Friday, October 30, 2015

Battle of the Unbeatens

Image by NBC Sports

Where, exactly, do the Packers stand as they finish their bye week and charge into the rest of the season?  The objective metrics say they are in great shape.  They are 6-0, one of only two remaining undefeated teams in the conference.  They have scored 164 points, while giving up only 101.  Only two teams (Patriots and Cardinals) have a greater margin of points scored over points given up.  On defense, the Packers have more sacks than any team in the NFC, and trail only the Broncos in sacks.  On offense, only Brady and Palmer have more TD passes than Rodgers (and those two have played 7 games, not 6).  Among full-time starters, only Brady has fewer interceptions.

And yet . . .  somehow it does not feel as if the Packers are in great shape.  From the fact that the offense has struggled now for three games in a row, to the fact that the defense, previously dominant, gave up a record-setting number of yards to Philip Rivers and the Chargers before the bye, there is a real sense that this team is fortunate to be sitting at 6-0.

Maybe they are, in some sense.  But I have always admired the teams that find a way to win the games that could easily have gotten away from them.  And I have frequently complained, in years past, when the Packers found ways to lose games that they could have, or should have, won.

The current Packers team is not only finding ways to win games, they are getting help from the most unexpected places.  Jordy Nelson is out for the season, Davante Adams has missed several weeks, and Ty Montgomery is injured in the middle of the game?  Jeff Janis steps in and makes a couple of big plays.  (Speaking of unexpected, could anyone have predicted, as of July of this year, that James Jones would be averaging a touchdown per game for the Packers?)  The Packers lose several defensive backs in free agency, and then Morgan Burnett misses several games?  No problem, Damarious Randall not only makes the game-preserving play on fourth down, he actually baits Philip Rivers into making the throw so he can bat it down.

State of the NFC North:

It has been obvious for weeks that only the Vikings (4-2) pose a serious division challenge to the Packers this year.  The Bears are 2-4, while the Lions have the worst record in the league at 1-6.  My Lions fan friend Al points out that it has gotten so bad that there is a petition pending to revoke the passports of the Lions while they are in London for their Sunday morning game.  I can't support that petition, since a new Lions team constructed from scratch could turn out to be better than the current team.  But anyway, the point is that the Packers' first goal is to win the division, and they are in great shape to do just that.

Sunday Night Game

The Sunday night game against the Broncos has the makings of a classic.  Two 6-0 teams meeting in a nationally televised game.  Two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, meeting each other for the last time, unless they happen to meet again in Super Bowl 50.  A lot of Packers-Broncos history, from the Monday night blizzard game back in 1984, to Super Bowl XXXII, to the Monday Night overtime game won on the bomb from Favre to Jennings on the first play of overtime in 2007.

The Packers' biggest problem will be when the Packers have the ball and the Broncos' are on defense.  The Broncos' defense is ranked no. 1 overall.  while the Packers' offense is in the top half of all teams.  Here, the bye week could make a major difference for the Packers since, in my view, injuries have been a big part of the Packers' struggles on offense.  Davante Adams has missed more time than he has played, while Randall Cobb has been hobbled by a shoulder injury, and both Eddie Lacy and James Starks have struggled with injuries.  Thanks to the bye, Adams should be back and fine, Cobb should be better, and so should Lacy.  So the Packers will have a better chance of getting the running game going, and of stretching the field with outside deep balls to Adams.

On the other side of the ball, if you think that the Packers have under-performed on offense, you should take a look at the Broncos' offense.  They are in the bottom 5 and you can't really blame it on injuries, either.  Peyton Manning is clearly nearing the end of his career, and does not seem to have the zip on the ball, or the accuracy, that he used to.  The departure of Julius Thomas to Jacksonville hurts, because he was and is one the best tight ends in the league.  And they can't seem to get the running game going, either.

Having said that, I have the uncomfortable feeling that Manning will turn it around at some point, and look like the old Peyton Manning, even if he can't maintain it for the rest of the season.  Could Sunday night be the game where he turns it around?  Let's put it this way - a nationally televised Sunday Night game, after a bye week off, is a pretty good candidate for a game in which Manning looks rejuvenated.

So I expect to see the Broncos bring out not only their formidable defense, but an offense that looks much better as well.  I am betting that the Packers' off-day on defense against the Chargers was a bit of an anomaly, and I am also betting that the Packers' offense will be improved with the return of healthy (or at least healthier) Adams, Cobb and Lacy.  The bottom line is: obviously this game could go either way.  But I like the Packers' chances, in what will likely be a very close game.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Packers Charging into the Bye Week

Quinten Rollins' Pick 6 - Photo by Jim Biever
For the second week in a row, the Packers' defense had to carry the day, as the Packers struggled on offense, but came away with a 24-10 win over the Rams on Sunday.

There now seems to be a clear game plan to stay close to the Packers, for teams that have the horses on defense.  They have to have a strong front line, to put some pressure on Rodgers without blitzing, and to keep him from stepping up in the pocket.  Then they have to play a lot of Cover Two defense, which is generally effective against a West Coast Offense, and has always been frustrating for Rodgers.

But there are some problems with this strategy.  First, most teams don't have a strong enough front line to make this work.  And second, even if you can keep the Packers' offense somewhat in check, you still have to deal with the Packers' newly dominant defense.  So these past two weeks, the 49ers and Rams have caused problems for the Packers' offense, but they had no answer at all for the Packers' defense, which has allowed a total of only 13 points in those two games.  And maybe a third problem with this strategy is this: even if you have the defense to play this game against the Packers, the Packers have traditionally beaten this strategy with the deep outside threat.  In past years, Jordy Nelson was the guy who most frequently provided that threat.  That won't happen this year, but if the Packers can develop that threat, either in Davante Adams when he returns, or in Jeff Janis (who has the speed but not the trust of Rodgers or the coaching staff), or in Ty Montgomery (who has the trust but not necessarily the speed) there may be no stopping the Packers' offense.

The Packers intercepted Nick Foles 4 times (thanks in large part to a ferocious pass rush), once for the pick-six depicted in the photo above, and they sacked Foles three times.  I realize that the Packers gave up 159 yards rushing to Todd Gurley, but 95 of those yards were in the second half, i.e., many of them were garbage-time yards, and they produced a total of 0 points.  Time will tell if the Packers can continue to play like this on defense, but so far they look very good despite the defensive injuries sustained this year.

Sunday, the Chargers come to Green Bay, on a short week after their Monday night game.  This will be the last game before the Packers' bye week, and it would be a huge plus to be 6-0, with two weeks to get healthy before their trip to Denver for a Sunday night game.  The Chargers already trail the Broncos by three games after five weeks, so they would love nothing more than to be able to beat the Packers and at least keep pace with the Broncos for another week.  And the Chargers do have a good offense; in fact Philip Rivers leads the league in passing yards.  But his offensive line was a mess Monday night, and is still expected to be on Sunday.  That, combined with the way the Packers have been rushing the passer while keeping the running game mostly contained, is not a good combination for the Chargers.  I was not all that impressed with the Packers' offensive game plan last week, and I assume they realize, just like the fans, that it was lacking.  I expect them to correct this on Sunday, come out with a much better game plan, and put up a lot more points.  I think this should be a big win for the Packers.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Packers Fast Start - 4-0 For the First Time Since 2011

The Packers' Game Day Captains, Plus a Photo-Bomber
The Packers' first visit to the 49ers new stadium was a success, as they beat the 49ers 17-3 on Sunday, in the process beating Colin Kaepernick for the first time.

On the way into the stadium, we spent some time talking with an old-timer 49er fan.  He dated back to the days when the 49ers played in Kezar Stadium.  He was in a somber mood, apparently expecting the 49ers to lose to the Packers, but also lamenting the way that everything has changed since the move to the new stadium.  Ordinary fans were priced out of the market for season tickets, he said, this changed the demographics of the people who own season tickets, and to make matters worse, now that the team is on the down-slope, people will stop caring and jump off the bandwagon.  He told us that his $10,000 worth of PSLs are now only worth about $2,000 if he were to re-sell the rights to his season tickets (apparently you can sell the rights to 49ers season tickets, unlike the situation in Green Bay).

And sure enough, the atmosphere in the stadium was different.  You can't really compare the way the fans react to a team that is obviously losing its way, as the 49ers now are, to a team on the upswing, as the 49ers were the last couple of times the Packers played the 49ers at Candlestick Park.  But we certainly noticed the difference, from the empty seats scattered all over, to the exodus of the fans starting early in the 4th quarter, to the lack of enthusiasm shown for their adorable little stadium gimmicks, such as chanting "Aah-oo!, aah-oo!, aah-oo!" after a first down.  Want more proof?  The 49ers owner could not offer to give away some extra tickets to the Packers game without getting roasted by 49ers fans for having dismantled the team.  I mentioned last week that the 49ers seemed to be in serious disarray as a franchise, but I am not sure I realized how bad it really is.  Peter King tallied it up this past summer and came to the conclusion that of the 25 most important 49er players and coaches, 14 of them left this off-season.

The image to the left (taken at the stadium on Sunday) reflects a sort of inside joke in our family.  Starting with the great Joe Montana days, people started referring to the "49er Faithful."  We considered it a joke, because in 1980 you could walk in and buy season tickets; that is how "faithful" the fans were before the 49ers won their first Super Bowl.  Most of them seemed to think that NFL history started sometime around 1980.  Anyway, it looks like a new era for the "faithful" is now beginning, and for someone like me who lived with the insufferable 49ers fans and media for years, I welcome it.

Despite all of that, the 49ers played very well on defense, and kept the Packers' offense in check better than any other team this year so far.  Rodgers' accuracy may have been a bit off by comparison to other games, there were a couple of dropped passes, and Don Barclay continues to be less than ideal as a replacement for Bryan Bulaga, but I think most of the credit goes to the 49ers defense.

On the other side of the ball, though, the Packers' defense probably had its best game of the year.  They obviously set out to stop the run by playing safeties close to the line of scrimmage, in effect daring Colin Kaepernick to beat them with the passing game, or by scrambling.  They succeeded in stopping the conventional running game (Carlos Hyde gained only 20 yards), Kaepernick could not beat them with the passing game (he only had 160 passing yards and was sacked 6 times), and they did an admirable job of containing Kaepernick's scrambling, holding him to 57 rushing yards, with no rush longer than 12 yards.  I did not anticipate that the Packers' defense would play this well this soon, especially considering the injuries they have sustained.  But they are doing it and, I might add, playing with more creativity and aggression than they did at times last year.

The Packers now return home for a pair of home games, against the Rams and Chargers, both currently having a record of 2-2.  If the Packers can win both those games, a good likelihood given the Packers' record at home, they will be 6-0 heading into the bye week.  The Rams have a very strong front seven, and if Don Barclay continues to play in Bulaga's absence, they will get some pressure on Rodgers.  But, interestingly enough, despite the reputation of the Rams' front seven, at this point the Packers' defense is outperforming the Rams' defense in rushing defense, passing defense, and points allowed, while the Packers' offense is similarly outperforming the Rams' offense in all those categories.  I don't see any reason not to expect a Packers' victory this week.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Packers On the Road Again to California

Best Game-Day Attire Ever
Maybe I am crazy, but I had almost the opposite reaction from everybody else to the Monday Night Chiefs game, which the Packers won, 38-28.  I heard lots of people talking about Aaron Rodgers' game, using words like "surgical" and "masterful" and "at the very top of his game."  We went to the game, and I did not come away with that impression at all.  Sure, he had a good game, but I did not see it as one of his best of all time.  I probably am putting too much emphasis on his early missed passes (he missed his first three) and the pass that should have been intercepted in the early third quarter, which would have broken his streak of home games without an interception.  So I re-watched the game when I got back to California, and I have mellowed a little.  I still don't think it is one of his best games ever, but maybe watching the game with Jon Gruden's superlatives being drummed into my head has helped me to realize some of the finer points that I might have missed in the stands.

Turning to the defense, everybody (including me) was happy with the way the Packers' defense performed for the first 2.5 to 3 quarters.  But I have heard a lot of complaining about "taking the foot off the gas" and going into "prevent defense" mode way too early in the game.  I can see that point, but I think it is severely overstated.  This game was effectively over at halftime (when the score was 24-7), and then it was again over toward the end of the third (when it was 31-14), and then it was really over when it was 38-14 with 12 minutes left.  (And if they had not blown all their time-outs, it would have been over one last time when the 4th and 18 pass came up short but was treated as a first down anyway.)  But it just didn't feel as if it was really over.  And the only reason it didn't feel that way was because of the traumatic experience of last year's NFC Championship Game.

But this game never approached, in my view, the circumstances of that game.  It was never as close (the Chiefs trailed by at least 16 points until they reduced their deficit to 10 points with 1:25 left in the game).  While you can never say never, the chances of scoring another 10 points in 1:25, with 2 time-outs, is close to zero.  It would have required 2 successful onside kicks, and at least one very fast score (broken coverage, or a defensive back falls down, or whatever).  I just wasn't that worried.  Also, while you can say that in some sense the Packers were playing more of a prevent type defense late in the game, it wasn't the kind that drives me crazy, where they rush 3, put no pressure on the quarterback, and let him take short passes for granted.  Here, even after the two-minute warning, the Packers were still rushing 4 or 5 on every play and occasionally blitzing.

Having finally beaten the Chiefs in Lambeau Field for the first time in history, the Packers have now beaten every team there but one: the Houston Texans.  I don't know when they will next come to Lambeau Field, but I look forward to it.

When you live over 2,200 miles away from Green Bay, you don't often get to see back-to-back Packer games in person.  But that is what we get to do this week, when we venture up to Santa Clara to see the 49ers' new stadium, keep our streak alive of going to every Bay Area Packers game since 1980, and hopefully witness the exorcism of the Kaepernick evil spirit from the Packers once and for all.  While the 49ers played well against the Vikings in week one, they have looked like a mess the last two weeks.  I was never a fan of Jim Harbaugh, but he seemed like a much better coach than the new guy.  There must be some fairly serious disarray in that organization, given that they got rid of a good (but obnoxious) coach, turned Kaepernick from a Packers-killer into somebody who seems to have regressed substantially, and have seen at least 10 players retire or leave in free agency, apparently just to get the hell out of there.

I expect Clay Matthews to play most of the game at inside linebacker, probably assigned just to keep tabs on Kaepernick.  I expect the Packers to play well on offense (the 49ers defense has taken some severe hits in retirements and free agency) and I expect the Packers' defense to continue to play well, and aggressively, and hopefully put this game away early.  I am looking for a big win to take the Packers to 4-0.