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.

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