Friday, January 15, 2016

All About Rhythm

Photo by Jim Biever,
In the first 17 minutes of Sunday's game, the Redskins scored in almost every way possible - a safety, a field goal, and a touchdown with a missed extra point.  While they were building their 11-0 lead, the Packers had one completed pass in 8 attempts, one first down, and they ran the ball 4 times for a total of 5 yards.  (The wind was against the Packers in the first quarter, but still . . .)  Who would blame Packers fans for saying "here we go again."

But when things changed in the second quarter, they changed for good.  All of a sudden, there was more variety in the passing game, which suddenly seemed in sync and, most importantly, in rhythm, for most of the rest of the game.  And of course, as soon as that happened, the run game improved, too.  Funny how that works.  When the defense can't just sit back there and dare Aaron Rodgers to throw the ball, opportunities pop up all over the place, leading to the convincing 35-18 win.

Once again, Randall Cobb was one of the key players.  By lining him up in the backfield occasionally, starting in the second quarter, the Packers in effect forced the Redskins out of their base defense and into a nickel defense (because they were worried about where Cobb might go, and felt the need for an extra defensive back).  Another key was the fast tempo, either the no-huddle, or a sort of mushy, semi-huddle near the line of scrimmage.  Put the uncertainty about who is lining up where together with the fast tempo, and you have a recipe for problems for the defense.  The Redskins were caught with 12 men a couple of times as they tried to make substitutions, leading directly to one of the touchdowns, and generally putting the Redskins in a position where they sometimes felt that they just could not take the risk of substituting.  This combination left the Redskins at times with the wrong personnel on the field, which then opened up the running game, in which Eddie Lacy had his longest carry of the season.  It also seemed to make the game fun again for Aaron Rodgers, who seemed to relish the challenge of keeping the Redskins off balance and taking advantage.

A final key on offense was J.C. Tretter.  When Bakhtiari was again inactive at left tackle, everybody knew that the Packers would not put Josh Sitton over there again.  So backup center Tretter was the man, and although the game started inauspiciously for him (he gave up the sack for the safety to start the scoring), he quickly adjusted his footwork and was solid for the rest of the game.  I don't think it is much of a stretch to say that regardless which offensive lineman goes out with an injury, Tretter should be the first option to replace him.

You can argue, as does Rob Demovsky of ESPN, that there are three reasons the Packers can win in Arizona, Aaron Rodgers as the best player on the field, a resurgent if not outstanding defense this year, and much-improved special teams.  There is merit in all three of those reasons.  The Packers' prior game at Arizona, as bad as it was, was not really an accurate representation of the difference between these two teams.  The Packers' offensive line was a mess that day, they got behind early, Rodgers was getting mauled as a result of the Cardinals' strong defense and the Packers' porous offensive line, and then things just snowballed.  If you replay that game 100 times, the Packers might lose by 30 or more points only a couple of times.  The Cardinals' were a much better team that day, but the difference was not as great as it looked.

The question is, if the Packers are a better team than showed up three weeks ago, can things swing the other way so far that the Packers can actually win the game?  Well, let's count the factors.  The Packers' offensive line is in much better shape, even if Tretter has to play left tackle again, but if Bakhtiari plays, they may have their starting line intact for the first time in a long time.  The convincing win over the Redskins puts a little confidence back in the heads of the Packers, adding a little weight to McCarthy's "we're nobody's underdogs" bluster.  B.J. Raji looks like he will be back, whereas he missed most of the prior Cardinals game.  Jayrone Elliott and Sam Shields may be back, and Shields in particular has been sorely missed.  And the Cardinals put two players (including starting DT Alex Okafor) on injured reserve this week, despite not having played a game in the last two weeks.  On the negative side, it looks doubtful that Davante Adams will be able to play, which is a shame since he has finally started to look like the Davante Adams we expected all year long.  And of course, the Cardinals are a much better defensive team than the Redskins.

Let's just leave it at this: if the Packers plan to win the game, they can't just waste the entire first quarter, like they did last week.  The offensive line has to play better from the start, Rodgers needs to get rid of the ball quickly, and with some rhythm in the passing game, the running game has to be strong enough to keep the Cardinals pass rushers from pinning their ears back, and receivers have to catch the contested passes.  On defense, the Packers need to put some hits on Carson Palmer, early and often, and see how he performs when it is not just pitch and catch back there.

I still have to predict that the Packers lose this game, and go into off-season mode next week.  But funnier things have happened than an upset in this round of the playoffs, and they certainly have a chance.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Can the Packers Win on the Road in Washington?

Photo by Wm. Glasheen, Press-Gazette Media
The photo depicts one of the two best plays by the Packers in the Sunday night loss to the Vikings, 20-13.  It is Micah Hyde's astonishing, one-handed, back-handed interception of a Teddy Bridgewater left-handed mistake of a pass.  The other great play was Mason Crosby knocking the ball out of Cordarrelle Patterson's hand on his long kick return, where the ball was recovered by Hyde, keeping the Packers' hope for a comeback alive at the time.  Unfortunately, the Packers' comeback was too little and too late.

This is the first time since 1968 that the Packers have lost all their divisional games at home.  Now in fairness, it has to be noted that for quite a few of those years, there was a 5th team in the division (the Buccaneers).  And there were a couple of times that the Packers lost to the Bears, Vikings and Lions at home, but did beat the Buccaneers.  Still, think about this for a second.  Those of us old enough to have lived through the bad years in the 1970's and 1980's saw some pretty bad football teams runs out on the field in those days.  But none of them ever lost all of their divisional games at home.

If you had to pick one stat that explains Sunday night's result, try this one: the Packers converted only 2 of 15 third down plays, their lowest conversion rate of the season.

In the first six weeks of the season, when the Packers went 6-0, they got off to a fast start in every game, scoring between 7 and 14 points in the first quarter of each game.  Then, in many cases, whether because of the Packers easing up or the opponents making good adjustments, the opposing teams would climb back into the game and make it close in the 4th quarter.

But the last 10 weeks have been very different.  The much more typical model in those games has been that the Packers have not started fast (they have averaged only 4 points in the first quarter).  They generally fall behind, sometimes way behind in the third quarter (3-20 vs. Vikings, 0-20 vs. Detroit).  Then in most games (excluding the Broncos and Cardinals games) they mount a furious comeback, which was successful (miraculously so) in the second Lions game, but fell short in the Panthers, first Lions, second Bears, and second Vikings games.

There have been many contributing factors to the decline of the Packers, starting with the Broncos game.  Bad passes by Rodgers, dropped passes by receivers, a mess on the offensive line, injuries to the defensive backs, too many turnovers on offense and not enough on defense.  Looking ahead to the Redskins playoff game, I just want to focus on a couple of things.  I am not too worried about the Packers' defense, even though the Redskins have some good weapons in Jordan Reed, DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, and Alfred Morris.  My concern is more with the offense, for reasons that ought to be obvious.

In re-watching the Vikings game, two things stand out.  The first thing is how successful the Packers' running game was on the first possession, even though the drive stalled and only resulted in a field goal.  But given how well the run game was working, why in the world did the Packers all but abandon the running game for the next 5 possessions?  It is one thing to abandon the running game when it is not working, but to abandon it when it is working?  Insanity.  By the time they again tried to run the ball consistently (after the outstanding Micah Hyde interception), the run game was unfortunately aborted by the strip sack of Rodgers, that was then returned for a touchdown, and at that point it was 20-3, late in the third quarter, probably too late to try again to rely on the running game.  Maybe the Packers should assign one of the assistant coaches, or even somebody like Jordy Nelson, who really has nothing to do during the games, to stand next to McCarthy and remind him, on every offensive series, to run the ball.

The other thing that stands out is Rodgers' discomfort when he drops back to pass.  A caller to the WTMJ post-game show talked about the passing offense not having any rhythm to it.  Re-watching the game, the caller had a point.  Rodgers frequently looks very fidgety back there in the pocket, bouncing around in this direction and that, before finally scrambling to avoid pressure and then throwing the ball.  I don't think he used to look that uncomfortable.

I put the current discomfort down to at least three things, and possibly a fourth.  First and most obvious is the offensive line.  Sunday night it was a total disaster, but it has been hurting for much of the year, and as a result, Rodgers is under constant pressure.  Second is the play-calling.  For whatever reason, by my count, the Packers called at least twice as many deep dropback passes in the first three quarters as they did quick outs, quick slants, or any other pass where Rodgers gets rid of the ball fast.  That just compounds the pressure on Rodgers.  Third, as I have noted before, the receivers, absent Jordy Nelson, are not doing a good job of getting open, and as a result Rodgers spends time looking around and trying to buy enough time for someone to get open.  Finally, I have to wonder if Rodgers has lost some confidence in the receivers / the play calling / and/or himself, to the point where he is reluctant to pull the trigger and ends up getting sacked or at least hit instead.  My two pronged solution to this problem is (a) to stick with the running game, which ought to open up more opportunities in the passing game; and (b) to call more quick-release passes, which seem pretty successful when we do call them, and which ought to force the defensive backs to play closer to the line, which in turn might open up the occasional longer pass.

Despite how bad the Packers have looked in the second half of the season, for some inexplicable reason I actually expect them to win at the Redskins on Sunday.  The Packers have a much better defense than do the Redskins, while the Redskins have been playing better on offense (at least recently) than the Packers.  When the Packers have the ball, if they play even a bit better on offense than they did against the Vikings, they ought to be able to take advantage of the Redskins' defense, where the Redskins are bottom 8 or worse in run defense, pass defense, and overall.  On the other side of the ball, the Packers' defense is good enough to cause some problems for the Redskins, especially in the passing game, and likely cause some turnovers.  The Redskins are on a 4-game winning streak, but it is worth noting that they have not beaten a single playoff team, or a team that ended with a winning record, all season.