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

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.

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