Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Packers Get a Bye Week to Figure Out Their Problems

Crosby's Game Winner, Photo by Rey Del Rio, Getty Images
We watched the game with our Lions fan friend Al, and he was assuring us all game long, especially as the Lions built their lead in the first half, that the Lions would collapse in the second half, and the Packers would win it on a score in the last minute or so. [Editor's note: Al points out that he actually said the Lions would lose in the last 3 seconds. I stand corrected.]  Now that is some serious fatalism, but as he said, "that is how the Lions play this year."  And sure enough, the Packers never led during the entire game, until the final play, when a Crosby field goal sailed through to give the Packers the win, and in the process, a bye week, by the score of 23-20.  And this was a perfect bookend win for the Packers, since in the Week 6 matchup with the Lions, the Packers again never led until the final play of the game, with Crosby's field goal that night giving the Packers a 23-22 win.

For the last couple weeks, I had been trying to talk myself into the proposition that division games are always close and hard-fought, and therefore there was no problem with winning in a bit of an ugly fashion.  But getting beat all day by a 3-11-1 team, with 17 players on IR including their starting quarterback and other starters, is really putting my proposition to the test.  Can we continue to make the argument that there is  no problem after Sunday's game?  I found it pretty disappointing, and by halftime I thought the Packers would lose the game, have to play again this week, and I was not even sure I liked their chances against the Vikings, which is the team they would have played in the Wild Card round.

But then, as has been the case many times this year, they staged their comeback and won the game.  Bye secured, week off, possibility of the number one seed was still in the air until Sunday night.  No problem?  I think there obviously is a problem.  In recent weeks it has been really clear to me that there is something wrong with Rodgers.  He is missing throw after throw that he could have made in his sleep in the past.  He usually makes enough throws to keep us close, and then either he, or Aaron Jones, or the defense, manage to pull the game out in the end, but I no longer have the confidence that Rodgers can make any throw at any time necessary.

On the other hand, we can't ignore that they keep finding a way to win these games.  Stifling defense won it last week.  This week the defense wasn't as good, but then the defense stiffened in the second half, and the Packers' offense made just enough plays on offense to tie the game, and then win the game, in the last few minutes.

Why do I think there is a problem with Rodgers?  You can't watch him tie the record for overthrows in a game (16), and tell me there is no problem.  If the Packers figured out a way to win the division the previous week, with a lot of short passes to move the ball down the field, coupled with a heavy reliance on the running game, why was that strategy abandoned during the entire first half against the Lions?  If your QB is repeatedly overthrowing mid to long range passes, how does Matt LaFleur not adjust his play-calling until the second half?  And how does the QB with a perfect passer rating against the Raiders two months ago, play like an average QB over the entire month of December?  I suppose the best case would be that he is in a slump that ends now and they cruise through the playoffs like they did after the 2010 season.  Or maybe he has some nagging, undisclosed hand or shoulder injury that might improve over the bye week?  Or maybe he needs to stop relying on pure arm strength and set his feet to get his entire body into his throws?

I re-watched the Lions game with these questions in mind.  I found the offensive game plan to be puzzling in the first half, with heavy reliance on longer throws, despite Rodgers overthrowing most of them.  In the second half, there was a noticeable shift to more emphasis on shorter passes, and more reliance on getting the ball to Aaron Jones, either running or as a receiver.  This resulted in scoring 20 points in the second half, as compared to 3 in the first half.

I also watched Rodgers' throwing mechanics.  No theory will explain every good and every bad throw.  But what I noticed is that he throws a lot of balls without setting his feet, even if he is relatively safe in the pocket.  And I noticed that he tends to overthrow a lot of those longer balls where his feet are not set.  On the other hand, he completes most of his short passes, even if he does not get his feet set.

So the game plan for the first playoff game should include the following points.  (1) use more pressure on defense - in the second half against the Lions, the Packers applied more pressure and gave up only 3 points.  (2) don't forget about the running game and the short passing game.  In fact, these should be the emphasis of the offense.  (3) take periodic longer shots down the field, especially as the defense adjusts to the short game, but practice, practice, practice having Rodgers get his feet set before unleashing longer throws.  If the Packers can do those three things, they have a great chance to get to the NFC Championship Game.  If they don't, and come up with a game plan like they used in the first half against the Lions, they have no chance.

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