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.

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

Posted in Rory on October 28, 2009 by big.ror

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.

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

Posted in Rory on October 20, 2009 by big.ror

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.

Why my Packer mug is still half-full

Posted in Rory on October 13, 2009 by big.ror

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.

5 keys to beating the Vikings

Posted in Rory on October 1, 2009 by big.ror

Welcome to hype week.

At least that’s what the Green Bay media is calling it.  I guess when you create your own media circus you get to name it.  I understand that.  What I don’t understand is why they settled on a stupid name like “hype week.”

The media is right though:  the Packers/Vikings game this Monday is important, though not because its Brent Favor’s first game against his former team.  Rather, this game is important because the winner will sit atop the NFC North—well, at least for a week.

Earlier this week, I said I didn’t feel good about the Packers’ chances heading into this game.  Unfortunately, those feelings haven’t changed.  Nonetheless, I think the Packers can beat the Vikings this Monday, but to do so, they’ll have to do a combination of, if not all of, the following:

The offensive line needs to keep Rodgers upright

The offensive line needs to keep Rodgers upright

(1)  Protect Aaron Rodgers.  This should be a no-brainer any week, but with how poorly the Packers’ offensive line has played the first three weeks, this is a must against the Vikings, who field one of the best defensive lines in the NFL.  Want proof?  Here you go:  the Vikings have led the NFL in rush defense the past three years, and sent three of their four defensive lineman to the Pro Bowl in 2008—Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, and Pat Williams.  Although they’re only ranked 12th in rush defense after three games, they’ve moved up to 4th in pass defense.  I can only imagine the excitement oozing out of Allen’s pores at the prospect of facing Daryn Colledge at left tackle.  Even if Chad Clifton is able to tough it out and play, I’m not sure he’ll fare much better.  Mike McCarthy better have something up his sleeve to keep Rodgers upright.  Bootlegs, playaction, rollouts, whatever.  If the line doesn’t protect Rodgers better than they did the first three games, his name will pop up on the injury report sooner rather than later, perhaps starting after Monday’s game.

The Packers need to try to establish the run

The Packers need to try to establish the run

(2)  Keep the Vikings’ defense honest. In saying that, I mean the Packers need to run the ball.  Given the talent along their defensive line and the way the Packers’ offensive line has struggled, the Vikings will probably feel content rushing only four and five lineman, dropping the rest back in coverage.  If that’s the look the Packers get, Rodgers needs to audible to the run and force the Vikings to put more players in the box.  Even if the running game isn’t working—which it probably won’t, all things considered—the Packers still need the Vikings to think there is a chance they’ll run it.  To assist them in this regard, the Packers’ offense cannot put themselves in unfavorable downs and distances, which they have far too often this season.  This means no sacks.  This means no holding penalties.  This means catching the ball.  At this point, that seems like a tall order for this offense, but if they’re going to be the elite unit many think they can, these are the little things they need to do.  And there’s no better time to start than against the Vikings.

(3)  Continue to force and not commit turnovers. The Packers lead the NFL with a +8 turnover ratio.  Part of that is due to the defense snagging a league leading seven interceptions, but the other part is due to Rodgers’ smart quarterback play.  Three games into the season, Rodgers has yet to throw an interception, and he has only fumbled once, after a blindside sack.  Rodgers needs to continue that sort of play against the Vikings, who are equally opportunistic themselves, ranking fourth in the NFL in the turnover ratio department with a +4.  As cliché as it sounds, the winner of this game might be the team that makes the fewest mistakes, so the Packers’ secondary needs to take advantage of the opportunities Brent will surely give them.  That leads me to…

The Packers need to take advantage of Brent's penchant for the turnover

The Packers need to take advantage of Brent's penchant for the turnover

(4)  Make Brent beat you. Or put a little less provocatively:  contain Adrian Peterson.  For some, that may sound crazy.  Why would you want to put the ball in the hands of Brent, who led his team to a heroic last second victory just last week?  Why:  because Brent is undoubtedly a lesser threat than Peterson.  In fact, the Packers want Brent to throw the ball.  Peterson is going to get his fair share of carries, and he is going to get yards here and there.  What the Packers need to do is limit the big run.  In the past, the Packers have been able to keep Peterson under wraps about 95% of the time.  The other 5%, he busts off 20+ yard runs.  That trend can’t continue.

As for Brent, he’s still prone to the turnover, which was evident throughout Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers.  He had great completion percentages his first two games—66.7 against the Cleveland Browns and an amazing 85.2 against the Detroit Lions—but most of that is due to his sudden affinity for the checkdown pass.  His career per pass attempt average is 7.0 yards; his average the first two games:  5.2 and 5.7.  Until last week, Favre had reigned himself in and had been very reluctant to throw down the field, mostly because he didn’t need to and because his receivers are quite pedestrian (they might even be worse than—*gulp*—the Bears’).  Last week, however, the Vikings became a little pass-happy for some inexplicable reason.  Yes, they were trailing for parts of the game, but never by more than four points; furthermore, Peterson was averaging 4.47 yards a carry.  Either way, the Vikings let Brent sling it more than they had all season, and in doing so, we saw the Brent of old.  Sure, all anyone is going to remember from that game is his last second touchdown to Greg Lewis (who, by the bye, was the only receiver running a route in the endzone, which speaks volumes to that receiving corps’ field awareness), but what the game tape will show is Brent forcing the ball into double and triple coverage.  What’s new, eh?  You can bet the Packers’ ballhawking secondary is eagerly awaiting the chances Brent is sure to take.

(5)  Play within their limits and don’t get too excited. Despite what they say to the media, the Packers will be out to prove a point this Monday.  They’ve had to endure Favre-a-palooza for two years straight, though admittedly not as much this year as last year, and now, they have a chance to do something other than play the role of the diplomatic interviewee.  Considering the storylines inherent in this matchup—division rivalry, first place in the NFC North up for grabs, Brent’s first game against his former team, national stage—everyone is going to be looking to make a big play.  That’s fine.  What the Packers need to avoid is being overzealous to the point where they make a costly mistake.  In other words, they need to play within themselves and try not to force the issue too much.  That’s Brent’s job.  One might assume that he’ll approach this game with a similar mindset—just play within your limits—but a leopard doesn’t change his spots.  Oh, and despite his recent recanting about wanting to stick it to Packers’ General Manager Ted Thompson, everyone and their mothers knows Brent is still out for revenge.  Eventually, Brent, like he always does, is going to force the issue.  It may pay huge dividends for the Vikings; it may prove costly.  That’s always been the Catch 22 with Brent.  Either way, the Packers need to treat this like any other divisional game.  They don’t need to prove anything to anybody else; rather, they need to prove to themselves that they are a good team by playing sound, fundamental football.

McCarthy summed it up best in his press conference this past Monday:  “I clearly am in tune with the size of this game outside the building, but for us to play to our ability, we have to focus on ourselves.”  Let’s hope the players heed his words.

Overall, this seems like a tall order, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t.  Nonetheless, if the Packers can accomplish just some of these goals Monday night, they’ll give themselves a great opportunity to leave Minnesota 3-1 and atop the NFC North heading into a bye.