Archive for October, 2009

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

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

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.

What I think I think I learned after this Sunday’s 26-0 victory of the Lions

Posted in Rory on October 20, 2009 by big.ror

With a final score of 26-0, some people might think the Packers are finally moving in the right direction, but I feel it would be wise to temper any enthusiasm for the time being.  The Packers/Lions match-up from this past Sunday is one of those games where we cannot read too much into the final score because of the talent disparities between the two teams.  That is, the Lions are bad.  And on Sunday, they were worse than usual, as they were down to their third string quarterback in Drew Stanton (who hadn’t really practiced much all season), and they were without standout wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

In other words, the Packers should have won, and they should have won decisively.

In fact, this is one of those games where you can honestly say that the Packers, despite pitching a 26-0 shutout, underachieved.  The Packers should have dropped 40 on the Lions.

So:  in an effort to channel my inner Peter King, here is what I think I think I learned about the Packers 19th consecutive victory over the Lions in Lambeau Field:

I think I think I learned that the protection problems won’t be solved overnight: Despite the return of Chad Clifton, the Packers still gave up five sacks to the Detroit Lions, who were missing two defensive starters up front.  That’s pretty pathetic.  2.5 of those sacks came from Julian Peterson, who is a solid veteran with a knack for applying QB pressure.

That said, these sacks didn’t seem nearly as bad as the ones we were accustomed to seeing the past four weeks.  By that, I mean the Packers didn’t so much see a constant stream of pressure but rather had some breakdowns in communication, which McCarthy admitted in his post game conference.  I’m not sure if there are good sacks and bad sacks, for at the end of the day, all sacks are momentum and drive killers, but I’d rather see the sacks as a result of miscommunication than the offensive line simply getting manhandled:  you can fix miscommunication; it’s harder to fix a lack of talent.  For the most part, the offensive line was able to hold their own and give Rodgers some time to throw the ball.  In turn, Rodgers didn’t have the best day—two of the five sacks were surely on him for holding the ball too long, and he did have two turnovers, both of which he could have prevented—but he showed how accurate he can be as well as how potent this offense can be when everyone is on the same page and not hurting themselves with penalties, sacks, and turnovers.

Clifton struggled mightily in his return before reinjuring his ankle

Clifton struggled mightily in his return before reinjuring his ankle

I think I think I learned that it might be time to start the T.J. Lang experiment: Last week, I stated that one reason Packer fans should be optimistic about the rest of the season is because Clifton is returning at left tackle.  This was an important return for two reasons:  (1) Clifton would bring some stability to the position, something Daryn Colledge couldn’t do, and (2) Colledge and Jason Spitz could return to their natural positions of left guard and center respectively.

Spitz missed Sunday’s game with back spasms, but Colledge seemed back to his normal self.  However, Clifton looked about as rusty as one can look, as he was flagged constantly for false starts and illegal formations.  That is simply unacceptable, especially for a veteran like Clifton.  Worse:  when he wasn’t committing penalties, he wasn’t playing very well.  To top of his poor day, he rolled the same ankle he injured in Week 2 against the Bengals that had kept him sidelined the past three weeks.  Clifton said that the injury isn’t as bad as he originally feared and that there is a decent chance he’ll be able to go against the Browns this coming Sunday.  However, I wonder if the Packers should even push Clifton into a quick return.  T.J. Lang, who has been taking the second team reps at left tackle the past couple of weeks, has been fairly impressive in spot duty during that time.  He held his own, for the most part, against Jared Allen, and he seemed to play pretty well in the fourth quarter against the Lions.  McCarthy even seems confident enough to run to his side.

Since he was drafted in April, I’ve been a fan of Lang; in particular, I liked the intensity with which he plays—what McCarthy has called his “nasty streak.”  I didn’t envision Lang playing left tackle, as I thought he was more suited to play guard, but seeing him play and then reading about him over the past couple of weeks has changed my mind.  Right now, I wonder if the Packers should give Lang a chance at left tackle this Sunday.  If he fails miserably against the Browns, the Packers should still be able to get the win, and then they’ll know they need to go with Clifton against the Vikings.  And with the extra week to rest, Clifton should be ready to go.  If Lang plays well against the Browns, then great:  the Packers will actually have some depth at the position.  At this stage, I don’t think the Packers have much to lose in starting Lang at left tackle this Sunday.

Rookie Clay Matthews continues to be an impact player for the Packers

Matthews continues to be an impact player for the Packers as a rookie

I think I think I learned that Clay Matthews is going to be the playmaker Ted Thompson thought he would: I know it’s early, but Matthews is showing the flashes that we all hoped we’d see from A.J. Hawk.  Already, Matthews is proving that the Packers made the right decision in inserting him into the starting line-up.  In the past two games, he’s had 2.0 sacks, a forced fumble, and a touchdown.  He’s also been solid in coverage and applied some much needed pressure on the quarterback.  That’s production.

I think I think I learned that losing Jordy Nelson for a couple of weeks may be a bigger blow than many expect: Like many others in Packer Nation, I’ve been calling for Nelson to return kicks all season long; unfortunately, it took losing Will Blackmon for the season to make that happen.  Nelson is deceptively fast, but more importantly, he has good instincts and he’s decisive.  He doesn’t dance around looking for a hole; rather, he finds a hole and he makes the best of it.  He’s had some great kick returns already this season, and his opening return for a touchdown that was called back for holding was proof that Nelson can be an impact player as a returner.

He’ll also be missed on offense, especially on third downs, where in his first two seasons he’s become one of Rodgers’ favorite safety valves.  The Packers have a lot of people to fill Nelson’s shoes, as Finley and Jones will get more snaps.  And honestly, if the Packers could afford to lose anyone for a short period of time, it would be a wide receiver.  Nonetheless, Nelson’s contributions should not be overlooked, and the Packers will surely be happy when he returns, both on offensive and on special teams.

Kampman proved to be more effective rushing from the three point stance

Kampman proved to be more effective rushing from the three point stance

I think I think I learned that the defense is starting to feel comfortable in the 3-4: Many of us knew that it would take time for the Packers to settle into their new defense; the important question was, “How long will it take?”  I’m not going to posit that the Packers’ defense is completely settled in their new scheme, but they sure played great against the Lions.  Considering the talent the Lions’ fielded offensively, I know the Packers should have dominated, but what I liked the most about their performance was their control.  The Packers didn’t have any major breakdowns:  they were assignment steady and showed great gap discipline.

Heading into the week, I was excited about the defense getting Atari Bigby back.  And while I thought he played well in his return (his interception, in particular, was a great play), I was pleased more with the return (well, return to form) from two other players:  Aaron Kampman and Nick Barnett.  For the first time this year, Kampman finally decided to put his hand in the dirt and rush the quarterback.  The results, of course, were fruitful:  a sack and numerous quarterback pressures.

Barnett had his best game of the season, registering a team high 8 tackles

Barnett had his best game of the season, registering a team high 8 tackles

Barnett, furthermore, had easily his best game of the season.  He had a team high eight tackles, but more importantly, he was making tackles at and behind the line of scrimmage.  He also would have had a nice sack if it wasn’t for the facemask penalty.  I’ve been fairly harsh in my criticism of Barnett over the past two years, but he played damn well against the Lions.  I’m interested to see how both Kampman and Barnett play heading forward and to see whether this might be a turning point of sorts for both players.  During the off-season, there was a lot of buzz regarding how these two would adapt to the new 3-4 scheme.  On Sunday, they proved they’re making the adjustment quite well.

I’ll end this section with what I know:  the penalties have gotten out of control.  The Packers had 13 penalties for 130 yards.  That is just sloppy, undisciplined football.  On offense, the Packers had 7 of those penalties for 55 yards.  I can deal with the two unnecessary roughness penalties on Colledge early and Driver late, but the illegal formations and false starts are just plain inexcusable.  4 of those were on Clifton, whose woes were documented above, but this problem with penalties is a recurring trend.  At this point, I’m not sure how the Packers fix it.

Next up for the Packers is a trip to Cleveland, where they should be favored and where they should leave with a win.  Like this Sunday, the final score of the game might not be too revealing, as the Browns, like the Lions, are another one of those teams that seems poised to pick in the Top 5 of next April’s draft.  The real test, obviously, comes in two weeks when the Vikings come to Lambeau.  Certainly, the Packers cannot overlook the Browns, but at the same time, they need to use this game to continue to improve and to prepare for the biggest game of this still relatively young season.

Driver became the Packers' all time reception leader on Sunday

Driver became the Packers' all-time reception leader on Sunday

Lastly, I want to congratulate Donald Driver for becoming the Packers’ all-time receptions leader.  Driver has been a consummate professional, and if we ever wanted a definition of “Packer People,” Driver is the poster child.  Thus far, he’s been the best receiver on the team, and his beautiful one handed catch against the Lions, which conjured up feelings of déjà vu from the Rams game, is further proof that he has no intentions of slowing down despite being the NFL-ripe age of 33.  Great performance Driver.  Keep it up.

Why my Packer mug is still half-full

Posted in Rory on October 13, 2009 by big.ror

Like the Packers, I took a week off due to the bye.  And like the Packers, I’m now refreshed and rejuvenated, ready to finish the season strongly.

But before jumping into why I still firmly believe the Packers will win the division (or at least earn a Wild Card birth), I want to begin by acknowledging that while I tend to espouse a more optimistic view than perhaps most, I’m not a blind optimist—in fact, for the most part, I consider myself quite pragmatic.  Put another way, I can admit when things aren’t going well, and right now, here is a list of what is currently not going well for the Green Bay Packers:

  • The offensive line is a sieve: By now, this really isn’t news as much as it is disconcerting.  Rodgers has been sacked a league leading 20 times, and if we see these types of embarrassing performances replicated down the stretch, then the Packers can kiss this season and probably the health of Aaron Rodgers goodbye.
  • The secondary is having some communication problems: I’ll be the first to admit Brint played well, and he was surely focused—too bad he couldn’t have had that focus, say, in the cold during the NFC Championship game in 2007 or in Super Bowl 32, but I digress.  My point in bringing up Brint, however, is that despite his great play a week ago, the Packers helped him tremendously by (1) not dialing up many blitzes, which in turn gave him all day to throw, and (2) experiencing some hiccups in the secondary.  And by hiccups I mean Derrick Martin.
  • Receivers continue to drop balls: For a squad that many consider to be one of the best in the league, the amount of drops this first quarter of the season—which is 14, for those in need of a number—is simply unconscionable.  Greg Jennings said it best in his interview this Monday:  “You have 14 drops [as a team] in a season.”
  • Penalties: As with the offensive line woes, this is an all too familiar concern.  I don’t think the refs were very equitable in their officiating during the Packers/Vikings game, but that is one game.  Incurring too many penalties is a trend for this young Packer squad.  And that excuse—that this team is young, hence the abundance of penalties—is no longer becoming tenable.  I’d say clean this up, but I don’t want to give the impression that I’m Mike McCarthy’s mannequin.

That all said (and it is an ominous and deleterious list of problems), I’m still optimistic about this season, and I still think the Packers have a very legitimate shot to win the division for the following four reasons:

(1)  Key players are returning: While Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher are arguably the two most important names returning to the Packers’ line-up, I’ll get to them below shortly.  In the meantime, allow me to turn my attention to three other names:  Atari Bigby, Brandon Jackson, and Jeremy Thompson.  I’ve listed them in order of importance, but all three should help in their own way.

McCarthy hopes to have Bigby, who hasn't played since the opening week, ready against the Lions

McCarthy hopes to have Bigby, who hasn't played since the opening week, ready against the Lions

For starters, the Packers desperately need Bigby back at safety.  He has his fair share of both advocates and antagonists, but I think we can all agree that this Packer secondary is a better unit with Bigby than with the Rouse / Chillar / Martin experiment we’ve witnessed the prior three games.  Bigby is assignment steady (meaning if he was playing, we likely wouldn’t have seen Brint make some of the big plays he did, especially the long completions to both Bernard Berrian and Percy Harvin), and he is a hard hitting, fear inducing tackler.  More importantly, perhaps, he brings some versatility to the 3-4 scheme.  With Bigby out, Dom Capers seemed more reticent to blitz than he did during the first game and during the pre-season, probably because he was unsure of what he had at safety.  In other words, when you blitz, you necessarily leave less guys in coverage, and though I’m sure Capers, like myself, has a lot of trust in Al Harris, Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, and Nick Collins, it is easy to see how just one weak link can result in coverage breakdowns and therefore big plays for the opposing teams.  We saw the Rams inept offense come to life in the second quarter when they took advantage of Chillar in coverage, and we saw how easily Brint can expose a team’s weakness by exploiting the errors Martin committed.

Jackson should give McCarhy another viable option out of the backfield

Jackson should give McCarhy another viable option out of the backfield

Jackson should provide that missing spark in the running game.  Of course, McCarthy has to make a better commitment to the run, but Jackson is nonetheless that solid change-of-pace back, something Deshawn Wynn isn’t and something the Packers desperately need.   I’ll admit that I’m a big Jackson proponent, even to the point where I think he should be starting ahead of Ryan Grant.  Still, I don’t believe I’m being unreasonable when I state that having Jackson available will help keep defenses honest, as thus far, it is been pretty apparent that when Grant leaves, the Packers are throwing.  That isn’t always the case when Jackson is in the game.  Jackson has also been regarded as an above-average special teams player.

Thompson has certainly had a disappointing season thus far, particularly if we think back to how impressive he was said to have looked during OTAs.  Now, two injuries later, he’s at the bottom, rather than the top, of the depth chart.  I’m not sure how much of an impact Thompson will make at linebacker this year, since Clay Matthews is starting to emerge and Brady Poppinga seems like a better option on running downs, but Thompson can still contribute on special teams.  Even so, just his being able to practice every week should expedite his acclimation to the 3-4 and give him a chance to prove himself as the season progresses.

(2) The offensive line will improve: I didn’t say they “should” improve; rather, I said they will improve.  I find it rather implausible to assume that the line will continue to play at such an abominable level for the remainder of the season, and luckily for me, there are actual reasons to believe we’ll see improvement heading forward.  The biggest reason, as I alluded to above, is the return of left tackle Chad Clifton.

Talk about huge.

Clifton's return should help to mitigate the Packers' offensive line woes

Clifton's return should help to mitigate the Packers' offensive line woes

I know that Clifton has lost a step, and by no means is he a long-term solution at the position.  However, he is exponentially better than a playing-out-of-position left guard in Daryn Colledge and a still maturing rookie in T.J. Lang.  Further helping the matter is that Clifton’s return allows other players along the line to return to their original and most natural positions:  Colledge can return to left guard, where he can stop sucking and start excelling, and Jason Spitz, who is a mediocre-at-best guard, can return to center.  I hope that Clifton can stay healthy through the remainder of the season, which will provide some stability and allow some cohesion to grow amongst those three players.

The recently signed Tauscher could begin making an impact as early as Week 7 against the Cleveland Browns

The recently signed Tauscher could begin making an impact as early as Week 7 against the Cleveland Browns

The offensive line will also benefit from the return of newly signed right tackle Mark Tauscher.  A fan favorite amongst many, Tauscher returned to practice on Monday for the first time since tearing his ACL against the Houston Texans in December of last year.  It seems as though Tauscher won’t be ready to go against the Detroit Lions this coming Sunday, as he is still in the process of getting rid of the rust and thus back into football shape, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes his first start against the Cleveland Browns the subsequent week.  On Monday, McCarthy said the right tackle job is still Allen Barbre’s to lose, but if Tauscher is healthy and looking good, I have to imagine he overtakes Barbre sooner rather than later.  But even if he doesn’t, that means that Barbre is playing well enough to keep his job.  In other words, even if Tauscher doesn’t play right away, his presence alone adds a competitive nature to practice:  Barbre will have to prove not only during the week but also on Sundays that he deserves to be starting.  Comparing the two, I’d say that Barbre is probably better at run blocking, but Tauscher is clearly better at pass protecting.  With the latter being the more pressing need, Tauscher should see action soon.

Like Clifton, Tauscher isn’t as much a panacea as a band-aid; that is, Ted Thompson obviously will have his hands full this off-season in rectifying this offensive line, but until then, the Packers have to make do with what they have.  And Tauscher’s presence this season will surely boost the Packers’ ability to “make do.”

(3)  The schedule: When I initially scanned the Packers’ 2009 schedule, I was disappointed that they had the bye week so early in the season (Week 5).  However, in all honesty, the bye week couldn’t have come at a better time:  Clifton, Colledge, Bigby, Jackson, and Thompson were all able to nurse their respective injuries, and many of the players were able to digest the fact that they have unquestionably underachieved through the first quarter of the season, which in theory should serve as additional motivation.

Now, coming out of the bye, the Packers embark on relatively the easiest portion of their schedule, facing the Lions at home, then going to Cleveland, then returning for the much anticipated rematch against the Vikings, and then traveling to Tampa.  The Packers absolutely have to take advantage of this stretch.  The hardest game will be at home against the Vikings, which will be surreal for obvious reasons.  Still, the Packers will have two weeks prior to that game to clean up some of the hindering issues I’ve noted above; in particular, I’m hoping to see the offensive line gain some continuity and confidence before trying to redeem themselves against that Viking front four.  As the cliché goes, the Packers need to take it one game at a time, but I like their prospects the next four weeks, and I have to imagine they do too.

Given the time, Rodgers should prove to be an elite quarterback

Given the time, Rodgers should prove to be an elite quarterback

(4)  Aaron Rodgers: Is this kid special or what?  Considering the pressure he’s faced the first four games, his numbers are outstanding, almost remarkable.  I could go on and laud his numerous strengths as a quarterback, but I’ll refrain for the time being.  What I will say is that I have the utmost confidence in his ability to lead this team.  That said, he is surely to blame, at least partially, for the number of sacks he’s taken the first four games (20).  He simply needs to do a better job of getting rid of the ball sooner.  And Rodgers knows that.  As humble as he is and as critical of himself as he is, he knows that.  I have to assume this was priority number one for him during the bye, and that focus will carry over to this week in practice and beyond.  Still, it’s hard to fault Rodgers too much considering all the good he’s done in spite of the uphill battle he’s had to climb protection-wise.  As the line continues to improve, we’ll see an overall improvement in the offensive performance, starting first and foremost with the abundantly talented #12.

5 keys to beating the Vikings

Posted in Rory on October 1, 2009 by big.ror

Welcome to hype week.

At least that’s what the Green Bay media is calling it.  I guess when you create your own media circus you get to name it.  I understand that.  What I don’t understand is why they settled on a stupid name like “hype week.”

The media is right though:  the Packers/Vikings game this Monday is important, though not because its Brent Favor’s first game against his former team.  Rather, this game is important because the winner will sit atop the NFC North—well, at least for a week.

Earlier this week, I said I didn’t feel good about the Packers’ chances heading into this game.  Unfortunately, those feelings haven’t changed.  Nonetheless, I think the Packers can beat the Vikings this Monday, but to do so, they’ll have to do a combination of, if not all of, the following:

The offensive line needs to keep Rodgers upright

The offensive line needs to keep Rodgers upright

(1)  Protect Aaron Rodgers.  This should be a no-brainer any week, but with how poorly the Packers’ offensive line has played the first three weeks, this is a must against the Vikings, who field one of the best defensive lines in the NFL.  Want proof?  Here you go:  the Vikings have led the NFL in rush defense the past three years, and sent three of their four defensive lineman to the Pro Bowl in 2008—Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, and Pat Williams.  Although they’re only ranked 12th in rush defense after three games, they’ve moved up to 4th in pass defense.  I can only imagine the excitement oozing out of Allen’s pores at the prospect of facing Daryn Colledge at left tackle.  Even if Chad Clifton is able to tough it out and play, I’m not sure he’ll fare much better.  Mike McCarthy better have something up his sleeve to keep Rodgers upright.  Bootlegs, playaction, rollouts, whatever.  If the line doesn’t protect Rodgers better than they did the first three games, his name will pop up on the injury report sooner rather than later, perhaps starting after Monday’s game.

The Packers need to try to establish the run

The Packers need to try to establish the run

(2)  Keep the Vikings’ defense honest. In saying that, I mean the Packers need to run the ball.  Given the talent along their defensive line and the way the Packers’ offensive line has struggled, the Vikings will probably feel content rushing only four and five lineman, dropping the rest back in coverage.  If that’s the look the Packers get, Rodgers needs to audible to the run and force the Vikings to put more players in the box.  Even if the running game isn’t working—which it probably won’t, all things considered—the Packers still need the Vikings to think there is a chance they’ll run it.  To assist them in this regard, the Packers’ offense cannot put themselves in unfavorable downs and distances, which they have far too often this season.  This means no sacks.  This means no holding penalties.  This means catching the ball.  At this point, that seems like a tall order for this offense, but if they’re going to be the elite unit many think they can, these are the little things they need to do.  And there’s no better time to start than against the Vikings.

(3)  Continue to force and not commit turnovers. The Packers lead the NFL with a +8 turnover ratio.  Part of that is due to the defense snagging a league leading seven interceptions, but the other part is due to Rodgers’ smart quarterback play.  Three games into the season, Rodgers has yet to throw an interception, and he has only fumbled once, after a blindside sack.  Rodgers needs to continue that sort of play against the Vikings, who are equally opportunistic themselves, ranking fourth in the NFL in the turnover ratio department with a +4.  As cliché as it sounds, the winner of this game might be the team that makes the fewest mistakes, so the Packers’ secondary needs to take advantage of the opportunities Brent will surely give them.  That leads me to…

The Packers need to take advantage of Brent's penchant for the turnover

The Packers need to take advantage of Brent's penchant for the turnover

(4)  Make Brent beat you. Or put a little less provocatively:  contain Adrian Peterson.  For some, that may sound crazy.  Why would you want to put the ball in the hands of Brent, who led his team to a heroic last second victory just last week?  Why:  because Brent is undoubtedly a lesser threat than Peterson.  In fact, the Packers want Brent to throw the ball.  Peterson is going to get his fair share of carries, and he is going to get yards here and there.  What the Packers need to do is limit the big run.  In the past, the Packers have been able to keep Peterson under wraps about 95% of the time.  The other 5%, he busts off 20+ yard runs.  That trend can’t continue.

As for Brent, he’s still prone to the turnover, which was evident throughout Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers.  He had great completion percentages his first two games—66.7 against the Cleveland Browns and an amazing 85.2 against the Detroit Lions—but most of that is due to his sudden affinity for the checkdown pass.  His career per pass attempt average is 7.0 yards; his average the first two games:  5.2 and 5.7.  Until last week, Favre had reigned himself in and had been very reluctant to throw down the field, mostly because he didn’t need to and because his receivers are quite pedestrian (they might even be worse than—*gulp*—the Bears’).  Last week, however, the Vikings became a little pass-happy for some inexplicable reason.  Yes, they were trailing for parts of the game, but never by more than four points; furthermore, Peterson was averaging 4.47 yards a carry.  Either way, the Vikings let Brent sling it more than they had all season, and in doing so, we saw the Brent of old.  Sure, all anyone is going to remember from that game is his last second touchdown to Greg Lewis (who, by the bye, was the only receiver running a route in the endzone, which speaks volumes to that receiving corps’ field awareness), but what the game tape will show is Brent forcing the ball into double and triple coverage.  What’s new, eh?  You can bet the Packers’ ballhawking secondary is eagerly awaiting the chances Brent is sure to take.

(5)  Play within their limits and don’t get too excited. Despite what they say to the media, the Packers will be out to prove a point this Monday.  They’ve had to endure Favre-a-palooza for two years straight, though admittedly not as much this year as last year, and now, they have a chance to do something other than play the role of the diplomatic interviewee.  Considering the storylines inherent in this matchup—division rivalry, first place in the NFC North up for grabs, Brent’s first game against his former team, national stage—everyone is going to be looking to make a big play.  That’s fine.  What the Packers need to avoid is being overzealous to the point where they make a costly mistake.  In other words, they need to play within themselves and try not to force the issue too much.  That’s Brent’s job.  One might assume that he’ll approach this game with a similar mindset—just play within your limits—but a leopard doesn’t change his spots.  Oh, and despite his recent recanting about wanting to stick it to Packers’ General Manager Ted Thompson, everyone and their mothers knows Brent is still out for revenge.  Eventually, Brent, like he always does, is going to force the issue.  It may pay huge dividends for the Vikings; it may prove costly.  That’s always been the Catch 22 with Brent.  Either way, the Packers need to treat this like any other divisional game.  They don’t need to prove anything to anybody else; rather, they need to prove to themselves that they are a good team by playing sound, fundamental football.

McCarthy summed it up best in his press conference this past Monday:  “I clearly am in tune with the size of this game outside the building, but for us to play to our ability, we have to focus on ourselves.”  Let’s hope the players heed his words.

Overall, this seems like a tall order, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t.  Nonetheless, if the Packers can accomplish just some of these goals Monday night, they’ll give themselves a great opportunity to leave Minnesota 3-1 and atop the NFC North heading into a bye.