Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Packers Finding Ways to Win Games

Aaron Jones, star of the game, photo by Ed Zurga, Associated Press
Sunday night's game was another game that the Packers, in past lives, might have lost.  They have for many years had a habit of making backup quarterbacks look great, going back to Jason Garrett as the backup quarterback for the Cowboys.  In this case, Andy Reid had smartly devised a game plan where the ball was out of Matt Moore's hands as quickly as possible.  So as a result, he ended up getting hit far less frequently than Rodgers.  And he looked pretty good - like one of the veteran backup quarterbacks we wished we had on the roster during the seasons that Rodgers missed a lot of time.  He certainly looked good enough to have a real chance to manage a game tying drive at the end and send the game to overtime.

Reid had also designed a good defensive game plan, involving a lot of physical man coverage and a lot of blitzes against Rodgers.  So even though the Packers quickly went up 14-0, the Chiefs kept the pressure up and came back to take a 17-14 lead.  In the fourth quarter, the Packers went back on top, first by 24-17, and later by 31-24. 

So when the Packers held the Chiefs and forced a punt with 5 minutes left in the game, and the punt was downed at the Green Bay 2, there were all kinds of things that could go wrong.  A turnover, a safety, a 3 and out giving the Chiefs the ball back at around midfield, a Tyreek Hill punt return.  And in the case of past Packers teams, one of those things would probably have happened - most likely giving the Chiefs the ball back with enough time to at least mount a drive to try to tie the game.

When the Packers found themselves with 3rd and 5 at the two minute warning, I wanted to see a passing play to get the first down and ice the game.  I can see the argument being made that you have to run the ball to keep the clock moving, and anyway your defense should be able to prevent a touchdown.  So run it, hope for the best, and probably have to punt the ball.  But LaFleur obviously decided that, with a Hall of Fame quarterback behind center, a short pass to get the first down is the way to go.  If they call the perfect defense, Rodgers is smart enough not to do something stupid, and at worst he can pull the ball down and hit the turf for a couple yard loss.  I like the philosophy that we will go out and try to win, rather than just avoid all risk and hope to hold them.  As LaFleur apparently told Rodgers, "go win the game."  Which they did, 31-24.

The Packers are doing lots of things right this year, in spite of a defense that is sometimes too porous, an offense that had a slow start to the year, and special teams that are a mess except for Mason Crosby and J.K. Scott.  But if there is one thing that they are doing right better than I have seen in years, it is finding a way to win close games.  Not every game is going to be a blowout, and the Packers have had to come from behind in 5 of their 8 games this year.  Only against the Eagles did they fail to complete the job and win the game, although they had multiple chances to tie up the game.  I have always felt that the really good teams find ways to win those close games, and this year the Packers seem to be doing that.

The evidence becomes more clear every week that there is a silver lining to the absence of Davante Adams.  The Packers have discovered that Aaron Jones is a legitimate receiving threat, and they lined him up as a wideout on numerous occasions during the game.  He ended up being the leading receiver for both teams in the game with 159 receiving yards, two receiving touchdowns, and another one where he stepped out of bounds.  If you imagine the offense being as good as it is right now, and then layer in Davante Adams on top of that, this could turn out to be a very special season if everyone stays healthy after he returns.

I don't think anybody would have predicted that the Packers would be 7-1 at this point in the season.  The next game, against the Chargers at Dignity Health Sports Park in Los Angeles is one of the road games where I expect a win.  The Chargers don't really have a home fan base yet in Los Angeles, and they have had a disappointing season.  So the tiny, 27,000 seat temporary stadium will be filled with Packers fans, including cousins John and Ben, and even my local State Farm agent, Matt.  We would normally go to a game this close to home, but we are out of the country and unable to attend.  The weather should be great (unless it is still smoky from all of the California fires), and I hope I can figure out a way to watch the game.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

"Scary" Packers Offense Gives Raiders a Tough Time

Cousins Having Fun at the Game
Many of us have been predicting that the Packers' offense would improve every week.  And with the exception of a dip in points production in the Lions' game last week, that is basically exactly what has happened.  But Sunday's game against the Raiders was the ultimate culmination of that trend, as the Packers scored 42 points in beating the Raiders, 42-24.  Rodgers threw 5 touchdown passes (each one to a different receiver), ran in a 6th touchdown, and Rodgers had the first perfect quarterback rating of 158.3 in the 100 year history of the Packers.  Rodgers also became the quarterback to get to 350 touchdown passes in the smallest number of games played (172).  As Za'Darius Smith said, "that's some legendary stuff."  So it would be hard to expect any further improvement in the offense, and, quite frankly, I am OK with the offense just as it played on Sunday.

The defense was a different story.  You could say that it was somewhat effective on Sunday, in the sense that it was very "bendy" but not very "breaky."  In fact, despite the offensive explosion by the Packers in this game, the Raiders actually gained 3 more yards with their 484.  That is a lot of yards, and yet they only gave up 17 points while it mattered, and another 7 points in garbage time.  The defense has had better days this year, when they were generating both sacks and lots of turnovers, but as has been true of several games this year, the defense seems to have the capability to tighten up near the goal line, despite giving up big chunk plays as the opponent gets down the field.  So I would love to see the defense give up fewer big plays, but unlike in the past, even when they do, there is still reason to think that the Packers can stop them or limit them to field goals (which was never more true than in the Lions game).  One of the stops Sunday was basically Derek Carr's fault (with a slight assist from Blake Martinez) in fumbling the ball through the end zone for a turnover.  That play was really the turning point in the game.  But three other times the Packers stopped the Raiders, once limiting them to a field goal, once stopping them on fourth and goal, and once intercepting Carr in the end zone. 

Turning Point, Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today

Speaking of sacks, the Packers didn't even register a single sack Sunday, which was anti-climactic since the Smith Brothers had cooked up a Halloween-themed sack celebration and gotten it approved by Coach LaFleur.  Next week's game at Kansas City is still before Halloween, but apparently they don't intend to use it next week, even if they do get a sack.

I am excited about the Packers' offense seeming to have pulled it all together, even without their best weapon, Davante Adams.  Family member Alan makes the interesting point that there is, in effect, a silver lining behind Adams' absence for these past 3 games: it has forced Rodgers to build rapport and trust with the young receivers.  It is scary for the rest of the league what this offense would look like if it plays as well as it did on Sunday, and gets Davante Adams back to boot. 

The Packers have now arrived at the "on the other hand" part of the season.  It was great that they played 5 of their first 7 games at home, and even better that they managed to win the two road games, along with 4 of the 5 home games.  They also are 3-0 in the division, and 4-1 in the conference, all good stuff when it comes to the end of the year.  But, on the other hand, they only have 3 home games left in their final 9 regular season games. 

They have three sets of 2-game road trips coming up, the first of which starts on Sunday in Kansas City, and then continues in Los Angeles against the Chargers.  I had assumed, despite a little inconsistency by the Chiefs, that the Packers would end up losing to the Chiefs in Kansas City.  But with Patrick Mahomes apparently set to miss this game, I think the Packers have a real chance to win the game. 

And then as far as the Chargers game is concerned, the Chargers have been a huge disappointment this year, and Dignity Health Sports Park is likely to be Lambeau West on Sunday, November 3.  So I could easily see the Packers winning both games on this next road trip.  A fast start to the season doesn't guarantee a successful ending.  I still remember a season where the Raiders started off, as I recall it, 8-2, only to lose the last 6 games.  But I love the Packers' chances if they are 7-2 or 8-1 in a couple of weeks.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Controversial Win Leaves Packers in First Place

Crosby's First Lambeau Leap, Photo by William Glasheen, USA Today
Monday night, the Packers never led until the final play of the game, when Mason Crosby's short field goal lifted them to a 23-22 win over the Detroit Lions.  But the blowback over penalties and non-penalties in the game was severe, almost enough to take the fun out of it for the team and its fans. 

Random comments seen on the internet late Monday night, some by famous people, some by unknown Facebook posters: "We had no business winning this game . . . but I'll take it!!"  "Thank you referees!  We got the win, but seriously those referees were incompetent."  "I'm obviously biased toward the Packers, but the refs are taking this game away from the Lions."  "The refs need to be investigated.  This is horrendous.  Check bank accounts."

My take?  I think there were a number of bad calls in this game, and most of them favored the Packers.  The hands to the face penalties made against Trey Flowers were indeed questionable (at best), but they were not nearly as clear as the TV crew made out, no matter how much former defensive lineman "Booger" McFarland bellowed about it on the broadcast.  (See photo below.)  The league's official position seems to be that the first hands to the face penalty was correct, but the second was not.  The non-call against Will Redmond for pass interference against Marvin Jones seemed wrong to me, as Redmond did interfere with Jones' ability to catch the ball, but even Matt Patricia realized that it was the sort of call that would not be reversed on replay, so he didn't challenge it.  And, speaking of calls, I am not so sure that Kerryon Johnson actually scored on fourth and goal in the first quarter, but once the call on the field was made for a touchdown, I knew it would not be reversed on review. 
Photo by Darnell Hall
Look, if I were a Lions fan, I would feel robbed at the end of this game.  We watched the game with our good friend Al, who is a Lions fan, and I am pretty sure that is exactly how he felt.  But let's play this out.  Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the hands to the face calls, and the interference non-call, were all the wrong calls.  I have already said that the interference non-call is not the type that would be overturned on review as it is being done this year (because it was not egregious enough).  If the hands to the face calls were reviewable, I don't think they could have been overturned, either.  They both looked wrong, but I would argue that they were not obviously and indisputably in error.  If that is so, how do they get overturned?  Even taking the league's position that the last call was wrong, I think at least 2 of the 3 calls would have stood, if all had been reviewable. 

The biggest question always is, what was the call on the field?  Because once that call is made, it becomes tough (and should be tough) to overturn it.  So errors will inevitably go uncorrected, because the evidence is not clear enough to justify overturning them.  This was exactly the situation with the Kerryon Johnson TD.  Either way the officials called it on the field would have stood.  And the Packers (and every other team) have certainly been on the short end of possibly erroneous calls this year and every year.  But, as Aaron Rodgers said after the game, "I think it equals out pretty good over the years."  Every Packers fan can point to calls and non-calls that would have changed a loss to a win: the Seattle Fail Mary game, the Jerry Rice non-fumble in the Terrell Owens game, the Arizona face mask non-penalty in the playoff game.  The refs did the Lions no favors in this game, but I think some of the proposed solutions (full time refs, make every play reviewable for everything, etc.) are way over the top.

Now it is also true that the Lions screwed up this game all by themselves, and if they had not done so, they wouldn't have been in the position where a bad call at the end would essentially cost them the game.  Early in the game, Al was counting squandered Lions points.  I think he stopped counting at 16 points lost (3 times they settled for field goals instead of TDs, and then there was the 12 men on the field penalty on an attempted field goal by Crosby that effectively gave the Packers an extra 4 points).  Of course, you can play that game almost every time, but still, early Lions mistakes cost them the opportunity to walk away with what could have been an easy win. 

The bottom line is that the Lions got off to a roaring good start with their early long pass plays, and kudos to them and their coaches for going out and aggressively trying to get an early lead.  The Packers looked slow and out-coached early on, by comparison.  Unfortunately for the Lions, their inability to finish drives, combined with some questionable or bad calls, made them unable to close out the win against the Packers. 

Before leaving the Lions game, I almost forgot to mention Allen Lazard stepping up and, in the process, presumably moving up to the depth chart.  Davante Adams was out, Geronimo Allison had been knocked out of the game, Marquez Valdes-Scantling had been knocked out of the game but returned, and Darrius Shepherd had made two bad plays resulting in turnovers.  Somebody had to step up.  Apparently Rodgers suggested that the coaches put Allen Lazard in the game, because Rodgers had observed how hard he studies and practices.  The results were like a fairy tale.  Lazard made a great catch on a perfect pass for a touchdown on the penultimate Packers drive of the game, and then made 3 more catches on the next drive, to set up the game-winning touchdown.  I think we will be seeing more of Lazard.

Meanwhile, Sunday brings a game against the Raiders, this time not on a shortened, pock-marked field, but on the full-sized, professional football stadium of Lambeau Field.  Last year, the Jon Gruden experiment looked like a bust, as the Raiders finished with a puzzling 4-12 record.  This year, with the Antonio Brown drama, I wondered if it was going to be another bad year, as the Raiders finish out their second stay in Oakland.  But instead, the Raiders are 3-2 so far this year, and they have beaten the Broncos, Colts and Bears.  None of those teams are terrible, so I am a little surprised by the Raiders.  But on balance, I think the Packers (even with their current injuries) have better players, and I think they will get the win to make it to 6-1. 

Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Win Over the Cowboys Sets up a Big Monday Night Matchup

Fun Photo of the Day, Fox TV Broadcast
On Sunday, the Packers pulled off a minor upset by beating the Cowboys, in Texas, by the score of 34-24.  In the process, they advanced to 4-1, maintained a first place position in the division, and kept their record of winning every game the Packers have played in the Cowboys' new stadium, including, most importantly, Super Bowl XLV. 

But the game had a very odd rhythm to it, and by the fourth quarter, Packers fans were squirming, just a little, in their seats.  After amassing a 31-3 lead late in the third quarter, the Packers almost let the Cowboys back into the game.  The good thing, as Chris and Dave at the Packers Therapy podcast noted in their podcast this week, was that the Packers didn't do it via the tried and not-so-true prevent defense.  Instead, they continued to rush 4 in the final quarter plus of the game, but Dak Prescott and Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper made enough plays to close the gap to 34-24, and a missed field goal would have made it 34-27 and brought an onside kick at the end of the game.  The missed field goal, thankfully, ended the unwelcome excitement prematurely, and my family breathed a sigh of relief, as did the Eagles fan watching the game in the same room with us.  Look, with a 31-3 lead with three minutes left in the third quarter, you should win the game regardless of the approach you take.  But I liked the aggressiveness of the defense in keeping after the Cowboys, rather than let them "prevent defense" their way down the field for score after score. 

How did the Packers let the Cowboys get as close as they did?  I saw a very interesting piece by Ty Schalter of FiveThirtyEight, making the point that Rodgers has been very hot in the first quarters of games this year, but less effective as the game goes on, and particularly ineffective in the fourth quarters.  Weird, but true.  In the five games so far this year, the Packers have scored 49 points in the first quarters, all on TDs, while they have scored 9 points in the fourth quarters, basically one field goal every other game.  So I rewatched the Cowboys game with this idea in mind.  What I saw was a nice use of deception on first downs in the first quarter.  I think the Packers only had a conventional run on first down once.  They had lots of play action passes, some straight dropback passes, and one end around.  They rode this diverse strategy to a 14-0 first quarter lead, and the fun continued until it was 31-3 late in the third quarter.  Oh, and there was the little matter of a career day by Aaron Jones, who scored 4 touchdowns to tie a team record.  (In case you were wondering, Jim Taylor did it 3 times in 1962, Terdell Middleton did it in 1978, and Dorsey Levens did it in 2000.  Some pretty great receivers also scored 4 TDs in a single game: Don Hutson and Sterling Sharpe.)

So what was the deal with the offense late in the game?  I think the offense was not as aggressive or creative as the defense was late in the game.  The first two drives in the fourth quarter, for example, both started with the old run-run-pass combination.  The first drive was ended with no points after an incompletion and a sack, while the second drive ended with a field goal, but only because of the great field position from Kevin King's interception.  The Packers' final drive, other than the kneel downs after the missed field goal, didn't quite fall into the run-run-pass mold, but that drive was messed up by a 10 yard loss by Aaron Jones, and an 11 yard sack taken by Aaron Rodgers.  It is tough to overcome that, and the Packers didn't.  But the key thing to me is that one more Green Bay first down in any of its three drives would probably have run out the clock with less angst.  In my view, what is needed is a little more aggressiveness on offense late in the game, while keeping the aggressiveness on defense. 

Monday night, the Packers play the second-place Lions at Lambeau Field.  If the Packers win the game, they will be 3-0 in the division and in great shape.  If they lose, they will be 3-2, and the Lions will move past them into first place at 3-1-1.  So this game is a big deal in the NFC North.  I haven't watched much of the Lions so far this year, but they appear to be no joke.  They are also somewhat of an enigma, though.  Every Lions game has been decided by 4 points or fewer, and their games have included a tie against the last-place Cardinals, a win over the Chargers (who maybe are not as good as we thought they would be), a win against the first-place Eagles, and a narrow loss to the first-place Chiefs.  The Lions are also riding a 4 game winning streak against the Packers, so it is impossible to count them out.  But I think the home field advantage and the continuing improvement of the Packers' offense will be enough to bring the Packers another win, even without Davante Adams and Darnell Savage.  I can't wait until Monday night.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Eagles Bring High-Flying Packers Back to Earth

One of two Critical Turnovers, Photo by Dan Powers, USA Today
What with going to the Broncos game on September 22, and returning from the midwest, and heavy involvement with family event planning, I never got a chance to write up a summary of the Packers 27-16 win over the Broncos.  Suffice it to say that my favorite moment was when the defense was waiting patiently through what was probably a TV timeout, orchestrating their end zone celebration, if the replay call was that the Packers got a turnover.  I think it was on the interception by Darnell Savage in the third quarter.  The Packers got the call, and hilarity ensued in the end zone.

But the good taste in my mouth left by the 3-0 start to the season, punctuated by a member of the defense saying the defense was "as comfortable as a Tempur-Pedic," was wiped away Thursday night when the Packers failed twice to tie up the game late in the 4th quarter, and instead lost to the Philadelphia Eagles 34-27, in a game marred by Packers turnovers, the defense's inability to generate turnovers or sacks, and a spate of injuries, two of which were serious enough to require players to be carted off the field with straps constraining them.

We watched the Eagles game with our good friend Al, who is a Lions fan.  When some of the nasty hits started happening, he made the comment that the thing about (former Lions head coach) Jim Schwartz is that his defenses always play on the nasty side.  And the way I read it, Cheesehead TV's Aaron Nagler agrees, proving that great minds think alike: "That whole defense is very . . . Jim Schwartz."

Remember last year when, early on, officials were making questionable calls of roughing the passer, mostly on Clay Matthews?  And then, after a few weeks, the message somehow got out to officials, and they stopped making those calls except in truly egregious cases?  I think the league has a sort of similar problem this year.  First, the league overreacted to the terrible non-call in the Saints-Rams playoff game by making calls or non-calls of pass interference reviewable.  But now, coaches are wasting challenges on obvious pass interference non-calls, like the one against Marquez Valdes-Scantling, or the one against Alshon Jeffery later in the game.  In both cases, the receiver was interfered with in a way that made the ball more difficult, if not impossible, to catch.  In both cases, the coaches challenged the non-call.  In both cases, the call was not overturned, so the challenges were wasted.

There may be some reluctance of coaches now to challenge pass interference calls or non-calls, since the league evidently will not overturn them most of the time.  But in a critical situation like a long gain or a long incompletion at a critical point in the game, coaches will feel compelled to challenge.  As a result, we will continue to get data from the league as to what will or will not be overturned.  Will the league silently and subtly adjust the criteria for overturning calls, as evidently happened last year with the roughing calls, to match up with what football viewers can see with their own eyes?  My hunch is that what will happen is that the consensus will develop that minor contact, even if it is significant to the receiver's ability to catch the ball, will not result in a reversal into a pass interference call.  Only major contact will result in a call.  I am not sure that is what the league intended in changing the rule, but it seems after four weeks as if that is where we will end up.

The thing that really stings about the Eagles loss is that, as many of us have been predicting, the offense finally seemed to find its rhythm Thursday night, at least in the passing game, with Rodgers throwing for over 400 yards.  Obviously the loss of Jamaal Williams early, and Davante Adams late, were harmful to the effort to tie the game and take it to overtime.  And the sudden inability of the defense to stop the run, or sack the quarterback, or generate any turnovers, was just shocking after the first three games of the season.

But if you give Aaron Rodgers two sets of first and goal downs to get a touchdown, you don't expect a 4 and out on the first, and an interception on the second set of downs.  The score was there to be had, and the Packers could not get it done.  When you notice, on replay, that Darrius Shepherd was wide open on the pass to Valdes-Scantling that was intercepted, it makes the loss that much tougher to swallow.  Sure, the Packers might have gone on to lose the game in overtime, and the loss would count just the same.  But if you give Rodgers (potentially) 8 chances to convert first and goal opportunities, I take it as just about a given that the Packers would score and send the game to overtime.  Yes, Valdes-Scantling was interfered with on the play.  But as noted above, the league is not going to reverse non-calls where relatively minor pass interference takes place.

Green Bay at Dallas looked like a marquee matchup in Week 5, and I think it still is.  A pair of wannabe undefeated teams are still division-leading 3-1 teams, with a lot of glorious history between them.  I wish the Packers were at full strength for this game, but instead the Packers' chances of having Davante Adams, Jamaal Williams, and Kevin King on the field Sunday look iffy.  The absence of Adams and Williams in those final two series Thursday night was arguably critical in the Packers' inability to score.  Stopping Ezekiel Elliott will be a tough task for a defense that has given up 144 yards rushing to the Broncos' tandem of running backs, and 163 yards to the Eagles' running backs.   But if they can stop him enough to force Dak Prescott to have to throw the ball, they can still win this game.  After all, the Saints, with a backup quarterback, beat the Cowboys last week.  The Packers, with Aaron Rodgers, have a good chance, too, even if some weapons are missing.