Monday, October 21, 2013

Despite Injuries, Packers Roll into First Place

Photo Courtesy of
This turned out to be an eventful weekend in the NFC North, on a couple of levels.  In the early games on Sunday, the Bears lost to the Redskins in a high-scoring game (41-45).  The Redskins manufactured an excellent drive in the final two minutes, and went ahead on a final minute touchdown run by Roy Helu.  Minutes earlier, the Lions had lost to the Bengals (24-27) on a final play field goal.  Going into this week's games, the Bears and Lions were both at 4-2, while the Packers trailed in third place at 3-2.  So as soon as the Bears and Lions lost, the Packers found themselves in first place in the division, for the first time this year, although obviously they needed to win their game in order to stay in first place.  Which they did, beating the Browns 31-13, in a game that was never in doubt after the Packers scored touchdowns on their first two drives.  This was a simple case of a better team beating an inferior team.

The Packers played the game in their historic blue and gold throwback uniforms, this year featuring plain gold helmets, instead of the plain brown helmets they have used for the past few years.  As a point of historical trivia, this game between the Packers and the Browns featured both teams playing in plain helmets, with no logo (since the Browns always play without a logo).  This presumably is the first Packer game since 1960 in which neither team had a helmet logo, because the Packers added the "G" logo to their helmets in 1961.  In this game, the Packers did a very good job of compensating for their injury-depleted roster.  The Packers played without linebackers Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Brad Jones, and without receivers and tight ends Randall Cobb, James Jones and Ryan Taylor, and would lose Jermichael Finley during the game.  But the backups played very well.  WR Jarrett Boykin, who looked very iffy when pressed into service a week ago, looked great on Sunday, having his first 100 yard receiving game, and his first NFL touchdown.  On the defensive side, A.J. Hawk had another big day, racking up 12 total tackles, and backup linebacker Jamari Lattimore got another 12 tackles and a sack.  Rookie linebacker Nate Palmer added another 6 tackles. 

Sunday was an absolutely brutal day on the injury front in the NFL.  The Bears lost Jay Cutler for 4 weeks with a torn groin, and also lost LB Lance Briggs for 6 weeks, during the game.  The Colts lost Reggie Wayne for the season, the Bengals lost Leon Hall, the Buccaneers lost Doug Martin, the Texans lost Brian Cushing, and the Rams lost Sam Bradford.  The scariest injury of all was the potentially life-altering injury to Packers tight end Jermichael Finley.  Finley took a blow to the head or neck on a tackle, and initially could not move after hitting the ground, was taken off on a cart and spent the night in the intensive care unit of a Green Bay hospital.  The latest news as of the writing of this blog post suggests that Finley is up, walking around, and in good spirits.  So it looks like he will OK in "real life."  What about his football life?  It may be some time before we know the answer to that one.  I wish him nothing but the best.

While I was finalizing this post, I saw references on the internet to Finley's twitter account, where he sent out a set of tweets late today, saying:
"I want to thank my family, friends, teammates, fans and Packer Nation for the prayers and support over the past 24 hrs. I'm happy to report that I have been transferred out of the intensive care unit and that I have full feeling in my arms and legs. As importantly, I was able 2 walk to & from the shower today, which was badly needed after yesterday's victory! Thank u again 4 the support, and Go Packers!" 
Great news to hear, and I hope that he recovers quickly, and that his injury does not turn out to be career threatening.

To finish out the NFC North's weekend, the Vikings played at the New York Giants on Monday Night Football.  I have to say, both these teams look just terrible.  They both have some talent on defense, but they can't get their act together on offense.  Eli Manning, despite having targets like Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, can't get the passing game going, and the Giants' running game is a mess. 

The Vikings are now starting their fourth quarterback in the last 10 months: Christian Ponder, Joe Webb, Matt Cassel, and now the recently-acquired Josh Freeman.  Josh Freeman could conceivably turn out to be the Vikings' quarterback of the future, but he clearly he is not the Vikings' quarterback of the present until he learns more of the playbook.  The Vikings' next game is against the Packers, at the Metrodome, next Sunday night.  Will Freeman be ready?  I don't think so.  Does Greg Jennings miss playing for the Packers?  Based on the ill-will he has shown for the Packers since signing with the Vikings, I guess the answer is no.  But maybe, just maybe, he is starting to realize that things were not so bad in Green Bay, and maybe he would be better off if he was still a Packer.  Since the Packers play the Vikings twice, the Cutler-less Bears once, and the Giants in the next five weeks, I am hoping that these games will provide the opportunity for some wins while the Packers get a little healthier.  It starts in Minnesota this week, and I am looking forward to a solid win for the Packers on Monday night.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Injury Carousel Continues

Photo by Evan Siegle, Press-Gazette Media
Linebacker Nick Perry, shown in the photo, was one of the Packer players who sustained significant injuries in Sunday's game against the Ravens, which the Packers hung on to win, 19-17.  The photo shows him forcing the fumble on the second-to-last play of the first half, which resulted in Mason Crosby getting another shot at a field goal, having missed one (his first miss of the season!) a couple of plays earlier.  This time, Crosby made the field goal, in essence providing the margin of victory in the game.  Perry's strip sack was a big-time play.

But apparently on the same play, Perry broke his foot and is expected to miss multiple weeks, meaning both starting outside linebackers, Perry and Matthews, will be out for now.  If Brad Jones is still out this week, then 3 of the 4 starting linebackers will be out.  Time for McCarthy's mantra: next man up!  Speaking of which, what got into A.J. Hawk?  The normally steady but unspectacular Hawk led the team in tackles and assists Sunday (10), in sacks (3) and in tackles for loss (5, including the 3 sacks).  Hawk was not the only defensive player to step up his game on Sunday.  Lots of players contributed, and when you hold Ray Rice to 34 yards rushing, and have a sensational goal-line stand from the 4 yard line, the defense is playing a great game.

If anything, though, the injuries to James Jones and Randall Cobb were more troubling, given that the Packers' passing offense has sputtered, on and off, all season long.  Both were knocked out of the game, with Cobb's injury looking particularly painful.  When you have to cart the player back to the sidelines to watch the rest of the game, it is not a good sign.  After Cobb left the game, the Packers were left with exactly two active and healthy wide receivers on the roster, Jordy Nelson and Jarrett Boykin.  And for awhile, it looked like Boykin had hands of stone, as he dropped several passes before finally holding onto one for an important gain of 43 yards.

Jones' injury turns out to be the less serious of the two, just as we all expected while watching the game, and he might even play this week against the Browns.  But Cobb broke his fibula, and while differing reports were swirling all day Monday, the current consensus estimate is that he might miss 6-8 weeks.

Was the tackle on Cobb a cheap shot?  After Ravens' safety Matt Elam tackled Randall Cobb at his knees, Rodgers let Elam know he wasn't happy about the tackle.  Another defensive player argued back about the limited areas defensive players are now allowed to tackle a ball carrier, which Rodgers admitted was a fair point.  Adam Czech, of Jersey Al's Packers web site, makes a pretty convincing case that there was nothing dirty about the hit.  For myself, I am glad that Rodgers made an issue about it, both during the game and in his press conference after the game, even if we assume that the hit was not illegal.  As I understand Rodgers' point, he isn't exactly arguing that the hit was illegal, or even that it was (necessarily) a dirty hit.  He is arguing that it was completely unnecessary to hit Cobb at the knees, in effect appealing to Elam's better instincts and, more broadly, to try to encourage the players and the league to take a closer look at unnecessarily dangerous hits.  In the same way that a legitimate tackle becomes an illegal hit when the defender picks up the offensive player and slams him into the ground, there ought to be some discretion to treat a tackle like this one as an illegal hit by needlessly exposing the player to injury.

This coming Sunday, the Cleveland Browns come to Green Bay.  With the rash of injuries afflicting the Packers, every game is a potential loss.  When the 3-3 Browns were on their three-game winning streak, they looked dangerous.  But in hindsight, they have only beaten one good team, the Bengals, and they did it at home.  Their other two wins were against the flailing Vikings and the under-performing Bills.  The Packers ought to have enough, with a week to plan around the injuries, to beat the Browns.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Win Over Lions Brings Packers Back to .500

Photo by Tom Freeman
We were lucky enough to attend Sunday's Lions-Packers game (the Packers won, 22-9).  We saw a few things that were not featured in the TV broadcast.

(1) The University of Wisconsin marching band played the national anthem before the game, and they did a nice job of it.  Somewhere out there on the field, Lions center Dominic Raiola was shouting insults and slurs at the band members, but we did not see any of this from the stands.  I am tempted to say that Raiola is typical of the completely classless Detroit Lions organization, starting with Head Coach Jim Schwartz, but if I say that, I also have to give some credit to Lions safety Louis Delmas, who apparently apologized to band members and told them he had enjoyed their performance.

(2) There was a different flyover from the usual Lambeau Field flyover, apparently because of the effects of the government sequestration: the AeroShell Aerobatic team, flying vintage AT-6 propeller planes over the stadium.  If I had realized they were coming, I would have snapped a picture, since it would be a lot easier to catch a picture of them than the usual jets.

(3) Finally, on a completely different note, our friend Andrew Bradley noticed Evan Dietrich-Smith throwing up on the sidelines, if I recall correctly, before the second half started.  I have no idea what that was all about, but it was unpleasant to watch.  It didn't seem to affect his play, however.

Despite all the Packers' sputtering in the red zone, I always felt that the Packers were in charge of this game.  It is certainly true that, leading at halftime by the score of 6-3, the Packers were a broken coverage away from trailing in the game.  But this was not one of those games where it felt very likely that that could happen.  The line provided decent protection to Rodgers (he was only sacked once), Eddie Lacy did a nice job running the ball, gaining 99 yards, and only a penalty late in the game prevented him from going well over 100 yards.  Mason Crosby was 5 for 5 on field goals, including 3 from more than 40 yards.  Did a little competition in training camp help to pull him out of his slump from last year?  Who knows, but right now he is kicking very well.  Speaking of Eddie Lacy, I have never seen him in person before, but he looks a lot bigger on the field, for some reason, than he does on TV.  I wouldn't quite say he has Earl Campbell thighs, but I thought of Earl when I saw Lacy out on the field.  My main critique of Lacy on Sunday was that he doesn't seem, at this stage, to break a lot of tackles.  When he is hit, he tends to go down, but he falls forward for a couple of extra yards when he does.  If he starts breaking tackles, the sky could be the limit for him.

We were surprised, on the way to the stadium, to hear that Calvin Johnson was inactive for the game.  Would he have made the difference for the Lions?  We will never know, but with him out of the lineup, it was much easier to key on Reggie Bush and control the Lions.  And so they lost in Wisconsin again, as they have every year since 1991.

This week, the Packers travel to Baltimore to play the world champion Ravens.  Before the season, I would have seen this game as a likely loss, but I am now much more optimistic about it.  The Ravens, although 3-2, are just not playing like the Ravens of 2012.  Maybe the loss of Ray Lewis and Anquan Boldin hurt them more than I would have imagined, but for whatever reason they just look more beatable to me.  Flacco has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns, and the much-vaunted Ravens running game is producing less than 80 yards per game.

The loss of Clay Matthews for about a month (broken thumb) is very concerning, and indeed three other players have already been declared out for the game (James Starks, Brad Jones, and Greg Van Roten).  The Packers are particularly thin at linebacker.  Three linebackers from Sunday's game will be out - Matthews, Jones, and Robert Francois (now on IR).  So this game will be a real test of the Packers' depth.  It would be nice to see them get above .500 for the first time this year.  Once could make the argument that this is the toughest game left on the Packers' schedule for the year.  This could be a bit of wishful thinking on my part, but I am predicting a Packers victory.  Since the Bears already won their fourth game Thursday night, the Packers can't afford to lose any more games that they could win, if they want to keep pace.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

What Will the Packers Look Like After the Bye?

Picture by
Watching your team lose a game is always frustrating.  Watching them dig themselves out of a hole, build a sizable lead, and then collapse and lose the game after all, is not only frustrating but infuriating.  Add in wounded players all over the field and you have the formula for despair.  All of that, and more, came out of the Packers' 34-30 loss to the Bengals last week.  They found themselves peering upward at the 3-0 Bears (now at 3-1), wondering what the rest of the season would look like.

After last week's game, speculation was running rampant.

When would the Packers dump kick returner Jeremy Ross, who was responsible for another fumbled kickoff, leading to the Packers trailing 14-0 in the opening minutes of the game?  Answer: the day after the game.  (Follow-up question: if you are going to dump him the next day, why have him run back more kicks during the game?  I have no answer on that one.)

What was the story behind Rodgers and McCarthy yelling at each other on the sideline in the second quarter, after a Packers drive fizzled at the Bengals' one yard line?  Rodgers confirmed that the discussion was about play-calling, but the antagonists otherwise brushed it off by saying that they are both fierce competitors trying to win the game.

I even heard some speculation in a Packers Talk Radio Network podcast that Rodgers sustained a concussion on the sideline hit on the drive that fizzled at the one.  I have to admit, the same thought occurred to me while watching the game.  The difference is that the podcaster in question is a medical doctor, so her observation counts for more than mine.

While the Packers were idle this week, the Packers' next opponents, the Lions, were busy beating the Bears, so that both the Lions and Bears are now 3-1.  I saw enough of that game to feel that beating the Lions will be no walk in the park on Sunday, but if the Packers are ever going to recover enough to win the division, it was probably important for the Lions to knock off the unbeaten Bears, and it is even more important that the Packers start to play more consistently and go out and beat the Lions at home.

Despite all the drama of last week's loss, it is useful to keep things in perspective - it is a long season, and if the Packers can get their act together, there is plenty of time to turn things around.  Speaking of keeping things in perspective, it is hard to say it any better than Zach Kruse of Cheesehead TV did:

– Keep this in mind: The Packers were without starters at running back, safety, cornerback and eventually tight end and outside linebacker, plus backup running back and special teams gunner. Coughing up a 16-point second half lead is inexcusable, but that’s a lot of talent to lose on the road against a good football team.
I agree on all counts.  I can't excuse the blown lead, but let's face it, when you lose that many people, before and during the game, you can say "next man up" all you want, but you still have a problem on your hands.

The Packers just came back after their bye week on Monday, so it is still a little early to know how many of these players will be back for the Sunday game against the Lions.  As of today (Wednesday), all of the injured players are back participating fully in practice, with these notable exceptions: Hayward (out, and sounds like he is not expected back this week), OL Greg Van Roten (out), James Starks (did not practice, sounds like he will be out this week) and Clay Matthews (limited participation).  I think this means that Eddie Lacy, Johnathan Franklin, Jermichael Finley and Morgan Burnett are all expected back this week.  Will that be enough?  Let's hope so, because otherwise it will be a long season.  The Lions have beaten the Vikings, Redskins, and Bears, and lost to the Cardinals, in putting up their 3-1 record.  Only the win against the Bears impresses me.  Reggie Bush has played surprisingly well for the Lions, and of course Calvin Johnson is almost impossible to stop. But I still believe that the Packers have more talent on their roster, they will be playing at home, they have had two weeks to game plan, rest up, and get some players healthier.  I am looking for a big Packers win on Sunday.