Why my Packer mug is still half-full

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.

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