Anomaly or cause for concern?

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.

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One Response to “Anomaly or cause for concern?”

  1. I knew I raised an optimist !!
    Love reading your blogs !

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