Thursday, November 27, 2014

Statement Game, Part Deux?

Two weeks ago, the Packers made their statement by beating one of the top teams in the NFC, the Eagles.  Then they avoided, just barely, falling in their trap game against the Vikings in TCF Stadium.  On Sunday, they get their chance to make another statement by beating the Patriots, probably the top team in the AFC, in what some people are calling a possible Super Bowl preview.

About the Vikings game - sure, we all expected the Packers to dominate the game, and they really did not do that.  They never trailed in the game, but they never really took control of the game, either.  It was the classic sort of game where the better team plays down to the level of the competition, and lets the other team hang around and hang around, all game long.  There were a number of contributing factors.  First, the Packers just seemed flat.  Rodgers missed some passes, and should have been intercepted at least once, and receivers dropped some passes that they normally would catch.  The Vikings played a lot of cover-2 defense, which seems like it always frustrates Rodgers, and it does tend to decrease the efficiency of the Packers' offense.  Teddy Bridgewater looks like he might be the real deal for the Vikings, but he was wild on Sunday, especially early in the game.  If he had completed some easy passes, instead of overthrowing them, and if his receivers had not dropped a handful of catchable passes, the Vikings might well have won the game.

Still, the positive parts of the Vikings game were the effect that the Packers suffered through a subpar performance and still managed to win the game - somewhat like the Jets and Dolphins games, both of which they could easily have lost.  And there is nothing more satisfying than to see the Packers get the ball back, with over 3 minutes to go, and watch them grind it out on 5 straight Eddie Lacy runs, for two first downs, to get the game into kneel-down time.

What about the Patriots?  They have the best record in the AFC at 9-2, and they are on a 7 game winning streak, after a maddeningly slow start of 2-2.  People were beginning to question whether Brady was over the hill, but just like that, they turned it around.  In their seven game winning streak, only one win has been by less than 15 points (they beat the Jets by 2 points).  One of the things that I have always admired about the Patriots is the way that they keep their foot on the gas until the game is way out of control.  So if the Patriots get ahead of the Packers on Sunday, there is no hope that the Patriots will slow down the game and give the Packers a chance to catch up.  The Packers will have to seize the opportunity themselves, with no help from the Patriots.

I can make the case for the Patriots winning the game.  They have two top cornerbacks, so they should have a better chance to keep Nelson and Cobb in check than most teams.  Both teams have high-level passing offenses and middle of the pack rushing offenses,  They both have middle of the road passing defenses, but the Patriots have a much better rushing defense, and the Patriots have shown that they are willing and able to emphasize the run offense when that is the easier way to score points.  If the Patriots win the game, it will be likely be because of the Packers' Achilles' heel: rushing defense.

But I am predicting a Packers' win.  True, the Patriots have won 7 in a row, but the Packers have won 7 out of their last 8 games, and are 5-0 at home (thanks to the furious comeback against the Jets).  The Packers do have, on a year-to-date basis, one of the worst rushing defenses in the league, but I would suggest that the statistic is out of date.  Since the Packers started to use Matthews inside, the Packers have given up 55, 109 and 112 rushing yards in those three games.  If they did that all season long, the Packers would have a top 10 rushing defense.

It is interesting that Brady and Rodgers have never started against each other - a fact made possible by Rodgers' concussion in 2010.  Matt Flynn played instead, and came close to upsetting the heavily-favored Patriots.  But this time, we get two of the best quarterbacks in the league, both (I would argue) sure future Hall of Famers.  This will be an interesting battle, between the classic pocket passer in Tom Brady, and the newer model, more mobile quarterback in Rodgers.  According to the NFL Network, there has never been a game in which the starting quarterbacks have more career touchdown passes.  Brady and Rodgers have 603 combined passing TDs.  In second place is a Roethlisberger-Favre matchup late in Favre's career - those two had 589 passing TDs.  This should be a great matchup.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Statement Made - Now Avoid the Trap Game

Photo by Jeff Hanisch, USA Today
Last week, I made the comment that the Packers hadn't really beaten any good teams yet, with the possible exception of the Dolphins, and that they really needed a "statement" game.  Well, beating the high-flying, at the time 7-2 Eagles, by the score of 53-20, qualifies as a statement in my book.  The Packers turned in their second 50 + point game in two weeks, and dominated the Eagles on both sides of the ball, and (to some extent) on special teams as well.

The Eagles gained a lot of yards, but the Packers forced just enough mistakes to hold them to 20 points.  For the second week in a row, Clay Matthews' part-time gig as an inside linebacker paid dividends, with Matthews causing matchup problems inside, and registering a sack when lined up outside.  Julius Peppers scored his second interception return touchdown of the year, and did a MUCH better Lambeau Leap this time.  I assume he has been practicing.

On offense, in re-watching the game, I was impressed by the front line's protection of Rodgers.  He was sacked once, but otherwise generally had plenty of time.  If I am not mistaken, this is the first time in years that the same 5 offensive linemen have started every game all season, despite some of them being banged up in a number of games.  That continuity is making a lot of difference, as is more attention to quick releases by Rodgers, screen passes, and other mis-direction plays.  The highlight of the game for me, even though the game was already out of reach, was Eddie Lacy's 4th quarter "boom . .boom . . boom" style touchdown on a short dump-off pass to the left side.  Thirty-two yards and five would-be tacklers later, Lacy was in the end zone.  Most of the country missed the score, as Fox, I think, had already switched to another game, but what an impressive effort by Lacy.

One thing that I have not seen written about anywhere is whether Jordy Nelson hurt himself in the first quarter of the game.  Watching on TV, we both had the impression that he came up with a slight limp after a long incomplete pass on a free play, when the Eagles jumped offsides.  He missed a couple of plays, then returned and played the rest of the game, and did not appear on any injury reports this week, so I have to assume he will not be hampered in any way on Sunday.

Special teams was more of a mixed bag.  Micah Hyde had a great punt return for a touchdown, but there was also a botched extra point and a missed extra point.  If you are going to miss easy kicks, do it in blowout games where it doesn't make any difference.

This week, the Packers get to play the Vikings outdoors, at the University of Minnesota.  It will be the first Packers-Vikings road game played outside since 1981.  While the Metrodome was mostly a house of horrors for the Packers in the Brett Favre era, the same has not been true for the McCarthy-Rodgers era.  The Packers are 8-1-1 in their last 10, and 3-1 in the last four games at the Metrodome.  Playing outdoors in Minnesota, if anything, has to be a plus for the Packers.  The Vikings' temporary stadium only holds 52,000, and of course with an open end, and an open roof, it has to be easier on the ears than the Humptydome.  Weather shouldn't really be a factor either way, as the high will be near 40 degrees, unless it is raining.

The Vikings are playing better recently than they were earlier in the year, and Teddy Bridgewater looks like he will be a definite upgrade for the Vikings at quarterback.  All of which sets this game up as a potential "trap" game.  The Packers have had many of these games over the years.  The would-be perfect season in 2011 was spoiled by the trap game against Kansas City.  The Chiefs had their own trap game Thursday night against the previously winless Raiders.  Still, I just can't see the Vikings keeping up with the Packers on Sunday, and I expect a comfortable win.  You could argue that the Packers are "peaking" too early this season, but I don't think that it will make any difference on Sunday.  And, if the Lions lose in their visit to New England on Sunday, the Packers will find themselves in sole possession of first place in the division come Sunday evening.

Friday, November 14, 2014

How Sweet It Is!

Jarret Boykin, blocking the punt before it is kicked
"How Sweet It Is!"  This was a catch-phrase made  popular by entertainer Jackie Gleason, in the various iterations of his TV shows in the 1950's and 1960's.  It was also the first thing my mother-in-law, Carole Casper, said about Sunday night's Packers-Bears game, which the Packers won, 55-14.  And sweet it was.

At times over the years, I have almost succumbed to the delusion that the Packers-Bears rivalry is not such a big deal as it used to be.  After all, the Packers have dominated the Bears for more than 20 years now, starting with Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre, and continuing under Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers.  Favre's record against the Bears was 22-10, and I am almost surprised that his winning percentage wasn't higher.  I think a different figure was presented on the Sunday night broadcast, but I counted the games myself, and Rodgers' record is 12-3, including the NFC Championship game in 2010.  So the aggregate record is now 34-13 over 23 seasons.

But saying that the rivalry is no longer a big deal is lunacy.  The Packers-Bears rivalry has everything going for it.  The David and Goliath aspect - the smallest town franchise in major sports against one of the great American big cities.  The fact that the teams are only a couple of hundred miles away from each other.  The fact that they are in the same division and play each other twice a year.  The sneering "Cheesehead" slur by Bears fans that was turned into a thriving business by Foamation.  Let's not forget that it is the oldest rivalry in the NFL, and that the Packers and Bears are numbers 1 and 2 in total NFL Championships (the Packers are number 1, of course).  I can well remember the years when a Packers losing season could be salvaged by beating the Bears at least once.  And I think the shoe is now on the other foot.

Most Packers fans under their mid-50's have never witnessed a more lopsided win over the Bears than the Packers achieved Sunday night.  But I am older than that, and in fact my dad took me to my very first Packers game in 1962, when the Packers beat the Bears 49-0 at Lambeau Field.  Somewhere, buried deep in a box of stuff, I even have a black and white snapshot I took in the stands that day.  So I have a little history with the Packers and the Bears, including having lived in the Chicago area for a couple of years, and having a daughter who lives there now.

If you think the rivalry is not that important, then consider that Lovie Smith was brought to Chicago with the explicit, number one goal, of beating the Packers.  I didn't remember that the idea of trading for Jay Cutler was also about beating the Packers, but the announcers mentioned that Sunday night.  Irony alert: his record is now 1-11 against the Packers.  And wasn't Marc Trestman, the "boy genius," also brought in to upgrade the offense, in order to beat the Packers?

Still not convinced?  How about the fact that one Chicago Tribune columnist thinks that Marc Trestman should have been fired at halftime?  Or what about the Packer fan who ordered a customized Packers jersey, number 6, Cutler?

So yes, upon further review, Sunday night's destruction of the Bears was a big deal.  I am sure I am missing some of the records that were set or tied, but they included: Rodgers set an NFL record by throwing his 16th TD pass of 70 yards or more; Rodgers had his first career game with 4 TD passes in the first half; Rodgers tied Daryle Lamonica's record by throwing 6 TD passes in a half; Rodgers became the first player to throw 10 TD passes and no interceptions against a single team in a single season; the Packers set a team record for points scored against the Bears; the Packers set the record for most points scored against the Bears in one half; the 42 point halftime lead was the second largest halftime lead in history; and (this one is my favorite) the Bears became the first team to allow 50+ points in successive games since the 1923 Rochester Jeffersons.

The most interesting development in the Bears game was the Packers having moved Clay Matthews to inside linebacker for the majority of his snaps.  Everybody knows that the Packers' defense has had a problem with the running game all season long.  Prior to Sunday's game, the Packers had given up an average of 153 rushing yards per game, and never gave up less than 108 rushing yards.  By lining up Matthews inside, everything changed, and the Packers gave up only 55 rushing yards to the Bears.  That just cannot be a coincidence, although there are two factors in the Bears game that may not apply in any other game: the element of surprise, and the fact that the Packers got up so far so fast, thus taking the Bears out of their normal mix of running and passing plays.

But the Packers have no time to rest on their laurels.  This Sunday, the high-flying Eagles come to town, ready to match their no-huddle offense against that of the Packers.  A few weeks ago, I would have seen this game as a loss for the Packers.  Then, after QB Nick Foles was knocked out with a collarbone injury, I thought the Packers had a much better chance.  But then when I watched the Eagles lay waste to the Panthers on Monday night behind backup Mark Sanchez, I started to be concerned again.

But after re-watching both the Packers game and the Eagles game, I am cautiously optimistic about the Packers' chances.  While the Eagles ran up the score to 31-7 in the first half, they did this with the benefit of 4 turnovers by the Panthers, an additional turnover on downs, and 5 sacks against the hobbled Cam Newton.  I don't expect the Packers to be similarly generous to the Eagles, and I also have trouble believing that Mark Sanchez, even with the high-powered Eagles offense, will be able to keep pace with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.  I would guess that the game will be high-scoring, but that the Packers will come out on top.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Pivotal Bears-Packers Game

Picture by NBC Sports
Bears-Packers Week is always special for me.  It reminds me of the very first Packers game I ever attended, against the Bears, in 1962 (the Packers won, 49-0).  I think of the intensity of the rivalry, and the iconic players and coaches who participated in it (Nitschke, Butkus, Ditka, Gregg, Halas, Lombardi, Payton and others too numerous to mention).  I think of the memorable games - the Monsoon Bowl on a Halloween night, the game after Walter Payton's death, decided on a blocked field goal, the NFC Championship game after the 2010 season, and, of course, the Instant Replay Game.

Twenty-five years ago this week, during what I call the "Majic Man Season," we were in the stands for the Instant Replay game.  Our seats were (at the time) in the end zone, the end zone on the other side of the field from the decisive play.  The Packers trailed, 13-7, in the final minutes of the game, until on 4th and goal from the 14 yard line, Don Majkowski threw what looked like the game-winning touchdown pass to Sterling Sharpe.  Except there was a flag - illegal forward pass - Don Majkowski was over the line of scrimmage when he released the ball.  (The rule has since been changed, but at that time only the point where the ball was released mattered.)  Majkowski's body could have been over the line, but if the ball left his hand behind the line, the pass was a good one.  The replay official called for a review, which lasted forever.  There were no massive, crystal-clear replay boards in the stadium at the time.  But we had a portable TV with us, and we watched it over and over on the tiny screen.  Even the Bears fan next to us concluded that it was a touchdown, and after a four minute review, so did the replay official.  The Packers went 10-6 that year, and missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker, but it was still a pivotal and important game for the Packers and their fans.

This week's game is pivotal, too, for essentially the opposite reason.  If the Packers win this game, they will be 6-3 and in reasonable good shape, while the Bears will be 3-6, and even more in disarray than they are already.  If the Bears win, suddenly they will be back closer to the top in the division at 4-5, just a game behind the Packers at 5-4.  Under this scenario, maybe the Lions will end up running away with the division (or not, time will tell).  But in either case, this is an important game.

Both the Packers and the Bears had a bye last week, so they will be well rested.  The Packers should have both Morgan Burnett and Sam Shields back, and apparently Rodgers is just fine with his hamstring injury, but both T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton are questionable.

What can we learn from the Packers' loss to the Saints two weeks ago (44-23) and from the Bears' loss to the Patriots the same day (51-23)?  The Packers were in the Saints game, and in fact poised to take the lead in the third quarter, when disaster struck as Rodgers tweaked his hamstring.  His reduced mobility led to an uncharacteristic interception on that same drive, and another one later in the game.  While the Packers did score one more touchdown in the game, Rodgers was not himself for the rest of the game, and that, combined with the Packers' inability to stop the run or the pass against the Saints, turned the game into a blowout.  This week, the return of Burnett and Shields should help on defense, but I wonder how much the possible loss of starting guards Lang and Sitton will hurt the Packers by allowing more pressure on Rodgers and less effectiveness in the running game.  In the Saints game, the Packers made great use of Eddie Lacy in the passing game (8 catches for 123 yards), and it would be nice to see Rodgers get enough protection to allow that trend to continue.

The Bears were blown out by an even greater margin by Tom Brady and the Patriots two weeks ago.  That game was never close, despite decent efforts by Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, and Martellus Bennett.  But while the Bears had some success on offense, their defense was completely outmatched by the Patriots' offense.  The Bears had some injuries on defense, and they are healthier now, but it is no accident that the Bears have given up more points than anyone in the division.  Their defense just isn't as good as we traditionally expect of the Bears.  The Packers beat the Bears handily on the road 6 weeks ago, and I expect them to do the same Sunday night at home.

To help get you ready for the game, here are a few interesting/amusing things to watch and read.  More coverage of the Instant Replay Game.  A video of the decisive play in that game.  And a collection of Jay Cutler interceptions thrown to the Packers.  Go Pack Go!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Geaux Pack Geaux!

I got kind of busy and did not post anything last week,  So it is time now to reflect on how the Packers, who were once a very disappointing 1-2, are now 5-2 and in relatively good shape.  "If the playoffs started today - the Packers would be the number 6 seed."  True, but awfully premature at this stage.  The Bears and Vikings seem well on their respective ways to self-destruction.  If only somebody could drop a couple of extra losses on the Lions, the Packers might really be primed for a trip to the playoffs.  Maybe the Lions, who are playing at 6:30 am Sunday morning (California time) can give us a good, early start to the weekend.

But first, a word or two about the Dolphins and Panthers games.  The Dolphins game started out with a very crisp Packers drive for a touchdown.  It looked like it might be an easy victory despite the heat and humidity.  But of course that is not what happened.  The Packers' defense played very well, with interceptions by Hayward and Shields, but the Packers' offense sputtered for the rest of the first half, which ended with the Packers only up by the score of 10-3.  I hate 7 point halftime leads, because one big play and the game is tied.  Sure enough, in the second half, the Dolphins scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives, with the Packers' defense looking really gassed on the second and third drives.  This put the Dolphins up, 24-17, in the fourth quarter.

Watching the game a second time, it is amazing how many plays and decisions that turned out to be game-saving were made.  Crosby's TD-saving tackle on a kickoff return before the Dolphins' first possession of the game.  The Packers' defense stopping Miami cold on 4th and goal from the 1 yard line.  With 4:13 left in the game, and with the Packers having 4th and 6 from the Dolphins' 12 yard line, McCarthy took the field goal and counted on the defense to get the ball back.  That looked like the wrong call to me at the time, given how tired the Packers' defense looked in the second half, but it worked out and the Packers' got the ball back with 2:04 left.  That final drive had plenty of drama.  Micah Hyde started it with a 17 yard return to the 40 yard line.  Then Starks gained 12 yards on the only play the Packers could really afford to try a running play (because of the 2 minute warning).  Then TJ Lang fell on the ball after it was stripped from Rodgers' hands, leaving the Packers with a 4th and 10, which they converted on a pass to Nelson.  And then, of course, with Dan Marino in the stadium, Rodgers pulled off the famous fake-spike pass to Davante Adams.  The rookie played like a seasoned veteran on that play, not only figuring out or realizing what Rodgers was up to, but making an excellent move to get more yards, and then ensuring that he would get out of bounds to stop the clock.  It wasn't just that play, either, as Adams played well for the entire game.  Finally, the game-winning TD to Quarless.

If any one of those plays and decisions had gone the other way, the Dolphins would have won the game.  Indeed, The Dolphins game was the sort of game that the Packers would have lost most of the time in recent history.  The elements were against them, and after giving up the lead, it would have been easy for exhausted players to accept the defeat and fold.  Hey, you can't win them all, after all.  But instead, they got a stop on defense when they needed it most, and they pulled off a highly improbable touchdown drive to win the game.  That win counts for a lot in my book.

The Panthers game was completely different - a dominant performance on both sides of the ball,  The Packers scored 21 points in the first 13 minutes of the game, and did not allow a single first down to the Panthers in that time.  It was one of those games where both starting quarterbacks sat out significant chunks of the fourth quarter, the Packers because the game was well in hand, and the Panthers because there was no hope and no reason to risk injury to Cam Newton.

With one more game before the bye week, it would be a huge advantage to come out of the Super Dome with another win, a 6-2 record, a 5 game winning streak, and no worse than a tie for the lead in the NFC North.  On paper, you would think that the Packers should win this game.  They are definitely on a bit of a hot streak, while the Saints are a disappointing 2-4.  Prior to the season, I counted this game as a loss for the Packers, but that was at a point when I assumed the Saints would be playing better than they have been.  But the Saints are a good team, better than their record, they have won 13 home night games in a row, they have won both of their home games this season, and they are pretty desperate for a win to stay in contention.  Beyond that, 3 of their 4 losses have been close (3 points or less).  Only the Cowboys blew them out, 38-17.  For all those reasons, I have to predict a Packers' loss tomorrow night.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Refreshed Packers Head for Stormy Weather

Photo by Tom Lynn, Associated Press
Last week's Minnesota at Green Bay Thursday night game was just what the Packers needed.  In beating the Vikings, 42-10, they not only won their second game in a row, they moved (after Sunday's games) into a first place tie in the NFC North, they played their second excellent offensive game in a row, and they played their best defensive game of the year so far.  This laugher of a game, which was over by halftime, then gave them a "mini-bye week" of 10 days to get ready for their next game, at Miami on Sunday.

One interesting stat from the NFL Network pre-game show before the Packers-Vikings game really struck me.  Going into the week 4 games, there were nine teams whose record at the time was above .500 (actually the number was 10, including the Seahawks, but since the Packers have already played them, I think they were excluded by whoever created the stat).  Of those nine teams, the Packers only play one more (the Eagles, at home, in week 11).  So while the Packers got off to their maddeningly traditional slow start this year, there is lots of room to win games as the year goes on.

Linebacker Julius Peppers had a record-setting night.  He picked off a tipped pass and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown.  This made him the first player in NFL history to have both 100 sacks and 10 interceptions.  The most impressive part of the return was his instinct to cut almost all the way across the field, in order to have a cleaner path toward the end zone, and to pick up a pack of blockers.  He also outraced a pretty fast Minnesota running back, Jerick McKinnon, on his way to the end zone.  He had to be reminded about the Lambeau Leap in the excitement of the moment, and his leap, shown in the picture, was less than impressive.  From my observation, he needed more of a running start, and according to Jordy Nelson, he also picked the highest part of the wall.  After the game, he promised the laughing NFL Network crew that he will do a better job next time.  May that next opportunity come soon!

I don't quite know what to make of the Miami Dolphins, the Packers' next opponent.  I watched most of their last game, against the 0-4 Oakland Raiders.  They beat the Raiders soundly, but then again, it was the Raiders.  They also beat the Patriots in Week 1, which is more impressive in my mind, but it also was before the Patriots started to get their act together.

The weather on Sunday should be hot and humid, with a good chance of thundershowers, which could be a challenge for players used to practicing and playing in the fall climate in Green Bay.  The game, as of the time I am writing this, is not even sold out, which is usually a pretty good indication that there will be lots of Packers fans in the stands, and thus not much of a homefield advantage, other than the weather.

Purely based on offensive and defensive stats, you could argue that the Dolphins are a better team than the Packers in several categories, including rushing defense, overall defense, and rushing offense.I am not going to say that the Dolphins will be a pushover for the Packers.  But despite these stats, I think the Packers will win the game, and probably win it handily.  The Packers have a top flight quarterback and receivers, and our top flight running back might be coming around, finally, as well.  The Dolphins have some pretty good running backs, but I am not that impressed by their quarterback or receivers.  On defense, for better or for worse, the Packers have been a "bend but don't break" defense this year so far, so the poor stats (especially in rush defense) overstate how bad the defense has played.  Looking over the Dolphins' defensive players, I just don't see a lot of playmakers; in fact, I only recognize a few names of the Dolphins' starters.  Whereas, in the case of the Packers, there are quite a few players capable of making game-changing defensive plays.  The game is being shown to a surprisingly large part of the country, probably because of the Packers' improved performance over the last couple of weeks.  I can't wait for game time!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Back on Track - Maybe

Photo by Jim Matthews, Green Bay Press-Gazette
The Packers beat the Bears on Sunday 38-17, to get their 700th victory, all-time.  The only other team with 700 victories?  The Chicago Bears.  Just one more reason this rivalry is such a great one.  The two teams made a little more history on Sunday, by having only the second regular season game in history to be played without a single punt.  Every Packers drive ended in a score, except for the blocked field goal in the fourth quarter.  Every Bears drive ended in a score, an end of half, an interception, or a turnover on downs.

Poor Jay Cutler.  I don't like the guy - although I'm sure that he is a nice guy in person, and he is a pretty good quarterback.  I still remember that shootout he had with Brett Favre in 2007, when Cutler was still with the Broncos.  At the time, he seemed like a rising young star of a quarterback.  But his sour-puss disposition on the sidelines, ever since he has been with the Bears, and the mere fact that he is the quarterback of our historical rival, has been enough to get me to dislike him.

Having said all that, I do think that he gets a disproportionate share of the blame whenever the Bears lose.  I can't let him off the hook when he throws two interceptions and another one that could have been an interception.  The first one was tipped by Tramon Williams and intercepted by Clay Matthews.  But the main thing is that, in addition to throwing the ball into way too much traffic on the play, he threw it to a spot where Williams had a better opportunity to catch the ball than the receiver.  The second one was the result of mis-communication between Cutler and Brandon Marshall.  Marshall cut upfield, when Cutler evidently expected him to break back toward the line of scrimmage.

Normally, I would have no way of knowing who was at fault in a mistake like that.  Except that Coach Trestman went out of his way to twice mention that it was Marshall's error, at his press conference.  (Cutler himself had been more gallant, just indicating that it was a mis-communication between the two players.)  This, to me, is an interesting choice by Trestman.  I can't read it any way other than that he said this in order to protect Cutler from criticism on the play.  So he perceives Cutler's ego to be so fragile that it is preferable to put the blame squarely on the player who has been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.  I am not sure that was a wise choice.  At this point, if Cutler is not tough enough to take criticism from the fans and the media, there is not much hope for him.

So are the Packers back on track?  I can't give a stronger answer than "maybe."  The offense played to perfection for the entire game - really the first complete performance by the offense all year.  So unlike other formerly excellent teams (I am thinking of the Patriots, given Monday night's game) where the wheels have really come off the offense, at least we now know that the Packers can put a complete offensive game together.  But the defense seems poised to give us fits all season.  The box score is deceptive.  The Packers only gave up 17 points, but better clock management would likely have put the Bears ahead at halftime, 24-21.  And if the Bears had led early in the second half, who knows if Cutler would have started throwing it up for grabs?  In fact, if the Bears had led in the second half, and if they had decided to just run the ball up the middle on most plays, with occasional passes mixed in to keep the Packers honest, they could easily have won the game.  So I have a high level of concern for the defense.  The bright spots are that they have started to generate turnovers, and they do seem to be improving somewhat as the year goes on.  But watching them get gashed by the run, play after play, is not a pretty sight.

The Vikings are next up for the Packers, at Lambeau Field on Thursday night.  The good thing about the Packers' 2-2 record is that they have only had one home game so far.  If you win all your home games and half the away games, you end up at 12-4.  The Packers are 1-0 at home and 1-2 on the road, so they are not far off the pace for a good season, if they can continue winning, especially against division rivals.  A home game on a short week, against the Vikings, is nothing like a sure win, even in more normal times.  And of course there are a couple of wild cards in the mix - the emergence of a talented but inexperienced young quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater.  Bridgewater was injured on Sunday, and it is not at all a sure thing that he will play on Thursday.  The other wild card is the Vikings' running game.  Frequent nemesis Adrian Peterson is suspended, but on Sunday, the Vikings had a healthy running game without him, for the first time since Peterson's suspension.

The Packers have got to do something about their run defense, and they have to do it in a hurry.  They are currently ranked last in the league in this category.  I do think that they will win Thursday night.  But if Sunday's game against the Bears provides any lesson, it is how important it will be for the offense to build up a lead, to take the Vikings out of their running game.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Lowering Expectations

Julius Peppers, in his old uniform
If I told you before last Sunday's game that the Packers would hold the Lions to 10 offensive points, and force three turnovers, we all would have felt pretty good about the Packers' chances.  But just as the defense sort of comes alive, the offense goes into a cocoon and racks up a total of 7 points.  And the offense adds another 9 points to the Lions' column.  And there you have it: a 19-7 loss to a team that I still think is just not that good.

How did it happen?  What is wrong with the Packers?  Is Aaron Rodgers right in telling the fans to just R-E-L-A-X?  The game started off with another first-possession fumble, returned for a touchdown.  Later in the first half, a great interception, ruled down at the one yard line under the new version of the "momentum" rule, resulted in a safety on the next play.  When I watched the game the first time in a sports restaurant, my impression was that the defense played well, but that Rodgers was off target.  Re-watching the game on NFL Game Rewind, I had a very different impression.  On the defensive side, the Packers played very well, except for the early fourth quarter long TD run by Reggie Bush.  The defense was clearly not responsible for this loss.  On offense, while Rodgers missed a few passes, there were more drops and bad routes than there were bad passes.  Oh, and Rodgers held the ball too long on a few occasions, resulting in sacks or other negative results.

Where were the screen passes, draw plays, and other mis-direction plays?  They were too few and too far between.  One of the media themes of this week is whether the Packers' offense is too limited because of the emphasis on the no-huddle.  Just as the no-huddle prevents situational substitution on defense, it also limits the Packers' ability to bring in different packages of players on offense.  That could be a factor, but I maintain that the Packers can and should be more creative on offense, with or without the no-huddle.

A little bit of perspective is called for.  This is the third year in a row that the Packers have started 1-2, and they made the playoffs both of the prior years.  (Of course they got bounced out of the playoffs in the first week, but that is another story.)  Going back further, in 2011 the Packers started 3-0 and still got bounced out of the playoffs the first week.  In 2010, they started off 2-1, but were as low as 3-3 before taking off on their magical Super Bowl run.  So the Packers have a bit of a history of slow starts, and yet that hasn't prevented them from making the playoffs every year and winning one Super Bowl in the last four seasons.  So while the 1-2 start is obviously distressing to fans, and in my view a good reason to start lowering expectations for the Packers' season, it is still too early for despair or panic.

Bear week would be an excellent time to start turning things around.  The Bears are 2-1, after dropping the opening day game to the Bills, and then beating the 49ers and Jets in successive prime-time games.  I am not quite sure how impressed I should be.  The 49ers, at 1-2, have some problems of their own (may those problems continue!).  The Jets are also 1-2, after blowing a big lead against the Packers, and then falling behind the Bears and not being able to catch up.  The Jets did manage to beat the Raiders in week 1, but that doesn't count for a lot in my book.  So my argument is that the Bears are not as good as the Bears fans probably believe, and the Packers are not as bad as some of us Packers fans believe.  All of which says that Sunday's game should be a pretty good contest.

I am calling this game for the Packers.  Their pattern is to start to turn things around after a maddeningly slow start.  I realize that the Bears have a lot of weapons on offense, and more experience with the Marc Trestman offense than they had last year.  But the Packers defense, which looked terrible in the Seattle game, is slowly getting its act together.  And Julius Peppers certainly has something to prove in this game, despite his claim that this is just a business trip for him.  Add in the fact that it looks like Clay Matthews will play (he is listed as probable).  And then consider the fact that 7 Bears starters are either listed as out or questionable for the game (out: center Roberto Garza, guard Matt Slauson, defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff, linebacker Shea McLellin; questionable: wider receiver Brandon Marshall, defensive end Jared Allen, safety Chris Conte).  Even if you assume that the questionable players end up playing, the matchups favor the Packers due to the injury situation.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Packers Were Down But Not Out

Taken in the Fourth Quarter of Sunday's Game
Sunday was just about the perfect day for our at-least-once annual football pilgrimage to Green Bay.  It was a fall-like, slightly cool but sunny day in the final days of summer.  Judy, Sam and I had an uneventful drive up from Chicago, we met old and new friends Marc and Kathy for lunch in Oshkosh, we parked a block and a half from the stadium, thanks to Marc, and we waltzed into the stadium with plenty of time to hear former Packer defensive end Esera Tuaolo sing a beautiful (but hard to sing along) rendition of the National Anthem (excerpt here).  The Packers were ready for their home opener after the crushing defeat at the hands of the Seahawks 10 days earlier.  Surely nothing would spoil the beautiful pageant of the home opener in Green Bay

And then the game started.  Aaron Rodgers fumbled away the snap on the first play from scrimmage, the Jets capitalized on the short field by scoring a touchdown, and the game just got worse from that point.  The Packers were down, in the second quarter, by the score of 21-3, before starting their comeback.  The three of us never said this out loud, but comparing notes on the drive back to Chicago, we all thought it was a lost cause.  Then you start focusing on such matters as the meager chances for an 0-2 team to make the playoffs, and before too long you start thinking about another lost season in the limited years left in Rodgers’ career.

Fortunately, the Packers had not given up on the game yet, and chipped away at the Jets’ lead.  21-6, then 21-9, thanks to the longest field goal ever kicked by a Packers’ kicker in LambeauField.  They even tried one of those “pop-up” style onside kicks, which failed.  This put the Jets in position to increase their lead at halftime, until the play of the game.  Mike Daniels rushed Geno Smith, and hit him just as he released the ball, resulting in a Tramon Williams interception at the 3 yard line, just after the two minute warning.  And what do you know?  The Packers put together a 97 yard drive for a touchdown, and suddenly it was a new ballgame. 

There were lots of interesting and some weird plays in this game.  There was the Jordy Nelson 80 yard touchdown.  I really thought the Jets would catch him, but Nelson proved that he is faster than I realize.  There was the 4th down Geno Smith touchdown pass to tie the game, that wasn’t actually a play at all, because Jets’ assistant coach Marty Mornhinweg or one of the Jets defensive players had (illegally) called a timeout (illegal because only the head coach can call a timeout on the sideline).

Why were the Packers so bad in the first half, and how did they manage to turn it around?  Brother-in-law Bruce (watching on TV) pointed out that Derek Sherrod was stinking up the joint in the first half.  He was indeed, and the offensive line was providing very little protection overall to Rodgers, and opening very few holes for Eddie Lacy.  It didn't help that Rodgers was holding the ball too long, either.  Another thought that I saw expressed somewhere related to the Packers’ heavy reliance on a 4-3 defense.  This was a closely guarded secret in the preseason, and as a result was not practiced in public or used during the preseason games.

I suppose the idea was to surprise the Seahawks last week, but that strategy backfired since (a) the Seahawks won easily; and (b) the lack of full speed hitting and practice time meant that the players really weren't ready to use the 4-3.  But maybe the defense finally started to gel after the first 6 quarters of the season, and they were much more effective in the second half.  Time will tell whether, as Sherrod gets more comfortable, and/or Bryan Bulaga returns, the offensive line protection improves, and time will also tell whether the defense continues to improve after finally getting things together in the second half.  Finally, and quite importantly, Rodgers started getting rid of the ball faster on most plays, which in turn opened up the possibility of making some of the longer-developing plays work better.

On the rental car shuttle on Monday morning, we ran into two very personable (and very New York!) Jets fans, a father and son, in their 60’s and 30’s, respectively.  They had obviously enjoyed their weekend very much, couldn’t say enough nice things about Lambeau Field and the Packers fans, despite their disappointment in the final result, and were already making plans to visit another historic stadium next year.  "Look, we're from New York," the father said, and we all laughed without letting him finish the thought.  I believe that his point was that if anybody is going to abrasively irritate the local fans, it would be New Yorkers, but the fans were still as nice as could be.  The father, while wishing the Packers well, was quick to say that he thinks the Packers may be in trouble.  His feeling is that they are a very good team, but not a great team, and that they will probably make the playoffs, but probably again won’t go very far.  This is another way of saying, "settle down, it was just the Jets."

He might be right, but I am betting that he is wrong.  The Packers obviously need a lot of improvement, but my feeling is (until proven wrong) that they can continue to improve as the year goes on.  Against most defenses, Eddie Lacy can gain a lot more yards than he did on Sunday, which in turn will keep Aaron Rodgers upright, and result in more points without requiring a career day from Jordy Nelson.  As for the defense, I am more skeptical, since the defense has chronically under-performed starting with the 2011 season.  But maybe there is something to the idea that the Packers haven’t yet had enough full-speed action in the 4-3, and as a result the 4-3 package will become ever more effective as the year goes on.

On a side note, we definitely had the impression Sunday that the Packers fans are louder now than in years past.  With the addition of about 7,000 new seats in the South End Zone, and the changed acoustics created by the higher seating area in that end zone, it might make sense that the stadium can get louder now.  The same seats were there last year, of course, but the only game we got to was the Eagles game, a game in which the Packers never led, started no. 2 quarterback Seneca Wallace, and had to replace him with no. 3 quarterback Scott Tolzien.  So there was not a lot to cheer about that particular day.

The Lions are next up, and fans know that they are a tough match-up for the Packers in the dome.  I am not expecting a dominant victory by the Packers, but I do expect them to win, probably in a high-scoring affair.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Better Luck Against the J-E-T-S

There is not a lot more that can be said at this late date about the Packers' road loss to the Seahawks.  The Seahawks were clearly the superior team on that night, and the combination of the Seattle smothering defense, and a high powered rushing game, was way too much for the Packers to handle.  It didn't help that Aaron Rodgers, despite good statistics at first blush, still didn't look sharp, and uncharacteristically gave up two turnovers, one on an interception where Jordy Nelson many times would catch the ball instead of deflecting it to the defender, and the other on a strip sack fumble that resulted in a safety.

The game wasn't really a contest in the second half, and despite not wanting to admit it to myself, the only real question was how bad it would get.  It got pretty bad.  It was the sort of game that causes people to re-think their expectations for the Packers, and in many cases, to over-react.  But experience teaches us that it is way too early to panic.  Sometimes teams just have bad games.  The Patriots looked pretty bad on Sunday.  Are they done?  Brady says he will retire when he "sucks."  Does Brady suck enough that it is time?  Well, maybe we should see how they look against the NFC North-leading Minnesota Vikings before drawing up the retirement papers.  And I guess we might as well see how the Packers look against the Jets tomorrow before jumping completely off the band-wagon.  I'm looking at the bright side.  Our star running back may have gotten another concussion, but at least he hasn't been released and suspended indefinitely for domestic assault, or indicted for child injury.  (And, at this moment, it looks like Lacy will probably play tomorrow.)

A more detailed discussion of the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson cases can be left for another day.  And we might as well throw Josh Gordon and Ray McDonald into the mix for that discussion.  For now, suffice it to say that the NFL, and in particular Commissioner Goodell, has mis-handled the Ray Rice case from the very start, and has done so in a fashion so severe that I truly think his job is in jeopardy.  (Oops!  As an NFL owner myself, I guess I am not supposed to criticize the Commissioner.  But I don't think he will be able to fine me.)

We are actually going to the game tomorrow, and are in Chicago for a couple of days before the game.  I am sure that if we were already in Wisconsin, we would hear lots of moaning and complaining on sports radio there.  But I still have to chuckle when we listen to sports radio here in Chicago.

Thursday night, after having dinner with our daughter, we were driving back to our hotel, but decided to take a detour to see if the place we lived 35 years ago is still there.  (It is.)  We listened to the end of the Thursday night game, and then just left the radio on AM-670 for a sports talk radio show.  Some caller from Minnesota calls in to talk about the Bears.  This is a rough transcript of the discussion.

Caller: The Bears are never going to be any good until they get rid of Jay Cutler.
Host: Well, I get your point, but certainly there must be some good things about Jay Cutler.  What would you say is the best thing about Jay Cutler?
Caller: Every year he is one year closer to retirement.
Caller: But I am not a Bears hater.  I don't have any ill will towards the Bears.  I am a Packers hater.  I am sick of the Packers, and Aaron Rodgers this, and Aaron Rodgers that.
Host: I'll tell you what I'm sick of, I'm sick of those Vomit-Green and Urine-Yellow uniforms.

Cousin Rick characterizes this as Titletown Envy.  I think he is right.

Anyway, on to the Jets game.  The Jets beat the Raiders last Sunday, and I did see parts of that game.  But the Raiders aren't very good, and the Jets didn't beat them very convincingly.  Even Rex Ryan wasn't happy with the Jets performance, saying that the fans were better than the team on Sunday, and that this game should have been a rat kill, but wasn't.  I can't imagine that the Packers' offense won't be able to score a lot of points against the Jets, and I can't imagine that the Packers' defense won't rebound and have a much better game against the non-powerhouse Jets.  I am expecting a comfortable victory for the Packers.  If they lose tomorrow, then it is time to start worrying in earnest.