Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Packers' Record-Breaking Performance

Photo by Rob Grabowski, USA Today Sports
Karma moment of the year is pictured in the USA Today photo - Brandon Meriweather being taken off the field after his second helmet-on-helmet hit against a Packers running back.  The first one knocked Eddie Lacy out of the game with a concussion.  In the second one, Meriweather knocked himself out with a concussion.  Both the Packer players and the fans in the stadium gave him a nice hand on his way off the field.  In that regard, they are much more generous than I am.  I was glad to see him knock himself out of the game before he injured anybody else. 

Either the league is serious about preventing helmet-to-helmet hits, or it is not.  If it is, Meriweather should be suspended, especially because he has a history as a head-hunter.  Ndamukong Suh just last week got a $100,000 fine, when anybody else without his history would have been fined much less.  Given Meriweather's history, nothing but a suspension will suffice.

But back to the game itself, a game filled with big smiles on the Packer sidelines and in the stands.  The Packers completely dominated the game, from start to finish, leading at one point in the third quarter by 31-0, before finishing the game 38-20, a misleading score if I ever saw one.

My favorite things about this game?  Just about everything.  Better decisions on kick returns by Jeremy Ross, a score on the opening drive despite back-to-back sacks, aggressive play on offense, including the no-huddle and a 4th down touchdown pass, aggressive play on defense, including swarming run defense and nice use of blitzes at appropriate times.  James Starks, playing in relief of Eddie Lacy, had the first 100 yard rushing game by a Packer since Brandon Jackson did it in 2010.  He also made great decisions on individual running plays, and he was the beneficiary of the Packers' old staple play, the screen pass - something they should run more often, because it was successful in both games this season.  The only real negative was the fact that the Packers gave up 4 sacks, which is not the way to keep Aaron Rodgers upright and healthy the whole year.

Speaking of records, Aaron Rodgers tied the Packers' single game passing record at 480 yards.  He shares that record with the perennial backup, Matt Flynn (now playing backup for the third team in as many seasons).  The Packers also had a 400 yard passing game and a 100 yard rusher in the same game for the first time in the long history of the franchise.  To take it one step further, no team in NFL history had a 450 yard passing game and a 125 yard rushing game in the same game, until the Packers did it on Sunday.  And finally, the Packers had the second-most YAC (yards after catch) in a game in the history of the NFL on Sunday (295 YAC).

So at 1-1, trailing the Bears by a game in the NFC North, the Packers have something to build on as they play the Bengals, in Cincinnati on Sunday, hoping to go 2-1 before their very early bye week.  In the wake of the 49ers game in week 1, I was personally worried about the possibility of the Packers going 0-3.  I was still worried about 1-2, but frankly the Bengals did not impress me that much in their Monday night game.  They do have a fearsome pass rush, they have the great A.J. Green and a developing running game with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard.  But I think the Steelers are pretty much all done, and yet they were able to stay close to the Bengals for most of the game.  So I think a team like the Packers has an excellent chance of beating them, even on the road.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Disappointing First Game

Photo by Tom Freeman
It was a tough day at the old ball park on Sunday.  The Packers played much better Sunday than they did in their January trip to Candlestick Park, in almost all aspects of the game.  But it was not enough, and they lost their season-opener to the 49ers for the second year in a row, this time by the score of 34-28.

We knew this was going to be a tough game, as I said last week.  In an effort to change up the karma, we went Packer-stalking Saturday night, and did manage to find the Packers' hotel, and see several Packers in the lobby (James Jones and Clay Matthews).  We used to do this back in the 1990's, and the Packers won all but one of those Green Bay at San Francisco games.  Jones was talking to unidentified teammates about his routes.  (Since he had no catches on Sunday, maybe he needed to spend more time talking about his routes.)  Matthews was talking to a friend in a very animated fashion, right before going into a team meeting at 8:00 pm.  The animation carried over to Sunday, when he played with intensity all day long (including the one play where he overdid it).

As for the day of the game, things were mixed, both on and off the field.  Off the field, things started out very well, as we attended a great tailgate party hosted by our Packer fan friends, Hazel and John.  We arrived in the stadium and were lucky enough to have really excellent seats (the picture above was taken from the seats).  But after such a great start, the game began.  I have to admit that, objectively speaking, it was a very good and entertaining game, but for us, it was painful, for obvious reasons.  After the game, we were stuck in massive traffic jams, perhaps due in part to the novelty of the newly-reconfigured Bay Bridge.  It took us well over 3 hours in traffic to get home, although in retrospect some of that time was lost in unsuccessful attempts to find a way around all the traffic. 

But hey, it could have been a lot worse: at least we didn't fall off the elevated Jamestown Street walkway outside of Candlestick Park and die, as one drunk football fan did on Sunday just as the game was getting started.  It turns out that he fell off a pedestrian bridge that allows fans to cross Jamestown Street  to enter the stadium's main parking lot from above without disrupting traffic.  We used the same bridge on our way in and out of the stadium on Sunday, where we encountered other drunk 49ers fans (the deceased was a 49ers fan).  You would have to be pretty drunk, or pretty stupid, or both, to fall off this bridge, since there is a railing 3.5 to 4 feet high on the entire bridge (the bridge is pictured in the photo in this KTVU story).

As for the play of the Packers on the field, I had mixed feelings.  There is no non-division team I want to beat more than the 49ers, so the game was obviously a major disappointment.  And yet, despite the fact that the Packers were either tied or behind most of the game, so that it was at all times easier to imagine the 49ers winning the game than the Packers, there was a lot of good to take away from the Packers' loss.  I liked the extensive use of the no-huddle offense by the Packers.  The play of Jermichael Finley was also appreciated, and it really does look as if the pre-season talk about him being ready to have a break-out year may be justified.  I liked the play of Eddie Lacy, who fumbled once and struggled to get started, but who looked better the longer the game went on, and who really looked good when he got in the open field, particularly on a screen pass in the first quarter.  The play of the offensive line was a pleasant surprise, as they did a pretty good job protecting Rodgers despite the absence of Bulaga.  And I liked the aggressive play of the defense, particularly Clay Matthews, despite his costly error on the late hit out of bounds.  To Matthews' credit, he owned up to the mistake, calling it "not a very smart play," but given the pre-game talk about going after the quarterback, I thought he was a little lucky not to be thrown out of the game.  And I really liked seeing Johnny Jolly back and in extended action, and I have to wonder how much his presence on the defensive line had to do with the Packers' much better play against the run.

To me, the difference in the game came down to two things, turnovers and injuries.  Eddie Lacy had the ball stripped from him in a pile, resulting in a 49er touchdown, and a ball bounced off Finley's hands and was intercepted, although the 49ers did not score on the ensuing drive.  Meanwhile, the Packers forced no turnovers on defense.

As for injuries, the Packers played without two starting-quality defensive backs, Morgan Burnett and Casey Hayward (who is technically not a starter, but is a strong contributor in many defensive packages).  The Packers played a lot of zone defense in the game, which I think makes sense given their emphasis on stopping Kaepernick from running.  Scrambling quarterbacks frequently pick up lots of extra yards against a man-to-man defense, because some of the defenders have their backs to the ball and realize too late that the quarterback is running.  So it made good sense to play the zone, but Anquan Bolding and Vernon Davis were able, very effectively, to exploit the gaps in the zone, especially in the middle of the field, and without Morgan Burnett and Casey Hayward on the field, the Packers were just not able to make enough plays to stop them.  The Packers played pretty well, much better than in either of the 49er games last year, they had their chances to win this game, and they were in the game until the final play, all without Burnett and Hayward.  Would they have made the difference?  Who knows, but the Packers' chances would have been better with them playing.

This week, The Washington Redskins (yes, I called them the Redskins) come to town for the opening game at Lambeau Field.  This will be the second of three straight games against playoff teams from last year to start the season, and the only home game of the three.  I expect to see the Packers win the game.  As compared to last week, the Packers will pick up the home field advantage, plus it looks hopeful that Morgan Burnett will be back.  On the Redskins' side, while I like RG III a lot as a player, I think he is less likely, given his injury last year, to take off running than was Kaepernick.  I don't think the Redskins receivers or tight ends are as good as those of the 49ers, and I don't think the Redskins' defense is anywhere near as good as the defense of the 49ers.  Put all of these factors together, and I think you have the recipe for a win for the home team.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Another Season, Another 49er Opener

Today I went to the local DMV counter at the AAA office here in the suburbs of San Francisco.  My purpose was to get my "PACK FAN" plates reassigned to my new car.  The clerk asked, in a good-natured fashion, if I wanted to switch the plates today or wait until after the game on Sunday.  He also pointed out that they are offering a free 49ers blanket if I get an insurance quote.  The funny thing is, this office is in the East Bay, much closer to Oakland than to San Francisco, and yet they are not offering any Raiders blankets.  Yes, I love these California bandwagon-jumpers.

Lots of pregame coverage around here revolving around the rules for hitting read-option quarterbacks.  First, the NFL put out a media training video that explains the rules (warning: it takes forever to load - NFL Video).  The bottom line of the video is that a read-option QB is considered a runner, whether or not he actually has the ball, until he is out of the play or is in a "passing posture" (for example, standing upright, either still or backing away from the play).  So if the QB hands off the ball but continues to run forward in order to continue the uncertainty about who has the ball, he is in a "running posture" and can be tackled.  When Bay Area media asked Clay Matthews about this the other day, he explained the rule as the Packers understand it.  Which caused Jim Harbaugh to immediately start whining about the Packers' "tough talk," saying that he has contacted the league office to ask for clarification of the rule, and also intends to talk to the officials in the stadium on Sunday about what he perceives as sounding like the targeting of a specific player.

At least one member of the Bay Area lapdog sports media was right there with Harbaugh. "What’s behind the NFL’s failure to protect read-option quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick?"  Maybe that had something to do with the fact that Harbaugh upped the ante on Friday by saying that the rule is "flawed and biased."  My sense (and hope) is that this issue will fade away, one way or the other.  The league's rule is not new - only the explanation and examples are new.  Obviously, if the QB is either running the ball or trying to deceive the defense as to who is carrying the ball, the QB has to be treated as a ball carrier, and not as a quarterback entitled to special protection against harm.  One of two things is likely to happen with respect to this rule and this game.  Either Harbaugh will cut down or even eliminate the usage of the read-option, to protect Kaepernick, or he won't, and Kaepernick will take some hits.  If the Packers are able to do this with some discipline and discretion (an open question), it might work out well for them.

On a personal level, I don't think I have been as pessimistic about a 49ers-Packers game since that first playoff game back in January, 1996.  Then, I just assumed that the defending Champion 49ers would win, and I didn't know if Favre and the Packers were ready to compete on that level.

This time, my pessimism comes from the fact that the 49ers were almost impossible to stop late in the year and in the playoffs last year.  The Packers, by contrast, just were not on any kind of a roll at the end of the year, and blew the chance for a bye week by losing to the Vikings in the final regular-season game.  I know that the preseason doesn't mean much (if anything at all).  Still, in the preseason this year, the Packers have just not done anything to give me a lot of confidence.  I am enthusiastic about Eddie Lacy bringing a new dimension to the offense, but that enthusiasm is tempered by the loss of DuJuan Harris and Brian Bulaga for the year, and I don't know if it is reasonable to assume that they will have a successful running game together by Week 1 of the season.  On defense, I find it encouraging that the Packers spent a lot of time studying how to stop the read-option during the offseason (and I will set aside the question of why they didn't do a little of that homework in preparation for the playoff game last year), but the Packers will still be without Casey Hayward (out with a hamstring) and probably without Morgan Burnett (also with a hamstring).

The Packers have enough talent to go in and win this game.  And maybe the 49ers will turn out to be a bit of a one-year wonder.  But if I honestly predict the winner of the game, I see the 49ers winning, in a closer game than the playoff game last year.