Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Packers Are 2-0 Thanks to the "Next Men Up"

Photo from Seattle Times Sept. 21, 2015
For the last couple years, no team has been more of a thorn in the side of the Green Bay Packers than the Seattle Seahawks.  I still shudder when I think of the "Fail Mary" game and the monumental collapse in the NFC Championship game.  It was no surprise when the NFL put the Seahawks-Packers game in prime time.  In the rematch of the NFC Championship game, the Packers (finally hosting the Seahawks in Green Bay) won the game, 27-17. They concentrated on keeping Marshawn Lynch in check, did so successfully and led for most of the game.

But if any of us thought at halftime that the second half would be easy, we made a bad call on that.  Right after halftime, it seemed that the Seahawks had made better halftime adjustments, and scored on successive drives to take the lead, 17-13, primarily by getting Russell Wilson moving around, and having him take off with the ball when necessary.

At that point, it was the Packers' turn to adjust their game plan, which they did by making frequent use of the no-back backfield on offense.  James Starks, who had replaced Eddie Lacy early after Lacy injured his ankle, needed a rest anyway.  But more importantly, the no-back set allowed the Packers to line up with Randall Cobb, Richard Rodgers and even Ty Montgomery in the backfield,  creating uncertainty if not confusion by the defense as to where they might go on pass routes.  This adjustment led to the Packers retaking the lead on a clutch fourth quarter drive, with a TD pass to Richard Rodgers, followed by a 2 point conversion to Rodgers.  The Packers then salted the victory away by wiping almost 5 of the last 7 minutes off the clock and scoring a a field goal at the two minute warning to reach the final score of 27-17.

To me, the largest story line of this game was "next man up." James Jones is only in Green Bay because of the season-ending injury to Jordy Nelson, and he was again a large factor in his second game back.  Tackle Bryan Bulaga hurt himself in practice and missed the game. Don Barclay, who many times has struggled when pressed into action, played pretty well.  He was the weakest player on the offensive line, but he played better than we might have expected.  Eddie Lacy was knocked out of the game in the first quarter with an ankle injury, and James Starks looked really good in relief.  Davante Adams was knocked out temporarily, and came back gimpy late in the game, but rookie Ty Montgomery (who has appeared primarily as a kick returner up to now) played the no. 3 wide receiver for a while and looked good, made some plays, and broke some tackles.  Defensive tackle Josh Boyd was knocked out of the game (and lost for the season), but Mike Pennel and Datone Jones picked up the slack.

But most impressively, in part because of the loss of linebacker Sam Barrington in week 1, second year player Jayrone Elliott got extra snaps, and boy, did he make the most of them. All he did was generate two turnovers, first intercepting a Wilson pass with one hand, and then later stripping the ball on a passing play to clinch the game.  This is the same guy that Matthews and Peppers started calling "the Playmaker" last year, while the trainers started calling him "Shakespeare."  Why, you ask? "Because all he does is make plays."

 After two weeks the Packers lead the division at 2-0, the Vikings are 1-1, and the Bears and Lions are 0-2.  The fact that the Seahawks are 0-2 is a nice added bonus.  Obviously it is a long season, but the two game lead, plus a tiebreaker, over the Seahawks makes it much less likely that the Packers would have to go back to Seattle for a hypothetical Championship game.  A very nice start to the season, fully consistent with McCarthy's desire to get off to a faster start this year.

The Chiefs come to town next Monday night, as the Packers play their second consecutive home night game.  The Chiefs were poised to go 2-0 themselves, before giving up a fourth quarter touchdown to tie the game, and then fumbling the ball and the game away in the closing seconds.

The Chiefs will be a tough matchup for the Packers.  I am sure that we all remember the Chiefs spoiling the Packers' perfect season a couple of years back. They obviously have some talent.  Andy Reid is an excellent coach.  Alex Smith is not a bad quarterback, but he is no Aaron Rodgers.  Jamaal Charles is excellent, except when he fumbles away the ballgame.  But I don't think they have the same number of playmakers as the Packers have.  And I think that will be the difference in the game.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Off to a Good Start!

This Week's SI Cover Photo
The Packers' 2015 season is off to a good start with their 31-23 victory against the rival Chicago Bears.  As a result of this win, the all-time scoring in Packers-Bears games shifts to the Packers, maybe for the first time in my lifetime.  After 189 games, the Packers have scored 3,208 points, while the Bears have scored 3,207.  For as long as I can remember, the Packers have trailed the Bears in won-loss record.  But thanks to the Favre and Rodgers eras, they finally can tie it up this year.  The current record is Bears 92, Packers 91, with 6 ties.  So the Favreapalooza on Thanksgiving night will be the chance to pull even in the win-loss record.

One interesting development in the game was Aaron Rodgers pulling off a couple of unusual plays, for him.  The first was Favre-like, when he flipped the ball backhanded over the defender to Eddie Lacy.  And the second was almost like an option play, where he normally would just run, but at the last minute he pitched the ball to Richard Rodgers.  I wonder if, now that Rodgers seems fully healthy, he is realizing that he needs to be a little more careful about taking shots now that he is in his 30's.

The story of the day, of course, was James Jones.  After his one year stint with the Raiders, they cut him this spring.  The Giants signed him and he lasted there through the preseason, getting cut on the last cutdown day.  He signed with the Packers the next day, and was the player of the game 7 days later in beating the Bears.  I wonder if the Giants tried to trade him to the Packers?  Everybody knew that the Packers might be interested in him, after all.  Maybe they tried, and the Packers called their bluff by not offering a trade.  In the real world, a player who gets cut twice within four months has very little trade value.  But he was just what the doctor ordered for the Packers.  Jones caught two touchdowns that counted against the Bears, and another that was called back on a holding penalty.  For those who are still fixated on Jones' tendency in his early years to drop easy passes (and you know who you are), let's also remember that in his last year with the Packers he had reduced his drops to three in the entire season.

Clay Matthews made the game-preserving interception in the fourth quarter, cutting right in front of Martellus Bennett, catching the ball like a receiver, and returned it 40 yards (some of those yards were lost on a penalty).  Matthews continues to be the Packers' biggest playmaker on defense, and he played most of the game at inside linebacker, where he has obviously learned some of the finer points of the position in the offseason.  If, as the news suggests today, Sam Barrington is now lost for the season, expect to see even more of Matthews at the inside position.

All was not good in this game.  The Bears were in the game until the Matthews interception.  The Packers gave up way too many rushing yards, mainly to Forte, their tackling was suspect, and they didn't totally destroy Cutler as they sometimes do.  They will need to play a lot better against Seattle on Sunday night if they want to end up at 2-0.  But I refuse to see the glass as half-empty after one game.  Sure, the Packers blew the Bears out last year, to the tune of 93-31.  But that was an aberration.  The Bears generally play the Packers tough, as they did on Sunday.  To go on the road against your oldest rival, and come back with a win, is good enough for me, especially when many of your starters are rusty from lack of play in the preseason.

From what I saw of the Seahawks game on Sunday, they were not exactly on top of their game, either.  We all know that the Packers were the better team for 55 minutes of the NFC Championship game last year, on the road.  (Don't get me started again on the last 5 minutes.)  Both teams have lost some good players since then, to injury, free agency, and holdout.  But change the venue to Lambeau Field, and I like the Packers' chances.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Packers vs. Bears, Edition No. 189

Image by GreenBayZone.com
As the Packers approach their season-opener at Chicago, expectations are running high.  A month ago, various web sites were picking the Packers to go to, and maybe win, the Super Bowl.  Since then, the Packers lost Jordy Nelson for the season, and at times looked "iffy" on defense, especially that old bugaboo, run defense.  On the other hand, they seem to have found a good backup QB in Scott Tolzien, and a very promising third string rookie QB in Brett Hundley.  And, as always, some undrafted rookie free agent gems made the roster, RB Alonzo Harris, and DB LaDarius Gunter.

So where are we today?  After a post-Jordy Nelson injury lull in Super Bowl projections, 6 out of 13 NFL.com writers pick the Packers to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, and 5 of them pick the Packers to bring back another Lombardi trophy.  Not bad for a team that lost its best receiver in the first quarter of the first pre-season game.

Any time the Packers play the Bears, there is a lot of history to take in.  My wife and I moved to California in the summer of 1980.  One of the downsides of moving here was the knowledge that we would only occasionally get to see Packer games on TV.  1980 was right in the middle of the post-Super Bowl II drought for the Packers, so in general we could only expect to see a handful of Packer games each year.  This was long before DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket, and if sports bars showing every game existed at the time, I did not know about them.

But 35 years ago today, as I write this post, was opening day, and surprisingly, we got to see Chicago at Green Bay on local TV.  I really only remember the end of the game, but from the score, it must have been an exceedingly boring game.  Two Chester Marcol field goals accounted for the Packers' 6 points, but the Bears also only had 6 points, so the game went into overtime.  Chester Marcol lined up to attempt a 35 yard field goal in overtime, but the ball was blocked, and miraculously ended up right in Marcol's hands, where the bespectacled kicker caught it, and raced around the left end to score the winning touchdown.

There is lots to read about the Packers in this week's Monday Morning Quarterback column (including his pick of the Packers over the Ravens in the Super Bowl) , and I commend it to you.  But just in case you don't get around to clicking the link, this is the most amazing piece of information in it:

Stat of the Week
Next Sunday, the Packers and Bears will play in Soldier Field. It will be the 189th meeting in the rivalry that began in 1921. No two pro football teams have played each other more.
The average score in the 188 meetings: Chicago 17.06, Green Bay 17.02.
The composite score in those 188 games: Chicago 3,207, Green Bay 3,200.
So just think, it will only take a 7 point victory margin for the Packers to even up the score for all time.  

I think the Bears will improve under new head coach John Fox.  I don't know how fast the improvement will become evident, but I don't expect it to start in Week 1.  Jay Cutler, despite his innate talent, will continue to be an albatross around the neck of the Bears.  I see his record against the Packers going to 1-12, as the Packers win by a score of something like 28-17.