And the verdict is?

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.

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