An open letter to Dom and the five positives from a gut-wrenching loss

I was originally going to title this post “In Dom we fail,” but I thought that might be a little too harsh.  Nonetheless, I’m still quite vexed over the ending of the Packers/Steelers game last Sunday, and as a means to vent some of that frustration, I’m going to begin this post with an open letter to the Packers’ defensive coordinator.

Dear Dom,

A three man rush?  Really?  That’s your master plan?  On the Steelers’ final drive, not once did you dial up a blitz.  Not once did you bring any sort of pressure.  You think you’re going to put away the defending Super Bowl champs with a consistent string of three man rushes?

Here’s what I understand:  you have two inexperienced (read bad) players forced into action in the secondary in Jarrett Bush and Josh Bell, and in an effort to mitigate their weaknesses, you drop everyone but three defensive lineman back into coverage.

But here’s the problem:  in rushing only three, you give Roethlisberger more than ample time to throw.  And when you give a quarterback like Roethlisberger 5 or 6 seconds on every snap, he is going to find an open receiver eventually.  Furthermore, the Steelers need a touchdown; they need to go 86 yards to win the game in two minutes with only one timeout.  Put differently, the Steelers aren’t going to dink and dunk their way down the field; they are going to run deeper routes that need time to develop.  And you let those routes develop because you didn’t send any pressure inRoethlisberger’s direction.

Dom laid an egg during the last 2 minutes of the game

During this game, I realized that outside of, say, Nick Collins, Charles Woodson, and Tramon Williams, nobody on this team is good in coverage.  That includes Atari Bigby, Nick Barnett, AJ Hawk, Brandon Chillar, Clay Matthews, and, of course, Bush and Bell.  All of them were taken advantage of at least once last Sunday in the passing game.  So this is where your logic falls apart, Dom.  If you know that these guys aren’t good in coverage and if you know the Steelers are running deep routes (both of which were pretty obvious last Sunday), then why rush three?  The more logical move is to send at least four, probably five.  That way, those linebackers can actually do something they’re adequate at:  rushing the passer rather than getting exploited in coverage.

Even my girlfriend, who doesn’t really know the strategic aspects of football, said to me, “What’s up with the three man rush?”

What’s worse is that once it was obvious this approach was not working, you fatuously and obstinately stuck to it.  Your inability to adjust during a crucial moment in the game was just baffling.  It was as if you were dialing up these calls from the Bob Sanders’ handbook, How to Blow a 4th Quarter Lead.  The Packers hired you to eschew those type of late game performances, not to replicate them.

There’s an old NFL adage, one that seems all the more apropos after this loss:  prevent defense only prevents you from winning.

Dom, I respect you and everything you have done for the Packers’ defense this season, but on Sunday, when it mattered most, you let me—and many other Packer fans, I’m sure—down.

**

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s move forward.

On a superstitious level, this game was a coming to fruition of sorts; that is, the Packers had won 5 straight, and the Steelers had lost 5 straight.  The former was due for a loss; the latter due for a win.  Moreover, during this 5 game span, the Packers had found ways to gain and/or retain a lead in the 4th quarter, while the Steelers had found ways to give up leads in the 4th.  All of this, coupled with the Steelers being at home and having ten days rest, portended an ominous day for the Packers.  Nonetheless, this game conjured up painful memories of the 2008 season.  Those last two minutes were all too reminiscent of last year:  the Packers’ offense fights valiantly and takes the lead late, and as a reward, they get to watch the defense squander it away.

That all said, in singling out Dom’s inexcusable playcalling during the last two minutes, I am forgetting that all Cullen Jenkins had to do was wrap up and make the sack the play before the touchdown to Wallace.  I’m also eliding the fact that Charles Woodson had a pretty mediocre day and that Brandon Chillar has developed a new (and unfortunate) penchant for making illegal contact at the most inopportune moments.  So while thus far I have sounded overwhelming negative—well, scathing—in both my letter to Dom and in my review of the Packers’ agonizing 37-36 loss to the Steelers last Sunday, and deservedly so, anyone who knows me knows that I am an optimist at heart.  As such, there are still some positives to take away from this game—five of them, in fact.

Rodgers had a great game, scoring 4 touchdowns (3 passing, 1 running)

Aaron Rodgers is awesome: (doing my best high school girl impersonation) Like, for realz.  Rodgers started out a little inconsistent, having some balls sail on him to start, but he settled down quickly and played an amazing game.  His stats imply a great game, but those stats don’t do him justice, as the Packers’ receivers, reverting to their ugly early season form, were dropping balls left and right.  Perhaps most alarming is the play of Donald Driver, who has put together some bad games after a solid first half start.  Rodgers displayed hints of frustration with his receivers last Sunday, but he never lost his cool.  Overall, he was poised, he avoided pressure, and he did everything you could ask of him.  He put forth a winning performance on the road in a hostile environment, and that augurs well not only for the rest of the season but also for his career heading forward.  Rodgers is an elite quarterback, people.  You had better believe it.  And he just turned 26.

Finley continues to be a playmaker, as he hauled in 9 catches for 74 yards and a touchdown

JerMichael Finley is money: How good is this kid (and at 22 years old, he really is a kid)?  I was always impressed with Finley’s athletic abilities, but after his struggles last year, I worried that he would be too immature, perhaps even mentally incapable, of putting these talents to good, consistent use on the football field.  I’m happy to say that those worries have dissipated.  Finley’s progression from his rookie year to this year has been a pleasure to watch:  since coming back from his knee sprain, Finley has led the Packers in receptions, and he has turned into Rodgers’ go-to-guy.  He’s a blatant mismatch for opposing defenses, and he was one of the main reasons the Packers were able to overcome their recent red zone struggles (even in a loss).  The sky, pardon the cliché, is the limit for this young man.

Matthews had two more sacks Sunday, giving him 7 sacks in the last 6 games

Clay  Matthews has an insane motor: Officially, Matthews had 5 tackles and 2 sacks against the Steelers, but unofficially, we all know he should have an extra sack as well as a forced fumble and recovery added to his name.  I find myself complimenting Matthews in some form almost every week, so while I’m starting to sound like a broken record, let me just say, on record, that he deserves every bit of praise he receives.  As far as I’m concerned, Matthews is the defensive rookie of the year.

The offense never quit: Despite never leading until early in the 4th quarter, the Packers’ offense played admirably (sans the drops, of course).  In fact, at times, their demeanor and poise epitomized that of a team with the lead.  To close the game, the Packers’ offense scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives.  Yes:  they abandoned the run from the very first snap of the game, but McCarthy aptly went back to it on Grant’s 24 yard touchdown run.  I had a feeling that if the receivers would stop dropping balls, that the offense would put the team in a position to win.  I was right.  Unfortunately, the defense decided to regress to their 2008 play, thus stealing a win from this offense, who put forth a great, gritty performance on the road in the cold.

Playoff Experience: This wasn’t a playoff game, and unless they get some help, the Steelers aren’t making the playoffs, but this was a playoff-esque game with a playoff-esque atmosphere.  True:  the Steelers had lost 5 consecutive games, some to bottom-tier teams such as the Chiefs, Raiders, and Browns.  But the Steelers brought it last Sunday.  Roethlisberger played easily the best game since his Super Bowl performance last February, if not the best games of his career, and the Steelers protected the ball (well, at least according to the refs, who egregiously called Roethlisberger’s fumble an incomplete pass and inexplicably blew an early whistle after Bigby nailed Wallace to force a fumble—you think I wouldn’t mention the refs abominable performance?).  The Steelers, the defending Super Bowl Champions, put together one of their better games of the season, and while the Packers very much chocked in the final minute, this is still a game from which they can learn.

In fact, I think this is by far the overriding positive from this game.  Put differently, how would you feel, if you were a Packer player, after this loss?  You trail most of the game, in a hostile environment, only to take the lead late in the game.  Then, to lose on the last play of the game, after countless opportunities to seal the game:  that has to piss you off.  And it should.  As a fan, it pisses me off.  And that’s natural.  What the Packers need to do, however, is channel that pissed-off-ness and turn it into motivation.  They need to use it as a reminder the rest of the season as to what can happen on the road against a good team if you don’t take care of business.

**

If the Packers are to do anything in the playoffs (granted they get there), they will need to win on the road.  Sunday’s game is the closest thing they will have to a road playoff environment until they experience the real thing in January.  With that in mind, the Packers really need to reflect on this game.  More importantly, they need to learn, to understand what they did wrong and ensure that it won’t happen in the future.

As difficult as this game is to stomach, it is nonetheless the type of game that can end up being a blessing in disguise late in the season.  This loss should stick in the back of their craw, irritating and annoying them.  This loss should strengthen the Packers’ focus.  This loss should rejuvenate and inspire them.  Will it?  I guess we’ll find out next Sunday against Seattle.  Because let’s face it:  if the Packers don’t dominate the Seahawks, who just lost at home to the Buccaneers, then the Packers aren’t a playoff team.  Despite the loss, I thought they played like a playoff team against the Steelers.  Maybe  not a great playoff team, but a playoff team.  And despite their kicking woes (at this point, Crosby is indefensible) and secondary concerns (yeah:  I’m looking at you Bush and Bell), this is a dangerous team.  A hard-fought, one point loss on the road to the defending champs doesn’t negate that.

Should the Packers be angry after last Sunday’s loss?  Hell yes.  And if they want to make a playoff push, they need to play angry the rest of the season.

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