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

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.

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