Monday, November 21, 2011

10-0, But Far From Perfect

(Image by Duff Damos)

Well, it appears that the Packers have not quite gotten past their problems on defense yet.  Not only did they give up 455 yards of total offense to the Buccaneers, but they let Josh Freeman throw for over 300 yards and 2 touchdowns, they let LeGarrette Blount run for almost 6 yards per carry, and they made Kellen Winslow look the tight end we thought Jermichael Finley would be this year.  On offense, Aaron Rodgers again had a passer rating over 110, but the offense seemed slightly out of kilter, with more missed passes than we are used to seeing this year, and the special teams had wacky plays from Tim Masthay's punt with two fumbles on the same play, to the Packers almost giving the ball back to Tampa Bay through sheer stupidity on the first of two Tampa onside kicks.

This last one is a particular pet peeve of mine.  If you are playing on special teams, you should know the rules relevant to special teams play.  The play by D.J. Smith on the first onside kick by Tampa Bay was both atrocious and utterly inexcusable. It was obvious that the ball was not going to travel 10 yards, and yet Smith went over the top of the kicker's body to touch the ball, which was then recovered by the Buccaneers.  In this case, Smith was bailed out by the fact that the kicker actually touched the ball first, for an illegal touching penalty, but that was just a lucky break.  His intent was to get to the ball first, despite the fact that it had not gone 10 yards.  This is the equivalent of a quarterback not knowing that you can't throw two forward passes on the same play, or a kickoff returner not knowing that a kickoff is a live ball (I'm talking about you, Barry Foster).  Yes, I suppose it is hard to make those decisions in a split second, but I still think it is evidence of either bad coaching, a player who has not learned the rules, or a player who didn't exactly blow the doors off of the Wunderlic test.

Oh, yes, and notwithstanding all that, the Packers beat the Buccaneers 35-26, going to 10-0, and extending their winning streak in games that count to 16.  Which is a textbook example of this team finding a way to win a game, even though they played sub-par football in all three phases of the game.  There is no question in my mind that the Packers, in most other years, would have found a way to lose this game, and so, as dissatisfied as fans may be with the Buccaneers game, we should at least be thankful that the Packers have turned it around to the point where they win most (or all) games that are close enough that they could easily lose them.

Everybody knows that the Lions and the Cowboys host a Thanksgiving Day game every Thanksgiving.  That has been true since 1967.  Only football fans of a certain age will recall that, from 1951-1963, the Packers played the Lions every Thanksgiving.  Vince Lombardi evidently hated playing every Thanksgiving Day, and he had the practice discontinued after 1963.  Probably the 1962 game had a lot to do with it.  The Packers came into the game undefeated at 10-0, and the Lions were 8-2 (this year they are 7-3).  The Lions won the game, 26-14, but the Packers did not lose another game, finished the regular season 13-1, and won the NFL Championship.

Speaking of the history of Thanksgiving games, they started in 1920, with 6 games being played that Thanksgiving.  Of the 12 teams playing that day, only one survives today, the Decatur Staleys (now the Chicago Bears).  The Packers played their first Thanksgiving game in 1923, beating the Hammond Pros by the score of 19-0.  Yes, the league was a very different place back then.  My favorite Thanksgiving game memory is from 1986, when Walter Stanley completed the Packers' comeback with a last minute punt return for a touchdown, allowing the Packers to beat the Lions, 44-40.  Somebody (I have forgotten who) put a crushing block on the last Lion with a chance to stop him on his way to the end zone.

This Lions game, to be perfectly honest, makes me nervous.  The Lions have a very good pass rush, a nearly unstoppable wide receiver (Calvin Johnson), and they traditionally play very well on Thanksgiving at home, even when the team is not very good.  So this is certainly one of the games where the Packers could lose.  And with the 49ers (9-1) nipping at the Packers' heels, every game counts a lot, when it comes to setting up home field advantage in the playoffs.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Buccaneers Up Next

When last I discussed the Packers, I was fretting about the struggling Packers' defense.  So, they go out and have their best defensive performance of the year, and beat the Vikings on Monday night by the score of 45-7.  Even in their other two blowout games against the Broncos (49-23) and the Rams (24-3), the Packers gave up ridiculous yardage totals (384 yards to the Broncos, and 424 yards to the Rams).  Sure, this game was against the (now 2-7) Vikings, but it was about time that the defense looked like last year's defense down the stretch.

Meanwhile, the offense continued to look unstoppable, and Rodgers has now beaten Favre's record of 25 straight home games with a touchdown pass, as Rodgers reached 26 games on Monday night.  And the team record winning streak in games that count now stands at 15 (2 games in the regular season last year, all 4 playoff games, and 9 games this year).

The defensive resurgence does not look like a fluke.  Woodson asked for the defense to apply more pressure this week, and to open up some opportunities for Matthews.  Wish granted.  Dom Capers called a much more aggressive defensive game plan, blitzing on almost 75% of the snaps, and it worked like a charm.  Clay Matthews had 2 sacks, and Desmond Bishop added a 3rd sack.  Charles Woodson was very close to 2 interceptions, one of which would certainly have been returned for a touchdown.  From start to finish, the defense controlled the game.

The Packers are now in the midst of a 10 day stretch within which they will play 3 games.  From a physical standpoint, you would think that this would be the toughest stretch of the season.  But they came out of the Vikings game healthy, and now they play the Buccaneers.  Aaron Rodgers has never beaten the Buccaneers, and of course in 2009 the Packers lost to the Buccaneers, who were winless going into the game.  At the beginning of the season, this looked like it would be a very tough game, because the Buccaneers played very well last year, and Josh Freeman was supposed to be the next big thing.  As it turns out, they go into this game with a record of 4-5, and with Josh Freeman having more interceptions than touchdowns.  My biggest concern about this game is that the Packers look past this game to the even-shorter week they have to prepare for the Lions.  I don't think that will happen, given that the Packers are still stinging from the 2009 loss to the Bucs.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Packers' "Struggling" Defense

(Green Bay Press-Gazette photo by Corey Wilson)

What is wrong with the Packers' defense?  While the Packers beat the Chargers on Sunday, 45-38, the fact that they gave up 38 points to the previously-struggling Chargers, and that they again needed a last-minute interception (by Charlie Peprah) to seal the win, is causing a lot of teeth-gnashing among Packer fans.

The two best quotes I have heard about the state of the Packers' defense come from Charles Woodson and from the Packergeeks blog.  Woodson, after the game, said, "We like to think that we have a lot of playmakers on our defense, especially in the back end.  We feel like if the ball is in the air, we'll come up with our fair share certainly. But how many times are you going to have two interceptions for a touchdown? … Yeah, today it played out big for us. But we have to be more sound as a defense throughout the whole game." And the Packergeeks, who provide high quality commentary on the state of the Packers, said, "If our defense didn’t cause turnovers, we would be absolutely awful."

As an aside, I laughed when I heard, in the days leading up to the game, that the Chargers were piping in crowd noise to their practices, anticipating a large volume of Packer fans at the game.  But sure enough, the Packer fan crowd noise was a big enough problem that the Chargers used a silent count on offense toward the end of the game.  Yes, there are Packer fans all over, and a side trip to San Diego during the month of November probably sounded good to a lot of Packer fans.

But getting back to the Packer defense, what is the problem?  There was some discussion this week about "communications problems" in the secondary.  But I think the root of the problem is the lack of pass rush of the front 3.  The Packers let Cullen Jenkins get away in free agency, signing with the 3-5 "dream team" Philadelphia Eagles.  The push by the defensive line has not been the same since he left.  Last year, the defensive line consistently got enough push against the offensive line to back them up.  Sometimes, the defensive linemen themselves would reach and sack the quarterback.  Other times, when a rusher came around the corner (most frequently Clay Matthews), the quarterback could not step up in the pocket, and was frequently sacked by the rusher from the edge.  Last year in the regular season, the Packers as a team had 47 sacks, with the starting defensive linemen having 14.5 sacks, and with Clay Matthews getting 13.5.

This year, without Cullen Jenkins, the defensive line is not getting the same push.  As a result, sacks by the defensive line have fallen off, and so have sacks by rushers coming from the edge.  When that rusher comes around the corner, most of the time the quarterback just steps up into the pocket, and Matthews, or Woodson, or whoever the rusher is goes sailing by behind him.  After half the regular season is over, the Packers as a team have only 19 sacks, the starting defensive linemen have 5 sacks, and Clay Matthews has 3 sacks.

This drop-off in productivity of the pass rush seems to have led Dom Capers to make some different choices in making the defensive calls.  He knows: (1) that the offense is going to score a lot of points; and (2) that the front 3 are not getting the job done like they did last year.  As a result, if he wants a pass rush, he has to add extra rushers, which in turn creates more chances of giving up big plays.  It is no coincidence that all three Packer interceptions of Rivers last week occurred on plays where the Packers rushed 5 or more players.  Charlie Peprah described the Packers as a pressure defense, and he is right.  The problem is, they can't seem to create that pressure this year without blitzing.  And one of these weeks, that is going to result in a long touchdown pass, instead of an interception, at precisely the wrong moment.

Monday night, the Vikings come to town for their re-match with the Packers.  What with Favre retired again, and with the Vikings at 2-6, the game may not have the same luster as it did last year.  But the Vikings almost always play well against the Packers, and Christian Ponder looks like he has some talent.  I think the Vikings may keep it close for awhile, but the Packers should pull away toward the end of the game.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Second Half of the Season Starts Now

(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

"Christian Ponder has already had a better rookie season than I had."  Troy Aikman, after the first 20 minutes of the Packers' pre-bye game, with the score 14-7 Vikings.

The Packers set all kinds of individual, team and league records in the game, and overcame early deficits to beat the Vikings, 33-27, sending themselves into the bye week as the only undefeated team left in the league.  However, nagging issues continue to cause concern to the fans and, I would hope, to the players and the coaching staff.

First, a few of the records:
  • Mike McCarthy reached 25 road victories as a head coach faster (after 44 games) than any other Packer coach in history, other than Vince Lombardi (36 road games).
  • The Packers' 13 game winning streak in games that count is the best in Packers' history.
  • The Packers won their 700th game.  The Bears are the only other team with 700 or more wins.
  • Aaron Rodgers became the first quarterback in NFL history with a passer rating of 110 or higher in each of the first seven games of a season.
And now, the concerns.  It is tough to get too worked up about problems on a 7-0 team, but there are some. Not really on offense, and not to any significant extent on special teams.  On offense, the Packers continue to play lights-out football.  I don't think you can play any better than Aaron Rodgers is playing, the receivers are doing a good job this year of catching the ball, and the running game is much more productive than it was for most of last year.  The Packers ground out the last minutes of the Vikings game with a couple of rushing first downs, for heavens' sake.  That didn't happen for the Packers very much in recent years.  Despite some injuries on the offensive line, the line is providing pretty good protection for Rodgers.

On special teams, I no longer have to hold my breath every time there is a kicking play.  The kick coverage team has given up a couple of long returns, but they don't seem to me to have the raging inconsistency of the last couple of years.  Randall Cobb has run back one kick for a touchdown, and every time he touches the ball on a kicking play, he has the potential to do something big.  He may not be at the level of a Devin Hester or Desmond Howard, but he is a vast improvement over the returners we have had in recent years.

Which brings us to the defense.  The Packers are giving up too many points, way too many yards, and are allowing teams to stay close enough to make things scary at the end of games.  The game against Minnesota was a perfect example.  At times in the third quarter, I thought the Packers would end up winning the game by 20 or more points.  But instead of destroying the Vikings when they were down, the Packers let the Vikings creep back into the game.  Watch games of the Patriots from a few years ago, or even watch the Saints against the Colts in week 7, and you will see teams that have the killer instinct.  The Packers don't seem to have that going for them right now, and they didn't really have it last year, either, even though the defense seemed better last year.  Just take the playoff games.  Of the four games, only the Falcons game had a relaxing finish.  In the Eagles, Bears and Steelers' games, the opposition had a shot to win the game in the final minutes.

So what is the problem?  Is it the loss of Cullen Jenkins to the Eagles?  The loss of Nick Collins to injury?  Another year of wear and tear on Charles Woodson?  The defensive players are admiring their Super Bowl rings when they should be getting ready for the next week's game?  I think all of these things (except for the last one) contribute to the problem, but I suspect that the biggest problem is that the defense has just not gelled this year, what with the changes that have taken place.  A week off may have provided a little respite from the daily grind for the players, and given a little extra time for Dom Capers to work on some new wrinkles.  I do think more aggressiveness on defense, and a little less "bend but don't break" philosophy would pay dividends.  It is also worth noting that we had a bit of the same problem last year.  The Packers had 5 wins in the regular season last year by 18 points or more.  One of those games was in the first half of the season, and the other four were in the second half.  So maybe we will see the Packers' defense play better in the second half this year, too.

Since the bye week fell almost in the middle of the Packers' schedule, the second half of the season effectively starts on Sunday, at San Diego.  Living here in California, we considered driving down to San Diego for the game, but ultimately decided against it.  I have bad memories from the last Packer game I went to at San Diego (yes, that game), but scheduling had more to do with it than bad memories.  The Chargers are expecting the biggest crowd of the season on Sunday, and Scott Crevier, of the South End Zone web site, reported on his way to the game that there were lots of Packer fans in the Orange County airport, three days before the game.  So it seems safe to assume that the Packers will find San Diego almost to be a home away from home.

Eight of the last nine games of the season are against teams with winning records at this point (Minnesota is the sole exception).  So the last half of the season is not going to be easy, and I am pretty sure that the Packers will lose a game or two along the way.  I doubt that this week will be one of those losses.  The Chargers are just not playing up to my expectations of them.  Last Monday night, they lost a close game to the Chiefs in overtime, but they looked terrible in the process, and Philip Rivers, in particular, just looked out of sync.  They will have to play a much better game on Sunday if they expect to beat the rested Packers.