Friday, November 19, 2021

Another Challenge for the Packers' Defense

 

Rodgers Back Behind Center, Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today

All of the pre-game hype was about the return of Russell Wilson from his finger injury, and the return of Aaron Rodgers from his bout with Covid-19.  Neither quarterback looked great; in fact they both looked as if they haven't played in awhile.  More about that later.  But the quarterbacks were not the story of this game.  The story of the game was the Packers' defense.

You can slice it any number of ways.  The Packers defense has allowed 21 or fewer points in each of the last 5 games.  They have given up a total of 34 points in the last 3 games, playing against Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes, and Russell Wilson.  They registered their first shutout since 2018.  They shut out Russell Wilson for the first time in his career.  And bear in mind that they are doing this without their best defensive back, Jaire Alexander, and without one of their best impact defensive players, Za'Darius Smith.  Both of those guys may be back by the end of the season, so this defense may just continue to get better.

When the Packers were torched in week one by the Saints, 38-3, after going winless in the pre-season, not many people would have predicted the way the defense started playing just a few weeks later.  I don't think many would have predicted an 8-2 record after suffering through that Saints game.  And if you added in the facts that the Packers' offense hasn't quite looked right all year, there is no way you could predict that the Packers would be 8-2 and in the number one seed for the playoffs at this point.  As a matter of fact, the Packers have only scored 216 points in their 10 games, an average of less than 22 points per game, and the fewest points scored by any division leader in the league (the other division leaders have scored between 231 and 287 points).  

In this game, both quarterbacks played at a level that even they would have to agree was sub-standard.  Wilson was missing passes, threw no touchdowns and 2 interceptions, and averaged only 8 yards per completion.  His quarterback rating was a season low 39.7.  It is worth pointing out that he came back early from his finger injury - it was predicted that he would be out for 6 to 8 weeks, but he returned after 4.  It is quite an accomplishment, but at the same time, with the way he played, he probably should have waited another week or two.  During Wilson's absence, they only won one game (against the Jaguars), so it is understandable that they would start Wilson as soon as possible.  But they might have been better off with Geno Smith.

All year long, Rodgers has not looked quite right to me, certainly not by comparison to his MVP season last year.  In this game, he missed a number of long passes that we sort of expect him to complete, like the long pass to MVS in the first quarter.  And he had a couple of passes batted down in the first half.  And of course he had the interception in the end zone in the third quarter, one of the worst (on-field) decisions Rodgers has made in some time.  Last week, the feeling was that Adams, in his return from Covid-19, was not back at full strength, and the same was probably true of Rodgers against the Seahawks.  Even a mild case of Covid can be debilitating, and Rodgers even mentioned on the Pat McAfee show that he mostly watched the game lying down.  So it is reasonable to assume that the disease took something out of Rodgers.  Another week of recovery, even if he missed some practices with a toe injury, can only help Rodgers to be back closer to full strength.

The first three quarters were excruciating to watch.  The Packers looked much better than the Seahawks, but they only had 3 points to show for it.  One blown coverage, one missed tackle, and the Seahawks might have gone ahead.  The Packers finally finished some drives in the fourth quarter, and put the game away.  But this game was completely in doubt until the fourth quarter.

The Vikings game this week will be a real test for the Packers.  There is no doubt in my mind that the Packers are the better team.  But the U.S. Bank Stadium is a place, like the Chiefs' stadium, that is a challenging place to play.  And it seems as if the Vikings always play the Packers tough, even though the Packers are usually the better team.  In the last 10 games between the two, the Packers' record is 4-5-1, so there is plenty of reason for concern.  Last year, at Lambeau Field, Dalvin Cook ran all over the Packers on the way to a 28-22 Vikings win.  It will be interesting to see if the new and improved Packers defense can slow him down.  I think they will, and I think the offense will look a little more alive this week, leading the Packers to a well-earned win and a blow to the Vikings' hopes to make the playoffs. 

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Back to the Present

Packers' only Score, Photo by Packers.com

We have learned a couple of things in the last two weeks.  The Packers are good enough to win a game against the league leading and previously undefeated Cardinals, even if they are without their top 3 receivers (Adams, Lazard, and Valdes-Scantling).  The Cardinals gift-wrapped the win, to be sure, by giving up a game-clinching interception in the end zone in the closing seconds, but the Packers played well enough all game long to feel good about pocketing the win.

And we have learned that the Packers are not good enough to beat a pretty average Chiefs team, even though they got their receivers back, but with second year QB Jordan Love behind center.  We were all hoping for a better result than the 13-7 loss to the Chiefs, but it was obvious that Love is not really ready to be the heir apparent just yet.  He showed promise at times, especially in the fourth quarter, but in my opinion Matt LaFleur, fresh off a brilliant game plan against the Cardinals, did Love no favors by underemphasizing the running game.  With Jones averaging more than 4 yards per carry, and Dillon averaging more than 5 yards per carry, a game plan where Love ended up throwing the ball 34 times compared to a combined 20 carries for Jones and Dillon, makes no sense, and LaFleur, since the game, has acknowledged that he should have done a better job in game planning.  Might another start or two for Love help him take the next step and show himself capable of taking over the reins when Rodgers departs?  Maybe.  But it seems clear that if Rodgers is cleared to play on Saturday, they will almost certainly have him start the game.  

Under the right circumstances, a team can come together and "have the back" of a backup quarterback.  In week 8, that happened when the Jets, Saints, Cowboys and Seahawks won their games while starting backup quarterbacks.  But the rest of the team, and the coaching staff, have to pick up the slack.  Unfortunately for the Packers, only the defense showed up for Jordan Love.  The defense essentially held the once-explosive Chiefs offense to 10 points (the other three points were courtesy of the muffed punt).  But the special teams were a wasteland, with two missed field goals, and two muffed punts, one of which resulted in a turnover and an easy 3 points for the Chiefs.  All told, you could say that the special teams cost the Packers 9 points on the day, which obviously might have been enough to make the difference between a loss and a win.  And the coaching staff, in addition to under-emphasizing the running game, also called a lot of pass plays with deep dropbacks by Love.  How different the game might have been if they had emphasized the run, and emphasized the quick passes that amount to an extension of the running game.  

Oh, well, lesson learned, or at least we can hope that the lesson has been learned.  This week, the Packers will most likely have Rodgers back, and they will most likely have David Bakhtiari back for the first time this year.  Rodgers may not be in great game shape, since he has been quarantining on his couch for the 10 days leading up to the game.  So the coaching staff may still have the opportunity to come up with a creative game plan to take advantage of Rodgers' talents without exposing him to unnecessary fatigue due to his conditioning.  

Russell Wilson has been out for most of the last four games, during which the Seahawks had a 1-3 record.  While the Seahawks' passing game will be much improved with the return of Wilson, the running game is still a bit of a mess, with Chris Carson on IR and not expected back this week.  The Seahawks game is one that the Packers should win, and it would be very helpful to get back into the Win column, with games coming up in the next few weeks against the Rams, Viking, Ravens and Browns.  Go Packers!

Thursday, November 4, 2021

The Sky is Falling! Or is it?

Supply Your Own Caption

The Packers have no chance!  It is a total disaster!  With one of the Packers' biggest stars out of the lineup due to Covid, and various other injuries and Covid problems, playing against one of the better teams in the league, there is no way that the Packers can keep their winning streak going.  The Packers will be lucky if the game is not totally out of hand by halftime.

As you might have guessed by now, that was more or less my reaction last week, when the news came down that Davante Adams would almost certainly miss the game against Arizona, Allen Lazard would definitely miss the game, and neither MVS not David Bakhtiari would be ready to return to the lineup.  And yet, the Packers won the game, holding on for a 24-21 victory when recent signee Rasul Douglas abruptly ended the Cardinals' chance with a dramatic end zone interception in the closing seconds of the game.  

Head coach Matt LaFleur deserves a lot of credit for a game plan that took advantage of the weaknesses of the Cardinals' defense, by emphasizing the running game rather than the passing game, which (not coincidentally) also emphasized the Packers' stronger suit under the circumstances, with Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon leading the way.  Acting defensive coordinator Jerry Gray (taking the place of Joe Barry, also sidelined by Covid), also called a great game by consistently applying pressure to the Cardinals' passing game.  

Now, it is true that by the end of the game, the Cardinals were poised to spoil the Packers' day by either winning the game in the final seconds with a touchdown, or by getting a "gimme" field goal to take the game to overtime where, with all of the momentum having shifted to the Cardinals' side, the Cardinals would probably have won.  This, in my view, was mostly the result of questionable play calling by LaFleur (or perhaps Rodgers at the line of scrimmage) in the red zone.  Three times, the Packers had first downs inside the Cardinals' 5 yard line (once in the second, once in the third, and once in the fourth quarters).  Despite the game planning for the running game, inside the 5 yard line, the Packers mostly emphasized the pass.  They ended up with 10 points to show for those 3 possessions.  Sticking with the running game plan would likely have yielded 14 points, maybe 17 points, maybe even 21 points.  Any of those results would have changed the complexion of the game in the closing minutes.  As it was, it took the last minute interception by Douglas to secure the win.

OK, well if last week I thought the Packers would almost certainly lose, what about this week?  This time, they have to travel to play the Chiefs, and this time they are without their biggest star, Aaron Rodgers, who has not only come down with Covid-19, it turns out he has clearly been trying to mislead the public by creating the impression that he has been vaccinated ("Yeah, I've been immunized"), when the truth is that he has not.  Even vaccinated players can catch the virus, but by (in my opinion, stupidly) refusing to get vaccinated, Rodgers increased the odds that he would get the virus, and increased the chances that his infection might be a serious one.  Not exactly a profile in team leadership, and he richly deserves all the blowback he is getting in the media and with fans.  

At any rate, instead of getting the Mahomes vs. Rodgers matchup many had been anticipating, we now will have the first career start by second year QB Jordan Love.  Is Love up to the task?  As Matt LaFleur said, "we'll find out."  Either way, this will be a preview of coming attractions when Rodgers leaves town, and whether we like it or not, we will be getting that preview sooner than we had hoped.

While Love's first start will be against the reigning AFC Champions, that is not quite as daunting a task as it would have appeared at the beginning of the season.  The Chiefs have been having a weird season, and they are only 4-4. and have given up more points (220) than they have scored (208).  They have lost to some good teams, but they also came close to losing to the Giants last week.  Meanwhile, the Packers will have Lazard and MVS back this week, and most likely Adams as well.  It is possible that even Bakhtiari will be back.  With Rodgers out, Love's backup would normally have been Kurt Benkert, but Benkert is also out on the Covid list.  Fans of the series The Good Place will be happy to know that Blake Bortles was whisked off a Florida golf course, caught the next plane to Green Bay, and will serve as Love's backup on Sunday.

Having escaped with a short-handed win against the previously undefeated Cardinals NFC team last week, the Packers are essentially playing with house money at this point.  LaFleur has had all week to design a game plan around Love's strengths and avoiding his weaknesses.  Love looked pretty good in his limited action for the Packers in the preseason and in mop up duty in Week 1.  To my mind, the Packers' task this week is far less hopeless than the task last week against the Cardinals.  I think they have a real chance to win this game.  And if they don't, at least the loss will be to an AFC team, which is obviously less harmful than a loss to an NFC team.  Go Packers!

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Finally, Another NFC Champ Game at Lambeau Field

Kneel Down Time, Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today

Well, the Packers beat the Rams, rather handily, in their Divisional Playoff game on Sunday, 32-18.  In the process, they have brought the NFC Championship game back to Lambeau Field for the third time in the Favre / Rodgers eras, and for the first time with Rodgers as starting quarterback.  

For the first time all year, the Packers allowed some ticketed fans in the stadium, along with invited guests.  The total attendance was 8,456, which may only be a little more than 10% of capacity, but players including Rodgers commented on how much difference it made.  There were no fans in the stands (home or away) for the first few Packers games this year, and while the typical camera shot didn't display that, when they would show an end zone shot, the emptiness of the stadiums made it seem very sterile to me, like an organized scrimmage, except one that counted in the standings.  

As soon as the Packers started playing before even a few hundred fans, at home or on the road, I felt as if I could detect some increased energy on the part of the players.  And Saturday, with the stands 10%+ filled, there was no doubt.  You could see the players interacting with the fans in the stands.  Rodgers acknowledged what it meant to him to hear the "MVP!" chants late in the game.  With a similar number of fans to be in the stands on Sunday, and with "better" weather (i.e., colder and with a good chance of snow), the Packers should finally have a real home field advantage in an NFC Championship game.

If there was a lull period in the Rams game, it was in the late 3rd quarter.  In my own family, I found very different reactions to that part of the game, when the Rams pulled to within 7 points, at 25-18.  Some of them had a "here we go again" kind of vibe.  Especially since that last Rams score was sandwiched by the only two Packers punts of the game.  Had the momentum really shifted that far in the direction of the Rams?  To state the obvious, when it is a 7 point game, the ball can take a funny bounce, or a ball can be tipped, or a ball can be stripped, and all of a sudden the game is tied.  So the game was at risk at that moment, but I never really felt as if the game was in much doubt.  The Packers had been controlling the game all day long, outplaying the Rams on both sides of the ball, and I was confident that they would put up some more points to seal the win.  And they did, with a near-perfect play action pass to Allen Lazard.  The ball was a little too far inside, which made it a harder catch for Lazard, but as soon as he secured the catch it was clear that he was gone with the "dagger" of a 58 yard touchdown catch.

The hype going into the game was that it was the irresistible force against the immovable object.  The Packers' number one offense against the Rams' number one defense.  But the final stats of the game make a real mockery of the pregame hype.  The Packers almost doubled the offensive output of the Rams, 484 to 244, gaining more yards on offense than the Rams had given up in any game all season.  The Packers controlled the ball for over 36 minutes.  The Packers almost doubled the rushing total of the Rams, 188 to 96.  And while the Packers gave up no sacks or turnovers, the Packers defense registered 4 sacks of Jared Goff, the most sacks he sustained all year.  Goff, by the way, played very well despite his broken thumb, much better than he had the previous week when he was pressed into service against the Seahawks.  So the credit for holding the Rams in check goes to the Packers' defense, and not to an ineffective Jared Goff.  

Rashan Gary, in particular, had one of his best games, contributing 1.5 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 1 tackle for loss.  The Packers showed again, as they have in a number of games later in the season, that they can control the line of scrimmage sufficiently to prevent a talented running back from gashing them.  And then the defensive backs, combined with the pass rush, have proved up to the task of controlling the passing game.  So as the game played out, the Packers had the far superior offense, and the far superior defense.  The Packers' special teams had some problems (a botched extra point and some long-ish kickoff returns) but no game changing plays.

The offensive line played magnificently, and were the MVPs of this game, even without David Bakhtiari, and without ever needing to bring in a substitute.  On regular offensive plays (not including special teams) the starting 5 linemen (Jenkins, Turner, Wagner, Linsley and Patrick) played 100% of the snaps.  I doubt that has happened all year long.  Steve Mariucci joked on Sunday morning that the equipment manager won't even need to wash Rodgers' jersey for next week, as the protection was so good that he was hardly ever touched.  The Packers, behind that consistent offensive line, stuck with the running game, rushing (not counting Rodgers) 32 times for 191 yards.  That is the perfect way to open up the passing game, especially on play-action passes, and it worked, with significant contributions from Adams, Lazard, Tonyan and MVS in the passing game.

The interesting thing to me is that the Packers did not play their best game against the Rams.  Rodgers, uncharacteristically, missed some passes that would have been completions if they had been closer to the mark.  And there were a number of dropped passes, too.  On defense, again, as well as the defense played on Saturday, they did not come away with a single turnover, and in most games they do get at least one turnover.  So you can look at this in two ways.  You can say that the Packers better clean up those offensive mistakes on Sunday, and they better force some turnovers, or they will be watching the Super Bowl from their couches.  Which might be true.  But the way I am looking at it is that, as good as the Packers were against the Rams, they can (and I hope, will) play even better against the Buccaneers.  They didn't even need to be at their best to beat the number one defense of the Rams.  Imagine what they could do if they play at, or closer to, their best.



I was rooting for the Saints to beat the Buccaneers on Sunday; every Packers fan I know was rooting for the same thing.  The Packers beat the Saints in the dome, 37-30, in Week 4, whereas the Buccaneers dealt the Packers their worst loss of the season in Week 6, 10-38.  So having to play Brady and the Buccaneers again in the Championship Game seems, in a way, a little too reminiscent of last year, when the Packers were manhandled by the 49ers during the season, and then had to go back to Santa Clara for the Championship game, where they were manhandled again.  

I reject that comparison.  Last year, both the Packers' offense and their defense were just not up to the job against the 49ers.  They were just beaten solidly, on both sides of the ball, on the road in both games, with regular-sized hostile crowds.  This year, the Packers' offense has played better in the LaFleur system from the first week on.  And while the defense drove fans crazy early in the year, toward the end of the season, the defense has played with much greater consistency.  Since the Week 11 loss to the Colts, the Packers have won seven straight games.  They have given up an average of 18 points in those games, and allowed more than 20 points only twice.  Meanwhile, they have been scoring an average of 33 points over that same stretch, and scored fewer than 30 points only once.  

OK, but what about the Buccaneers, you might say?  What happened in that game, and why is it likely to be different this time?  That game was a weird one, that actually started out well, and then suddenly went to hell in a hand basket.  The Packers were leading 10-0 after the first quarter, when the Buccaneers got a pick 6 to make it 10-7, and then a tipped ball resulted, one play later, in another Buccaneers touchdown on the next possession to make it 14-10, and it was all downhill from there.  In other words, I think that was a game that took an abrupt turn and then snowballed out of control (if you will excuse the expression) in the 88 degree Tampa weather.  The Packers dug the hole even deeper by the end of the half (28-10), and at that point they were forced completely out of their game plan.

So sure, it could happen again, but unlike last year, I don't feel any sense of inevitability about it.  The Bucs game was early in the season, when they were regularly getting gashed by strong running games, and indeed, the Bucs running backs gained 158 yards that day.  And while the Packers' offense had been playing at a high level early in the season, except for the Bucs game, they are playing way more consistently now.

The Packers need to commit to the running game to set up the passing game, and from re-watching the prior Bucs game, they should run the ball inside more than to the outside.  At least on a dry, hot field, the Buccaneers' linebackers were too fast to allow much in the outside running game.  And, obviously, the Packers can't give the ball away again.  On defense, the Packers need to play like they have later in the season, and hold the running backs more in check than they did in Week 6.  While I realize that Mike Pettine isn't about to change his approach dramatically, I hope he will remember that Brady needs to get some pressure.  You can't just rush 3 and drop into zone coverage against Brady, as he can carve you up.  

Right now, there is a 50% chance of snow on Sunday, with temperatures in the high 20's.  That won't phase Brady or Gronkowski in the least, but it is an open question what it will mean for the rest of the Buccaneers.  Weather can freak players out if they are not used to it, but the weather Sunday is not likely to be severe enough to have this effect.  Beyond this, I think it is mostly about footing.  If you are not used to playing or practicing in this weather, you don't have a very good feel for what you can and can't do in those conditions.  Think of how careful you are, watching each step, when you are walking on icy or wet surfaces.  The field won't be icy, but it might have an accumulation of snow, as in the Titans game, and it will definitely be damp or wet.  The Buccaneers won't be used to this, and it can have a real effect on the game.  The Packers and their fans will have a mutually reinforcing vibe going, and I think that will help the Packers as well.

The Packers can definitely win this game, and I think that they will.  The Buccaneers' defense is not as good as the Rams' defense was, but their offense is better.  So the Bucs will score some points, and the Packers need to keep the pedal to the metal all day long.  I think something like 38-30 sounds about right to me, so Go Pack!

Friday, January 8, 2021

Packers Earn Bye with Convincing, but Imperfect, Win Against the Bears

D-Train, Photo by Mike Di Sisti, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Beating your oldest rival in the league, on the last week of the season, to lock up the number one seed and get a bye week, is not a bad way to finish out the regular season!  That is exactly what the Packers did last Sunday, at Soldier Field, beating the Bears, 35-16.  The Packers also did what they could to knock the Bears out of the playoffs, but when the Rams beat the Cardinals, the Bears backed into the playoffs anyway as a Wild Card.  

More records were set or tied on Sunday.  Aaron Rodgers finished with 48 TD passes, to beat his old team record of 46.  Davante Adams broke the Packers' record for catches in a season, and tied the team record for receiving TDs at 18.  Both records had been held by Sterling Sharpe.  And Adams beat those records while missing 2.5 games this year.  If you don't remember how good Sterling Sharpe was, take a look at some of his highlights on YouTube.  

My daughter reminded me this week that when Shannon Sharpe went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he self-effacingly said the following:
"My big brother, Sterling, I’m the only player of 267 men that’s walked through this building to my left that can honestly say this: I’m the only pro football player that’s in the Hall of Fame, and the second best player in my own family."
And the thing is, it was a charming thing to say, but I think it is also true.  That's how good Sterling Sharpe was.  So for Davante Adams to break one record and tie the other just shows what a dominant player he has become for the Packers.  Oh, and then there are the silly records.  The Packers became only the fourth team in NFL history to finish the season with more touchdown passes than punts in a single season.  And the Packers had more touchdown passes than field goal attempts in 2020.

The Packers' win was convincing, but still very imperfect.  As good as the Packers' offense was, after catching a 72 yard touchdown pass from Rodgers in the first half, Marquez Valdes-Scantling dropped what should have been another long bomb for a TD at the start of the second half.  Big deal, they still won by 19?  Sure, but the drop led to a punt, and it seemed as if the offense went into a funk for most of the third quarter.  Drop that pass against the Buccaneers or the Saints, and the result might not be the same.  

And then there was the continuing game of Russian Roulette known as the Packers special teams.  The misadventure this week was newcomer Tavon Austin's fumble of a punt, resulting in a Bears recovery deep in Green Bay territory.  The defense, as it did all day except for the first drive, stiffened and held the Bears to a field goal.  So it could have been worse.  But this is the kind of mistake that can kill in the playoffs.

Anyway, the important thing is that the Packers have locked up the home field advantage for any games they play, and the bye week to get a bit healthier before their first playoff game.  The last time they had the number one seed was the 2011 season, when unfortunately they got knocked out in the divisional round by the pesky New York Giants.  Meanwhile, the Packers have played in 4 NFC Championship Games with Rodgers at QB, but they have all been on the road.  They beat the Bears, at Soldier Field, following the 2010 season, and went on to win Super Bowl XLV.  But they lost the other three NFC Championship Games in which they played, at Seattle following the 2014 season, at Atlanta following the 2016 season, and at San Francisco following the 2019 season.  It is high time that the Packers host, and win, an NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field.  And this might be the year they do just that.  

Unlike last year, when going into the playoffs nobody could figure out how the Packers were going to beat the 49ers, if they met up in the Championship Game, there is no team in the NFC about which I have the same feeling this year.  True, the Buccaneers look like a bad matchup for the Packers, especially bearing in mind how the Buccaneers kicked the Packers around in October, but the Bucs are a Wild Card team, and would have to survive two road games even to get to Green Bay.  

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.  Let's watch some football this weekend, with no pressure since the Packers will be home watching the games along with us.  There will be plenty of time to worry about next week's game once we find out who the opponents will be.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Bears are Last Obstacle to Home Field Advantage

Fun in the Snow, Photo by Evan Siegle, Packers.com

 In a game that didn't matter as much as it might have (because the Seahawks won earlier in the day), the Packers nevertheless rose to the occasion, putting together their most complete performance of the year in demolishing the Tennessee Titans, 40-14, who were 10-4 coming in and heading for the playoffs.  The Packers played four quarters on offense and defense, scoring 19 and allowing 7 in the first half, and then scoring 21 and allowing 7 in the second half.  So there was no "lull" period in Sunday night's game.  

Aaron Rodgers said in the post-game interview that he was sitting on the couch earlier in the day, watching the snow and hoping it would last until game time.  Sitting a couple of time zones away, I was doing the same thing.  One of my top Lambeau Field experiences was a snow game, and the word "magical" always comes to mind when I think of that game.  So I just knew that a snow game would be so much fun to watch.  What I was less certain of was whether it would be more beneficial to the Packers, just because they are used to the weather, or whether it would allow "King" Henry to just run all over the Packers and inch closer to a 2000 yard season.

On offense, the Packers' super secret surprise star was Algiers Jameal William Dillon, Jr. ("A.J. Dillon").  Many Packers fans have been wondering all year when we would see more of Dillon.  Obviously, he missed multiple weeks with what must have been a bad case of the Coronavirus.  He returned to action December 19 against the Panthers.  He had one carry, for 18 yards, in the second quarter.  You would have thought that was enough to earn some carries in the second half, but it didn't.  It took a cold night in the snow against the Titans to bring Dillon out into the spotlight.  

Was that the plan all along?  Save Dillon for a weather game late in December and into the playoffs?  Rodgers has remarked in the past about the value of having a big powerful running back in bad weather.  At 247 pounds, with massive legs, Dillon surely fits the bill.  Still, I have a feeling that this was not exactly the plan.  Rather, with Jamaal Williams inactive for the game, they planned to get Dillon a few more carries.  And then when Aaron Jones got nicked up in the second quarter, they had to lean on Dillon more than they had planned.  And wow, did he ever make the most of his opportunity.  He won't be a super secret surprise weapon any more, but what a change of pace running back he is for the cold weather.  As a slight footnote, the Packers brought back the jet sweep motion with Tavon Austin on Sunday night, and I can't help but believe that this mis-direction also helped the offense.

On defense, Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine came up with some wrinkles to stop Derrick Henry, including 5 and 6 man fronts on obvious rushing downs, to stop the run first, and see if Ryan Tannehill, a good quarterback with some good receiving weapons, could beat the Packers.  The bet being made by Pettine was that the defensive backs can cover man-to-man, and thus control the passing game despite being short-handed in the backfield.  The Titans could not make the Packers pay.  Instead, the Packers held Tannehill to 121 yards passing, while coming up with a pair of sacks and a couple of interceptions.  There was a series in the second where the Packers got a sack, a tipped ball, and another sack to force a 3 and out.  I did not know our defense could do that!

Meanwhile, Henry still gained 98 yards on the ground, so you could say he had a reasonably productive game.  But he had very little impact on the game.  He was outplayed by A.J. Dillon (124 yards and 2 touchdowns) and essentially equaled by Aaron Jones (94 yards, 0 touchdowns).

There were some glitches on special teams, including a missed extra point, a failed two-point conversion, and a blocked field goal that didn't actually count because of a penalty.  And speaking of things that didn't count, holder/punter J.K. Scott actually made a tackle on the blocked field goal, but that, too, was wiped away because of the penalty.  So special teams continue to not be all that special under Coach Shawn Mennenga, and you have to think that there is a good chance the Packers will be looking for a new Special Teams Coach in the off-season.  

Now the Packers go to Chicago, with lots on the line for both teams.  The very unfortunate New Year's Eve news was that David Bakhtiari was knocked out for the year in practice Thursday with an ACL injury.  That is a huge loss for the Packers, as he has been the Packers' most consistent offensive lineman in many ways.  On the other hand, Bakhtiari has missed time this year, as have other offensive linemen, and the Packers never really missed a beat.  The Packers have better quality depth in the offensive line than I had realized going into the season.  This injury, if nothing else, should serve as a reminder to Rodgers to get the ball out fast, on rhythm, before the Bears' rush can get to him.

The league has cleverly put the Packers-Bears, Seahawks-49ers, and Saints-Panthers game all at the same time (3:25 Lambeau Field Time), to ensure that the 3 NFC teams angling for the number one seed, and the bye, in the playoffs, are playing at the same time, for maximum dramatic effect.  The Packers get the number one seed in two possible ways: a Packers win or a Seahawks loss.  That's it.  In this weird year where the home field advantage doesn't mean as much, you can make a case that the Packers have the most to gain  from home field advantage of any team in  the league.

The Bears get into the playoffs two ways: with a Bears win or a Cardinals loss.  And, you got it, the Cardinals-Rams game is also being played at the same time.  So nobody gets an early peek at whether they really need to win the game or not.  At least on the NFC side, it is a perfect set up.  

Meanwhile, while we were paying very little attention to the Bears during their 6-game losing streak, it turns out that they are now on a 3-game winning streak, including dominant wins (for what it is worth) over the Texans and the Jaguars.  Plus, David Montgomery is now the number 5 running back in the league (in yards gained rushing).  And Mitch Trubisky has looked much better in his second stint as starting QB this year.  

Apart from the continuing headache of special teams, I don't think there is much argument  that the win against the Titans, in dominant fashion, over a team most likely headed for the playoffs, was the most complete game the Packers have played all year.  You talk about a team rounding into shape just as the playoffs are approaching?  If the Packers can win convincingly against the Bears in Week 17, they just might turn out to be the team that nobody wants to play in the playoffs.  Let's hope the Packers start off 2021 with a bang!

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Ugly Win Keeps Packers at Number One with Two Weeks to Go

Rodgers, Looking As Shocked as the Fans Were By What He Saw


 In the lead up to Saturday night's Panthers game, I read lots of stuff to the effect that the Panthers have made lesser quarterbacks look like Aaron Rodgers, and that the Panthers don't have much pass of a pass rush, or great defensive backs.  The consensus was that the Packers would feast on the Panthers' defense.  Never mind that the Panthers have almost made an art form of losing games where they had a chance to tie or win the game at the end of the fourth quarter.

And a feast is just what it looked like for the first three Packers' drives, after which the score was Packers, 21-3.  It was all fun and games, and when Rodgers ran the ball in for the second touchdown, even an opposing Panther player seemed like he was enjoying the "I love gold!" celebration put on by Rodgers and the other Packers.  (See photo below.)


And then the lull started, earlier than usual, and this time mostly on the offensive side of the ball.  In the late second and third quarter, the Packers had 5 straight possessions ending in punts (mostly 3 and outs), while the Panthers clawed and scratched their way back into the game.  By the time the Panthers' fourth down pass fell incomplete with 13 seconds left, the Packers should have felt lucky to escape with a 24-16 win.  

I thought something was missing from the offense on Saturday night, apart from a lack of energy and execution after going up 21-3: the jet sweep motion.  This has been an effective technique all year long to show Rodgers how the defense reacts to the motion.  But if the Packers ran any jet sweep motion plays at all, I don't remember them.  Why not?  Tyler Ervin may be out, but presumably one of the reasons the Packers signed Tavon Austin was to run this motion.  I don't understand it, and hope to see it again on Sunday night.

By the way, the Packers also beat the Panthers at Lambeau Field last year.  Oddly enough, it was by an identical score (24-16), in identical weather (low 30's at kickoff).  Last year's game also came down to the final drive by the Panthers, where the game came down to a stop of Christian McCaffrey at the one yard line on the final play to preserve the win.  This is sounding like a bad habit for the Packers, except, as mentioned, the Panthers have had a bunch of games that they have lost this year despite having the chance to tie or win the game late in the fourth quarter.  So maybe the Panthers are one of those snake-bit teams that are better than their record reflects?

The good news is that the Packers are 11-3, and still in the driver's seat for the number one seed.  But the bad news is, as Rodgers said on the field after the game, that the disappointing way the second half played out left a bad taste in his mouth.  Or as someone on Facebook said, "Another win that feels like a loss."  I wasn't happy either, but I am going to argue that the situation is not as bad as it felt immediately after the game.

If this was a "bad win" for the Packers, they weren't alone in getting a bad win this week.  The Seahawks, at 10-4 and also fighting for a chance at the number one seed and a bye in the playoffs, barely hung on for a 20-15 win against the Washington Redskins Football Team.  Washington, depending on how you count it, was arguably down to their 3rd string quarterback.  Washington drove into Seattle territory on their final drive, but alas, ending up turning over the ball on downs.  The Buccaneers, now 9-5 and fighting to catch the Saints for the NFC South division crown, had to come roaring back from a 17-0 deficit against the 4-10 Falcons, before finally pulling ahead in the 4th quarter for a 31-27 win.  Is that an ugly win, too?  Or does the comeback aspect of the game make it feel better to Buccaneers fans?  The Cardinals, fighting for their playoff lives, had to hold off the not-very-good Eagles for a victory, with the Eagles taking several incomplete shots at tying the game in the final seconds.

Speaking of ugly wins, how about ugly losses?  The Rams, 9-5 and fighting to win their division, lost to the previously winless Jets, 23-20.  They got behind and could not catch up, losing the game, despite starting their final drive in Jets territory thanks to a big punt return.  And of course the Saints lost to the Chiefs, 32-29, with the Chiefs running out the clock to put the game away without giving the Saints one last chance to win it.  Maybe this wasn't an ugly loss, because of the quality of the defending champion Chiefs, but it counts the same in the record book.  

To sum it all up, of the 7 NFC teams that would currently qualify for the playoffs, there were 3 losses this week (Saints, Washington, Rams) and 4 wins, all of which were ugly in some ways (Packers, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Cardinals).  I tend to focus only on my own team most of the time, rejoicing some times, and despairing other times.  Stepping outside the NFC for a minute, if you are unhappy with the "quality" of the Packers' 4 game winning streak, imagine if you were a Steelers fan.  Their 11-0 start is coming crashing down all around them with a 3 game losing streak, including losses to the not-so-great Washington team, and the really bad Bengals team Monday night.  It is worth having a little perspective here, that winning an NFL game isn't ever easy, and most if not all of the other teams go through the same sorts of problems.  I take some comfort in the fact that the defense again played better on Saturday night, especially in the secondary.  They also again held the opposing running backs to manageable yardage, and they forced a game-changing turnover at the goal line when Krys Barnes knocked the ball out of the outstretched hands of Teddy Bridgewater as he attempted to dive over the line for a touchdown.

Anyway, it is now clear that the Packers can secure the number one seed in a number of ways.  The easiest is to beat the Bears in Week 17, in which case it becomes irrelevant whether they win or lose against the Titans on Sunday night, and it is also irrelevant what any other team does in the final two weeks.  Unfortunately, the Packers can't know for sure this week that they will beat the Bears next week.  So they need to play their starters, play hard, and beat the Titans.  Now, it should be noted that if the Rams beat the Seahawks earlier on Sunday, then a Packers win against the Titans will secure the number one seed for the Packers Sunday night.  

I have an uncomfortable feeling about this game.  I suspect that the Seahawks will beat the Rams, resulting in a letdown for the Packers, who might then be a little too focused on the fact that "all" they need to do is beat the Bears the following week, and thus not play well against the Titans.  Derrick Henry can almost single-handedly win a game.  I am hoping the Packers will get it done, but I could easily see the Packers dropping this game.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Another Breed of Cat Coming to Town Saturday Night

Adams TD, Photo by Leon Halip, AP

The Packers' win against the Lions on Sunday (31-24) was a momentous one, because it clinched a playoff spot for the Packers, as well as the NFC North division title.  It also moved the Packers into the number one seed in the NFC, because of the Saints having been upset by the Eagles.  The Packers are now in the driver's seat, since they control their own destiny.  

Maybe you don't remember those years where the Packers had to play their last game and then wait to see if the Vikings, or the Rams, or whoever, would lose to let the Packers sneak into the playoffs.  I do remember them.  So I savor the fact that the Packers have clinched the division with three weeks to go.  It is worth noting that the toughest game left on the schedule for either the Packers or the Saints is this week's Kansas City at New Orleans game.  Assuming that the Chiefs win (as they are favored to do), this would give the Packers a little cushion in case they stumble in one of their final three games.  

Meanwhile, there were more milestones on Sunday.  Davante Adams became the first player ever to have 90+ catches, over 1100 yards, and 14 TDs over the first 13 games of the season.  Which sounds great enough just as it is.  And then you stop to realize that he only played in 11 games.  And for Rodgers, his milestone of the day is that he is the first player ever to have 39+ TDs, and fewer than 5 interceptions, after 13 weeks of a season.  I know, these records being set are a little funky - 14 TDs?  39 TDs?  13 games?  These are not nice round numbers.  But still, it says something about the monster year these two stars are having.

The first half was not all that satisfying, being that the Packers went into halftime tied at 14.  Time of possession was almost even, and the Lions had more passing yards than the Packers did in the half.  But the third quarter was dominated by the Packers.  They possessed the ball for over 13 and a half minutes, allowing only a 3 and out to the Lions.  The Packers scored once in the third quarter, and again early in the fourth quarter, to make it 28-14.  At that point, the game was under control.  

Except it wasn't, really.  Remember that fourth quarter slump problem we have discussed in prior blog posts?  I had it in mind, and was concerned that the Lions would claw their way back into the game.  Our Lions' fan friend, Al, threw out a prediction that the Lions could score a touchdown on the ensuing drive if there were 5 penalties on the Packers.  Sure enough, that is exactly what happened, as the Lions drove 75 yards on 13 plays, with 5 penalties on the Packers.  Well, the Packers did manage to keep it together enough to win the game, but not until they endured a scary onside kick, that had to be reviewed to confirm that the ball was out of bounds before it was recovered by the Lions.  I tend to see this as another special teams issue.  The onside kick almost played out like the one in a Dallas game earlier this year, where the receiving team (the Falcons) just watched the ball until it had gone 10 yards and was then recovered by the Cowboys.  Apparently it may be illegal for the receiving team to intentionally bat or kick the ball out of bounds.  But as the ball gets to 8 or 9 yards downfield, the receiving team can no longer afford to just watch it spin and hope for the best.  They have to pick it up, or better yet, dive towards it and "inadvertently" push it out of bounds.

Fresh off the victory over the Lions, another ferocious feline team comes to Lambeau Field Saturday night.  The 4-9 Panthers now come to Green Bay for a game that means a lot more to the 10-3 Packers, because of their quest to retain the only NFC bye in the playoffs.  I was very concerned about this game a few weeks ago, because I assumed that Christian McCaffrey would be back and would run all over the Packers.  But now it looks like McCaffrey won't play, and besides, as I have been saying for a couple of weeks, I think the Packers defense is looking better despite their custom of taking some time off in the middle of the fourth quarter.  Mike Davis can still do some damage, but he is not the difference-maker that McCaffrey is.  The Packers just need to take care of business, come out without any injuries, and with any luck they will find themselves a full game ahead of the Saints (plus the tiebreaker) after the Chiefs get done with the Saints.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

After Grounding the Eagles, Can the Packers Tame the Lions?

Record Setters, Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today

The Packers improved their record to 9-3 in beating the Eagles, 30-16, on Sunday.  That is worthy of a little celebration.  It is certainly a better record than I imagined that the Packers would have at this point of the season, and it virtually assures the Packers a playoff spot, and makes another division crown and a home game in the playoffs highly likely.  

It was also a game with lots of significant milestones.  Davante Adams caught a TD for the seventh game in a row, tying the record set long ago by Don Hutson.  Aaron Rodgers threw his 400th TD pass, joining an elite group of 6 other QBs to reach that mark.  And Rodgers got to 400 in the fewest number of games, 193.  Robert Tonyan caught a TD for the third game in a row, solidifying his position as the best TE the Packers have.  Rodgers became the first QB in NFL history to throw 35 TD passes in 5 seasons.  Adams reached 1000 yards for the second time in his career.  And the Packers became the first team in NFL history to reach 800 wins (regular season + playoffs).  However . . 

However, it is hard to ignore the bad taste left in the mouth by what happened in the middle of the fourth quarter.  The Packers had just kicked a field goal to make it 23-3, and the game seemed well in hand.  Easy for me to say that, sitting on the couch with no responsibilities for blocking or tackling.  Unfortunately, apparently the Packers thought the game was in hand, too.  So the defense slow-walked their way through a 9 play, 73 yard drive to make it 23-10.  Then the offense went 3 and out, and the special teams gave up another kick return touchdown, this time on a 73 yard punt return, making it 23-16 (the extra point was missed).  Then the offense went 3 and out again, giving the ball back to the Eagles with almost 5 minutes left on the clock and plenty of time to go down and tie it up.  Fortunately, the defense finally awakened from their early evening nap and forced a punt.  The offense, or at least Aaron Jones and his blockers MVS and Bakhtiari, also woke up, and when Jones raced 77 yards for a touchdown, to make it 30-16, the game was finally really in hand.

I know that you can get away with this kind of crap (most of the time, anyway) when you are playing a dysfunctional 3-7-1 team that is falling apart before our eyes, but could you get away with that against a better team?  That remains to be seen.  I can't make any excuses for the special teams.  Maybe Tavon Austin will bring some special teams receiving spark starting this week, since Tyler Ervin has been put on IR.  And as for the kicking part of special teams, I don't know what to do other than to pray that we don't see J.K. Scott trying to make a tackle again for the rest of the year.  Or (and this is only half in jest) have Mason Crosby do the punting, since he at least knows how to tackle!

More and more, I am coming around to the view that the defense is a different story.  Yes, they had a lapse on one drive in the fourth quarter, and that should not happen.  But they held the Eagles' running backs to under 100 yards, which might be the first time the Packers have done that all season.  And they certainly applied lots of pressure to Wentz, and to Hurts after he was brought in, sacking them a total of 7 times, and forcing an interception late in the game to slam the door shut.  Obviously, it helps that Carson Wentz is both slow and somewhat indecisive now, a bad combination for a quarterback under pressure.  But the bigger point is that I think Mike Pettine is becoming a bit more aggressive in his calls on defense, especially late in the game, and it is starting to show up in turnovers and sacks.  

I would like to see them build on this approach in the remaining games, so that the Packers can go into the playoffs on a high note.  I have no worries about the offense in this second year under LaFleur.  The Packers lead the league in points scored, and that is no fluke.  I am less concerned than some about the defense, and hope that Pettine continues to be more aggressive, as I think he has at times over the last few weeks.  Special teams will continue to terrify me, but hopefully they can keep their act mostly together.  It would be helpful if the Packers just never have to punt the ball!

The Packers play the Lions this week.  On paper, the Packers should win the game.  But that was true against the Vikings a few weeks ago, too.  And the Lions showed signs of life in orchestrating a comeback win over the Bears last week.  At 5-7, the Lions are two games back in the wild card chase, and can't afford to drop further back.  So they will be motivated to pull off the upset, and much has been made this week about how the Packers have been slow starters against the Lions, at home and away.  It was just last year that the Packers never led against the Lions until the final play of both games, ending up 2-0 for the season, but they were two plays away from being 0-2.  I want to see a fast start on offense, solid and aggressive play on defense, and no more special teams mishaps.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Celebrating 100 Wins Against the Bears

Opportunistic Defense, Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today

On Sunday Night Football, with a relative handful of fans finally back in the stands, the Packers beat the Bears, 41-25, to get their 100th all-time win against the Bears (including their playoff win back in the 2010 Super Bowl season).  The record is now 100-95, with 6 ties.  

I can remember back in the 1980's when the Packers were looking up to see the Bears way in front of them in the all-time win-loss records.  But that was before Brett Favre and now Aaron Rodgers.  If you look at the historical records by decade, there had been only one decade in which the Packers won more of the matchups than the Bears.  You got it, it was the 1960's.  But then came the 1990's, 2000's, 2010's and now the 2020's.  Over the most recent four decades, the Packers have beaten the Bears to the tune of 43 wins against 19 losses.  This dominance won't last forever, so I am glad to see the Packers get a little cushion now, while they still can.

One thing I liked a lot in the Sunday Night game was the re-emergence of the jet sweep motion.  In the several games that Tyler Ervin has been out with injuries, it seemed to me that the Packers were making much less use of this motion, and it was having a negative effect on the offense.  Sunday night, it was back (especially in the first half as they were building their lead), even without Tyler Ervin, and the results of this misdirection could be seen in how unstoppable the offense looked at times.  The jet sweep motion creates just enough hesitation on defense to create some momentary openings.  

Speaking of the jet sweep motion, whether Ervin is ready to return this week or not, I think the Packers just got somebody new who can be an effective jet sweep motion player.  With the signing of Tavon Austin, the Packers now have another speedy wide receiver, a new jet sweeper, and a likely kick returner (since the Packers waived Darrius Shepherd in order to make room for Austin).  Once or twice a game, I would just love to see MVS and Austin line up at opposite ends, take off like bats out of hell for the end zone, and see what happens.  Maybe one of them gets open for a long TD, but maybe they just pull enough DBs with them to open up the shorter passing game.  

Back to the Bears game for one last comment - I think the much-maligned defense has looked better over the last few weeks, doing a lot of swarming to the ball.  Darnell Savage had two interceptions, and I think the last two weeks are probably the best two weeks of his career.  I know they gave up a lot of points against the Colts last week, but let's not forget that there were 4 turnovers, and a lot of those points were attributable to offensive mistakes more so than defensive ineptitude.  Against the Bears, I know the final box score shows that the Packers gave up 25 points, but the score was 41-10 going into the 4th quarter.  For better or for worse, I think Mike Pettine's style in this setting is to go into slow down mode, keeping everything in front of the defense, giving up all the short plays they want, and guarding against quick scores.  You can denigrate this by calling it the "prevent defense" if you want, but when you lead by 31 with one quarter to go, that can be an effective means of sealing the win.  

Watching the much-delayed Ravens at Steelers game on Wednesday afternoon (!), I was reminded what great defenses look like.  Going into the game, these were the only two defenses to have allowed less than 200 points so far this year.  The Packers haven't had a defense like that since the Super Bowl year of 2010.  I don't see any chance that the Packers defense will magically turn into a great defense by the time the playoffs roll around.  But can they continue to make some key stops and generate a few turnovers each game, to make life a little easier on the offense?  They have recently, and I hope they can keep it up.

Anyway, the Eagles arrive in town on Sunday for another game that the Packers, on paper, should win, and win easily.  The Eagles' offense looked pretty terrible Monday night against the Seahawks, but the defense looked like it can create problems, at times, for opposing offenses.  This will be the second week in a row in which a desperate team is coming to Lambeau Field.  The Bears needed a win, as a practical matter, to stay in contention in the division.  The Eagles, at 3-7-1, should not be in the playoff hunt at all, but somehow they are.  In the NFC LEast, 3-7-1 is half a game out of first place.  So winning the division is a real possibility, but only if the Eagles can win some more games while the other woeful NFC East teams drop a few.  So beating the Packers would be a big deal for the Eagles, and if they get the smell of an upset in their nostrils, who knows?  The Packers should not do anything to encourage them.  They should put up a bunch of points fast, just like they did against the Bears, and then keep the foot on the gas until it is too late for a comeback.