Archive for November, 2009

With Kampman and Harris out, the offense needs to rise to the occasion

Posted in Rory on November 23, 2009 by big.ror

Last week, after the Packers’ suffocating defensive performance against the Cowboys, I suggested that we might be witnessing a shift in this team’s core strength:  that is, although the Packers have been an offensive-oriented team for the last decade, their defense might slowly be becoming the dominating unit.  All this was said cautiously, however, and I made sure to include the caveat that it was too soon to tell, at least definitively, which unit was better:  after all, the offense has many weapons, two of whom—Jermichael Finley and Jordy Nelson—just returned from injury.  Regardless, I felt relatively safe proclaiming that we were starting to see some much needed balance in Packerland:  both the offense and defense are capable of taking over a given game.

Last week I also said that “it’s amazing what a difference a week makes” and that “I just hope I don’t find myself saying that next week.”

Well, here we are, a week later, and I’m saying it:  what a difference a week makes.

In saying this, however, I’m not referring to what I thought I would:  a loss in the Packers’ overall record.  But I am referring to a loss—two, in fact.

Losing Kampman will be more detrimental than people probably realize

As we all know by now, linebacker Aaron Kampman and cornerback Al Harris are lost for the season, both reportedly to ACL tears.  Make no mistake:  this is a huge blow to the Packers and their playoff chances.  Some people aren’t too concerned with the loss of Kampman, believing that he wasn’t playing as well at linebacker in this new 3-4 scheme and that Brad Jones might be the better option moving forward following his commendable performance filling in for Kampman two weeks ago against the Cowboys.

This thinking, however, is myopic.

Although Jones played well in Kampman’s place, one week does not a good player make.  Jones has some potential and upside, but it is far too soon for us to feel comfortable with him as a starter.  Moreover, while Kampman may not have been getting the sacks at linebacker that he was accustomed to registering at defensive end, he nonetheless has been the Packers’ best pass rusher all season long, which is evident by the number of quarterback pressures he’s generated—almost three times the number of any other player on the defense.  Worse is that Kampman never really had a full year to adjust to the scheme.  I felt confident that Kampman would turn it up a notch down the stretch, and he was surely playing well against the 49ers before the injury.  Now, Kampman’s future in Green Bay is hazy at best, and the Packers have to turn to a platoon of Jones and Brady Poppgina to fill his big shoes.  Kampman is a great player, and his loss will be more devastating than I think people are willing to admit.

Without Harris, the Packers' secondary is a cause for concern

More people seem concerned about the loss of Harris—and for good reason.  However, this is a crippling loss not so much because of who replaces Harris but because of the trickledown effect his loss induces.  In other words, Tramon Williams will occupy Harris’ starting spot, which is fine:  Williams did as much last year when Harris was convalescing from his ruptured spleen and played solid football in the process.  Williams, though not as good as either Harris or Woodson at this stage, is a starting caliber NFL corner.  The main problem is that this Harris’ injury forces Jarrett Bush to play the nickel, a package the Packers employ quite frequently.  I was already reticent about Bush playing as many snaps as he had recently in the dime package due to Chillar’s injury, but now, Bush will be playing even more snaps.  And this, I feel, does not bode well for the Packers.  Nick Collins is going to have his hands full in the secondary trying to cover the mistakes Bush is prone to make, and Atari Bigby might not be able to play as close to the line of scrimmage either.  Dom Capers surely will have his work cut out for him these last six games of the season.  Getting Brandon Chillar back will help some, but these losses hurt.  It isn’t easy to replace one Pro Bowl player, let alone two.

That said, the Packers’ offense can help by continuing to improve down the final six games.  Despite struggling early in the red zone, the Packers closed the first half with an offensive flurry, putting up 17 points in the final 9 minutes of the second quarter.  And although they came out sluggish in the second half, perhaps resting a bit too much on their first half laurels, the offense was able to put the game away by running out the final 5 minutes and 50 seconds of the game.  That is what good offenses do.  That is what Bill Belichick wished his Patriots could have done against the Colts two Sundays ago.

Grant is putting together a solid season, and he helped seal the win Sunday with a 21 yard run

The vanguard in this game-sealing drive was clearly Ryan Grant, whose 21 yard run on first down moved the Packers into a more comfortable field position.  The other big play came one play earlier, when the returning Finley caught a 5-yard pass on 3rd and 4 to preclude the streaking 49ers from getting the ball back with a chance to take the lead.  Speaking of Finley, I was thrilled to see him back in the offense, and apparently, McCarthy and Rodgers were as well, as Finley was targeted a team high 10 times.  He is the X-Factor for this offense, and they are undoubtedly a more potent squad when he is in the game.  His return coupled with Nelson’s last week make this offense conspicuously more dangerous.

As a whole, the offense played great.  I would have liked to see them play better in the third quarter and during the first half of the 4th quarter; I also would have liked to see them get touchdowns instead of field goals in the first quarter.  Nonetheless, the offense is starting to click at the right time.  Part of this is due to improved offensive line play the last two weeks.  They only allowed two sacks against the 49ers, who sport a strong defensive unit, and one of those sacks was due to pre-snap miscommunication.  Another reason for the improved offense is Aaron Rodgers, who has played arguably his best two games of the season the last two weeks.  He is making his reads faster, and he is getting rid of the ball quicker, some of which can surely be attributed to the wealth of options now that both Finley and Nelson have returned.

And since we’re congratulating the offense, let’s give Ryan Grant some praise as well.  Grant is putting together a really fine season:  he is the 5th leading rusher in the NFC with a 4.4 yards per carry average, which is a half yard better than his average last year.  Grant is running with much better vision, speed, and strength as of late.  He’s breaking more tackles upon first contact, and he’s doing a good job of getting positive yardage even when he doesn’t have good blocking in front of him.

Not to overlooked in all of this, however, is the playcalling of Mike McCarthy, who has strung together some solid games the past three weeks—yes, I thought he even called a good game against Tampa Bay, despite the outcome.  McCarthy still has a proclivity to pass rather than run, but the team is becoming a little more balanced, and the results are positive.  His commitment to the short, quick passes as well as the screen pass, which he ran consecutively at one point last Sunday, is a welcomed sight also.

If this offensive line can continue to be at least adequate, this offense as a whole seems capable of mitigating, at least to a degree, what is sure to be a slight drop in production on the defensive side of the ball due to the losses of both Kampman and Harris.  With six games remaining, the Packers actually control their own destiny in terms of the Wild Card.  At 6-4, they have a great opportunity to move to 7-4 this Thanksgiving against the Detroit Lions, a team they should beat and a team that looks like it will be without Matthew Stafford yet again.  Afterward, the Packers can enjoy what is essentially their second bye week, as they prepare for their Monday Night showdown against the Baltimore Ravens.  Despite the injuries, the Packers find themselves in a fortuitous situation, but they need to take advantage of their opportunities.  The losses of both Kampman and Harris are large, no doubt, but this team is still capable of making some noise down the stretch.

Is this a defensive team?

Posted in Rory on November 18, 2009 by big.ror

Coming into this season, many—including myself—thought that this team would go as far as the offense would carry them.  Yes:  there was much anticipation and buzz surrounding new defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his installment of the 3-4 scheme.  However, many of the discussions involving the defense were tempered and came with an important caveat:  learning and adjusting to the scheme will take time—in fact, the defense might not even adjust fully to the scheme this season, as some of the personnel are considered better suited for a 4-3 rather than 3-4 scheme.  Consequently, the line of thinking throughout Packerland seemed to be thus:  if the defense can just improve from last year, where they were 20th in the league overall and a horrendous 26th in the league against the run, to just an above average defensive team—say, just out of the top 10—then this team can be dangerous considering the weapons they have on offense.

Well, the defense is holding up their end of the bargain—at least statistically.  A defense that was, as just noted, 26th against the run, allowing 131.6 yards a game, is now 4th against the run, allowing 93.1 yards a game.  A defense that allowed 4.6 yards per carry, the 7th worst average in the league, now allows only 3.5 yards per carry, which is tied for 3rd best in the league.

However, as most of us know, stats can be misleading.  As exhibit A, I offer Aaron Rodgers’ QB rating.  And as most of us have witnessed, this defense has not played as well as the stats have indicated over the first 8 games of the season.  The Bengals, who statistically are barely better than the Packers running the football, carved this defense up on the ground.  Although many of us would like to forget it, Brett Favre had his way throwing the ball against this defense not once but twice.  Worse, perhaps, was seeing rookie QB Josh Freeman move the ball quite effortlessly down the field, though his confidence surely grew due to his special teams and defense routinely giving him a short field with which to work.  These slipshod defensive performances are more discouraging when you consider the good defensive performances came against teams the likes of the Chicago Bears, St. Louis Rams, Detroit Lions (who were missing both Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson), and Cleveland Browns.  That’s a pretty underwhelming smorgasbord of inept offenses.

But maybe, just maybe, this defense is starting to turn a corner; maybe this defense is starting not only to adjust but to flourish in this 3-4 scheme.

At least that’s what seemed to happen against the Cowboys this past Sunday.

Woodson had perhaps the best game of his career against the Cowboys

The Cowboys, ranked 4th in overall offense, were flat out abused by the Packers’ defense.  The man receiving the most press after the game was Charles Woodson—and rightfully so.  He lead the team with 8 tackles; he forced two fumbles, both of which the Packers recovered; he had a sack off a beautifully executed blitz; and he had an amazing interception, breaking on a goal line pass to Jason Witten and in turn all but sealing the Packers’ victory.  In sum, this was probably the best game of Woodson’s illustrious career, which says a lot, and he was an absolute stud—the best player on the field.

That all said, I would be remiss in saying that the Packers’ defensive performance was the work of Woodson alone.  After a defensive performance of that magnitude, there is a lot of praise to be dolled out.

Let’s start with the linebackers, a unit imperative to the success of a 3-4 scheme and a unit for the Packers that had been much maligned last year and early this year.  I too was down on these linebackers for much of the year.  I’ve been a vocal Nick Barnett critic; I’ve come to see AJ Hawk as expendable; I’ve never thought too highly of Brady Poppinga; and I’ve noticed a significant decline in production from Aaron Kampman as a linebacker.  The lone bright spot had been the emergence of Clay Matthews, who continues to play phenomenal football for a rookie and who looks more and more like the impact player many Packers fans hoped he would become.  Lately, however, and especially against Dallas, this linebacking unit has been playing great football.

Barnett is finally healthy and playing some of his best football

Barnett is finally healthy, and as a result, he is putting together one of his better seasons.  McCarthy was adamant about slowly acclimating Barnett back into the game, keeping his snap count at about 40.  Now, 10 weeks into the season, Barnett has his burst and confidence back—and it shows.  He’s getting to the quarterback better than, well, I can remember, and his team high 2.0 sacks Sunday is indicative of that.  Barnett was never a lauded blitzer; in fact, he’s never really been considered an above average blitzer.  This year, however, he’s a new man, and the reason, some have to imagine, is the new 3-4 scheme.  Most people considered Barnett out of position in the 3-4:  they believed his skill set was better suited for a 4-3 defense, particularly a Cover 2 scheme.  Thus far, however, Barnett has proven those people emphatically wrong.

Hawk too has silenced some of his critics.  He remains reliable and assignment steady, and he continues to play well filling in for the injured Brandon Chillar.  He’s playing so well, in fact, that I’m flummoxed by Dom Capers’ recent affinity to play more dime packages, essentially opting for Jarrett Bush over Hawk.  Bush, who in my opinion should never see the field unless it is to play special teams, is nothing but a liability, something Hawk has consistently shown this season he is anything but.

Matthews continues to impress and came up with two big fumble recoveries

Matthews has received a lot of adoration for his play throughout the season, so for the sake of not being too redundant, I’ll keep this brief:  the kid is special, and he’s only going to get better.  He’s just explosive off the snap, which was highly apparent when he burned five-time Pro Bowler Flozell Adams for a sack this Sunday.  Matthews is also becoming a “Johnny on the Spot,” as he recovered both of the fumbles Woodson forced.  The kid, put bluntly, makes plays, and he’s going to be a staple of this 3-4 defense for many years.

Brad Jones, a sixth round rookie filling in for the concussed Kampman, also played admirably and exceeded my expectations.  Capers is purportedly very high on Jones, whose elusiveness and instincts he compares to Chad Brown’s, which, if you didn’t know, is a compliment.   After watching him play a whole game, I too can see his upside.  Jones held the point of attack quite well against a strong Cowboy offensive line, recording 7 tackles in the process.  Jones isn’t going to usurp Kampman as a starter, but his potential makes you think Kampman might be expendable next year if he continues to struggle as a linebacker.

These linebackers played fantastic 3-4 football this past Sunday, but as many will say, good linebacker play starts upfront; that is, if the defensive linemen aren’t able to do their jobs and hold the point of attack then offensive linemen can hit the second tier and render the linebackers obsolete.  And that didn’t happen against the Cowboys because the Packers’ defensive linemen played great.  Pickett, whom last week I labeled the Packers’ midseason defensive MVP, continued his steady play against the Cowboys, so that really isn’t news.  What is news, or at least what stood out, was the play of Cullen Jenkins and a healthy BJ Raji, both of whom elevated their respective games.  Jenkins was Mr. Hustle against the Cowboys, making plays all over the field, and Raji had some great push.  You can see the talent that made him a top 10 pick in last April’s draft.  He’s going to be a dominating player sooner rather than later.

Lastly, you might have seen Nick Collins flying around your television.  Although he was channeling his pre-2008 Nick Collins, dropping two interceptions, his speed and instincts are something special.  He really can break on the football.  Now, like last year, he needs to start catching the ball.

Overall, Dom Capers dialed up more blitzes, which is easier when you’re sitting on a double digit lead, no doubt, but those blitzes mean nothing if your players can’t get to the quarterback.  And for most of this season, the defense has been unable to do so.  That changed Sunday, however, as the defense showed great push and tenacity.  Too bad it took them 8 games and a loss against one of the worst teams in the NFL before they played with some urgency.

**

So, having said all that, my question, the one I pose in the title, is thus:  Are the Packers now a defensive-led team?

My answer?  It’s too soon to tell.

Part of the reason is I still, perhaps against my better judgment, have faith in this offense.  Yes, they continued to struggle in the same areas, committing their usually holding penalties and allowing the obligatory 4+ sacks.  However, I felt the line held up fairly well against a very strong Cowboy front seven.  TJ Lang had a sound game at right tackle, and I wouldn’t be upset if he plays there the remainder of the season and heading forward.  He’s a guy that is going to end up starting on this offense somewhere, and I don’t see why it can’t be at right tackle.  In addition, this offense is starting to get back some important cogs.   We saw the impact a Jordy Nelson can make, and his good play made me only salivate at the prospect of getting Jermichael Finley back this week.

Rodgers did a fantastic job of managing the game, completing passes to 10 different receivers

Perhaps most importantly, Aaron Rodgers played one of his most efficient and smartest games of the season.  The numbers aren’t startling, but he got rid of the ball quicker than he has in the past, and he spread the wealth, completing passes to 10 different receivers.  Furthermore, his two 3rd down passes on the 15 play 80 yard drive (easily their best drive of the season), one to Greg Jennings and the other to Donald Lee, were two of his best passes this year—and in the most critical of situations, mind you.  In other words, I have to wonder if this offense, which this coming Sunday will probably be the healthiest it’s been all season, is about to turn a corner.  That, and I need to see the defense replicate that performance for a couple of weeks before I’m willing to give them the definitive nod and say they are the better unit.

Nonetheless, this team is getting healthy at the right moment. They’re starting to become balanced, and perhaps most importantly, they showed a swagger, aggressiveness, and intensity against the Cowboys that we haven’t seen all year.  I just hope the Packers can reproduce that intensity and performance against the 49ers next week because if they don’t, this win was all for naught.  And I truly mean that:  the calls for McCarthy and Thompson to be fired will be just as vehement following a loss to the 49ers at home as they were following the loss to the winless Buccaneers.

With the Eagles, Bears, Falcons, and Cowboys all losing, it’s amazing what a difference a week makes.  I just hope I don’t find myself saying that next week, as all the hope and confidence that was gained from this win can easily dissipate with a loss to the 49ers.

Until then, Go Pack Go.

Midseason awards

Posted in Rory on November 9, 2009 by big.ror

Before listing my midseason MVPs on offense, defense, and special teams, I’d be remiss if I did not address the abomination that occurred this past Sunday in Tampa Bay.  The word “embarrassing” comes to mind, but I don’t think it’s strong enough.  Even ignominious, a twenty-five cent word, doesn’t accurately sum up the Packers’ performance.

Heading into this week, I planned to do a write up on the midseason MVPs.  And while I’m still going to stick to that plan, I seriously considered changing direction altogether and analyzing what went wrong in Tampa Bay.  But a lot went wrong, and most of what went wrong has been going wrong all season:  the offensive line is unable to pass protect, Rodgers is holding on to the ball too long, the defense is unable to generate a pass rush, and the special teams is the opposite of special (unless we’re using it as a euphemism, then it’s highly apropos).  This all just goes to show that what your weaknesses are at the beginning of the season are often your weaknesses at the end of the season.

dejected

Packer fans feel the same way, Aaron.

Right now, as you read, the pitchforks are being dusted off and the torches are being lit:  even some of the most staunchly McCarthy and Thompson advocates are signing a different tune and hoping for sweeping authoritative change.  For once, I have to admit that these suggestions seem plausible.  Throughout this entire season, I’ve stated that this team is talented—it surely had enough talent to make the playoffs.  In that regard, coaching appears to be the culprit, and if you put a lot of stock in your coach being able to motivate and adjust mid-game, then McCarthy, at least at this moment, doesn’t seem well-suited for the job.  Another part of me, however, wonders just how talented this team is.  This part of me wonders if I overvalued the players on this team, if the Packers are just incredibly mediocre.  If that’s the case, then the general manger, Thompson, appears to be the culprit.  But both of these scenarios exonerate the players, and we can’t have that either.  Players such as Daryn Colledge and Josh Sitton might have put forth their worst efforts as professionals.  John Kuhn allowing a player to shoot the A gap on the blocked punt is his fault and his fault alone.

The most reasonable assessment is that the Packers are suffering from a combination of these problems:  they have a mediocre general manager, a mediocre coach, and mediocre talent.  As such, they’re just that:  mediocre.  4-4 never felt so painfully realistic.

The most disappointing aspect for me is that I just didn’t see this coming.  I can stomach losses quite easily, but this one resonated and stung so deeply because it altered my entire perspective of this Packer team.  A team I thought was built for the long haul no longer appears so sturdy.  The offensive line is a complete wreck, and the only two players on the roster with any long-term potential are Josh Sitton and TJ Lang, both of whom are guards.  In other words, there doesn’t seem to be any solution to the offensive line problem in sight, at least at the moment.  And this does not augur well for the offense and Rodgers heading forward.  The defense has different long-term issues, with two aging corners, a group of unproductive linebackers, and two starters on the defensive line who are soon-to-be free agents.  Oh, and Kampman isn’t nearly as effective as a linebacker.

I guess when it rains it pours. As a Packer fan, I’m unable to discern any silver lining.  Sure, a win against Dallas would go a long way, but if this season has taught me anything thus far, it’s telling me to expect a double digit loss at home this Sunday.

Now that we’re brimming with optimism, let’s look at whom I believe to be the midseason MVPs on offense, defense, and special teams.

driver

Driver is showing no signs of aging.

 

Offensive MVP:  Donald Driver. When Thompson drafted James Jones in 2007 and Jordy Nelson in 2008, he probably assumed, like many, that Driver would start to decline sooner rather than later.  I always considered such talk premature, and at 34 years young, Driver is playing some of his best football.  He’s clearly having a better year than Jennings, and he’s been this offense’s best playmaker all year.  His two one-handed catches this season were just phenomenal, and he is tied for 1st in the NFL with 11 catches of 20+ yards or more.  Driver is on pace for another 70+ catches and 1,000+ yards, which would be the seventh time he’s accomplished the feat in the last eight years.  I’m not sure what the term “Packer People” really entails, but if I had to pick one guy to be emblematic of the phrase, I’d choose Driver.

Runner Up:  Aaron Rodgers. For many, Rodgers is probably the midseason MVP, but I can’t give him the award despite his impressive statistics.  In three of the Packers’ four losses this season, Rodgers has played poorly.  He had the equivalent of three turnovers Week 4 against Minnesota, all of which resulted in Viking points; he looked like a rookie in the first half during second meeting against the Vikings; and he threw three interceptions against a lowly Buccaneer team, though the last one was a necessary desperation heave.  There’s definitely merit to the argument that Rodgers should be praised for his play considering the inept line he’s playing behind; with that, there’s the notion that it’s a miracle he is still healthy enough to play.  But even when Rodgers is protected, he’s made some costly mistakes.  There is no doubt that he is holding the ball far too long in certain scenarios.  Part of this is the advantage opposing defenses have in being able to apply pressure with only a four man rush, thus allowing them to double cover almost every receiving option.  The other part, however, is Rodgers not making decisions quickly enough.  Sometimes, he just needs to tuck it and run or throw the ball away.  He’s regressed in this regard.   I’m a huge Rodgers fan, and I do believe he can be an elite top 3 caliber quarterback in the NFL.  But right now, he isn’t playing as well as he is a capable.  The line is unquestionably an issue, but so his decision-making.

pickett

The Big Grease has acclimated well to his new position.

 

Defensive MVP:  Ryan Pickett. Welcome back, Big Grease.  After a good-to-great 2007 season, Pickett put forth an underwhelming performance in 2008.  I attributed most of the decline in Pickett’s play to the absence of Cullen Jenkins and the amount of snaps he was forced to play due to injuries and inadequate depth along the defensive line.  And thus far, Pickett has returned to his 2007 form; in fact, he’s probably playing at a higher level.  During the off-season, many questioned Pickett’s ability to play nose tackle.  And when the Packers drafted his future replacement BJ Raji ninth overall, many assumed this would be Pickett’s last year with the Packers.  For all we know, this still may be his last season wearing green and gold, but if it is, he’s making the most of it.  Pickett has adjusted tremendously to his new position, and the results are noticeable:  the Packers are 9th in rushing yards allowed per game and tied for 2nd in yards per carry allowed (3.5).  The success of the Packers new 3-4 scheme, especially as it concerns rushing the passer, is still a topic up for debate, but what’s undoubtedly improved from last year is the rush defense.  Johnny Jolly and Jenkins have been major contributors too, but Pickett has performed better than both of them.  Nose tackle is the least glorious position in a 3-4 but it’s been heralded as the most important.  Well here’s your moment Big Grease:  thus far, you’ve been the Packers’ defensive MVP.

Runner Up:  Charles Woodson. Many people expected Woodson to flourish in the new 3-4 scheme, as it played to his strengths as a ball-hawking corner.  In addition, he’d presumably have more opportunities to blitz the quarterback, an area he’s been successful at most of his career.  While Woodson might not be playing at the level many of us hoped, he has nonetheless put together a great season, leading the team with 4 interceptions.  He’s also a great tackler for a cover corner.  In essence, he’s the complete package.

nelson

The injured Nelson has been the Packers' best special teams player.

 

Special Teams MVP:  Jordy Nelson. That says a lot, doesn’t it?  This isn’t meant to be a slight against Nelson, but it surely is a slight against the rest of special teams unit.  In other words, when the special teams’ MVP is a player who’s missed almost half of the season up to this point, you know the unit is playing at an unacceptable level.  The Packers desperately need Nelson back to return both kicks and punts.  Unlike the other returners (*cough*Will Blackmon and Tramon Williams*cough*), Nelson gets it:  find your hole, run forward, and get as much yardage as you can.  Nelson’s not a dancer, and I love that about him.  If he doesn’t resume his return role on special teams upon coming back from injury, I’ll be even more disappointed with the special teams, which at this point seems almost impossible.

Runner Up:  No one.  That’s how pathetic this unit’s been.

As noted above, the Cowboys come into town this Sunday.  The Packers have a terrible history against the Cowboys, and it seems almost a foregone conclusion that history will repeat itself.  If the Packers are to have any chance of beating the Cowboys, they need to stop the run on defense, which they’ve been able to do for the most part this season.  Still, Jay Ratliff, DeMarcus Ware, and company will devour whatever instillation of the offensive line McCarthy throws out.  I expect more of the same:  the Packers will suffer their third straight loss and fall below .500 for the first time this season.

It’s amazing how such a promising season can look so gloomy after only eight games.  And coming from me, who considers himself highly optimistic, that speaks volumes.  There’s really no way to sugarcoat this folks:  things don’t look good in Titletown.

An (untold) tale of two teams

Posted in Rory on November 5, 2009 by big.ror

favre

Favre got his two wins against the Packers.

No good deed goes unpunished.  That’s the first phrase that came to mind when Percy Harvin caught a ridiculous 51 yard touchdown pass on the fifth play from scrimmage in the second half, allowing the Vikings to take a commanding 24-3 lead—a lead that proved insurmountable and made the rest of the game, despite what appeared to be the beginning of a comeback, painful to watch.  Brett Favre got his two wins against the Packers.  As others will say, he finally “stuck it” to Ted Thompson.

So now what?

Well, a week away from the midpoint of this 2009 NFL season, there’s two storylines set to unfold.  The first involves the 7-1 NFC North leading Minnesota Vikings.  The Vikings have a bye this week, which really could not have come at a more opportune time:  most likely drained from his return to Lambeau, Favre can recharge emotionally and physically, as he is purportedly dealing with a few nagging injuries, the latest of which is a groin.  Perhaps more important, the Vikings team can rest after coming off a grueling and physical three game stretch against the Ravens, Steelers, and Packers.  Coming off the bye, they embark on a three-game home stand against the Lions, Seahawks, and Bears.  Although there is never a guarantee in the NFL, the first two games look like sure-fire wins for the Vikings, leaving them at an impressive 9-1.

After those two games, however, things could get very interesting.  At that point, the Vikings will play five of their last six games against teams with a current winning record:  the Bears twice, and then the Cardinals, Bengals, and Giants.  My point, here, is not to suggest that the Vikings will choke away the division (despite their proclivity over the past decade to do just that).  In fact, as far as I’m concerned, for all intents and purposes, the Vikings have already won the division.  But that’s not really what’s at stake here, is it?  Many, including myself, expected the Vikings to make the playoffs this year.  What’s at stake is a run at the Super Bowl.  And as we all know, what’s really important is how a team plays in December and January.  Getting off to a quick start is usually a plus, but as the Eagles and Cardinals proved last year, as the Giants proved two years ago, as the Colts proved three years ago, and as the Steelers proved four years ago, the playoffs are about getting hot at the right time.

With this in mind, I’m intrigued to see how the Vikings perform in the second half of the season.  Are they going to get complacent?  Perhaps more intriguing is the play of Favre, who has developed a penchant for collapsing as the season progresses.  While this trend dates back further than 2005, here are some numbers to corroborate this claim:

Favre’s aggregated stats from 2005 to 2008

Month

TD / INT

QB Rating

September

31 / 26

92.9

October

20 / 19

81.1

November

24 / 18

85.8

December

12 / 30

60.5

fave loss

Will Favre repeat his recent trend and play poorly down the stretch?

There’s also the fact that no quarterback 40 years of age or older has ever won a playoff game.  In saying all of this, I’m not trying to “hate” on Favre.  Rather, I’m simply intrigued as to how the Vikings handle the second half of the season, and a big part of how they handle it will be placed squarely on Favre’s shoulders.  The argument before the season began was that Favre wouldn’t have to carry the team, that he could defer to Adrian Peterson.  Well, halfway through the season, it’s obvious that this is Favre’s team, and because Brad Childress might be one of the more incompetent coaches in the league, he’s moving away from the run and more toward the pass.  This year, Adrian Peterson has only had 25 carries three times:  the opening game against the Browns and both games against the Packers.  His second highest total is 22 carries against the Ravens.  The other totals includes 15 carries against the Lions (Favre had 27 pass attempts), 19 carries against the 49ers (Favre had 46 pass attempts), 14 carries against the Rams (Favre had 25 pass attempts), and 18 carries against the Steelers (Favre had 50 pass attempts).  The pendulum is definitely swinging more toward the pass.  Some may consider this a smart long-term strategy:  the Vikings are able to keep Peterson relatively healthy for the second stretch of the season, where they’ll need him most.  Considering Childress’ track record, however, I happen to think that line of reasoning is more akin to wishful thinking.

Those who paint Favre as solipsistic and vindictive will argue that his two wins over the Packers were his personal Super Bowl; in other words, now Favre doesn’t have anything left to play for.  I’m not sure this is entirely true, but I’ll be one of the first to admit that I haven’t seen him that focused in a long time.  He surely didn’t display that focus in any playoff game after the 1996 season.  If Favre did come back just to beat the Packers, then he’s accomplished his goal mid-season.  At 40 years old, is he going to be able to maintain his focus mentally and hold up physically for the second half of the season and into the playoffs?  My guess is no, but I’m nonetheless interested to find out.

**

The second story to watch, the one I’ll obviously pay more attention to, is that of the Green Bay Packers.  Right now, they’re 4-3, a mark that screams underachievement.  There are even rumblings that McCarthy could now be inching closer to the proverbial “hot seat.”  The Packers’ talent coupled with their outstanding pre-season performance had many people predicting this team would be no worse than 6-2 at the midway mark.  Now, heading to Tampa Bay to play the winless Buccaneers, the Packers have a chance to be 5-3.

If the Packers beat Tampa Bay, which they most certainly should, then they’ll have eight remaining games to prove if they are a team on the rise, a team many people thought could compete for the NFC championship, or if they are simply a mirage, a young, undisciplined, and mediocre team whose impressive pre-season resulted in unwarranted hype.  The “cupcake” part of the schedule is over:  rather than play bottom barrel teams such as the Rams, Browns, and Lions, the Packers will play the likes of the Cowboys, Ravens, Steelers, Bears, and Cardinals.  Are the Packers capable of beating these teams?  Of course.  But not if they continue to make the costly mistakes that’s left them an underwhelming one game above .500.

How well the Packers do down the stretch will be contingent on three factors:

(1)  The play of the offensive line: As has been well documented, the offensive line has been, simply put, abominable.  The only bright spots have been the play of Josh Sitton and

offensive line

The return of both Clifton and Tauscher could bolster the offensive line, which had played terribly all season.

the flashes of potential displayed by TJ Lang.  At center, Jason Spitz’s back injury seems worse than initially diagnosed, and while Scott Wells is serviceable, that’s about all he is.  Daryn Colledge has struggled all season, partly because he was moved temporarily to left tackle to fill in for the injured Chad Clifton.  On a positive note, Colledge did have perhaps his best performance of the year against the Vikings last Sunday.  At right tackle, Allen Barbre has shown that he’s an above average run-blocker, but he continues to struggle with his pass-blocking, which is probably the result of poor technique and a lack of confidence.

There is slight reason for optimism, however.  Mark Tauscher appears ready to play, and should (read hopefully will) start at right tackle this Sunday against the Buccaneers.  Although he cannot run block as well as Barbre, Tauscher has always been a phenomenal pass protector.  And considering that pass protection is problem number one for this offensive line, I’d say that Tauscher’s skill set solves a more pressing need.  In addition, Clifton looks ready to return at left tackle.  Although he has clearly regressed—and whether he’ll even be able to hold up the remainder of the season is a giant question mark—he nonetheless provides experience, which at that position is invaluable.  I’m a big TJ Lang proponent, and I’m confident he’ll be a starter on this offensive line in 2010, either replacing Colledge at left guard or moving over to right tackle.  For the time being, however, the Packers are probably better off with Clifton.  It remains to be seen whether this new line of Clifton—Colledge—Wells—Sitton—Tauscher will be more effective than the other lineups McCarthy has tested thus far, but one has to wonder if it can be any worse at this stage.  How well the Packers play the final half of the season may very well depend on how well these five perform as a unit.

(2)  The commitment on the part of the defense: At times, the Packers’ new 3-4 look has been outright dominant; other times, it’s looked awful.  Perhaps a surprise to no one, the

defensive line

The defense needs to buy into Dom Capers 3-4 scheme.

defense has played well in the four wins and poorly in their three losses.  What’s perhaps most concerning is the postgame comments following both losses to the Vikings.  After the first loss in Week 4, Charles Woodson spoke critically of defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ gameplan.  After last Sunday’s loss, Cullen Jenkins suggested that Capers’ scheme and gameplan might have “handcuffed” the team’s defensive playmakers.  The biggest impediment in acclimating successfully to a new defensive scheme is doubt.  And doubt is just the tip of the iceberg:  doubt can easily spiral into malcontentedness, dissention, and, worst of all, mutiny.  Despite the defense’s inconsistent performances, they still rank 4th in the league in total defense.  I trust the players the Packers have on defense; I also trust Dom Capers.  In order for this marriage to work, these two sides need to trust one another.

Worth watching closely will be the play of two rookies:  Clay Matthews and BJ Raji.  Matthews is improving by the week and looks destined to turn into the impact player the Packers envisioned.  Raji, on the other hand, has been a story of understandable disappointment.  He’s shown flashes, most notably against the Browns two weeks ago, but he still seems hampered by his ankle injury.  The Packers need Raji to be healthy down the stretch in order to spell Jenkins, Pickett, and Jolly, especially since Mike Montgomery is no longer receiving any playing time.

(3)The mental discipline (or lack thereof): As you can guess, I’m talking about penalties.  Week after week, McCarthy expresses his disappointment at the number of

mccarthy

McCarthy needs to change his approach to dealing with the Packers surfeit of penalties.

penalties—in particular, the number of undisciplined penalties—the Packers continually amass.  I’m clearly someone who puts stock in the power of the word, but this is a case where actions need to speak louder than words.  Whatever McCarthy has done to this point, it obviously isn’t working.  And guess what:  telling us you’ll fix the problem hasn’t resulted in any fixing.  Penalties have plagued this Packer squad for too many years running.  It’s officially time for McCarthy to change his approach.

**

At the beginning of the season, I predicted that the Packers would get to 10 wins.  With a win at Tampa, they’ll be 5-3 and halfway toward achieving that number.  As I’ve noted above, however, the Packers will face tougher competition in route to those other 5 wins.  Can they do it?  I believe they can.  I think the players believe they can as well.  But as with the Vikings and whether they can continue at this pace, only time will tell.

It’s going to be an interesting second half of the season, folks.  The NFC North Division might already be signed, sealed, and delivered to the Vikings, but there’s a lot of football left to be played.  As I’ve said before, the NFL is a marathon, not a sprint, and I’m intrigued to see how both teams (as well as the Bears, lest we forget about them) play from here on out.