  I am also beginning to get a good feeling about some of the new defensive players, Nick Perry and Casey Hayward in particular.

My biggest overall concerns about the team so far are these.  First, the offense, although effective enough to win most of the time, just has not seemed right.  Maybe it is not realistic to compare this year's offense to last year's, which was nearly unstoppable most of the time.  But between dropped passes, passes off the mark, and 16 sacks given up, the offense is under-performing.  Second is the defensive play-calling, and here I am thinking primarily of the Saints game.  I can understand Dom Capers being concerned about leaving his rookie defensive players too exposed, but when you give up 446 passing yards to Drew Brees and almost lose the game, something is not going too well.  Capers sometimes has a tendency to rush 3 or 4 against an elite quarterback, and drop everybody else in coverage.  In theory this could work, but in practice doesn't it seem as if the elite quarterback always carves up the Packers' defense?  You could say that the Packers gave up an 80 yard TD pass to Morgan in the Saints game on a play where they did rush more players, undercutting my argument.  But the truth is that the TD resulted from a coverage breakdown by the defensive backs, not as a result of applying more pressure.  Finally, there are clock management / challenge issues.  In the Saints game in particular, McCarthy made a poor decision on a challenge in the first half, and another challenge later, which left him with no challenges left when Darren Sproles fumbled the kickoff after the Packers went ahead, 28-27.  It was a flat-out blown call, but McCarthy had no opportunity to get the call reversed, due to the lack of challenges.

So now the Packers head off on a three game road trip, to Indianapolis (1-2), Houston (4-0) and St. Louis (3-2).  It is really important that they come away with at least two wins on the trip, and of course the most obvious game that they "should" win is at the Colts tomorrow.  They need to start to re-claim that killer instinct, where they go in and put a game away early on.  Let's hope they get it done.