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.

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