Monday, November 25, 2013

A Game Nobody Could Have Predicted

Photo by Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
"Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition."  So goes the famous Monty Python line.  And in calculating NFL Division standings, nobody expects a tie game.  For that matter, nobody expects the Packers to have 4 quarterbacks playing in the course of three weeks.  But that, of course, is exactly what happened when the Packers played the Vikings on Sunday, with the game ending at 26-26 after each team scored a field goal in overtime, but neither team could score again.

This game felt, in a way, like three different games.  The "first game" was made up of the first 2.5 quarters.  The game started well enough, with the Packers taking their first lead in the last three games on Scott Tolzien's spinning scramble for a touchdown.  It was his first NFL TD scored (as opposed to a TD pass), and also his first Lambeau Leap.  But after that promising start, the offense bogged down, and the defense started giving up chunks of yardage, especially on the ground.  The score was 20-7 in favor of Minnesota almost halfway through the third quarter.  By that time, Tolzien had completed less than 50% of his passes, for 98 yards, no TDs and no interceptions.  He wasn't having a horrible day, but his play was not, at that point, competitive enough to keep the game from getting away from the Packers.

The "second game" started when McCarthy benched Tolzien and brought in Matt Flynn, and lasted until about the end of the fourth quarter.  Flynn lit a fire under the Packers' offense, and perhaps sensing some hope, the defense played better, too.  The defense only gave up a field goal during that quarter and a half, to make it 23-7, while Flynn drove the Packers for 2 touchdowns and 1 field goal, to tie the game at 23-23, and put the game in overtime.  With perfect hindsight, when the Packers scored their first touchdown under Flynn with 11:27 left in the fourth quarter, they could have gone for 1 point, and since they would go on to score 10 more before the end of the game, they would have won, 24-23.  I have already seen some second-guessing online about the decision to go for 2, but I think that critique is overblown.  The Packers had just scored for the first time since the first quarter, and with 11:27 left in the game, 2 TDs with 2-point conversions seemed like a better shot to tie up the game than 2 TDs and 1 field goal.

The "third game" started in that final Packers drive of the 4th quarter, and continued throughout overtime.  The Packers had gotten to first down at the Minnesota 12, with 1:10 left, but at that point the Packers seemed to get a little tentative, and had to settle for the field goal to tie the game, rather than getting the game-winning touchdown.  The same thing happened even more clearly in overtime, when the Packers, with some grit and some good fortune, overcame a bad start on their first drive to aggressively move the ball down the field to first and goal at the Minnesota 7.  But a run, a run and a pass later, they had to settle for a field goal to go up by three points, and give the Vikings a shot to either tie or win the game on their next drive.  At that point, the Packers' defense started giving up yards in big chunks again, allowing the Vikings to tie the game at 26.  The Packers' next opportunity was killed by incomplete passes, and their final opportunity was squandered with three offensive line penalties rendering it all but impossible to score.

With all the attention to the quartet of Packer quarterbacks and Flynn's heroic comeback, it would be easy to lose sight of the fact that it was poor defense by the Packers that let the Vikings build up their 16 point lead in the fourth quarter, and poor defense that led to the Vikings' field goal in overtime to tie the game.  Yes, the Packers' defense at times made crucial stops, and they did get 6 sacks and recover 1 fumble.  But on the whole this was not a good effort.  When you give up 447 yards to a bad Vikings team, something is not right on defense.

One could go either way in evaluating a tie game.  Was it basically a victory for the Packers, in engineering the comeback to avoid the devastating loss?  Some fans reacted that way, as did at least one columnist.  Or did this tie basically amount to a loss for the Packers, because of the squandered opportunities to win the game in the 4th quarter and in overtime, and because of the lost chance to move into a tie for the division lead?  Some fans, many of the players, and another columnist take that view.  Count me mostly in the latter category.

So going into the Thanksgiving week, the Bears and Lions are in first place at 6-5, while the Packers are half a game back at 5-5-1.  I guess there are two silver linings here.  A tie is still better than a loss, although it is heartbreaking to have that kind of a stirring comeback and not come away with a win.  Beyond that, it is now highly unlikely that the Packers will end up in a tie for the division lead at the end of the season.  They might win the division by half a game, or they might lose it by half a game (or more).  But it is not going to come down to a tiebreaker, which is just as well, given the Packers' losses in the division and conference.

Who will start at quarterback for the Packers on Thanksgiving?  McCarthy said he has "no idea" if Rodgers will start.  (Well, he must have some idea, but we can let that pass as the usual McCarthy uncommunicative response.)  I am assuming it will be Flynn.  My guess is that Rodgers could use the extra 10 days to heal before the Falcons game.  I like Scott Tolzien, I thought he would be the winning QB Sunday, and I felt a little bad for him getting benched.  But given the Packers' current circumstances, McCarthy had to treat this game as akin to a playoff game.  If he felt Flynn gave the Packers a better chance, he had to make the change, and it is clear to me that he made the right call.  Flynn just looked more comfortable out there, and despite the Packers' offense bogging down twice, when a touchdown would have won the game, the offense was much more productive under Flynn on Sunday.  He completed 21 of 36 for 218 yards and a touchdown, in about 2.5 quarters (including overtime).  Can he beat the Lions?  Well, he did have a record-setting day against the Lions less than two years ago.  It would be great to see a repeat of that game, but ideally with better defensive play.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Make or Break Week Ahead

Photo by Brad Penner, USA Today
How disappointing it was to watch the Packers lose their third game in a row last week to the Giants, 27-13.  Maybe I was kidding myself (always a danger as a fan watching a game), but I really thought the Packers had a shot in the 4th quarter, until the devastating pick-6 interception by Jason Pierre-Paul.  The situation before that play was that the Packers trailed by 7 points, and they had just stopped the Giants with a 3 and out, including two sacks (by Brad Jones and Clay Matthews) to force a punt.  So the Packers had some momentum on their side.  One play later, the game was effectively over, as Jason Pierre-Paul  made a sensational interception for a touchdown against Scott Tolzien.  The ball just stuck in his outstretched hands, as if the ball was metal and his hands were a super-magnet.  From there, he strolled into the end zone to completely change the dynamic of the game.

In a post by blogger Jersey Al Bracco, who naturally attended the game himself, Jersey Al makes two great points on the problems with the Packers in the Giants game.  First, Coach McCarthy did the Packers no favors with his offensive play-calling.  Way too many times, he called runs on both first and second down to start possessions, almost all of which were unsuccessful, and many of which led to punts.  Re-watching the game with this comment in mind, it really was true.  Not coincidentally, the success the Packers offense had in the game (including all three scoring drives) came exclusively on possessions that varied from the run, run, pass model.

Jersey Al takes it a step farther, to make the point that the Packers' offense was so predictable that not only did the Giants seem to know what play was coming next, but so did Jersey Al himself, watching from the upper deck.  In fact, as he notes, Pierre-Paul told Press-Gazette reporter Wes Hodkiewicz after the game that he was able to read the formation of the Packers, and knew exactly what play was coming on his pick-6.  That makes it a lot easier, doesn't it?

Enough about the Giants.  The Packers' season may be made or broken in the next 5 days, as the Packers play the Vikings at home on Sunday, and then the Lions at Detroit on Thanksgiving Day.  Aaron Rodgers is out against the Vikings, and reading between the lines of some of the comments, I don't think he will be starting on Thanksgiving, either.  If the Packers win both these games, they will be no worse off than tied for first place in the division.  If they lose both, time to start planning for next year's draft.  If they split the games, who knows?  They will still be alive but on shaky ground.

I saw enough from Scott Tolzien last week to think that the Packers should beat the Vikings.  A little more imaginative play-calling would help, but the Vikings just aren't good enough to beat the Packers at home, in the cold, even with our third-string quarterback.  Can they also beat the Lions on the road on Thanksgiving?  I am not at all sure about that, but we will know more when we figure out how the Packers look tomorrow, and whether Rodgers will be able to return for the Thanksgiving game.

Happy Thanksgiving!  And Happy Hanukkah!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Next QB Up (Again!)

Photo by Mike Roemer, AP
Since it is now Saturday evening as I write this, it is a little late to be commenting on last Sunday's 27-13 loss to the Eagles, in which QB 2 Seneca Wallace went down with a groin injury, pressing QB 3 Scott Tolzien into service.  So I will only say a few things about that game.

Sitting in the stands at Lambeau Field, we were just as shocked as the TV audience was when Tolzien came in on the second series.  We didn't see Wallace get hurt or have any difficulty coming off the field, and now that I have watched the TV broadcast, the announcers obviously had no clue, either.  There was a brief sideline shot, focusing on other things, but showing Scott Tolzien warming up, but evidently the announcers did not notice this, or did not make anything of it.  After Tolzien came in, Wallace continued throwing on the sideline and practicing dropping back for quite awhile, right down in front of us.  There just wasn't anything we saw in what he was doing that would have suggested that he had a season-ending injury.  So I can only read one thing into McCarthy immediately naming Tolzien as the starter this week, and in putting Wallace on IR when Matt Flynn was signed.  McCarthy must have concluded that Tolzien is a better option than Wallace, even if both are healthy.

If that was his conclusion, I can understand why.  Tolzien made two huge errors Sunday in throwing two interceptions.  I don't think it would have made the difference in the game, given the Packers' defensive collapse in the second half, but the game would have been a lot closer but for those interceptions.  Tolzien just looked better out there in his almost-full game than Wallace had in his partial game last Monday night, and his one series on Sunday.  Tolzien was decisive, seemed to have a pretty good arm, and if McCarthy was telling the truth when he said that Tolzien was running plays he had never practiced, then he is a good student of the game.

McCarthy's greater confidence in Tolzien's leading the offense was also shown by the fact that he was more willing to let Tolzien play a more aggressive game.  Unlike Monday night with Wallace, on Sunday McCarthy called more rollouts, screen passes, quick passes to the sideline, and even some deep balls.

So here we are, having our third starting quarterback in 3 weeks, after going the preceding 20 plus years with a total of three starting quarterbacks.  How will that work out for the Packers?  Well, if there are two teams in the league that seem to have the Packers' number in the last few years, the Giants are one of those teams, and the 49ers are the other.  But the Giants have been a bit of an enigma this year.  They lost the first 6 games of the year.  Every one of those teams is at least .500 as of right now, but still, the Giants lost every game.  Since then, the Giants have played two bad teams (the Vikings and the Raiders) and one 5-5 team (the Eagles), and they won all three of those games.  In hindsight, we can see that the Giants are a better team than we thought 3 weeks ago, but I don't think their 3 game winning streak is enough to convince me that the Giants are back as a contending team.

The Packers, when the same QB starts and finishes the game, are 5-2.  When the QB gets knocked out in the opening minutes of the game, they are 0-2.  So let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Tolzien lasts the entire game, after preparing the entire week to be the starting QB.  Do the Packers have a chance?  Sure they do.  They now have the best running game they have had in years.  This takes an enormous amount of pressure off the passing game, and tends to tire out the opponents' defense.  While the Packers' defense played way below expectations the last two weeks, especially in the second half, they had been playing much better before that, so they should be capable of a better showing.  The Giants' offense just isn't playing the way it used to, for a combination of reasons including injuries, personnel, and the regression of Eli Manning as a QB.  I wouldn't bet a lot of money on it, but I think the Packers will win this game.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Will the 2013 Packers Survive the Next Few Weeks Without Rodgers?

AP Photo by Morry Gash
The news as of Tuesday afternoon was that Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was injured in the opening minutes of the Monday night loss to the Chicago Bears (27-20), will be out 3-6 weeks with a broken clavicle.  To add insult to injury, Jermichael Finley was placed on IR on Tuesday, as well.  We probably all knew that was coming, but still, just what we needed to hear Tuesday.

Maybe Bears Head Coach Marc Trestman is the Boy Genius after all.  Josh McCown looked good last week when pressed into service against the Redskins (although the Redskins did pull out a win at the end of the game), and he looked very solid Monday night in beating the Packers.  Meanwhile, Mike McCarthy, who has always had the reputation of being a great developer of quarterbacks, has had 8 weeks to work with Seneca Wallace as his backup quarterback, and yet he clearly was not ready to step in and perform at an adequate level.

To make matters worse, McCarthy seemed unwilling to let Wallace air it out.  Or at least, he seemed unwilling to let him pass most of the time until it was third down.  As in, "run, run, pass, punt."  Now I can understand that, when one of Wallace's first passes was tipped up and intercepted by Julius Peppers, it tended to reinforce McCarthy's cautious nature.  But he did the team's chances to win no favors when he pulled the reins so tight with Wallace.  Football fans talk all the time about the prevent defense, and how all it does is prevent a win.  Monday night, I am afraid we saw something that amounts to a prevent offense.  The way I see it, when Rodgers went out, there were two ways that the Packers were going to end up winning this game.  Either the defense and/or special teams were going to step up and make the difference in the game, or the offense was going to have to play aggressively and get a little lucky.

The special teams actually had a pretty good night.  There were two great special teams plays, the blocked punt, and the surprise onside kick the Packers recovered in the third quarter.  And McCarthy certainly gets all the credit for having the guts to call the onside kick.  These two plays led to 10 points for the Packers, half of their total for the night.  I think you could make a pretty good case that the special teams kept the Packers in the game, despite very pedestrian results kicking and receiving the ball.

The defense, on the other hand, picked a hell of a time to play their worse game since the opening day loss to the 49ers.  The defense had been improving all year, until Monday night.  After giving up 494 yards and 34 points to the 49ers in week 1 (a loss), they dialed it back to 422 yards but only 20 points in beating the Redskins in week 2.  In games 3 through 7. the Packers never gave up more than 360 total yards in any game, and in 4 of those 5 games, they held their opponent to less than 300 yards.  Monday night, the Packers gave up 442 yards and 27 points to the Bears playing with a backup quarterback of their own.  The Packers rarely got any pressure on McCown (he was sacked only once), and there were many instances of poor tackling by Packer defenders.

So, seeing how things were going, you would think that McCarthy would realize that more creativity and aggressiveness would be required on offense to have a good chance to win the game.  More play action passes, since it was obvious that the Packers were going to run the ball most of the time.  More screen passes or bootleg plays, or designed rollouts, to take a little starch out of the Bears' pass rush.  Maybe a trick play or two.  After re-watching the game, I now know that Wallace dropped back to pass 23 times, including plays where he was sacked.  He dropped back in the pocket 22 times.  Rollouts: 1.  Screens: 0.  Trick plays: 0.  He may have had a play action pass or two, but in general he just dropped straight back.

McCarthy's innate cautiousness made him shy away from being too aggressive with his backup quarterback. He probably would say that his strategy almost worked, given the Packers' strong running game, which frankly was a surprise given that the Bears knew it was coming.  The Packers led in the 3rd quarter.  They got as far as the Bear's 40 yard line, in the 4th quarter, while trailing by only 4 points.  So they weren't far away from squeaking out a win.  Still, I believe that this approach was a mistake.  Sure, if McCarthy got aggressive, there might be some big negative plays (a pick-6, for example).  But really, it may feel worse to get beat by 20 points than by 7, but they both count as a single loss.  And if you take some chances, you also create the chance to have a real shot at winning the game.

In contrast to McCarthy's overly cautious approach, take a look at the bold play Trestman pulled in the 4th quarter, going for it on 4th and inches, in the Bears' own territory, while holding a 4 point lead.  That is something that is very rarely seen, even though statistically you can make a good case for going for it on 4th and 1 from any position on the field.  But most NFL coaches are way too risk-averse to do it.

The bottom line is that the Packers were outcoached Monday night, their backup quarterback outplayed the Packers' backup quarterback, and the Packers' defense was woefully inadequate to make up the difference.  Congratulations to Marc Trestman and the Bears.

I have to assume that McCarthy will open it up at least a little in the coming weeks.  McCarthy will have a week, albeit a short one, to get Wallace ready to start against the Eagles on Sunday.  Over the next 3.5 weeks, the Packers will play 4 games against mediocre (or worse) teams: the Eagles (4-5) at home, at the Giants (2-6), at home against the Vikings (1-7), and at Detroit (5-3) on Thanksgiving.  Could the Packers win at least two of those games?  I think so, and if they do, they would be 7-5 and in pretty decent shape by the time Rodgers is about ready to come back.  The Eagles game would be an excellent time to start.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Chance to Go 3-0 in Division on the Line

Photo by Evan Siegle, Green Bay Press-Gazette
It is not news to any of us Packer fans that having a healthy running game is a huge plus for the Packers.  For years, in one context or another in these posts, I have lamented the fact that the Packers (usually) did not have that healthy running game.  But this year I have been excited about the fact that, with the drafting of Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, it looked like they finally had a dependable running game.  The value of this was never clearer than it was on Sunday night.  The Packers beat the Vikings 44-31, in the Packers' last visit to the Metrodome, in a game that was not nearly as close as the final score.

The Packers have had a productive running game in all 7 games this season, as noted by T.J. Lang in comments after the game.  But this was the first time all year that the Packers made substantial use of both Eddie Lacy and James Starks, with both staying healthy from start to finish of the game.  This allowed the Packers to batter the Vikings with the big back, Eddie Lacy, for most of the first three quarters, and then have James Starks available with fresh legs to continue gashing the Vikings and give Lacy a breather for half a quarter or so.

The problem with a high-powered pass offense is that it can sometimes misfire.  A pass is dropped, a ball gets batted, a receiver slips, and the next thing you know the defense is back on the field.  But if you have a balanced offense, as the Packers did on Sunday night, everything opens up.  Receivers have an easier time getting open, the play action and screen passes are more effective, and the other team's defense gets exhausted instead of your own defense.  The game stats clearly show this:
  • Combined Lacy / Starks stats: 39 carries for 151 yards, 
  • Combined 3rd and 4th down record for the Packers: 15 out of 20
  • Time of possession: the Packers had the ball for 40:54, more than twice the possession time of the Vikings.  The Packers outgained the Vikings, 464 to 243.
  • The Packers never punted in the game.
And then there was Aaron Rodgers.  Rodgers has been notorious throughout his pro career for keeping various chips on his shoulder, starting with the fact that so many teams passed him up before falling to the Packers.  Did Rodgers have a chip on his shoulder about some of Greg Jennings' comments during the offseason?  I think so.  In the week before the game, he was asked about Jennings' comments, and said he was focused on the players in the locker room.  When a follow-up question was asked how he could forget about these comments, he said, "I didn't say anything about forgetting, I just said focusing." 

Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette put in context how dominating Rodgers' game was on Sunday:
In five appearances at the Metrodome before Sunday, Rodgers completed 70.1 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns, just one interception and a phenomenal 123.2 passer rating.
It didn’t seem possible, but Rodgers proceeded to take those impressive numbers to a higher level on Sunday, when he completed 24 of 29 passes (82.8 percent) for 285 yards and a passer rating of 130.6.
This dominating performance, along with Greg Jennings' stats (1 catch for 9 yards), led to the uncomfortably long hug by Jennings of Rodgers, depicted above.

And now the Bears come to town.  The Packers will need to beat the Bears to stay in first place in the division, and if they do win, they will go up 2 games on the Bears, and 1 game on the Lions.  When the Bears started the year 3-0, I thought that maybe the addition of the Boy Genius (Marc Trestman) as coach might have really turned the Bears around.  I call him that because, when he was the offensive coordinator in San Francisco, the media here treated him as the next great coach.  His NFL career never went anywhere, but then he went off to Canada, won some Grey Cups as head coach, and now has come to Chicago.  Since I don't follow the CFL at all, it was conceivable to me that he had really come into his own, and that in the Trestman offense, the Cutler-Brandon Marshall connection would be a big deal again, as it had been in Denver.

After their 3-0 start, they have lost 3 out of 4, and they will almost certainly be without Jay Cutler on offense and Lance Briggs on defense on Monday night.  Packer fans are not about to feel bad that the Bears are missing a couple of stars, given the Packers' injuries this year.  The Packers have shown, so far this year, that they are a better team than the Bears, and they have done that despite their many injuries.  The Bears' defense is nothing like what it used to be - you would not call this unit the Monsters of the Midway.  They are in the bottom 10 in the league in both passing and rushing defense.  While the Packers have given up way too many yards passing, too, the Packers are no. 4 in rushing defense, which ought to slow down Matt Forte just a little bit.  On offense, meanwhile, the Bears are no. 14 in rushing offense.  Not too bad, except that (I can't even believe I am typing this) the Packers are no. 3 in rushing offense.  The Bears are no. 11 in passing offense, again not bad, but the Packers are no. 5.  Without Jay Cutler, this should be a serious mismatch favoring the Packers.

I noticed a couple of interesting items in a article about this game.  First, the Packers will be honoring U.S. Marine Corps Lieutentant Jon Eisele before the National Anthem.  In addition to being a a Marine and a Packer shareholder, he is also a member of the Central Florida Packer Backers, where we will visit next month.  The other item stuck out like a sore thumb to me:
John Vincent will perform the national anthem, and four large American flags will be unfurled on the field.Vincent is a singer at Mike Ditka’s Steakhouse in Chicago, Ill.
Ditka's Steakhouse?  You must be kidding!  But then I did a little research, and discovered that, in addition to having a powerful baritone voice, Vincent also performed the National Anthem at Lambeau Field last season, in the week 2 Thursday Night Game when the Packers dismantled the Bears, 23-10.  My take is that the Packers, as an organization, are every bit as superstitious as everyday Packer fans.

Maybe Rodgers can even find something to put a chip on his shoulder about the Bears.  I see a big win for the Packers.