Archive for September, 2009

And the verdict is?

Posted in Rory on September 29, 2009 by big.ror

Last week, I asked whether the Packers’ disconcerting 31-24 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals was an anomaly or a cause for concern.  In answering that question, I cheated:  rather than submit to my own dichotomous question, I suggested that the loss was both anomalous and worrisome.  It was an anomaly in the sense that (1) Antwan Odom is never again going to register five sacks in a single game for the rest of his career (not to mention the six overall sacks Aaron Rodgers took was a career high for him), and (2) the Packers put forth one of the worst overall performances in Mike McCarthy’s tenure as head coach (his first game, a 26-0 thumping to the Bears at home, was probably worse, but the outcome seemed commensurate to the talent level for both teams at the time).  The loss was also worrisome, however, because the receivers continued to drop balls and the offensive line decided to one-up its inept performance against the Bears.  Furthermore, the defense’s inability to stop the run quickly conjured up painful memories of their dreadful performances throughout most of 2008.

scoreIn an effort to temper the hysteria running rampant in Packerland, I suggested three ways the Packers could “right the proverbial ship.”  Now, two days removed from their 36-17 win over the St. Louis Rams, let’s review those three to see if the Packers made the necessary adjustments as well as if they are any closer to being the team we thought they could be after their impressive pre-season showing.

My first suggestion was that the Packers needed to eat a big slice of humble pie.  Against the Bengals, the Packers displayed symptoms of a football hangover:  they were still high off last week’s big win against a divisional rival, and they fatuously assumed that, being at home, they were good enough to just show up and beat the Bengals.  Well, three weeks into the season, it’s apparent that the Bengals are not a team to take lightly (see:  the Pittsburgh Steelers’ second half meltdown).  This is a game many Packer players will wish they could have back at the end of the season.  Nonetheless, the question thus begs:  did the Packers learn their lesson?

Well, the Packers definitely displayed a lot more urgency and intensity against the Rams.  Moreover, the demeanor has surely changed for some.  While there was a sense of general excitement exuding from many of the players following their victory over the Bears, the mantra following their victory over the Rams seemed to be “business as usual.”  Ryan Grant, who was very critical of himself after the Bengals’ game, said that while “a win is a win,” especially on the road, they still have “a lot of things to clean up, and we recognize that.”  And Charles Woodson, who at the end of the pre-season suggested that this team had the ability to win the Super Bowl this year, was definitely singing a different tune:  “The reality is, we are nowhere near where we thought we were [… ;] we’re nowhere near where we want to be.”

Both Grant and Woodson are right:  this team, though loaded with talent and potential, still has a lot of work to do.  A win on the road is always nice, but there shouldn’t be any pats on the back following this game.  The Packers left far too many opportunities on the field, most notably settling for three field goals in the first quarter after having starting field position at their own 43 and then the Ram’s 15 and 12 yard line respectively.  Giving the Packers such auspicious field position were a blocked field goal and the defensive forcing and recovering two consecutive fumbles.  These are huge momentum swings, and the Packers had three of them in the first quarter alone but only 9 points to show for it.  In the future, the Packers’ offense cannot squander these opportunities.  Leaving these points on the field allowed a clearly inferior Rams team to hang around until the fourth quarter.  If they waste similar opportunities against better teams, they won’t be so lucky.

colledgeMy second suggestion was that the Packers stop being offensive on offense.  Toward that end, I said the offensive line needed to compose itself and to get back to their pre-season form by protecting Rodgers.  I claimed (read hoped) that having a full week of practice at left tackle would allow Daryn Colledge to settle down and move past his abominable performance against the Bengals.  Through the first quarter, however, we saw much of the same:  Rodgers was pressured on almost every drop back.  Colledge looked shaky at best, and Allen Barbre, of let’s-make-Adewale-Ogunleye-look-like-a-Pro-Bowler-again fame, let another former Pro Bowler in Leonard Little record two sacks on the first two drives.  Both sacks, coming on third downs, forced the Packers to settle for field goals.

After the atrocious the first quarter, the line started to settle down, giving Rodgers, for the most part, some welcomed time in the pocket.  As a result, the Packers went on an 80-yard touchdown drive on their first possession of the second quarter, and they followed that one up with an 89-yard drive for a touchdown.

In the third quarter, the offense got off to a sluggish start, punting on their first three possessions, but that was more the fault of receivers dropping passes again (I’m looking at you, Jordy Nelson and James Jones).  Down the stretch, the Packers’ offense recaptured their second quarter rhythm and finished the game on a high note.  Let’s hope they can continue where they left off next week.

In sum, the offense played better, but they were still too inconsistent.  In addition, Jermichael Finley continues to remain invisible in spite of what appeared to be a breakout season; the receivers are still dropping too many balls; and the offensive line still needs to do a better job of protecting Rodgers.  Like most of last year, the offense struggled out of the gates, playing poorly in the first and third quarters and then finding a rhythm in the second and fourth quarters.

grantThat said, this was the Packers’ best offensive performance of the season, and for four reasons:  (1) the offensive line played a bit better, though McCarthy was still calling bootlegs and rollouts to give his young quarterback some extra time; (2) Donald Driver and Greg Jennings made big catches down the field; (3) McCarthy called a fairly balanced game, giving Grant 26 carries, which is substantive compared to the 16 and 14 carries he received the prior two games; and (4) the Rams’ defense is not of the same ilk as the Bears’ or Bengals’ units.  Sunday’s victory over the Rams was a baby step in the right direction, but nothing to be happy about.  The Packers’ offense should have put 50 points on the board against the Rams’ defense.

My third and final suggestion was that the Packers focus on stopping the run.  The Rams have one playmaker on offense:  Steven Jackson.  The Packers know this and the Rams definitely know this, which was evident by them feeding him the ball 27 times despite trailing the entire game.  Jackson was also a factor in the passing game, snagging 5 receptions for 47 yards.  In an attempt to contain Jackson, the Packers played primarily from a 3-5 alignment, essentially using linebacker Brandon Chillar as a safety.  Despite that, Jackson still ran for 117 yards, and Chillar, whom many consider to be the Packers’ best coverage linebacker, was targeted often by his former team.  The Rams’ TE Daniel Fells beat Chillar for touchdowns on two consecutive drives, one for 16 yards and the other for 19 yards.  Those were Fells only two catches of the game, however, and the Packers’ defense didn’t allow the Rams’ offense to do much of anything following their two touchdown flurry to close the first half.

In sum, the Packers did a better job of stopping the run, but with how lousy their performance was last week, that wasn’t hard.  The Packers’ defense didn’t let Jackson beat them, and more importantly, they didn’t let him into the endzone.  Nonetheless, Jackson still got his yards, and considering the Rams’ dearth of talent at the receiving position as well as the fact that Jackson consistently faced 8 man fronts, the numbers he was able to post are somewhat disappointing.  Still, Jackson is an amazing talent.  He isn’t as good as Adrian Peterson, but he’s not far off.  He’s unquestionably one of the top five running backs in the NFL, and one has to wonder if there is any other talent being wasted around the NFL as much as Jackson is in St. Louis.  Playing the running back position, Jackson already has a short shelf live.  Oh, and he also signed a 6 year deal with the Rams just last year.  Poor guy.

Overall, I saw some improvements in all three areas:  the Packers seemed hungrier, especially down the stretch where they were dominant in the fourth quarter; they posted a season high 36 points on offense; and they weren’t beat up too badly on the ground.  Yes, Jackson got his yards, but unlike against the Bengals, the defensive line wasn’t manhandled.  Nonetheless, the improvement wasn’t significant enough; that is, the Packers’ performance against this bottom-tier team didn’t answer many of our lingering questions.  The line still needs to improve; the receivers still need to do a better job of catching the ball; and the defensive line still needs to do a better job of stopping the run.  A good team—like, say, the Minnesota Vikings, whom the Packers play next week—will surely attempt to attack the offensive line and test the defense’s aptitude against the run.

lineIf the Packers are truly a good team, then they need to fix these problems.  One has to assume the Packers’ receiver, will finally hang on to the ball.  The offensive line is a bigger question mark due to the inexperience in position and playing time.  Josh Sitton and Barbre are going to have their difficulties as they settle into their starting roles at right guard and right tackle respectively, and Jason Spitz and Colledge will probably still struggle at times as they continue to play out of position while  Chad Clifton is on the mend.  McCarthy suggested that Clifton might return against the Vikings, but even if he doesn’t, he needs to return after the bye and play the rest of the year.  If that happens, I think there’s a chance we can see the above-average unit we saw in the pre-season, a unit that didn’t give up one sack.

For the time being, the Packers are in the midst of what the media is calling “hype week”:  a Monday Night spectacle against the Brent Favor led Vikings in the dump that is the Metrodome.  Right now, I have a bad feeling about this game; I feel that the Packers will continue to make the costly errors that prove irrecoverable against a solid team.  That said, I think the Packers can beat the Vikings this Monday, and I’ll be back later this week to tell you five ways they can make that happen.

Until then, be excellent to each other.

Anomaly or cause for concern?

Posted in Rory on September 28, 2009 by big.ror

Let’s face it:  seeing your team lose sucks.  It sucks more when they lose at home, and it sucks even more when they lose to a purportedly inferior team they are favored to beat.  It leaves a nasty taste in your mouth, one Listerine and even Comet can’t eradicate.  The only solution:  seeing your team redeem itself next Sunday.

Until Sunday comes, however, the only way to pass the time, at least for us fans, is to talk.  And with a loss like the embarrassing one the Packers suffered at home against the Cincinnati Bengals, that talk usually comes in the form of collective groans, demonstrative claims that the Packers are “just not that good,” and, for those unable to escape the immediacy of the loss, ominous predictions that the season is, for all intents and purposes, over.  In other words, we see the typical hysteria that stems from fandom after a particularly disconcerting loss.

So the objective of this article, as the title suggests, is to determine whether the Packers’ 31-24 loss was an anomaly or a cause for concern.  In doing so, I’ll attempt to answer two questions:  (1) what went wrong on Sunday? and (2) what, if anything, can the Packers do to get back on track?

What went wrong?

As most of us know by now, a lot went wrong.  During Sunday’s game, I found myself channeling my inner Vince Lombardi, asking:  “What the hell’s going on out [there]?”  The short answer:  sloppy, unacceptable play by the Green Bay Packers—and on both sides of the ball.

Let’s start with the defense, which gave up 141 yards on 29 carries to Cedric Benson.  Most of us simply remember Benson from his uninspiring play in Chicago, but those who follow the NFL closely may have noticed Benson’s impressive play the last two weeks of the 2008 regular season, where he sported 171 yards against Cleveland and 111 yards against Kansas City.  Yes, both Cleveland’s (ranked 28th against the run) and Kansas City’s (ranked 30th against the run) defenses were porous last year, but Benson’s performances to close the year nonetheless suggested that he could be turning a corner as he displayed glimpses of the running back the Bears thought he could be when they selected him fourth overall in 2005 NFL draft.

Cedric Benson had 141 yards on 29 carries

Cedric Benson had 141 yards on 29 carries

Now in saying this, I’m not trying to make excuses for the Packers’ pitiable performance against the run—there’s no excuse for letting any running back, even Adrian Peterson, run for that sort of yardage.  Rather, I’m merely suggesting that the Packers possibly underestimated Benson.  Charles Woodson appeared to admit as much in his post-game interview.  When asked if he was surprised by Benson’s performance, Woodson replied:  “Yeah, yeah, I mean, I hadn’t seen it.  You know, we played him, of course, when he was with Chicago, [and] we hadn’t seen that.  And he came in today and had his way.”

The Packers’ inability to stop the run turned them into a reeling unit all day.  Unlike in their dominating performance against the Bears, the Packers’ defensive front got pushed around, and their pass rush was all too symptomatic of last year’s anemic efforts.  A defense that looked oh so promising in the pre-season and the first game of the year looked far too similar to the defense of 2008, a unit that allowed the most points in a season, 380, since 1986.

From the opening snap, the Bengals were able to move the ball on the ground, and aside from the Woodson’s performance, they manhandled Dom Capers’ new 3-4 defense.  Benson’s 14 yard gain on 3rd and 2 with less than 8 minutes to go in the game after breaking three tackles, each of which would have resulted in a loss of yards, was a microcosm of the Packers’ defensive performance.  Even when they read the play properly, they still couldn’t execute.

1 of Odom's 5 sacks

1 of Odom's 5 sacks

The offense was similarly manhandled, but unlike the defense, the offense’s woes seemed for the most part to be self-inflicted.  The trouble started with the receivers dropping the ball, a problem we witnessed against the Bears as well; the trouble continued when Ryan Grant fumbled the ball on the 35 yard line during a drive that seemed destined to result in points; and the trouble ended, pathetically, with Daryn Colledge letting Antwan Odom (if you’re saying “who?” you’re not alone) register five sacks.

The drops, the turnover, and the constant pressure on Rodgers precluded the Packers’ offense from getting in any sort of rhythm for the second straight week.  Instead, Rodgers was scrambling for his life and McCarthy was again aborting his original game plan, continually having to call plays from unfavorable downs and distances.  The Bengals, contrarily, faced third and short scenarios all game long.

In sum, a lot went wrong.  Even Lady Luck seemed to be on the Bengals’ side, as they were able to convert on a 3rd and 34 because Daniel Coats fumbled the ball forward and Laveranues Coles was able to recovery it ahead of the first down marker.  That drive, of course, resulted in a Bengal’s touchdown.

Part of me believes the Packers underestimated the Bengals.  It’s difficult to admit because at the professional level that’s simply inexcusable; these players should be familiar with the trite but true phrase, “On any given Sunday…”  Nonetheless, I feel the Packers thought this game would be an easy win, and it was evident in their play:  the Packers didn’t display nearly the same degree of intensity against the  Bengals as they did against the Bears.  The Bengals, despite having less talent, wanted it more.  And at the end of the day, they deserved it.

What do the Packers need to do to get back on track?

To right the proverbial ship, the Packers need to do three things this coming Sunday against the St. Louis Rams:

Woodson talking to reporters afte 31-24 loss to Bengals

Woodson talking to reporters afte 31-24 loss to Bengals

(1)  Eat a big slice of humble pie.  I’m sure they’ve already begun this (eating) process by looking at the film from Sunday’s loss.  Their exceptional pre-season performance might have made this team a little too big for its britches, something Woodson again admitted after the game.  “We got a long, long day tomorrow [of watching film].  It will be hard to shallow—to watch the way this thing unfolded today. […] No team’s gonna lay down for us just because we got a new defense and we felt good about what we did pre-season and first game.  There’s no easy win. […] Just because it’s been said that you’ve got a good team doesn’t mean everybody’s gonna come in here and play like you’re a good team. […] People have us rated pretty high early in the season; Cincinnati doesn’t care about that.

The Packers are privy to the hype.  Now, they need to realize what that hype gets them come the regular season:  nothing.  I’d like to think the Packers learned that lesson last year; I’d like to think they matured during Favre-a-palooza.  Apparently not.  The Packers need to spend extra hours in the film room this week because if they think the pressure the Bengals generated was bad just wait until they play the Minnesota Vikings in two weeks.

(2)  Stop being offensive on offense.  This, of course, is easier said than done; that said, if this team is going anywhere this season, they need to get the offense back to its pre-season form.  That process begins up front.  The offensive line struggled mightily against the Bears, especially Allen Barbre, who was making his first career start at right tackle.  Against the Bengals, however, Barbre played much better.  But while the right side of the line was serviceable (though still not great), the left side turned into the straw house the first little pig constructed.  Daryn Colledge was stringing together a solid performance at left guard, but the only thing Packer fans remember is what happened after he moved over to left tackle in order to replace the injured Chad Clifton.  To this credit, Colledge owned up to his abominable play despite readily available excuses such as his sprained right foot and the fact that he had a taken a negligible amount of snaps at left tackle this off-season.  With a full week of reps at left tackle, Colledge should, in theory, perform better against the Rams, but it’s clear that Colledge is a true left guard and merely an adequate—if that—left tackle.  Let’s all hope that Clifton has a quick recovery and can play out the rest of the season.

If the offensive line can play even close to the level they did during the pre-season, then I truly believe we’ll see a trickle down affect in the offense’s overall performance.  The receivers still need to do a better job of catching the ball, but with adequate time, Rodgers will prove why most of us believe him to be an elite quarterback.

(3) Focus on stopping the run.  This was certainly an emphasis throughout the off-season, and after holding Matt Forte to 0 catches and only 55 yards on 25 carries in Week 1, there was cause for optimism.  However, after Sunday, the glass that was starting to look half-full quickly became half-empty once again.

The Packers could use a healthy B.J. Raji

The Packers could use a healthy B.J. Raji

Like the Packers, the Rams are experiencing their own share of injuries along the offensive line, and the Rams field one of the weaker wide receiving corps in the league.  Despite that, Steven Jackson is healthy and running well.  He’ll be a great tune-up as this defense prepares to stop Adrian Peterson in two weeks.  The addition of B.J. Raji would surely bolster the Packers’ run defense and allow them not to run so many 2-4-5 formations, but I understand McCarthy’s reticence in playing the rookie:  it’s better to have Raji healthy at the end of the season than force him to play when he isn’t 100%, potentially resulting in him hitting the “rookie wall” and sputtering down the stretch.  Nonetheless, the sooner Raji sees the field the better.

**

So is the Packers’ 31-24 home loss to the Bengals an anomaly or a cause for concern?  I’ll cheat and say it’s both.  It’s anomalous in the sense that it’s hard to imagine a Packers’ team, especially this team with all the talent it has, playing as poorly on both sides of the ball (as well as on special teams) as they did against the Bengals.  Furthering the notion that this was an anomalous performance, Lori Nickel, in summarizing Bob McGinn’s recent Packer Insider article, stated that “[n]ot since a 26-0 blanking by the Chicago Bears in Mike McCarthy’s first game as coach have the Packers played a game in the first half of a season quite as bad as the 31-24 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.”  Odom sacking Rodgers five times would also fall under the category of anomalous.

Rodgers is sacked:  an all too familiar sight this season

Rodgers is sacked: an all too familiar sight this season

Yet despite all this, there surely is cause for concern.  Receivers dropping balls and the offensive line collapsing under pressure are two negative carryovers from Week 1 against the Bears, both of which stymied what many of us believed to be a high-powered offense.  If those trends continue, the season very well might be over because Rodgers will be watching the game, injured on the sideline, rather than playing.  After going virtually untouched the entire pre-season, Rodgers has already been the victim of ten sacks in two games.  The last thing this Packer team needs is its young franchise quarterback to turn into the second coming of David Carr.

The inability to stop the run is also a familiar and unwelcomed site for Packer fans.  One of the impetuses behind switching to the 3-4 was its effectiveness at stopping the run.  Let’s hope that the defensive performance against the Bengals was the anomaly and not the one against the Bears.

In closing, I just want to reiterate how young this 2009 NFL season is.  Teams like the Tennessee Titans, the Carolina Panthers, and the Miami Dolphins, who together sported a 36-12 record in 2008, are all 0-2.  A team like the Denver Broncos, one that will more than likely finish with a losing record, is off to a 2-0 start.  Other “Super Bowl contending teams,” such as the New England Patriots, the San Diego Chargers, the Dallas Cowboys, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Philadelphia Eagles are all, like the Packers, 1-1.  Lastly, the Chicago Bears, after struggling against the Packers in Week 1 and losing Brian Urlacher for the season, seemed like a safe bet to miss the playoffs until Sunday, when they beat the reigning Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers.  What a difference a week makes.

Like most teams, the Packers have their share of problems.  But remember:  in the NFL, the quest for Lombardi’s trophy isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon.  I’ll be the first to admit that losses like the one the Packers had against the Bengals aren’t confidence boosters, but they can be building blocks.  Let’s hope the Packers learn from their mistakes, own up to their responsibilities, and prove why many of us had—and for some, still have—high expectations for them in 2009.

Welcome

Posted in Rory on September 28, 2009 by big.ror

Welcome to my new blog–“Bloodtype:  Green and Gold”–where I’ll be covering the best and most storied football team in the NFL, the Green Bay Packers.