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. 

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