Archive for the Rory Category

Where does this playoff loss rank?

Posted in Rory on January 13, 2010 by therorylee

After being eclipsed in the 70s and 80s, the Green Bay Packers returned to prominence the following two decades, wherein they made the playoffs 12 times.  In fact, since 1993, the Packers have missed the postseason only 5 times.  During this 20-year span, the Packers have had far more winning seasons (14) than losing seasons (4), but aside from winning Super Bowl 31 in 1996, they have been on the losing end of many playoff games.  11, to be exact.

So where does last Sunday’s 45-51 loss to the Arizona Cardinals rank amongst those losses?  In what follows, I’ll rank the Packers’ playoff losses over the past two decades, starting with the easiest losses to stomach and working toward the most difficult losses, the ones that to this day still stick in your craw and conjure up a plethora of unpleasant memories and emotions.  This will get painful.  You’ve been warned.

The first playoff loss against the Cowboys in 1993 was an unfortunate sign of things to come

11.  1993:  17-27 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round. This year marked the first time the Packers made the playoffs since 1982, so winning the Wild Card playoff game against the Detroit Lions the week prior, in stellar fashion no less (Favre to Sharpe, for those who’ve forgotten), was a major accomplishment.  Still figuring out how to be a winning team, especially in the playoffs, the Packers traveled to Dallas for a game many didn’t think they had a chance to win.  Those people were right.  It was easy to see that the Cowboys were the better team that year:  after all, they were the defending champs, and they did eventually go on to defend their title in Super Bowl 28.  Nonetheless, the Packers’ season had to be considered a success overall.  As such, this was definitely the easiest loss to stomach.

10.  1994:  9-35 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round. New year, same story—though the score was more lopsided this year than the year before.  Prior to this game, the Packers had beaten the Lions in the Wild Card round for the second consecutive year after holding Barry Sanders to -1 yards rushing.  Unfortunately, they had to play the Boys yet again, who proved, yet again, to be unquestionably the better team.

The Rams destroyed the Packers, a game in which Favre threw 6 interceptions

9.  2001:  17-45 loss to the St. Louis Rams in the Divisional Round (“The 6 Interception Game”). As with the two Divisional Round games against the Cowboys, many didn’t give the Packers a chance against the St. Louis Rams—and for good reason:  the Rams were the far superior team.  The epitome of offensive juggernaut, the Rams controlled the entire game.  Brett Favre’s notorious 6 interceptions didn’t help matters, but he was clearly trying to overcompensate for a team that was in well over its head.  It’s never enjoyable to watch your team get dominated from start to finish, but considering the expectations and that the Rams were favored to win the Super Bowl that year, I think we can all agree this loss was not nearly as devastating as the ones below.

The Cowboys' offense was too much of the Packers, as well as the rest of the NFL, in the early 90s

8.  1995:  27-38 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Conference Championship (“Threes a Charm”). This would be the third straight year the Packers would lose to the Cowboys in the playoffs, though this time it would be in the NFC Championship game rather than in a Divisional Round match-up.  Unlike in the prior two playoff games against the Boys, there was a feeling amongst some that the Packers could finally get over the hump this time around.  And while the Packers put forth a much better effort in this game, the Cowboys were still too talented, particularly on offense.  Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Alvin Harper, and Michael Irvin led a high-powered attack that the Packers (read the entire NFL) could just never contain.  Continually losing to the Cowboys was becoming quite aggravating, but anyone could see that the Cowboys were, at least in those years, the better team.  And they accrued three rings in four years to prove it.

7.  2002:  7-27 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the Wild Card Round (“The End of Lambeau Dominance”). Had the New York Jets not destroyed the Packers the week prior, a 17-42 shellacking, the Packers would have earned themselves a first round bye. Instead, they hosted the Falcons in the Wild Card round, a game where Michael Vick had a playoff coming-out party.  At this point in the season, the Packers were a hobbled, dilapidated team, and their lack of depth had become obvious the week prior against the Jets.  Nonetheless, this loss stands out because it marked the first home playoff loss in the Favre era.  Until this game, the Packers appeared invincible in the playoffs at home, where they were 6-0 over the last decade.  After losing this game, however, they’ve been a mediocre 2-2 at home in playoff games.  The Packers not only lost the game but they also lost much of the Lambeau mystique.

Despite our best efforts, I'm sure none of us have fogotten the Moss Moon

6.  2004:  17-31 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the Wild Card Round (“The Moss Moon”). We can all admit it:  losing to the Vikings sucks.  Hard.  It sucks even worse losing to them in the playoffs.  At home.  After losing to the Packers twice during the regular season, Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss came in and had their way with the Packers’ defense.  Culpepper threw 4 touchdowns, 2 of which went to Moss.   Oh, and after one of those touchdowns, Moss proceeded to celebrate by faux mooning the Lambeau crowd.  This, more so than Favre’s 4 interceptions, is my most palpable memory from this game.  I’m sure that’s true for many other Packer fans as well.  Oh joy.

5.  2009:  45-51 OT loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the Wild Card Round. I’m not sure this game has a moniker to attach to it, but I’m sure it will in due time.  What a crazy game.  The Packers seemed out of it early after turning the ball over on their first two possessions of the game, but they fought back valiantly, coming from behind to tie the game twice in the 4th quarter.  The defense, which was ranked number 2 overall during the regular season, absolutely imploded during this game, looking far more like the 2008 unit than the dominating one they were for most of the 2009 season.

This will be a lasting image of the 2009 season for many Packer fans

Many are still complaining about the no-calls, ones I will agree were quite egregious, but placing the onus squarely on the refs ignores the fact that the Packers clearly lost the game themselves with their early turnovers and their abominable play defensively.  What puts this game higher on the “man, that loss really sucked” list is the fact that the Packers were the better team.  The Cardinals played as close to a flawless game as they could, particularly on offense, had a couple of lucky bounces go their way, and benefited from some no-calls from the refs.  Despite this, the Packers still had a very good chance to come away with the victory on the road.  Making this loss even more arduous to swallow is the potential this team had.  Having won 7 of their last 8 games, this Packer team seemed to have hit their stride, and with many of the top NFC teams struggling, the Packers, despite being only a 5 seed, had a great opportunity to get to the Super Bowl.  This was clearly a missed opportunity, a theme that unfortunately permeates the remaining four losses on this list.

The Catch (2) that should have never been

4.  1998:  27-30 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the Wild Card Round (“The Catch 2”). This was the fourth straight playoff meeting between the Packers and the 49ers.  The Packers had won the prior three games, and quite handedly.  In this sense, we were to the 49ers what the Cowboys were to us.  This time, however, Steve Young and Terrell Owens did everything in their power to end the 49ers’ skid.  The Packers took the lead late in the 4th quarter, but not late enough, as they gave the 49ers just enough time to make the game winning drive.  As we all know, that drive should have ended early, as the Packers recovered a Jerry Rice fumble, but this game pre-dated the return of instant replay (in fact, this game was a major impetus in bringing back instant replay).  With the Rice fumble voided by the ref’s early whistle, the 49ers continued their drive, one that ended with the famous strike to Terrell Owens, aptly named The Catch 2.  Having beat up on the 49ers for years, the Packers probably owed the 49ers one, but the fumble coupled with the Owens catch is still a painful memory for many Packer fans.

4th and 26 ... nuff said

3.  2003:  17-20 OT loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Divisional Round (“4th and 26”). The Packers came into this game riding a giant wave of both emotion and momentum.  Over the past 5 weeks, aside from winning 5 straight games, they had coped with the death of Favre’s father; they won the division via the Cardinals beating the Vikings in the last game of the season on a last second touchdown catch by Nate Poole; and they beat the Seattle Seahawks in overtime when Al Harris picked off Matt Hasselbeck for a touchdown.  The Packers used that emotion and momentum to jump to 14-0 lead at the end of the 1st quarter and a 14-7 lead at halftime.  After a scoreless 3rd quarter, the Eagles tied the game at the start of 4th quarter, but the Packers retook the lead with a Ryan Longwell field goal.  This is where the loss becomes particularly disconcerting, as the Packers had multiple opportunities to finish the Eagles and move on to the NFC Championship Game.  Facing a 4th and 1 on Eagles’ 41 yard line with 2:30 left in the game, the Packers opted to punt rather than go for it despite having a 1,883 yard rusher in Ahman Green and one of the best offensive lines in football.  It was downward spiral from then on.  Here’s the cliff notes:   the Packers allowed Donavan McNabb to hit Fred Mitchell on the infamous 4th and 26; David Akers ties the game; the Packers have the ball in overtime; Favre throws an interception; the Eagles drive down and kick a field goal; Packer fans around the world receive a collective headache, trying to wrap their heads around how the Packers lost that one.

Tines celebrating the game-winning kick in overtime

2.  2007:  20-23 OT loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game. Heading into this game, I really thought the Packers were Super Bowl bound.  And those thoughts didn’t change at halftime when the Packers were up 10-6.  But the second half was one dominated by the Giants, both offensively and defensively.  The Packers, however, had numerous chances to change the direction of the game; in particular, the Giants fumbled the ball 5 times, but the Packers didn’t recovery once.  The cold, bitter weather paralleled the feeling many Packer fans espoused following Lawrence Tines’ 47 yard field goal in overtime, a field goal set up by Favre’s second interception of the day.  Much has been made of the interception, including snapshots of the play where every receiver except Driver, whom Favre threw to, appeared to be open.  Nonetheless, Favre is not the only one culpable for the loss.  Put frankly:  the Giants simply wanted it more, and though it pains me to admit it, they deserved it.  They were the better team that day.

Even though Elway didn't play a very good game in Super Bowl 32, we all remember this play

1.  1997:  24-31 loss to the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl (“This One’s for John”). If the Packers had regressed in one area coming off their 1996 Super Bowl Championship, it was in their run defense.  Ranked 4th against the run in 96, the Packers fell all the way to 20th in 97, and it ended up being their achilles heel in the Super Bowl.  The Broncos’ Terrell Davis rushed for 157 yards and 3 touchdowns, allowing John Elway to finally win his first ring.  This game tops the list of gut retching playoff losses because it happened in the Super Bowl; that said, this loss continues to sting because the Packers were the better team.  The Broncos were a hell of a team, no doubt, and they proved that the following year by doing what the Packers couldn’t:  win back-to-back championships.  But the Packers were 11½ point favorites for a reason.  Everything about this game was frustrating, but topping them all was Mike Holmgren’s inability to adjust to Denver’s innovative defensive style.  It was a classic case of hubris, where Holmgren believed, despite empirical evidence to the contrary, that his offense was better and that it would prevail in the end.  We saw an almost identical situation occur in Super Bowl 42, where New England Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick refused to adjust this offensive game-plan.  Both coaches, as we know, lost those games.

**

I hope that wasn’t as agonizing to read as it was to write.

Looking back, we can see that the Packers had some incredibly close yet frustrating playoff losses.  What resonates most to me is the overtime losses.  After beating the Seahawks in overtime at home in the 2003 Wild Card Round, the Packers lost every playoff game since that has gone into overtime.  In fact, excluding the loss to the Vikings at home in 2004, the last three playoff losses have come in overtime.  Worse, perhaps, is the circumstance under which they lost those games:  all three overtime losses stemmed from quarterback turnovers.  Favre set up both the Eagles’ and Giants’ losses with overtime interceptions, and Rodgers’ overtime fumble was returned for a touchdown against the Cardinals.  In that regard, that’s a string of really excruciating losses, amplified all the more by the hysteria and magnitude surrounding the playoffs.  Compared to, say, a Detroit Lions fan, Packer fans don’t have much to complain about:  in the past two decades, we’ve seen our team go to two Super Bowls, win one, and make the playoffs 12 times out of 20.  Yet when I look back at some of these losses—in particular, the way the Packers lost—I can’t help but think we are due.

I truly believe the Packers have put themselves in a fortuitous situation heading forward.  They have a lot of potential, and more importantly, they have key players at key positions on both offense and defense (outside of left tackle, of course).  Depending on how the off-season shakes out, they should be considered one of the favorites for 2010.  Let’s hope the Packers can continue their winning ways in the next decade, but at the same time, let’s hope we have a few more season that end like 1996 and less that end like 1997, 1998, 2003, 2007, and 2009.

5 Keys to the Packers/Cardinals Playoff Game (this time, it matters)

Posted in Rory on January 7, 2010 by therorylee

As we near this week’s first round playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and the Arizona Cardinals, many are speculating as to whether the Packers have a mental advantage.  This purported mental advantage stems from the fact that the Packers beat the Cardinals decisively in the pre-season, a game in which they were up 38-10 at halftime, as well as last week in the regular season finale, 33-7.  Both games were played in Arizona.

Both games also come with an important caveat:  the Cardinals, at least more so than the Packers, treated both contests as exhibition games.  The pre-season game was, of course, just that, and in the regular season finale, the Cardinals pulled many of their starters prior to the beginning of the second quarter.  In other words, it’s difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions from these games when the starters aren’t playing and the coaches aren’t scheming—well, at least not scheming to the extent they will come Sunday.

Nonetheless, the discussion over a mental advantage lingers on, and players on both teams have been queried as to the effect those previous games will have this Sunday.  Both teams could potentially use the discussion as motivation.  The Cardinals, for instance, could take umbrage with those who believe the score won’t vary much this Sunday; they could be motivated to debunk the idea that the Packers are that much better than they.  Conversely, the Packers could take umbrage with the “Well, they weren’t playing their starters” card; they could be motivated to prove that those scores do reflect the disparity between the two teams.  But honestly, I don’t think any of this will matter much:  neither of these teams should need additional motivation.  As Daryn Colledge said, “Obviously, the playoffs should be motivation enough.”

With that in mind, allow me to turn to what I perceive to be the five keys to the Packers/Cardinals game this Sunday, the more pressing and intriguing match-ups whose importance will be readily noticeable during the game and will, I believe, determine who makes it to the divisional round of the playoffs next week.

1:  The Cardinals’ receivers versus Jarrett Bush. When Al Harris was lost for the season to an ACL tear in Week 11, the trickledown effect forced Bush to become the Packers’ nickel cornerback.  And since the Packers employ a heavy amount of nickel formations, Bush has been on the field quite regularly the last 6 games.  Perpetually maligned by many in Packerland, Bush hasn’t done much to silence his critics since taking over the job:  he was a popular scapegoat after the loss to the Steelers, a game in which the Packers gave up 503 passing yards, and he has become the go-to read for opposing quarterbacks.  The Cardinals field one of the best receiving corps in the league, headlined by Pro Bowlers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.  Third receiver Steve Breaston is no slouch either:  he had 1,006 yards last year and has 712 this year.  I’m worried (and I’m sure the coaches are as well) about how Bush will fare against this stout group of receivers.  There are, however, two reasons to think Bush won’t be exploited too severely this Sunday:  (1) Bush’s major fault is covering routes longer than 15 yards, and outside of Fitzgerald, who should be locked up with Charles Woodson, the Cardinals receivers run a lot of shorter, underneath routes, and (2) Boldin appears questionable for this Sunday’s game.  I’m sure I’ll find myself screaming Bush’s name coupled with some expletives this Sunday, but I’m hoping (read praying) that those times are few and far between.

Finley is a tough match-up for opposing defenses

2:  Jermichael Finley versus the Cardinals’ secondary. As much as the Cardinals are drooling at the prospect of throwing at Bush, the Packers are drooling, perhaps even more so, at the prospect of lining Finley up against the Cardinals’ secondary.  Simply put, Finley is a mismatch for opposing teams.  His size and speed is perhaps second to none at the tight end position, and his hands are arguably the best on the team, and that’s quite the praise considering the depth and talent the Packers possess at the wide receiver position.  In both games against the Cardinals, Finley has a combined 8 catches, 62 yards, and 3 touchdowns.  I assume that the Cardinals will try to lock up Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson on Finley, but doing so would preclude them from moving Wilson around the field ala how the Packers use Woodson.  As for Sunday’s game, I’m expecting more of the same from Finley, who continually appears to be an All-Pro in the making.

Bridges might need extra help trying to contain the Claymaker

3.  The Claymaker versus Jeremy Bridges. Clay Matthews has been on an absolute tear since becoming a starter in Week 4.  Sure, he hasn’t registered a sack in his last two games, but he has been making a name for himself and making his presence felt in other ways than just sacks, most notably in the form of inducing offensive holding penalties.  He drew one such penalty against the Cardinals last Sunday that resulted in a safety.  Matthews has caused problems for many left tackles this season, and throughout last week’s game, it was highly apparent that trend was continuing.  Bridges, the Cardinals’ left tackle, struggled mightily trying to contain Matthews—so much so that I’d be surprised if the Cardinals don’t continually bring over a tight end or running back to help chip Matthews off the line this Sunday.  I’m sure the Cardinals are hoping that Bridges can hold his own against Matthews this time around, but Bridges has struggled in pass blocking quite a bit this season.  I doubt he finds his stride against Matthews, who should be amped more than usual (which is a scary thought) for his first playoff game.

4.  Ben Graham versus the Packers’ special teams. The Packers’ special teams has been scrutinized frequently this season, and compared to the offense and defense, it is surely the team’s weak link.  However, aside from Mason Crosby’s kicking woes, the special teams have shown slight improvement as of late, especially in terms of punt and kick coverage.  Helping matters is the potential return of Derrick Martin, who has been the Packers best coverage man the last half of the season.  Graham, the Cardinals’ punter, is one of the best in the league, particularly when it comes to pinning teams inside the twenty:  Graham pinned the Packers inside the twenty 3 times last week, and he’s done it a career high 42 times this season.  In a playoff game, where field position becomes all the more important, Graham could be a difference maker for the Cardinals.  The Packers are a team that has struggled in the red zone this season; Graham’s ability to make the field that much longer for the Packers only exacerbates those red zone woes.  Oh, and the Cardinals sport the best red zone offense in the league.

Sunday will be Rodgers' first playoff game as a starter

5.  Rodgers versus playoff pressure. Sunday’s game against the Cardinals will be Aaron Rodgers’ first playoff game as a starter.  Atlanta Falcon quarterback Matt Ryan faced almost identical circumstances last year:  he was playing in his first playoff game, he was playing the Cardinals in Arizona, and he was playing on a team with a better record, a team that was expected to win.  And Ryan, unfortunately for the Falcons, folded under the pressure, throwing 2 interceptions and fumbling once.  As many coaches and players will attest, the playoffs are a different beast; as such, there is reason to be nervous about how Rodgers will handle the pressure that comes with playing in the playoffs.  That said, I just can’t fathom Rodgers becoming unglued and rattled in this game.  I’m not suggesting that he is unflappable, but at the same time, the pressure and circumstances that he’s faced already in his young career are extraordinary, starting with the way he was drafted to the way the entire Favre-saga unfolded over the past two or so years.  Moreover, while he hasn’t played in a playoff game, he surely has played in playoff-type atmospheres, including both games against the Vikings and the game against the Steelers.  Come Sunday, I expect nothing less from Rodgers:  a calm demeanor, and a steady, accurate arm.

There are, of course, other intriguing match-ups to watch this Sunday, including All-Pros Fitzgerald and Woodson going head-to-head as well as Kurt Warner’s ability to handle the Packers’ aggressive blitzing defense.  Similar to the other five match-ups listed above, these two will greatly affect the outcome of Sunday’s game.

As a whole, I think the Packers have the edge this Sunday and should be victorious.  Offensively and defensively, the Packers are the better team.  My only main concerns are the Cardinals exploiting Bush and Graham continually putting the Packers in unfavorable field position.  If the Packers can avoid giving up the big play and score touchdowns rather than settle for field goals in the red zone, they should find themselves playing next week in the divisional round.  That said, the Cardinals are an experienced squad that was able to turn it on last year at this time, and if that team shows up Sunday, the Packers could be one and done.  It’s an interesting match-up containing two high octane offenses, and it should cap off an entertaining weekend of playoff re-matches from the regular season.

An open letter to Dom and the five positives from a gut-wrenching loss

Posted in Rory on December 22, 2009 by therorylee

I was originally going to title this post “In Dom we fail,” but I thought that might be a little too harsh.  Nonetheless, I’m still quite vexed over the ending of the Packers/Steelers game last Sunday, and as a means to vent some of that frustration, I’m going to begin this post with an open letter to the Packers’ defensive coordinator.

Dear Dom,

A three man rush?  Really?  That’s your master plan?  On the Steelers’ final drive, not once did you dial up a blitz.  Not once did you bring any sort of pressure.  You think you’re going to put away the defending Super Bowl champs with a consistent string of three man rushes?

Here’s what I understand:  you have two inexperienced (read bad) players forced into action in the secondary in Jarrett Bush and Josh Bell, and in an effort to mitigate their weaknesses, you drop everyone but three defensive lineman back into coverage.

But here’s the problem:  in rushing only three, you give Roethlisberger more than ample time to throw.  And when you give a quarterback like Roethlisberger 5 or 6 seconds on every snap, he is going to find an open receiver eventually.  Furthermore, the Steelers need a touchdown; they need to go 86 yards to win the game in two minutes with only one timeout.  Put differently, the Steelers aren’t going to dink and dunk their way down the field; they are going to run deeper routes that need time to develop.  And you let those routes develop because you didn’t send any pressure inRoethlisberger’s direction.

Dom laid an egg during the last 2 minutes of the game

During this game, I realized that outside of, say, Nick Collins, Charles Woodson, and Tramon Williams, nobody on this team is good in coverage.  That includes Atari Bigby, Nick Barnett, AJ Hawk, Brandon Chillar, Clay Matthews, and, of course, Bush and Bell.  All of them were taken advantage of at least once last Sunday in the passing game.  So this is where your logic falls apart, Dom.  If you know that these guys aren’t good in coverage and if you know the Steelers are running deep routes (both of which were pretty obvious last Sunday), then why rush three?  The more logical move is to send at least four, probably five.  That way, those linebackers can actually do something they’re adequate at:  rushing the passer rather than getting exploited in coverage.

Even my girlfriend, who doesn’t really know the strategic aspects of football, said to me, “What’s up with the three man rush?”

What’s worse is that once it was obvious this approach was not working, you fatuously and obstinately stuck to it.  Your inability to adjust during a crucial moment in the game was just baffling.  It was as if you were dialing up these calls from the Bob Sanders’ handbook, How to Blow a 4th Quarter Lead.  The Packers hired you to eschew those type of late game performances, not to replicate them.

There’s an old NFL adage, one that seems all the more apropos after this loss:  prevent defense only prevents you from winning.

Dom, I respect you and everything you have done for the Packers’ defense this season, but on Sunday, when it mattered most, you let me—and many other Packer fans, I’m sure—down.

**

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s move forward.

On a superstitious level, this game was a coming to fruition of sorts; that is, the Packers had won 5 straight, and the Steelers had lost 5 straight.  The former was due for a loss; the latter due for a win.  Moreover, during this 5 game span, the Packers had found ways to gain and/or retain a lead in the 4th quarter, while the Steelers had found ways to give up leads in the 4th.  All of this, coupled with the Steelers being at home and having ten days rest, portended an ominous day for the Packers.  Nonetheless, this game conjured up painful memories of the 2008 season.  Those last two minutes were all too reminiscent of last year:  the Packers’ offense fights valiantly and takes the lead late, and as a reward, they get to watch the defense squander it away.

That all said, in singling out Dom’s inexcusable playcalling during the last two minutes, I am forgetting that all Cullen Jenkins had to do was wrap up and make the sack the play before the touchdown to Wallace.  I’m also eliding the fact that Charles Woodson had a pretty mediocre day and that Brandon Chillar has developed a new (and unfortunate) penchant for making illegal contact at the most inopportune moments.  So while thus far I have sounded overwhelming negative—well, scathing—in both my letter to Dom and in my review of the Packers’ agonizing 37-36 loss to the Steelers last Sunday, and deservedly so, anyone who knows me knows that I am an optimist at heart.  As such, there are still some positives to take away from this game—five of them, in fact.

Rodgers had a great game, scoring 4 touchdowns (3 passing, 1 running)

Aaron Rodgers is awesome: (doing my best high school girl impersonation) Like, for realz.  Rodgers started out a little inconsistent, having some balls sail on him to start, but he settled down quickly and played an amazing game.  His stats imply a great game, but those stats don’t do him justice, as the Packers’ receivers, reverting to their ugly early season form, were dropping balls left and right.  Perhaps most alarming is the play of Donald Driver, who has put together some bad games after a solid first half start.  Rodgers displayed hints of frustration with his receivers last Sunday, but he never lost his cool.  Overall, he was poised, he avoided pressure, and he did everything you could ask of him.  He put forth a winning performance on the road in a hostile environment, and that augurs well not only for the rest of the season but also for his career heading forward.  Rodgers is an elite quarterback, people.  You had better believe it.  And he just turned 26.

Finley continues to be a playmaker, as he hauled in 9 catches for 74 yards and a touchdown

JerMichael Finley is money: How good is this kid (and at 22 years old, he really is a kid)?  I was always impressed with Finley’s athletic abilities, but after his struggles last year, I worried that he would be too immature, perhaps even mentally incapable, of putting these talents to good, consistent use on the football field.  I’m happy to say that those worries have dissipated.  Finley’s progression from his rookie year to this year has been a pleasure to watch:  since coming back from his knee sprain, Finley has led the Packers in receptions, and he has turned into Rodgers’ go-to-guy.  He’s a blatant mismatch for opposing defenses, and he was one of the main reasons the Packers were able to overcome their recent red zone struggles (even in a loss).  The sky, pardon the cliché, is the limit for this young man.

Matthews had two more sacks Sunday, giving him 7 sacks in the last 6 games

Clay  Matthews has an insane motor: Officially, Matthews had 5 tackles and 2 sacks against the Steelers, but unofficially, we all know he should have an extra sack as well as a forced fumble and recovery added to his name.  I find myself complimenting Matthews in some form almost every week, so while I’m starting to sound like a broken record, let me just say, on record, that he deserves every bit of praise he receives.  As far as I’m concerned, Matthews is the defensive rookie of the year.

The offense never quit: Despite never leading until early in the 4th quarter, the Packers’ offense played admirably (sans the drops, of course).  In fact, at times, their demeanor and poise epitomized that of a team with the lead.  To close the game, the Packers’ offense scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives.  Yes:  they abandoned the run from the very first snap of the game, but McCarthy aptly went back to it on Grant’s 24 yard touchdown run.  I had a feeling that if the receivers would stop dropping balls, that the offense would put the team in a position to win.  I was right.  Unfortunately, the defense decided to regress to their 2008 play, thus stealing a win from this offense, who put forth a great, gritty performance on the road in the cold.

Playoff Experience: This wasn’t a playoff game, and unless they get some help, the Steelers aren’t making the playoffs, but this was a playoff-esque game with a playoff-esque atmosphere.  True:  the Steelers had lost 5 consecutive games, some to bottom-tier teams such as the Chiefs, Raiders, and Browns.  But the Steelers brought it last Sunday.  Roethlisberger played easily the best game since his Super Bowl performance last February, if not the best games of his career, and the Steelers protected the ball (well, at least according to the refs, who egregiously called Roethlisberger’s fumble an incomplete pass and inexplicably blew an early whistle after Bigby nailed Wallace to force a fumble—you think I wouldn’t mention the refs abominable performance?).  The Steelers, the defending Super Bowl Champions, put together one of their better games of the season, and while the Packers very much chocked in the final minute, this is still a game from which they can learn.

In fact, I think this is by far the overriding positive from this game.  Put differently, how would you feel, if you were a Packer player, after this loss?  You trail most of the game, in a hostile environment, only to take the lead late in the game.  Then, to lose on the last play of the game, after countless opportunities to seal the game:  that has to piss you off.  And it should.  As a fan, it pisses me off.  And that’s natural.  What the Packers need to do, however, is channel that pissed-off-ness and turn it into motivation.  They need to use it as a reminder the rest of the season as to what can happen on the road against a good team if you don’t take care of business.

**

If the Packers are to do anything in the playoffs (granted they get there), they will need to win on the road.  Sunday’s game is the closest thing they will have to a road playoff environment until they experience the real thing in January.  With that in mind, the Packers really need to reflect on this game.  More importantly, they need to learn, to understand what they did wrong and ensure that it won’t happen in the future.

As difficult as this game is to stomach, it is nonetheless the type of game that can end up being a blessing in disguise late in the season.  This loss should stick in the back of their craw, irritating and annoying them.  This loss should strengthen the Packers’ focus.  This loss should rejuvenate and inspire them.  Will it?  I guess we’ll find out next Sunday against Seattle.  Because let’s face it:  if the Packers don’t dominate the Seahawks, who just lost at home to the Buccaneers, then the Packers aren’t a playoff team.  Despite the loss, I thought they played like a playoff team against the Steelers.  Maybe  not a great playoff team, but a playoff team.  And despite their kicking woes (at this point, Crosby is indefensible) and secondary concerns (yeah:  I’m looking at you Bush and Bell), this is a dangerous team.  A hard-fought, one point loss on the road to the defending champs doesn’t negate that.

Should the Packers be angry after last Sunday’s loss?  Hell yes.  And if they want to make a playoff push, they need to play angry the rest of the season.

Prepping for the playoff push

Posted in Rory on December 15, 2009 by therorylee

The day:  November 8th.

The forecast:  gloom and doom.

After two disconcerting losses in a row, one to the Brett Favre-led Minnesota Vikings and another to the hapless and winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Packers’ season appeared, essentially, finished.  A season ripe with promise was seemingly spoiled.  With the Packers at a disappointing 4-4, the question circling through Packerland wasn’t what it would take for the Packers to regroup and make the playoffs but whether the Packers should (or could afford to) fire coach Mike McCarthy.

I too was unable to find any silver lining in one of the worst two week stretches the Packers had endured over the last decade.

Now, five weeks later, many of us look back and see this two week stretch as a blessing in disguise—a wake-up call of sorts.  Since the ignominious loss to the Buccaneers, the Packers have won five straight games.  And with three games left in the 2009 season, the current question isn’t whether the Packers can make the playoffs—in fact, barring a strange turn of events, they seem like a lock to make the playoffs and can even secure a spot this Sunday against the Steelers with a win and some help.  Instead, the question is whether this streaking Packer team can make a playoff push toward the Super Bowl.  In order for that to happen, however, the Packers would have to win three straight playoff games, all three of which would most likely be on the road since the Packers, despite their record, can do no better than a Wild Card.  Improbable?  Perhaps.  Impossible?  Not in the slightest (just ask the 2007 New York Giants).

However, if the Packers are truly serious about making a deep playoff run, then they need to use these next two games—and possibly the last game against the Cardinals depending on how everything unfolds—to focus on a few key aspects of their game.  With that in mind, here are two lists:  (1) what the Packers need to continue doing and (2) what the Packers need to start doing.

What the Packers need to continue doing:

The offensive line has only given up 6 sacks the last 4 games

Keep Rodgers upright: As we all know, this was a major concern through the first eight weeks of the season, where Rodgers was sacked an embarrassing 37 times.  During the five game win streak, however, Rodgers has been sacked only 10 times, and 4 of those came against the Cowboys.  In other words, the Packers haven’t allowed more than 2 sacks in a game over the last month.  That’s a major improvement from the obligatory 5 sacks per game Packer fans were unfortunately becoming accustomed to seeing.  Part of the improvement is due to stability along the offensive line, who after partaking in an unsuccessful game of musical chairs throughout the first half of the season have now been starting the same five for over a month.  Another reason for the decline in sacks is Rodgers getting rid of the ball quicker.  Rodgers is playing at a Pro Bowl level, but he’s also benefited greatly during this stretch from the return of JerMichael Finley and Jordy Nelson.  Both, especially Finley, allow the Packers to spread the field and capitalize on the short, quick passes that are a staple of the West Coast Offense.  By eliminating the sacks and, to a degree, the pre-snap penalties, the Packers have found themselves in more favorable downs and distances, and as a result, they have capitalized.  They still aren’t the offensive juggernaut we saw in the pre-season, but that is more the result of red zone struggles.  More on that later.

Collins has been an interception machine, picking off a pass in 5 of his last 6 games

Force turnovers: The Packers are a NFL best +18 in the turnover ratio, and they are 3rd in the league with 23 interceptions.  14 of those interceptions have come from Charles Woodson and Nick Collins, both of whom intercepted Jay Cutler last Sunday.  Although Woodson was beat on consecutive throws, one even for a touchdown, he put together a solid game overall, breaking up 3 passes, the last of which sealed a win for the Packers, and making yet another impressive shoelace tackle at the line of scrimmage.  Overall, Woodson just continues to pad his stats and to make his case for NFL Defensive Player of the Year (if not MVP of the league).  For Collins, it was his 4th straight game with an interception, and his 5th INT in the last 6 games.  Can we finally agree that Collins is an All Pro caliber safety and that the Packers need to sign him to a long-term deal—like now?  If the Packers continue to win the turnover battle, they’ll find themselves with a chance to win most of their games, and that includes playoff games.

Get solid play from the rookies: Clay Matthews has been a constant force since becoming a fulltime starter, and fellow rookies BJ Raji and Brad Jones have put together impressive performances as well.  Last week I devoted a lot of attention toward the rookies, so for the sake of being redundant, I’ll just say that I hope these three continue to improve and don’t tire down the most important stretch of the season.

What the Packers need to start doing:

Convert in the red zone: The Packers’ offense has turned into a well-oiled machine over the past few weeks—until they reach the red zone, that is.  Recently, the red zone has been the Packers’ kryptonite, and in settling for field goals instead of touchdowns, they let inferior teams hang around.  They let the Ravens close within 3 points two weeks ago, and rather than jump out to a 21 point lead against the Bears last Sunday, they settled for field goals twice and actually were trailing 14-13 heading into the 4th quarter.  Yes, the Packers are finding ways to win these close games in the 4th quarter, something they couldn’t do last year, but if the Packers want to make a Super Bowl run, they cannot continue to settle for field goals.  They have been able to do so and win against inferior teams, but good teams—you know, teams that make the playoffs—will make the Packers pay for not taking advantage inside the twenties.  Getting touchdowns instead of field goals is doubly important since the Packers are still displaying an unfortunate proclivity for disappearing for quarters at a time.

The special teams coverage was good against the Bears, but it is still a lingering concern

Improve their special teams: This is two-fold.  First, the special teams need to do a better job of punt and kick coverage.  Far too many times this year, the Packers have scored and grabbed some momentum only to give it back a play later by allowing a big kick return.  I actually expected a big return after the Packers went up 21-14 early in the 4th against the Bears.  Thankfully, that wasn’t the case.  The Packers covered well against the Bears, and this needs to continue.  Right now, it appears as though the Packers will play either the Cardinals or the Eagles in the first round of the playoffs, and both of them have dangerous returners.

The other area in which the special teams needs to improve is in the field goal department.  Yeah:  I’m looking at you, Mason Crosby.  Despite what the coaches are saying, Crosby’s slump is starting to become a major concern.  He’s turned into a liability, missing very makeable field goals at crucial points in the game.  Two weeks in a row, Crosby has had a chance to extend the Packers’ lead to 10 points in the 4th quarter, and both times, he’s missed.  The Packers have been able to hold on to these leads, so the misses don’t seem as damaging now, but if this trend continues, it is going to hurt the Packers sooner rather than later.  If the Packers find themselves driving for a game-winning field goal late in the 4th quarter, I’d have to say I don’t like their chances.

Cut down on the penalties: Penalties were a major story following the Ravens game two weeks ago, and they have been a concern all year:  the Packers have amassed 102 penalties this season, the most in the league.  Last Sunday, however, the Packers watched the Bears play the role they were accustomed to playing:  the Bears committed 13 penalties for 109 yards, while the Packers only committed 4 for 30.  Considering the horrible field conditions in Chicago, I expected the Packers to be flagged quite regularly, but that surprisingly wasn’t the case.  Like the special teams coverage against the Bears, the low amount of penalties is something the Packers will want to replicate going forward.

What I’ve attempted to articulate here isn’t new.  And on some level, much of what I said are fundamental musts for good football teams, such as protecting the quarterback and the football.  Still, whether we like to admit it or not, a penalty here and there, a missed field goal late, and a missed opportunity in the red zone can make all the difference between winning and losing.

**

Next on the docket for the Packers is a trip to Pittsburgh, a game many Packer fans penciled in as a loss earlier in the year.  But with the Steelers reeling, losing five straight games, some of which to dreadful opponents such as the Chiefs, Raiders, and Browns, many of those same fans are using the other end of the pencil and erasing that early prediction.  The Steelers are all but eliminated from the playoffs, and the hell that coach Mike Tomlin said would be unleashed has yet to come to fruition.  In fact, it’s quite cold in Pittsburgh.  Talk about your all time backfires.

At this stage, one would have to consider the Packers losing to be an upset.  And with a chance to secure a playoff spot, the Packers should be amped up.  That said, the Steelers, at least to me, appear to be a prideful team; furthermore, they’re at home, and they’ve had essentially a week and a half to prepare for the Packers coming off their Thursday night loss to the Browns.  Nonetheless, the Packers are the better team right now, and I hope they show that Sunday.

This defense is good

Posted in Rory on December 11, 2009 by therorylee

Okay:  I was wrong.

When the Packers lost both Al Harris and Aaron Kampman for the season in the same game, I expected the defense to have a drop off in production:  after all, teams don’t lose Pro Bowl caliber players and get better—right?

Well, maybe they do.

In saying that, I’m not trying to imply that this is a situation of addition by subtraction.  In other words, the Packers’ recent success defensively is not due to Harris and Kampman being sidelined; rather, it is due to improved and inspired play throughout the entire defense.  Let’s take a closer look at some of the individuals who are making this defense an absolute pleasure to watch.

Matthews continues to make big plays as a rookie

The first reason, perhaps the most surprising yet the most enjoyable reason, why the Packers are playing great defense is the emergence of the rookies.  Let’s start with Clay Matthews, a player whom I’ve praised a lot, and deservedly so, since he became a fulltime starter in Week 4.  Matthews was all over the field against the Ravens last Monday:  he led the team with 5 tackles, forced a fumble, and registered 2 sacks.  Matthews is going to be the real deal, folks.  He has a great motor and never quits on a play, which was evident in his sack of Matthew Stafford to close the first half during the Thanksgiving game two weeks ago.  As he continues to progress and mature, Matthews seems more and more like the type of person who can become a leader of a defense.  He’s already won the confidence of his teammates:  said Ryan Pickett after last Monday’s win, “We expect that from Clay.  He doesn’t play like a rookie.”

Finally healthy, Raji is turning into a force along the defensive line

BJ Raji is another rookie who’s made some big plays the last few games.  Hindered by an injured ankle for most of the first half of the season, Raji has been healthy as of late, and the Packers’ defense has been reaping the benefits.  His bursting through the line only to swallow up Willis McGahee for a three yard loss to start the second quarter is just one example of the type of play we can except to see in the future from this impressive rook.   Raji’s impact won’t always be noticeable on the stat sheet but it is in the film.  He has impressive strength, which he compliments well with great speed for a man of his size, and consequently, he’s been starting to draw a slew of double-teams.  This, in turn, is freeing up other players who in their own right are deserving of double-teams, such as Pickett and Cullen Jenkins.  Raji’s improved play the past couple games gives the Packers a great rotation, but more importantly, the defense doesn’t regress when the starters rotate out.  In fact, one has to wonder if the team doesn’t play better when Raji is in the game.

The other rookie making his presence felt is Brad Jones.  Though faced with the unenviable task of replacing the injured Kampman, Jones has held his own quite nicely.  In his first start against the Cowboys, Jones held the point of attack and was second on the team with 7 tackles.  While many praised Jones’ play, they did so with tempered optimism, noting that teams will be better prepared for Jones in the future now that there is actual game footage of him.  Well, Jones has started two games since, one against the Lions on Thanksgiving and the other last Monday against the Ravens, and he continues to impress.  Some pundits even believe the defense is faster with Jones in the line-up than with Kampman.  Regardless, Jones has put forth an admirable effort over the past month or so, and he displayed great speed when he beat fellow rookie Michael Oher for a sack last Monday.

While it’s great to see not only one but three rookies flourish, especially in a complicated scheme such as the one Dom Capers employs, questions about and concerns over the dreaded “rookie wall” are becoming more pronounced by the week.  And the concerns are valid:  I’ll admit, if the Packers want to make the playoffs and, more importantly, make a push toward the Super Bowl, they need all three rookies to continue playing at a high level.  That’s a lot of pressure, but for some reason, I feel these three are up for the task.  Part of my optimism stems from the tread on each player’s proverbial tires; that is, the major impetus in rookies hitting “the wall” is a lack of stamina.  Coming from the college game, where they are not accustomed to playing on a weekly basis in December, most rookies tend to tire.  But fortunately for the Packers, neither Matthews, Raji, nor Jones were starting from day one:  Matthews didn’t become a fulltime starter until Week 4, Raji doesn’t start (though he does play starter snaps for a defensive lineman), and Jones didn’t become a fulltime starter until two weeks ago.  Collectively, the rookies reveled in the spotlight last Monday, as they played their best game, as a set, of the year.  Put differently, these rookies seem to be peeking, to be hitting their stride, and I just hope it can carry on through December and into January.

Barnett has put together a great season, perhaps his best as a Packer

The second major reason the Packers’ defense continues to play great is the performance of the inside linebackers.  At this point, it’s safe to say that Nick Barnett is back.  By that, I don’t mean he’s healthy, though he is; rather, I mean the 2007 Nick Barnett is back—except this version seems more mature.  After tackling Ray Rice for a seven yard loss early in the fourth quarter, I expected Barnett to bust out his patented samurai chop, a celebration he has been scrutinized for performing at inopportune times.  And while that play would have surely warranted the samurai chop, Barnett instead opted to clap his hands gently and to point to the fans, perhaps a sign that he does indeed “get it.”  Although his play last Monday doesn’t stand out statistically, Barnett was the major reason Rice was rendered inconspicuous.  Barnett shadowed Rice all night, essentially eliminating the Raven’s biggest playmaker.  Overall, Barnett has put together a fantastic year playing at a position wherein many expected him to struggle.

Hawk has made the most of his opportunities since Chillar was sidelined

The other inside linebacker exceeding expectations is AJ Hawk.  Early in the season, Hawk was seemingly demoted, playing solely in base formations.  The team was disappointed in his play, and the coaches apparently informed him of much behind closed doors.  And although it took Brandon Chillar getting hurt in order to give him another opportunity, Hawk has made the most of it and has responded with some of his best play as a Packer.  Hawk has always been considered assignment steady, a solid player who didn’t make too many mistakes.  The problem for many, however, was that he didn’t live up to the billing of the number five overall pick.  In other words, Hawk wasn’t developing into the playmaker many thought he would.  Lately, however, Hawk has become just that:  a playmaker.  He’s flying around the field, and he’s making tackles at and behind the line of scrimmage.  Perhaps most impressive is his improved play in coverage.  Early in his young career, Hawk was considered one of the better coverage linebackers in the game.  Many have since soured on that assessment, but Hawk is once again showing that such people—as with the people who have written him off as a bust—might have spoken prematurely.  His huge game-sealing interception in the fourth quarter is evidence of that.

Collins has an interception in three straight games

The play in the secondary is a third reason for the Packers’ continued defensive success.  One player in that secondary is Pro Bowler Nick Collins, who once again is having a Pro Bowl season.  Last Monday, Collins intercepted Joe Flacco on an attempted flea flicker, giving Collins a pick in each of the last three games—and four interceptions over the last five games.  Although he wasn’t giving up big plays or missing tackles, Collins was still off to a slow start to begin the season.  Part of the reason, one could argue, is he was compensating for the loss of fellow safety Atari Bigby.  Another reason was because he, like his teammates, were still acclimating to the 3-4 scheme.  Either way, Collins has once again become the playmaker he was throughout the 2007 season, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time.

Tramon Williams is another player in the Packers’ secondary who deserves some praise.  Joe Flacco and the Raven’s offense targeted him all game long, and in the process, Williams was flagged for some big defensive pass interference calls.  Some of those were legit, while others, at least in my opinion, were more the result of the refs targeting a player than watching the play.  Nonetheless, one has to appreciate Williams’ short memory.  Even though Flacco made an egregious decision in throwing across his body and into the endzone, Williams’ recovery speed, which should not be overlooked, is what turned that play from a mistake in judgment to a monumental error in execution.  As I said a few weeks ago, Williams isn’t as good as Harris, and considering who’s lining up on the other side of the field, we can expect to see opposing quarterbacks target Williams frequently from here on out.  That said, I trust Williams.  He’s going to give up plays here and there; he’ll get flagged a couple other times as well.  But he’s also a playmaker with a lot of heart.

Lastly, there’s this guy named Charles Woodson.  Perhaps you’ve heard of him?

Woodson is making an incredibly strong case for NFL Defensive MVP

There really isn’t much else to say about Woodson that hasn’t already be said.  The guy, put bluntly, is just amazing.  I haven’t seen as good a defensive player don the Green and Gold since Reggie White.  His diving tackle at the goal line to set up Williams’ interception is the stuff of legends.  Though I may be a bit biased, I have a hard time believing anyone else is ahead of him in the race for the defensive MVP.  He’s just a game changer, a player offenses need to account for on every play.  His versatility, athletic prowess, and football acumen is unfathomable.  I’m not the most easy person to impress, but Woodson has been impressing me on almost a weekly basis this year.  He’s simply outstanding, and I mean that without the slightest tinge of hyperbole.

Although this defense had been ranked number one overall for the past two weeks, many questioned the ranking since it was predicated on total yardage allowed.  Points allowed:  that is a more accurate way to assess a defense, people said.  And while those people may be right, the Packers are now ranked 8th in points allowed, and some of those points, such as the second and last touchdown the Ravens scored last Monday as well as the first and only touchdown the Lions scored on Thanksgiving, were mostly the result of those teams having auspicious field position.  I won’t say this is the best defense in the league, and they have an unfortunate proclivity to disappear for a quarter at a time, but make no mistake about it:  this defense is good.  Damn good.  And if you watch closely, you might just say they’re getting better.

**

Up next for the Packers is a trip to Solider Field, home of the division rival Chicago Bears.  The Packers are clearly a better team than the Bears at this point of the season, but we all know that doesn’t ensure a Packer victory.  The Bears always bring it against the Packers, regardless of either team’s record, and compounding the matter is that the Packers have had their fair share of troubles in Chicago over recent years.  Moreover, the weather will surely play a factor this Sunday, as it did during those recent struggles.  Even more ominous, if that’s possible, is the fact that the entire Packers’ defensive line is nicked up:  Jenkins, Pickett, Jolly, and Raji all missed practice time this week.  All also said they expect to play Sunday, but we’ve heard that before with players.

It appears as though the Packers will need to win at least two of their last four games to secure a playoff spot, and a win against the Bears would go a long way, especially with a home game against the Seahawks, a game the Packers have no business losing.  As a whole, this team appears to have captured the focus they lacked during the first half of the season, and the confidence overall has to be at an all-time high.  Let’s hope we can say the same Sunday night.

With Kampman and Harris out, the offense needs to rise to the occasion

Posted in Rory on November 23, 2009 by therorylee

Last week, after the Packers’ suffocating defensive performance against the Cowboys, I suggested that we might be witnessing a shift in this team’s core strength:  that is, although the Packers have been an offensive-oriented team for the last decade, their defense might slowly be becoming the dominating unit.  All this was said cautiously, however, and I made sure to include the caveat that it was too soon to tell, at least definitively, which unit was better:  after all, the offense has many weapons, two of whom—Jermichael Finley and Jordy Nelson—just returned from injury.  Regardless, I felt relatively safe proclaiming that we were starting to see some much needed balance in Packerland:  both the offense and defense are capable of taking over a given game.

Last week I also said that “it’s amazing what a difference a week makes” and that “I just hope I don’t find myself saying that next week.”

Well, here we are, a week later, and I’m saying it:  what a difference a week makes.

In saying this, however, I’m not referring to what I thought I would:  a loss in the Packers’ overall record.  But I am referring to a loss—two, in fact.

Losing Kampman will be more detrimental than people probably realize

As we all know by now, linebacker Aaron Kampman and cornerback Al Harris are lost for the season, both reportedly to ACL tears.  Make no mistake:  this is a huge blow to the Packers and their playoff chances.  Some people aren’t too concerned with the loss of Kampman, believing that he wasn’t playing as well at linebacker in this new 3-4 scheme and that Brad Jones might be the better option moving forward following his commendable performance filling in for Kampman two weeks ago against the Cowboys.

This thinking, however, is myopic.

Although Jones played well in Kampman’s place, one week does not a good player make.  Jones has some potential and upside, but it is far too soon for us to feel comfortable with him as a starter.  Moreover, while Kampman may not have been getting the sacks at linebacker that he was accustomed to registering at defensive end, he nonetheless has been the Packers’ best pass rusher all season long, which is evident by the number of quarterback pressures he’s generated—almost three times the number of any other player on the defense.  Worse is that Kampman never really had a full year to adjust to the scheme.  I felt confident that Kampman would turn it up a notch down the stretch, and he was surely playing well against the 49ers before the injury.  Now, Kampman’s future in Green Bay is hazy at best, and the Packers have to turn to a platoon of Jones and Brady Poppgina to fill his big shoes.  Kampman is a great player, and his loss will be more devastating than I think people are willing to admit.

Without Harris, the Packers' secondary is a cause for concern

More people seem concerned about the loss of Harris—and for good reason.  However, this is a crippling loss not so much because of who replaces Harris but because of the trickledown effect his loss induces.  In other words, Tramon Williams will occupy Harris’ starting spot, which is fine:  Williams did as much last year when Harris was convalescing from his ruptured spleen and played solid football in the process.  Williams, though not as good as either Harris or Woodson at this stage, is a starting caliber NFL corner.  The main problem is that this Harris’ injury forces Jarrett Bush to play the nickel, a package the Packers employ quite frequently.  I was already reticent about Bush playing as many snaps as he had recently in the dime package due to Chillar’s injury, but now, Bush will be playing even more snaps.  And this, I feel, does not bode well for the Packers.  Nick Collins is going to have his hands full in the secondary trying to cover the mistakes Bush is prone to make, and Atari Bigby might not be able to play as close to the line of scrimmage either.  Dom Capers surely will have his work cut out for him these last six games of the season.  Getting Brandon Chillar back will help some, but these losses hurt.  It isn’t easy to replace one Pro Bowl player, let alone two.

That said, the Packers’ offense can help by continuing to improve down the final six games.  Despite struggling early in the red zone, the Packers closed the first half with an offensive flurry, putting up 17 points in the final 9 minutes of the second quarter.  And although they came out sluggish in the second half, perhaps resting a bit too much on their first half laurels, the offense was able to put the game away by running out the final 5 minutes and 50 seconds of the game.  That is what good offenses do.  That is what Bill Belichick wished his Patriots could have done against the Colts two Sundays ago.

Grant is putting together a solid season, and he helped seal the win Sunday with a 21 yard run

The vanguard in this game-sealing drive was clearly Ryan Grant, whose 21 yard run on first down moved the Packers into a more comfortable field position.  The other big play came one play earlier, when the returning Finley caught a 5-yard pass on 3rd and 4 to preclude the streaking 49ers from getting the ball back with a chance to take the lead.  Speaking of Finley, I was thrilled to see him back in the offense, and apparently, McCarthy and Rodgers were as well, as Finley was targeted a team high 10 times.  He is the X-Factor for this offense, and they are undoubtedly a more potent squad when he is in the game.  His return coupled with Nelson’s last week make this offense conspicuously more dangerous.

As a whole, the offense played great.  I would have liked to see them play better in the third quarter and during the first half of the 4th quarter; I also would have liked to see them get touchdowns instead of field goals in the first quarter.  Nonetheless, the offense is starting to click at the right time.  Part of this is due to improved offensive line play the last two weeks.  They only allowed two sacks against the 49ers, who sport a strong defensive unit, and one of those sacks was due to pre-snap miscommunication.  Another reason for the improved offense is Aaron Rodgers, who has played arguably his best two games of the season the last two weeks.  He is making his reads faster, and he is getting rid of the ball quicker, some of which can surely be attributed to the wealth of options now that both Finley and Nelson have returned.

And since we’re congratulating the offense, let’s give Ryan Grant some praise as well.  Grant is putting together a really fine season:  he is the 5th leading rusher in the NFC with a 4.4 yards per carry average, which is a half yard better than his average last year.  Grant is running with much better vision, speed, and strength as of late.  He’s breaking more tackles upon first contact, and he’s doing a good job of getting positive yardage even when he doesn’t have good blocking in front of him.

Not to overlooked in all of this, however, is the playcalling of Mike McCarthy, who has strung together some solid games the past three weeks—yes, I thought he even called a good game against Tampa Bay, despite the outcome.  McCarthy still has a proclivity to pass rather than run, but the team is becoming a little more balanced, and the results are positive.  His commitment to the short, quick passes as well as the screen pass, which he ran consecutively at one point last Sunday, is a welcomed sight also.

If this offensive line can continue to be at least adequate, this offense as a whole seems capable of mitigating, at least to a degree, what is sure to be a slight drop in production on the defensive side of the ball due to the losses of both Kampman and Harris.  With six games remaining, the Packers actually control their own destiny in terms of the Wild Card.  At 6-4, they have a great opportunity to move to 7-4 this Thanksgiving against the Detroit Lions, a team they should beat and a team that looks like it will be without Matthew Stafford yet again.  Afterward, the Packers can enjoy what is essentially their second bye week, as they prepare for their Monday Night showdown against the Baltimore Ravens.  Despite the injuries, the Packers find themselves in a fortuitous situation, but they need to take advantage of their opportunities.  The losses of both Kampman and Harris are large, no doubt, but this team is still capable of making some noise down the stretch.

Is this a defensive team?

Posted in Rory on November 18, 2009 by therorylee

Coming into this season, many—including myself—thought that this team would go as far as the offense would carry them.  Yes:  there was much anticipation and buzz surrounding new defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his installment of the 3-4 scheme.  However, many of the discussions involving the defense were tempered and came with an important caveat:  learning and adjusting to the scheme will take time—in fact, the defense might not even adjust fully to the scheme this season, as some of the personnel are considered better suited for a 4-3 rather than 3-4 scheme.  Consequently, the line of thinking throughout Packerland seemed to be thus:  if the defense can just improve from last year, where they were 20th in the league overall and a horrendous 26th in the league against the run, to just an above average defensive team—say, just out of the top 10—then this team can be dangerous considering the weapons they have on offense.

Well, the defense is holding up their end of the bargain—at least statistically.  A defense that was, as just noted, 26th against the run, allowing 131.6 yards a game, is now 4th against the run, allowing 93.1 yards a game.  A defense that allowed 4.6 yards per carry, the 7th worst average in the league, now allows only 3.5 yards per carry, which is tied for 3rd best in the league.

However, as most of us know, stats can be misleading.  As exhibit A, I offer Aaron Rodgers’ QB rating.  And as most of us have witnessed, this defense has not played as well as the stats have indicated over the first 8 games of the season.  The Bengals, who statistically are barely better than the Packers running the football, carved this defense up on the ground.  Although many of us would like to forget it, Brett Favre had his way throwing the ball against this defense not once but twice.  Worse, perhaps, was seeing rookie QB Josh Freeman move the ball quite effortlessly down the field, though his confidence surely grew due to his special teams and defense routinely giving him a short field with which to work.  These slipshod defensive performances are more discouraging when you consider the good defensive performances came against teams the likes of the Chicago Bears, St. Louis Rams, Detroit Lions (who were missing both Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson), and Cleveland Browns.  That’s a pretty underwhelming smorgasbord of inept offenses.

But maybe, just maybe, this defense is starting to turn a corner; maybe this defense is starting not only to adjust but to flourish in this 3-4 scheme.

At least that’s what seemed to happen against the Cowboys this past Sunday.

Woodson had perhaps the best game of his career against the Cowboys

The Cowboys, ranked 4th in overall offense, were flat out abused by the Packers’ defense.  The man receiving the most press after the game was Charles Woodson—and rightfully so.  He lead the team with 8 tackles; he forced two fumbles, both of which the Packers recovered; he had a sack off a beautifully executed blitz; and he had an amazing interception, breaking on a goal line pass to Jason Witten and in turn all but sealing the Packers’ victory.  In sum, this was probably the best game of Woodson’s illustrious career, which says a lot, and he was an absolute stud—the best player on the field.

That all said, I would be remiss in saying that the Packers’ defensive performance was the work of Woodson alone.  After a defensive performance of that magnitude, there is a lot of praise to be dolled out.

Let’s start with the linebackers, a unit imperative to the success of a 3-4 scheme and a unit for the Packers that had been much maligned last year and early this year.  I too was down on these linebackers for much of the year.  I’ve been a vocal Nick Barnett critic; I’ve come to see AJ Hawk as expendable; I’ve never thought too highly of Brady Poppinga; and I’ve noticed a significant decline in production from Aaron Kampman as a linebacker.  The lone bright spot had been the emergence of Clay Matthews, who continues to play phenomenal football for a rookie and who looks more and more like the impact player many Packers fans hoped he would become.  Lately, however, and especially against Dallas, this linebacking unit has been playing great football.

Barnett is finally healthy and playing some of his best football

Barnett is finally healthy, and as a result, he is putting together one of his better seasons.  McCarthy was adamant about slowly acclimating Barnett back into the game, keeping his snap count at about 40.  Now, 10 weeks into the season, Barnett has his burst and confidence back—and it shows.  He’s getting to the quarterback better than, well, I can remember, and his team high 2.0 sacks Sunday is indicative of that.  Barnett was never a lauded blitzer; in fact, he’s never really been considered an above average blitzer.  This year, however, he’s a new man, and the reason, some have to imagine, is the new 3-4 scheme.  Most people considered Barnett out of position in the 3-4:  they believed his skill set was better suited for a 4-3 defense, particularly a Cover 2 scheme.  Thus far, however, Barnett has proven those people emphatically wrong.

Hawk too has silenced some of his critics.  He remains reliable and assignment steady, and he continues to play well filling in for the injured Brandon Chillar.  He’s playing so well, in fact, that I’m flummoxed by Dom Capers’ recent affinity to play more dime packages, essentially opting for Jarrett Bush over Hawk.  Bush, who in my opinion should never see the field unless it is to play special teams, is nothing but a liability, something Hawk has consistently shown this season he is anything but.

Matthews continues to impress and came up with two big fumble recoveries

Matthews has received a lot of adoration for his play throughout the season, so for the sake of not being too redundant, I’ll keep this brief:  the kid is special, and he’s only going to get better.  He’s just explosive off the snap, which was highly apparent when he burned five-time Pro Bowler Flozell Adams for a sack this Sunday.  Matthews is also becoming a “Johnny on the Spot,” as he recovered both of the fumbles Woodson forced.  The kid, put bluntly, makes plays, and he’s going to be a staple of this 3-4 defense for many years.

Brad Jones, a sixth round rookie filling in for the concussed Kampman, also played admirably and exceeded my expectations.  Capers is purportedly very high on Jones, whose elusiveness and instincts he compares to Chad Brown’s, which, if you didn’t know, is a compliment.   After watching him play a whole game, I too can see his upside.  Jones held the point of attack quite well against a strong Cowboy offensive line, recording 7 tackles in the process.  Jones isn’t going to usurp Kampman as a starter, but his potential makes you think Kampman might be expendable next year if he continues to struggle as a linebacker.

These linebackers played fantastic 3-4 football this past Sunday, but as many will say, good linebacker play starts upfront; that is, if the defensive linemen aren’t able to do their jobs and hold the point of attack then offensive linemen can hit the second tier and render the linebackers obsolete.  And that didn’t happen against the Cowboys because the Packers’ defensive linemen played great.  Pickett, whom last week I labeled the Packers’ midseason defensive MVP, continued his steady play against the Cowboys, so that really isn’t news.  What is news, or at least what stood out, was the play of Cullen Jenkins and a healthy BJ Raji, both of whom elevated their respective games.  Jenkins was Mr. Hustle against the Cowboys, making plays all over the field, and Raji had some great push.  You can see the talent that made him a top 10 pick in last April’s draft.  He’s going to be a dominating player sooner rather than later.

Lastly, you might have seen Nick Collins flying around your television.  Although he was channeling his pre-2008 Nick Collins, dropping two interceptions, his speed and instincts are something special.  He really can break on the football.  Now, like last year, he needs to start catching the ball.

Overall, Dom Capers dialed up more blitzes, which is easier when you’re sitting on a double digit lead, no doubt, but those blitzes mean nothing if your players can’t get to the quarterback.  And for most of this season, the defense has been unable to do so.  That changed Sunday, however, as the defense showed great push and tenacity.  Too bad it took them 8 games and a loss against one of the worst teams in the NFL before they played with some urgency.

**

So, having said all that, my question, the one I pose in the title, is thus:  Are the Packers now a defensive-led team?

My answer?  It’s too soon to tell.

Part of the reason is I still, perhaps against my better judgment, have faith in this offense.  Yes, they continued to struggle in the same areas, committing their usually holding penalties and allowing the obligatory 4+ sacks.  However, I felt the line held up fairly well against a very strong Cowboy front seven.  TJ Lang had a sound game at right tackle, and I wouldn’t be upset if he plays there the remainder of the season and heading forward.  He’s a guy that is going to end up starting on this offense somewhere, and I don’t see why it can’t be at right tackle.  In addition, this offense is starting to get back some important cogs.   We saw the impact a Jordy Nelson can make, and his good play made me only salivate at the prospect of getting Jermichael Finley back this week.

Rodgers did a fantastic job of managing the game, completing passes to 10 different receivers

Perhaps most importantly, Aaron Rodgers played one of his most efficient and smartest games of the season.  The numbers aren’t startling, but he got rid of the ball quicker than he has in the past, and he spread the wealth, completing passes to 10 different receivers.  Furthermore, his two 3rd down passes on the 15 play 80 yard drive (easily their best drive of the season), one to Greg Jennings and the other to Donald Lee, were two of his best passes this year—and in the most critical of situations, mind you.  In other words, I have to wonder if this offense, which this coming Sunday will probably be the healthiest it’s been all season, is about to turn a corner.  That, and I need to see the defense replicate that performance for a couple of weeks before I’m willing to give them the definitive nod and say they are the better unit.

Nonetheless, this team is getting healthy at the right moment. They’re starting to become balanced, and perhaps most importantly, they showed a swagger, aggressiveness, and intensity against the Cowboys that we haven’t seen all year.  I just hope the Packers can reproduce that intensity and performance against the 49ers next week because if they don’t, this win was all for naught.  And I truly mean that:  the calls for McCarthy and Thompson to be fired will be just as vehement following a loss to the 49ers at home as they were following the loss to the winless Buccaneers.

With the Eagles, Bears, Falcons, and Cowboys all losing, it’s amazing what a difference a week makes.  I just hope I don’t find myself saying that next week, as all the hope and confidence that was gained from this win can easily dissipate with a loss to the 49ers.

Until then, Go Pack Go.

Midseason awards

Posted in Rory on November 9, 2009 by therorylee

Before listing my midseason MVPs on offense, defense, and special teams, I’d be remiss if I did not address the abomination that occurred this past Sunday in Tampa Bay.  The word “embarrassing” comes to mind, but I don’t think it’s strong enough.  Even ignominious, a twenty-five cent word, doesn’t accurately sum up the Packers’ performance.

Heading into this week, I planned to do a write up on the midseason MVPs.  And while I’m still going to stick to that plan, I seriously considered changing direction altogether and analyzing what went wrong in Tampa Bay.  But a lot went wrong, and most of what went wrong has been going wrong all season:  the offensive line is unable to pass protect, Rodgers is holding on to the ball too long, the defense is unable to generate a pass rush, and the special teams is the opposite of special (unless we’re using it as a euphemism, then it’s highly apropos).  This all just goes to show that what your weaknesses are at the beginning of the season are often your weaknesses at the end of the season.

dejected

Packer fans feel the same way, Aaron.

Right now, as you read, the pitchforks are being dusted off and the torches are being lit:  even some of the most staunchly McCarthy and Thompson advocates are signing a different tune and hoping for sweeping authoritative change.  For once, I have to admit that these suggestions seem plausible.  Throughout this entire season, I’ve stated that this team is talented—it surely had enough talent to make the playoffs.  In that regard, coaching appears to be the culprit, and if you put a lot of stock in your coach being able to motivate and adjust mid-game, then McCarthy, at least at this moment, doesn’t seem well-suited for the job.  Another part of me, however, wonders just how talented this team is.  This part of me wonders if I overvalued the players on this team, if the Packers are just incredibly mediocre.  If that’s the case, then the general manger, Thompson, appears to be the culprit.  But both of these scenarios exonerate the players, and we can’t have that either.  Players such as Daryn Colledge and Josh Sitton might have put forth their worst efforts as professionals.  John Kuhn allowing a player to shoot the A gap on the blocked punt is his fault and his fault alone.

The most reasonable assessment is that the Packers are suffering from a combination of these problems:  they have a mediocre general manager, a mediocre coach, and mediocre talent.  As such, they’re just that:  mediocre.  4-4 never felt so painfully realistic.

The most disappointing aspect for me is that I just didn’t see this coming.  I can stomach losses quite easily, but this one resonated and stung so deeply because it altered my entire perspective of this Packer team.  A team I thought was built for the long haul no longer appears so sturdy.  The offensive line is a complete wreck, and the only two players on the roster with any long-term potential are Josh Sitton and TJ Lang, both of whom are guards.  In other words, there doesn’t seem to be any solution to the offensive line problem in sight, at least at the moment.  And this does not augur well for the offense and Rodgers heading forward.  The defense has different long-term issues, with two aging corners, a group of unproductive linebackers, and two starters on the defensive line who are soon-to-be free agents.  Oh, and Kampman isn’t nearly as effective as a linebacker.

I guess when it rains it pours. As a Packer fan, I’m unable to discern any silver lining.  Sure, a win against Dallas would go a long way, but if this season has taught me anything thus far, it’s telling me to expect a double digit loss at home this Sunday.

Now that we’re brimming with optimism, let’s look at whom I believe to be the midseason MVPs on offense, defense, and special teams.

driver

Driver is showing no signs of aging.

 

Offensive MVP:  Donald Driver. When Thompson drafted James Jones in 2007 and Jordy Nelson in 2008, he probably assumed, like many, that Driver would start to decline sooner rather than later.  I always considered such talk premature, and at 34 years young, Driver is playing some of his best football.  He’s clearly having a better year than Jennings, and he’s been this offense’s best playmaker all year.  His two one-handed catches this season were just phenomenal, and he is tied for 1st in the NFL with 11 catches of 20+ yards or more.  Driver is on pace for another 70+ catches and 1,000+ yards, which would be the seventh time he’s accomplished the feat in the last eight years.  I’m not sure what the term “Packer People” really entails, but if I had to pick one guy to be emblematic of the phrase, I’d choose Driver.

Runner Up:  Aaron Rodgers. For many, Rodgers is probably the midseason MVP, but I can’t give him the award despite his impressive statistics.  In three of the Packers’ four losses this season, Rodgers has played poorly.  He had the equivalent of three turnovers Week 4 against Minnesota, all of which resulted in Viking points; he looked like a rookie in the first half during second meeting against the Vikings; and he threw three interceptions against a lowly Buccaneer team, though the last one was a necessary desperation heave.  There’s definitely merit to the argument that Rodgers should be praised for his play considering the inept line he’s playing behind; with that, there’s the notion that it’s a miracle he is still healthy enough to play.  But even when Rodgers is protected, he’s made some costly mistakes.  There is no doubt that he is holding the ball far too long in certain scenarios.  Part of this is the advantage opposing defenses have in being able to apply pressure with only a four man rush, thus allowing them to double cover almost every receiving option.  The other part, however, is Rodgers not making decisions quickly enough.  Sometimes, he just needs to tuck it and run or throw the ball away.  He’s regressed in this regard.   I’m a huge Rodgers fan, and I do believe he can be an elite top 3 caliber quarterback in the NFL.  But right now, he isn’t playing as well as he is a capable.  The line is unquestionably an issue, but so his decision-making.

pickett

The Big Grease has acclimated well to his new position.

 

Defensive MVP:  Ryan Pickett. Welcome back, Big Grease.  After a good-to-great 2007 season, Pickett put forth an underwhelming performance in 2008.  I attributed most of the decline in Pickett’s play to the absence of Cullen Jenkins and the amount of snaps he was forced to play due to injuries and inadequate depth along the defensive line.  And thus far, Pickett has returned to his 2007 form; in fact, he’s probably playing at a higher level.  During the off-season, many questioned Pickett’s ability to play nose tackle.  And when the Packers drafted his future replacement BJ Raji ninth overall, many assumed this would be Pickett’s last year with the Packers.  For all we know, this still may be his last season wearing green and gold, but if it is, he’s making the most of it.  Pickett has adjusted tremendously to his new position, and the results are noticeable:  the Packers are 9th in rushing yards allowed per game and tied for 2nd in yards per carry allowed (3.5).  The success of the Packers new 3-4 scheme, especially as it concerns rushing the passer, is still a topic up for debate, but what’s undoubtedly improved from last year is the rush defense.  Johnny Jolly and Jenkins have been major contributors too, but Pickett has performed better than both of them.  Nose tackle is the least glorious position in a 3-4 but it’s been heralded as the most important.  Well here’s your moment Big Grease:  thus far, you’ve been the Packers’ defensive MVP.

Runner Up:  Charles Woodson. Many people expected Woodson to flourish in the new 3-4 scheme, as it played to his strengths as a ball-hawking corner.  In addition, he’d presumably have more opportunities to blitz the quarterback, an area he’s been successful at most of his career.  While Woodson might not be playing at the level many of us hoped, he has nonetheless put together a great season, leading the team with 4 interceptions.  He’s also a great tackler for a cover corner.  In essence, he’s the complete package.

nelson

The injured Nelson has been the Packers' best special teams player.

 

Special Teams MVP:  Jordy Nelson. That says a lot, doesn’t it?  This isn’t meant to be a slight against Nelson, but it surely is a slight against the rest of special teams unit.  In other words, when the special teams’ MVP is a player who’s missed almost half of the season up to this point, you know the unit is playing at an unacceptable level.  The Packers desperately need Nelson back to return both kicks and punts.  Unlike the other returners (*cough*Will Blackmon and Tramon Williams*cough*), Nelson gets it:  find your hole, run forward, and get as much yardage as you can.  Nelson’s not a dancer, and I love that about him.  If he doesn’t resume his return role on special teams upon coming back from injury, I’ll be even more disappointed with the special teams, which at this point seems almost impossible.

Runner Up:  No one.  That’s how pathetic this unit’s been.

As noted above, the Cowboys come into town this Sunday.  The Packers have a terrible history against the Cowboys, and it seems almost a foregone conclusion that history will repeat itself.  If the Packers are to have any chance of beating the Cowboys, they need to stop the run on defense, which they’ve been able to do for the most part this season.  Still, Jay Ratliff, DeMarcus Ware, and company will devour whatever instillation of the offensive line McCarthy throws out.  I expect more of the same:  the Packers will suffer their third straight loss and fall below .500 for the first time this season.

It’s amazing how such a promising season can look so gloomy after only eight games.  And coming from me, who considers himself highly optimistic, that speaks volumes.  There’s really no way to sugarcoat this folks:  things don’t look good in Titletown.

An (untold) tale of two teams

Posted in Rory on November 5, 2009 by therorylee

favre

Favre got his two wins against the Packers.

No good deed goes unpunished.  That’s the first phrase that came to mind when Percy Harvin caught a ridiculous 51 yard touchdown pass on the fifth play from scrimmage in the second half, allowing the Vikings to take a commanding 24-3 lead—a lead that proved insurmountable and made the rest of the game, despite what appeared to be the beginning of a comeback, painful to watch.  Brett Favre got his two wins against the Packers.  As others will say, he finally “stuck it” to Ted Thompson.

So now what?

Well, a week away from the midpoint of this 2009 NFL season, there’s two storylines set to unfold.  The first involves the 7-1 NFC North leading Minnesota Vikings.  The Vikings have a bye this week, which really could not have come at a more opportune time:  most likely drained from his return to Lambeau, Favre can recharge emotionally and physically, as he is purportedly dealing with a few nagging injuries, the latest of which is a groin.  Perhaps more important, the Vikings team can rest after coming off a grueling and physical three game stretch against the Ravens, Steelers, and Packers.  Coming off the bye, they embark on a three-game home stand against the Lions, Seahawks, and Bears.  Although there is never a guarantee in the NFL, the first two games look like sure-fire wins for the Vikings, leaving them at an impressive 9-1.

After those two games, however, things could get very interesting.  At that point, the Vikings will play five of their last six games against teams with a current winning record:  the Bears twice, and then the Cardinals, Bengals, and Giants.  My point, here, is not to suggest that the Vikings will choke away the division (despite their proclivity over the past decade to do just that).  In fact, as far as I’m concerned, for all intents and purposes, the Vikings have already won the division.  But that’s not really what’s at stake here, is it?  Many, including myself, expected the Vikings to make the playoffs this year.  What’s at stake is a run at the Super Bowl.  And as we all know, what’s really important is how a team plays in December and January.  Getting off to a quick start is usually a plus, but as the Eagles and Cardinals proved last year, as the Giants proved two years ago, as the Colts proved three years ago, and as the Steelers proved four years ago, the playoffs are about getting hot at the right time.

With this in mind, I’m intrigued to see how the Vikings perform in the second half of the season.  Are they going to get complacent?  Perhaps more intriguing is the play of Favre, who has developed a penchant for collapsing as the season progresses.  While this trend dates back further than 2005, here are some numbers to corroborate this claim:

Favre’s aggregated stats from 2005 to 2008

Month

TD / INT

QB Rating

September

31 / 26

92.9

October

20 / 19

81.1

November

24 / 18

85.8

December

12 / 30

60.5

fave loss

Will Favre repeat his recent trend and play poorly down the stretch?

There’s also the fact that no quarterback 40 years of age or older has ever won a playoff game.  In saying all of this, I’m not trying to “hate” on Favre.  Rather, I’m simply intrigued as to how the Vikings handle the second half of the season, and a big part of how they handle it will be placed squarely on Favre’s shoulders.  The argument before the season began was that Favre wouldn’t have to carry the team, that he could defer to Adrian Peterson.  Well, halfway through the season, it’s obvious that this is Favre’s team, and because Brad Childress might be one of the more incompetent coaches in the league, he’s moving away from the run and more toward the pass.  This year, Adrian Peterson has only had 25 carries three times:  the opening game against the Browns and both games against the Packers.  His second highest total is 22 carries against the Ravens.  The other totals includes 15 carries against the Lions (Favre had 27 pass attempts), 19 carries against the 49ers (Favre had 46 pass attempts), 14 carries against the Rams (Favre had 25 pass attempts), and 18 carries against the Steelers (Favre had 50 pass attempts).  The pendulum is definitely swinging more toward the pass.  Some may consider this a smart long-term strategy:  the Vikings are able to keep Peterson relatively healthy for the second stretch of the season, where they’ll need him most.  Considering Childress’ track record, however, I happen to think that line of reasoning is more akin to wishful thinking.

Those who paint Favre as solipsistic and vindictive will argue that his two wins over the Packers were his personal Super Bowl; in other words, now Favre doesn’t have anything left to play for.  I’m not sure this is entirely true, but I’ll be one of the first to admit that I haven’t seen him that focused in a long time.  He surely didn’t display that focus in any playoff game after the 1996 season.  If Favre did come back just to beat the Packers, then he’s accomplished his goal mid-season.  At 40 years old, is he going to be able to maintain his focus mentally and hold up physically for the second half of the season and into the playoffs?  My guess is no, but I’m nonetheless interested to find out.

**

The second story to watch, the one I’ll obviously pay more attention to, is that of the Green Bay Packers.  Right now, they’re 4-3, a mark that screams underachievement.  There are even rumblings that McCarthy could now be inching closer to the proverbial “hot seat.”  The Packers’ talent coupled with their outstanding pre-season performance had many people predicting this team would be no worse than 6-2 at the midway mark.  Now, heading to Tampa Bay to play the winless Buccaneers, the Packers have a chance to be 5-3.

If the Packers beat Tampa Bay, which they most certainly should, then they’ll have eight remaining games to prove if they are a team on the rise, a team many people thought could compete for the NFC championship, or if they are simply a mirage, a young, undisciplined, and mediocre team whose impressive pre-season resulted in unwarranted hype.  The “cupcake” part of the schedule is over:  rather than play bottom barrel teams such as the Rams, Browns, and Lions, the Packers will play the likes of the Cowboys, Ravens, Steelers, Bears, and Cardinals.  Are the Packers capable of beating these teams?  Of course.  But not if they continue to make the costly mistakes that’s left them an underwhelming one game above .500.

How well the Packers do down the stretch will be contingent on three factors:

(1)  The play of the offensive line: As has been well documented, the offensive line has been, simply put, abominable.  The only bright spots have been the play of Josh Sitton and

offensive line

The return of both Clifton and Tauscher could bolster the offensive line, which had played terribly all season.

the flashes of potential displayed by TJ Lang.  At center, Jason Spitz’s back injury seems worse than initially diagnosed, and while Scott Wells is serviceable, that’s about all he is.  Daryn Colledge has struggled all season, partly because he was moved temporarily to left tackle to fill in for the injured Chad Clifton.  On a positive note, Colledge did have perhaps his best performance of the year against the Vikings last Sunday.  At right tackle, Allen Barbre has shown that he’s an above average run-blocker, but he continues to struggle with his pass-blocking, which is probably the result of poor technique and a lack of confidence.

There is slight reason for optimism, however.  Mark Tauscher appears ready to play, and should (read hopefully will) start at right tackle this Sunday against the Buccaneers.  Although he cannot run block as well as Barbre, Tauscher has always been a phenomenal pass protector.  And considering that pass protection is problem number one for this offensive line, I’d say that Tauscher’s skill set solves a more pressing need.  In addition, Clifton looks ready to return at left tackle.  Although he has clearly regressed—and whether he’ll even be able to hold up the remainder of the season is a giant question mark—he nonetheless provides experience, which at that position is invaluable.  I’m a big TJ Lang proponent, and I’m confident he’ll be a starter on this offensive line in 2010, either replacing Colledge at left guard or moving over to right tackle.  For the time being, however, the Packers are probably better off with Clifton.  It remains to be seen whether this new line of Clifton—Colledge—Wells—Sitton—Tauscher will be more effective than the other lineups McCarthy has tested thus far, but one has to wonder if it can be any worse at this stage.  How well the Packers play the final half of the season may very well depend on how well these five perform as a unit.

(2)  The commitment on the part of the defense: At times, the Packers’ new 3-4 look has been outright dominant; other times, it’s looked awful.  Perhaps a surprise to no one, the

defensive line

The defense needs to buy into Dom Capers 3-4 scheme.

defense has played well in the four wins and poorly in their three losses.  What’s perhaps most concerning is the postgame comments following both losses to the Vikings.  After the first loss in Week 4, Charles Woodson spoke critically of defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ gameplan.  After last Sunday’s loss, Cullen Jenkins suggested that Capers’ scheme and gameplan might have “handcuffed” the team’s defensive playmakers.  The biggest impediment in acclimating successfully to a new defensive scheme is doubt.  And doubt is just the tip of the iceberg:  doubt can easily spiral into malcontentedness, dissention, and, worst of all, mutiny.  Despite the defense’s inconsistent performances, they still rank 4th in the league in total defense.  I trust the players the Packers have on defense; I also trust Dom Capers.  In order for this marriage to work, these two sides need to trust one another.

Worth watching closely will be the play of two rookies:  Clay Matthews and BJ Raji.  Matthews is improving by the week and looks destined to turn into the impact player the Packers envisioned.  Raji, on the other hand, has been a story of understandable disappointment.  He’s shown flashes, most notably against the Browns two weeks ago, but he still seems hampered by his ankle injury.  The Packers need Raji to be healthy down the stretch in order to spell Jenkins, Pickett, and Jolly, especially since Mike Montgomery is no longer receiving any playing time.

(3)The mental discipline (or lack thereof): As you can guess, I’m talking about penalties.  Week after week, McCarthy expresses his disappointment at the number of

mccarthy

McCarthy needs to change his approach to dealing with the Packers surfeit of penalties.

penalties—in particular, the number of undisciplined penalties—the Packers continually amass.  I’m clearly someone who puts stock in the power of the word, but this is a case where actions need to speak louder than words.  Whatever McCarthy has done to this point, it obviously isn’t working.  And guess what:  telling us you’ll fix the problem hasn’t resulted in any fixing.  Penalties have plagued this Packer squad for too many years running.  It’s officially time for McCarthy to change his approach.

**

At the beginning of the season, I predicted that the Packers would get to 10 wins.  With a win at Tampa, they’ll be 5-3 and halfway toward achieving that number.  As I’ve noted above, however, the Packers will face tougher competition in route to those other 5 wins.  Can they do it?  I believe they can.  I think the players believe they can as well.  But as with the Vikings and whether they can continue at this pace, only time will tell.

It’s going to be an interesting second half of the season, folks.  The NFC North Division might already be signed, sealed, and delivered to the Vikings, but there’s a lot of football left to be played.  As I’ve said before, the NFL is a marathon, not a sprint, and I’m intrigued to see how both teams (as well as the Bears, lest we forget about them) play from here on out.

A Janus-like take: Looking back at the Browns game while looking foward to “The Rematch”

Posted in Rory on October 28, 2009 by therorylee

Two weeks ago, I stated that the Packers had to take advantage of their upcoming games against weak opponents otherwise known as the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns.  In saying this, I wasn’t implying that the Packers simply had to win; rather, these two games presented an opportunity for the Packers to win and mollify some of their recurring problems, most notably the porous offensive line, the miscommunication in the secondary, the dropped balls by receivers, and the surfeit of penalties.

Now, two weeks and two dominating wins later, the Packers seemed to have made some improvement, but it’s uncertain just how much.  As I noted last week, it’s difficult to read too much into these wins because the opposing team is so inferior.  With that in mind, I’m going to take a Janus-like approach to this week’s analysis:  first, I’m going to look back at the 31-3 thumping of the Cleveland Browns, noting what stood out most to me (most of which is positive), and then with this assessment in mind, I’ll look forward to this Sunday’s much anticipated rematch against the NFC North leading Minnesota Vikings.

Packers/Browns Post Game Thoughts:

Hawk turned in his best performance of the year, recording a team-high 8 tackles, 3 of which were for a loss

AJ Hawk played great: I’m not sure if it was the result of feeling added pressure heading into the week from only playing nine snaps against the Lions.  I’m not sure if it was the result of returning home to Ohio.  And according to Hawk, neither of these contributed to his team-high 8 tackles.  “I just had a couple opportunities, that’s about it,” said Hawk of his performance against the Browns.  I’m not sure Hawk is being entirely honest with us, but whatever contributed to his stellar play, let’s hope he can replicate it moving forward.  But if we’re going to be frank, I’m not sure many of us should expect this Hawk every week.  For starters, Hawk has seen limited action, as he seems to be playing only in base formations.  Due to the Browns’ inept offense and penchant to run plays in a base formation, Hawk saw a bulk of the snaps last Sunday.  He made the most of them, as noted above by his high tackle total, but what was more impressive about the tackle total was the number that were for a loss:  3.  These are the plays Hawk has made throughout his career, just not nearly on the consistent basis that many Packer fans had hoped.  It was nice to see the player that many Packer fans hoped we’d get show up this past Sunday, but unfortunately, I’m not sure we’ll see this version of Hawk every week.  Nonetheless, let’s give credit where credit is due.  Great game Hawk; I hope you prove me and the other doubters wrong the rest of the season.

BJ Raji finally looks healthy: And boy did it translate to production on the field.  After coming into camp late and then battling a sprained ankle through most of the season, Raji finally looks to be nearing 100% (or at least the NFL equivalent of it).  Raji’s greatest asset is his strength, and he surely put it on display Sunday.  The most notably instance was during the Packers’ goal-line stance, where Raji absolute blew up the middle of the Brown’s offensive line, allowing Hawk to swoop in for the tackle behind the line of scrimmage.  As an optimist at heart, I hope that Raji can continue to improve down the stretch and in the process circumvent the dreaded “rookie wall.”  Raji will no doubt be an integral cog to this defense’s future success, but I believe he also can contribute a lot for the Packers this season, especially during the second half when both Ryan Pickett and Johnny “The Pharmacist” Jolly have tended to tire.

allen and sitton

Sitton and Barbre opened up some nice running lanes for Grant, who amassed a season-high 148 yards

Josh Sitton and Allen Barbre sure can run block: This, of course, is no secret for those familiar with these two’s skill set, but it was nonetheless great to watch at least one side of this Packer offensive line dominate the line of scrimmage.  Ryan Grant had most of his success running behind these two, and if Barbre can eventually master his technique in pass-blocking, he could end up to be the long-term solution at right tackle.  By the way, lost amongst the myriad of comments about how poor this offensive line has played is Sitton’s string of steady performances.  He sure does look like a keeper.  In all honesty, he seems to be the first definite hit Ted Thompson has had on the offensive line in his tenure.

TJ Lang was impressive: For the sake of clarification (if not a little reiteration), and this applies also to Sitton and Barbre’s combined spectacular run-blocking performance, the Packers were facing one of, if not the, worst defensive front seven in the league.  Still, Lang was solid in his first career start at left tackle.  He only allowed one quarterback pressure, and he was particularly efficient in run-blocking.  I think the Packers still feel more confident starting Chad Clifton than Lang, but at least Lang proved he is a viable option if Clifton continues to have nagging injuries the rest of the season, which, all things considered, is highly plausible.  This performance, though again against an inferior opponent, nonetheless augurs well for the Packers and their offensive line woes.

Nick Barnett continued his impressive play: This is the second week in a row that Barnett put together a solid overall game.  He had 6 tackles, giving him 14 over the past two weeks, and he finally seems to be showing flashes of the player he was before tearing his ACL.  As an open Barnett critic, I’m pleasantly surprised to see him improving week to week.  A healthy and productive Barnett only bolsters his defense.

defense

The defense continues to acclimate nicely to the 3-4

The defense continues to adjust nicely to the 3-4: The Packers have played six games, three against solid opponents (Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Minnesota Vikings) and three against dreadful opponents (St. Louis Rams, Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns).  It will surely be interesting to see how this squad plays in the second half of the season against some purportedly better competition, but right now, the Packers have put up some notable defensive statistics.  Again, take these numbers with a grain of salt, as we’re only seven weeks into the season and the quality of opponents hasn’t been the most impressive, but the Packers’ defense ranks 3rd in total defense (4th against the pass, 12th against the run) and has forced the 2nd most turnovers in the league (15).  Again, this doesn’t necessarily portend continued defensive success, but us Packer fans have to be pleased thus far with the results and continued improvement, especially the last two weeks despite the quality of opponent.  No matter how you look at it, allowing only 3 points in two straight games is impressive in the NFL.

And though I won’t speak to their performances in greater detail, Ryan Grant, Spencer Havner, Donald Driver, and Aaron Rodgers are all worthy of praise for their efforts against the Browns.

Now that we’ve taken a look back, let’s turn our attention forward to this Sunday’s rematch with the Vikings.  While almost everyone is going to talk about this game in terms of Brint’s return to Lambeau, that storyline means nothing to me.  And honestly, that’s not what’s important.

At all.

What is important is the chance the Packers have to move within a game of the Vikings for a tie atop the NFC North.  If the Packers win this Sunday, they’ll give the Vikings their second consecutive loss, putting them at 6-2 heading into their bye, a record the Packers can match the following week by beating a horrible Tampa Bay Buccaneer team.   In order to beat the Vikings, however, the Packers will need to correct some of the costly errors that resulted in their 23-30 loss in the Metrodome in Week 4.  With that in mind, let’s look at what I perceive to be the keys to this week’s rematch.

Keys to winning “The Rematch”

Avoid sacks: Although I probably should have mentioned it above, Rodgers wasn’t sacked once all game against the Browns, a first this year.  As many of us know, Rodgers was sacked 8 times against Minnesota.  The ragging hillbilly, Jared Allen, was responsible for 4.5 of those.  To avoid sacks, the Packers need to accomplish two things:  (1) the offensive line needs to protect better, and (2) Rodgers needs to get rid of the ball quickly.  As of now, I really feel we’ll see improvement in both areas.  Allowing 8 sacks is embarrassing, but it’s more embarrassing against a division rival the likes of the Vikings.  I highly doubt Rodgers and the Packers’ offensive line, playing on grass, are going to give the Vikings an opportunity for a repeat performance.  Whether it’s Clifton or Lang starting at left tackle, either one should fare better against Allen than Daryn Colledge did; moreover, the potential return of Mark Tauscher at right tackle should prevent Allen from having further success if he tries lining up on the opposite end.  Avoiding sacks has to be priority number one for the Packers’ offense this week, and I truly believe they’ll redeem themselves.

Limit the penalties: In particular, the Packers need to limit the pre-snap penalties, such as the illegal formations and false starts.  I’d also like to see them not get flagged for as many holding calls.  These are drive killers, and with the Packers already struggling to run the ball, it is crucial that the offense finds itself in more third and shorts than third and longs.  Unfavorable downs and distances stymied the Packers’ offense far too often against the Vikings in Week 4, and this is a trend that needs to be reversed.

turnover

Woodson and the Packers' defense need to continue to force turnovers against the Vikings

Win the turnover battle: The Packers have the 2nd best turnover ratio in the NFL, but they lost the turnover battle against the Vikings in Week 4.  Rodgers fumbled on the Viking 33 yard line on the opening drive and then threw an interception to Antonio Winfield (who should be inactive with an injury, which helps tremendously) on the Viking 26 yard line.  Both of these turnovers took what should have been, at worst, 6 points off the board.  Then there’s the safety, which is the equivalent of a turnover.  All three of these plays are on Rodgers, and all three led to Viking points:  the safety resulted in the obvious 2, and the Vikings scored touchdowns following both the fumble and the interception.  In a game that is sure to be close, protecting the football is imperative.

pressure brint

The Packers' defense needs to stop Peterson again but also apply more pressure than they did in Week 4

Contain Adrian Peterson (again) but in doing so, also pressure Brint: For the first game, I said the Packers should focus on stopping the run and making Brint beat them.  Well, they stopped the run, holding Peterson to 55 rushes on 25 carries (2.2 yard per carry average), but Brint surely beat them, throwing for 3 touchdowns and 271 yards.  However, the Packers’ defense surely provided Brint with some unnecessary succor along the way.  The game plan heading in was to stop the run and drop a lot of guys into coverage.  Unfortunately, in sacrificing pass rushers for pass defenders, the Packers were rarely able to pressure Brint.  Exacerbating this was the miscommunications in the secondary, which mostly stemmed from the egregious play of Derrick Martin.  With Atari Bigby back in the line-up, the secondary miscommunication has seemingly ended.  Even so, the Packers still need to pressure Brint.  I’m not sure what exactly Dom Capers has up his sleeve, but he needs to produce better results this time around in Lambeau.  As with the offensive line, I’m willing to bet we see a better performance from the defense.  The homefield advantage, coupled with the return of Bigby, the steady improvement from Barnett, Hawk and Matthews, the continual acclimation to the 3-4 scheme, and the vestiges of shame that still linger from Week 4 should all be reason enough to think the Packers’ defense will redeem itself.

Unlike the Week 4 match-up, I’m feeling more confident about the Packers’ chances this time around.  Maybe the last two games have resulted in some untenable optimism; maybe the Packers are masquerading as a good team by beating these lousy ones.  Regardless, we’ll all find out just how good this Packer team is (or isn’t) this Sunday when the play their biggest game in the last two years.  Can the Packers recover and still make the playoffs if they lose?  Of course.  But if they really want to win the division and not rely on outside help along the way, then they need to take care of business this Sunday and beat the Vikings.

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