Friday, September 23, 2016

Still-Rusty Packers Looking to Improve

Montgomery Blocks the Punt, Photo by Evan Siegle,
Well, it turned out that the Packers were not quite ready to shake off that offensive rust against the Vikings just yet, and instead of winning a close game, they lost one instead, by the score of 17-14.

Oddly enough, the Packers looked pretty good on both sides of the ball in the first quarter.  Yes, on offense, Rodgers did not have his usual accuracy, and missed some passes, the Vikings dropped an easy interception, there was the weird play where Davante Adams fumbled the ball, it was recovered by Minnesota and then fumbled right back to the Packers, there were the now-obligatory blown timeouts early in the game, and the Packers were very lucky to recover Rodgers' strip sack fumble.  So it was not all sweetness and light, by any means.  But they still led by 7-0 at the end of the first quarter.  The defense was pitching a shutout at that time, having held Adrian Peterson to one yard rushing, while applying consistent pressure on Sam Bradford.  Even the special teams helped out with a blocked punt.

But it all went downhill starting in the second quarter.  Sam Bradford seemed to start feeling more comfortable in his role as the Vikings' new quarterback, and he started to take good advantage of the Packers' stacking their defense to stop the run.  Rodgers continued to miss passes I would normally expect him to complete, but worse yet, he started to get happy feet in the backfield, jumping around, holding the ball too long, and then either misfiring his passes or getting sacked in the process (he was sacked a total of 5 times in the game).  At times, he seemed better at drawing pass interference and defensive holding penalties on long passes than he was at completing those passes.  While drawing defensive penalties is a part of every quarterback's tool bag, it is not as much of a plus when the passes are off the mark, since the quarterback is never sure that the defensive penalty has been called.

And then, after multiple bullets dodged, and with clear chances to pull out a win, the Packers ended up failing in their last 2 opportunities to win the game in the closing minutes.  In the first case, Rodgers held the ball too long, was strip sacked, and this time the Vikings finally recovered the fumble.  And then the final chance was lost on an ill-advised pass that was intercepted with  less than two minutes to go.

What to make of this?  There are lots of explanations that can be made, from the downgrade on the offensive line when Josh Sitton was cut, to play-calling, to there being something wrong with Rodgers.  Let's start with play-calling - I am not happy with it.  Where are the quick passes, the slants, the draw plays?  There are too many deep drops, resulting in Rodgers getting twitchy and getting hit back there.  In re-watching the game, the Packers had the most success when they got rid of the ball quickly, but all too many times Rodgers was running for his life in the backfield.  In the same way that running the ball can open up the passing game (and vice versa), I would argue that the short passing game can open up the deeper passing game.  If the defense is repeatedly burned on short passes for 5 yards a pop, pretty soon they start playing closer to the line of scrimmage and that is when receivers have an easier time getting open long.  This seems pretty basic, but it is as if Mike McCarthy forgot to call many short or quick-release passes.

As to Rodgers, he is not playing like the Rodgers we are used to.  Are his skills declining?  That is possible, but plenty of other quarterbacks (from Favre to Brady to Manning) have continued to play well until they are much older than Rodgers is now.  My theory is that sitting Rodgers for all but a couple of series in the preseason turned out to be a real bad idea.  He is playing with rust, he is playing like he might play in the preseason, and he is playing without having good chemistry with his receivers.  Speaking of chemistry, I am definitely not fond of the peevish look Rodgers frequently had on his face during this game, yelling at J.C. Tretter, gesturing at receivers, etc.  I'm not sure that he was enjoying himself at any time during this game, and it carried over into the days after the game, when he was showing frustration and irritation when interviewed in the locker room.  The linked article contains a shockingly long recitation of statistical areas where Rodgers is underperforming from his career averages, from passing yards per game, to passing yards per pass, to passer rating.  

Meanwhile, the season moves on as Detroit comes to Green Bay, with the Packers hoping to start a new home winning streak against the Lions, after having their long streak ended last year.  Both teams are 1-1 for the year, and both teams lost out on chances to win last week, with the Lions having led 15-3 at the end of the third quarter, only to end up losing 16-15.  Both teams are banged up, especially on defense, and both teams are probably playing beneath their own expectations.  Which team will rise to the occasion, and avoid the dreaded 1-2 start?  I am going with the Packers.  Not only do they have the home field advantage, but the Lions are giving up lots of passes and touchdowns to tight ends.  While Jared Cook and Richard Rodgers have not done much to impress so far this year, this is an excellent opportunity for them to come out and do some damage.  If the Packers' offense can improve at all over Sunday night's game, the Packers should win the game.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Packers Start Season With a Win

Green Bay Press-Gazette Cover
It has been a long time since my last post.  I just could not find the motivation in the off-season or the preseason to have much to say about the Packers.  But now that games that actually count have returned, I am back and raring to go.  When people ask how good the Packers will be this year, I say that I expect them to be good, in the playoffs, and have a shot at the Super Bowl.  The trouble is, I say that every year.  But since that is true every year, maybe my optimism is justified!

On the offensive side of the ball, the three big questions for me were: how will Lane Taylor do replacing Josh Sitton; how will Jordy Nelson look; and will Jared Cook make a difference at tight end?  Oddly enough, we got the clearest answer about Lane Taylor in the Packers's 27-23 win over the Jaguars.  He looked fine.  Unlike past replacement guards and tackles who have created real problems, with Rodgers running for his life and/or getting hammered back there, Taylor seemed to be doing a very respectable job of protection.

Nelson looked good, but had none of his explosive plays, as we have seen in the past.  It may be that he has lost a step over his year of recovery, but I think it is way too early to conclude that now.  The starters on offense got almost no time together in the preseason, and of course Nelson got 0 snaps in a preseason game.  So if the offense looked a little rusty, it makes sense.

Well, actually it goes beyond looking rusty.  There was confusion on offense, there were unnecessary timeouts.  The spectacle of Rodgers trying to call a second time out on the same play, and ending up with a delay penalty, is something I won't forget soon.  One more play like that and they will need to put Rodgers through the concussion protocol.  He just doesn't make mistakes like that.

As to Jared Cook, I have been expecting big things of him this year.  You know the argument.  Cook is a top quality tight end, but has never had a top quality quarterback.  The Packers have an important role in their offense for a dependable, big tight end, but have not had a top quality tight end since the forced retirement of Jermichael Finley.  Well,  Cook made very little impact in the first game, but he looked primed to do big things.  He was responsible for a big gainer without catching the ball, by drawing a long pass interference call down the field.  I think Sunday night against the Vikings could be his big debut.

On defense,  I had two main questions: whether shifting Clay Matthews back outside will create the kind of disruption that he supplied before switching him inside.  The early returns are pretty good.  Especially early in the game, Matthews was exactly what I remembered, getting one sack and stopping another play for a loss.  While he was not as big a factor after the first quarter, I wonder if the hot and humid conditions had anything to do with it (or, for that matter, with Julius Peppers' seemingly entering the witness protection program during the game).

My other question was whether the defensive line would be serviceable in light of B.J. Raji's "retirement" and Mike Pennel's short term suspension.  It was.  The line helped to provide pass rush all day, while doing an even better job of protecting against the run.

All in all, to come up with a win in an opening day road game, under insanely hot and humid conditions, against an up and coming team with three excellent pass-receiving weapons, is a pretty good start to the season.

The Packers' unusual (weird might be a better word) schedule this year continues with another road game, opening the Vikings' new stadium on Sunday night, before returning home for a four game home stand, packaged around an early bye in week 4.  The Packers are slight favorites against the Vikings, so I didn't really understand why so many people seem to assume that the Vikings will win.  Sure, new stadium, high emotions, blah blah blah.  But the Packers are still a better team, particularly after the Vikings lost Teddy Bridgewater for the season.

I watched the Vikings' opening day win against the Titans.  Shaun Hill was at quarterback for the Vikings in the opener, and I can easily understand why the Vikings reportedly will switch to the recently-acquired Sam Bradford for the game against the Packers.  Hill did very little for the Vikings, managing to engineer 4 field goal drives.  The other 13 points in the Vikings' 25-16 win were created by defensive scores, an interception return and a fumble return.  My prediction is that the Packers will shake off a little of the rust, and look much sharper on offense, probably winning a fairly close game.  If they manage to accomplish that, with 4 home games coming up, they will be in great shape.