Sunday, October 28, 2012

Packers win the game in an ugly fashion: a better opponent would have blown them out!

The Green Bay Packers were picked by everybody and his brother to demolish the Jacksonville Jaguars today. I saw one writer give them a 30-point edge. Sure, the Packers were missing six starters, most notably Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and John Kuhn on offense, but the Jags were even more hobbled: Maurice Jones Drew, who accounts for a huge percentage of their offensive production was in a boot on the sidelines, their QB Gabbert had a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder and their best cornerback didn’t even make the trip. So I suppose you could forgive the pundits and oddsmakers in thinking that this would be a blowout at Lambeau. 

Whoa! Nobody could foresee what we all witnessed on Sunday!

Rodgers was definitely missing Jordy Nelson. In those key situations where you’re in third down and somehow, someway Nelson shows up open on the sideline? Not so much today. When the defense is crowding the line of scrimmage and Nelson slips behind them for massive yardage and a score? Gone. You would think with guys like Jones, Cobb and even Driver available to pick up the slack (don’t get me started on Finely) you would still expect a big day through the air, wouldn’t you. I have to give Bert Fav-rah some props here (please don’t tell anyone, OK?): #4 had the ability to make any receiver look good. For whatever reason, Rodgers could not elevate the level of play of his wideouts today. He was left looking for open guys on repeated occasions and was victimized by several key drops as well. 

The defense was certainly missing the services of Charles Woodson. I know, much has been said about Woodson’s age, his lost step, his lack of big plays this season. All are perfectly accurate but Wood’s worth is greater than how he plays in the secondary...he’s a disruptive influence on every play and his leadership with the younger members of the Packer defense is almost incalculable. Finding a replacement for that kind of contribution isn’t simply matter of plugging in the “next man up”. On occasion, the Packer coverage was almost laughable and the plethora of missed open-field tackles was very troubling.

I know I’m not alone is this assessment: if the Packers were playing a better team today, the result would have been much, much worse. The Jags made a game of it, no doubt, but their penchant for committing penalties in key situations and the dropped passes (when was the last time an opponent dropped more passes than the Pack?) showed me why they can’t seem to win any games. Here you have a Packer team on a roll, at home, with a win streak and they are playing like crap. No, I’m not going to sugarcoat this: I think the Packers were the lesser of the two teams on the field today. But the Jags have this really golden opportunity to pull off maybe the biggest (in terms of point spread) upset of the year and they simply didn’t have horses to pull it off.

Somebody please tell me what was going on with the Packer special teams today? Mason Crosby, pretty reliable over the last three season, has missed his third field goal in three games. And the fake punt where you had Masthay at QB, roll left and then throw what I can only imagine is a check-down all the way over to the right...well that was just ill-conceived and poorly executed. MM has rolled the dice on trick plays and been successful three times this year and that one butt-ugly play should just about put the end to it. 

It struck me several times during the game that Rodgers seemed to be just a bit out of synch. It’s probably totally due to his injured weapons on the sidelines but it’s not like he hasn’t had to count on the likes of Cobb, Jones, Finely and Driver in the past, so you can’t put it all there. I’m not sure why but Rodgers just didn’t look like he did over the last two victories. 

On very nice thing to see was Donald Driver catching that great , great TD pass in the fourth quarter. DD only had two catches for ten yards but that score was the key one, the one that put the game out of reach for the Jags. I’ve been very disappointed that Driver has not been a bigger part of the offense this year and, with our two best guys on the sidelines, I assumed he would be key today. And it turns out I was right. Note to MM and TT: you are paying Donald to to stand on the sidelines this year and, on days like today, your QB could use a pretty fair possession receiver out there in the pattern. This will be his last year in a Packer uniform, he’s got the skills and he’s certainly got the fans behind him. USE Donald Driver!

I’m going to be happy with the win and I think I am going to drink another beer and maybe a dram of Jameson right now and try to put this one out of my mind. We’ll all look back on this game and see the “W” next to it and say, “yeah, we won that, third in a row, on a roll” and we’ll all be right. We’ll forget how inept the running attack was and how predictable our play-calling was (a first down run for 1.5 yards! WOW!) and how our defense would have been torched if Cutler or Stafford or even Ponder had been across the line. We will not recall how Rodgers (22 for 35 for 186 yards) was out-dueled by the injured Gabbert (27 for 49 for 303 yards). We will be happy with the W and we will all hope (some of us secretly and some out loud) that what we saw today was not indicative of what we are going to be seeing until Woodson, Jennings and Nelson can get back on the field.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The MMQB: Packers keep the momentum rolling with decisive victory over the Rams.

The Green Bay Packers have had their share of ups and downs this year. We’ve had highs (the great win over the Texans last week) and lows (getting screwed by the replacement refs in Seattle) but the 3-3 record they took into St. Louis was indicative of an inconsistent team, one that was struggling to find its identity on both sides of the ball. The Packers have had the stink of a mediocre 8-8 season all over them. Coming off a 15-1 campaign in 2011, that was an odor no one in the land of Cheeseheads could stomach.

The NFL schedule-makers decreed that a 15-1 team (despite their painful early exit from the playoffs) would have to run a gauntlet of top ranked teams and a 3-game road trip through the first half of the season. Doesn’t sound particularly fair but those are the breaks. Coming through the first six games of that challenge at 3-3 does not sound impressive but you have to look back with hindsight and almost breathe a sigh of relief because it could have been worse: We got beat by a better team (San Francisco), got screwed by the refs (Seattle) and committed a heinous second half meltdown of historic proportions (Indianapolis) for those three losses. So please excuse me if I have sounded shrill in my yearning for a more dominant team this year because we’ve been so DAMN close to a much better record.

So here we were, having risen up and beaten the previously undefeated Texans, poised for our fist back-to-back victory of the year. While a seemingly innocuous mid-season game, this was really a major moment for the Packers. Lose the game and you sink to 3-4 and are left with a hill to climb as the Vikings and Bears look down at you. Win the game, go to 4-3 and gain some momentum moving into an easier part of the schedule.

I don’t mind telling you this: after several beverages on Saturday night (mostly in celebration of Mrs. MMQB’s birthday) several of my hard-wired football neurons kept firing with one thought: PLEASE get a win, Packers! It meant more than just a “W” on the ledger. It meant we had momentum. It meant we have escaped the most difficult part of the season with a winning record. Make no mistake, this is not the team that went 15-1 last year. This is not the team that struggled early on in 2010 but put it all together with a Super Bowl victory. We still have Aaron Rodgers with his cannon arm and Mensa football brain. We still have that cadre of stealthy ninja receivers. We still have Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson and the defense that can rise up at any moment and just take the ball away at will. But this team will have to work and struggle for everything it gets. 

The first half was not very clean for the Packers. Rodgers rarely had a clean pocket to throw from and the combination of a indifferent offensive line and a QB who held on to the ball too long resulted in three sacks. Likewise the defense seemed to have few answers for the rushing of tandem of Jackson and Richardson and the time-of-possession battle was firmly in the hands of St. Louis. But with a narrow lead, the Packers came to play in the second half!

Jordy Nelson has to be the most dependable receiver in the NFL. You need a catch to keep a drive alive? Jordy is your man. That used to be the place where Finley would shine but Aaron Rodgers has wisely stayed away from the drop-prone tight end over the last two weeks. Randall Cobb has become the multi-purpose threat we all thought he would become and opposing defenses are hard-pressed to figure out how to cover him, whether he’s in the backfield, split out wide or in the slot. James Jones, after a season where he gained a reputation for drops in critical situations, has become Mr. Consistent. 

The running game did not shine this week as the Packers became supremely predictable in their rushing attack. Is it first down? Alex Green is going to get the ball. They were so predictable, I kept  thinking it had to be on purpose. IF you are going to hand the ball off on first down so often, why would you not take advantage of that tendency by calling a play-action pass a couple of times? That should have been huge for the Packers but for whatever reason, Mike McCarthy never pulled that particular weapon out of the arsenal. Maybe he never had to. Regardless, the Packers had a pretty ordinary day on the ground, running only to keep the defense honest. I know that’s the only reason why we hand off the ball but that doesn’t mean I can’t wish for more production.

One of the most disconcerting developments in the game was the lack of a Packer pass rush. I know the defensive front seven was depleted and suffered another blow when Mike Neil went out with a knee injury but he Rams offensive line was sporting a third-string tackle across from Clay Matthews and that should have meant a big day for the Packer pass rush. The reality? Not so much. The Packers officially had three sacks but you would have never known it if you didn’t check a stat sheet. Sam Bradford had all kinds of time, all day long. It’s only a testament to the Packer secondary that Bradford didn’t have a career day. Many, many props to rookies Davon House and Casey Hayward for stepping in raising the level of play in the defensive backfield. 

I can’t help but look back on this game and think it could have been a very different kind of contest. It was close in the first half but the Packers turned on the jets in the third quarter and only a slop-time TD by the Rams made it look respectable. But getting that fourth win of the year, the second in a row, was huge. We went 2-2 through the rough opening four games and now 2-1 for the three game road trip. There are no guarantees but the next two contests before the bye are certainly winnable, especially at home. Hitting that bye with a 6-3 mark would make this uneven season seem a bit more rewarding. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The MMQB: Despite all the reasons in the world to lose, the Packers rise up and whip the previously undefeated Texans

I kept hearing it all week and I kept repeating it all week: The Packers, with their inconsistent play, would be no match for the undefeated Houston Texans in their house. We had an offensive line that had trouble keeping our QB upright. We had a defense that could turn from world-beaters to little leaguers in a heartbeat. We were missing our best wideout, our starting running back and our stoutest d-lineman. Against a team that runs to pass, gets after a quarterback and never makes mistakes. Yup, looks like a big ol’ “L” in week six. The problem is, we all forgot to tell the Green Bay Packers!

Rodney Harrison said it best on FNIA: The Packers were two plays away from being 4-1 so don’t write them off just yet. Turns out he’s a smarter man than most of us.

The Texans inexplicably came out throwing the ball and when they did go to the run, the Packer front seven (really eight because Woodson spent 90% of the game up on the line) snuffed it out. Now, if you hang your run-stop on the ample shoulders of BJ Raji and that stout man is in street clothes on the sideline, you have to have lights-out performances from Clay Matthews, Woodson and the rest of your defense. Maybe it was a circle-the-wagons mentality. Maybe it was just a bunch of guys refusing to be beaten. As the injuries decimated the defense throughout the game, the “next guy up” played as well if not better than the guy he was replacing. Casey Hayward is a perfect example. Shields had been picked on all night for big yardage (though he did get one nice interception) but when he went down, Hayward came in and had one gorgeous pass defense (something missing from the rest of the Packer D tonight) and two interceptions. That’s what I call STEPPING UP!

And speaking of stepping up, Mr. Rodgers must have gotten tired of all the people second-guessing his abilities and decision-making. He exploded for 338 yards, 6 TD’s and zero interceptions. That six TD day ties the Packer record, set just last year in explosive fashion by Matt Flynn. And he spread the love around, hitting Nelson (3), Jones (2) and Crabtree (1) for scores and also completing passes to Finley, Green and (with resounding regularity) Randall Cobb. Of course, Mr. Distraction Finley dropped two in important spots. So maybe he’s the guy that needs to get on somebody else’s page. 

Alex Green, filling in for the injured Cedric Benson, had a world of pressure on him. In the new Packer scheme of things, running the ball (or at least establishing the fact that you can run the ball) is the only way you are going to keep swarms of pass rushers from devastating your quarterback. Now, Green didn’t remind anybody of Ryan Grant, Ahman Green or even Edgar Bennett but he did a respectable job with 65 yards on 22 attempts. He had several 8-yard carries on first down and he did his job (although he missed a blitz pick-up here and there). Sure, Rodgers still felt pressure and was sacked but the running of Green prevented the Texans from selling out on the pass rush on every down.

You couldn’t have a Packer game (or an MMQB article) without at least one “WTF?” moment by the refs and here it is: Aaron Rodgers goes down on a sack late in the first half at the hands of J.J. Watt. And when I say hands, I mean Watt’s hands smacking Rodgers in the helmet and ripping it off his head. Now, I’ve seen plenty of times when a guy’s been flagged for merely touching a QB’s helmet. Last week Packer Nick Perry got not only flagged but fined for a perfectly legal sack/fumble. But for some reason when Watt ripped Rodgers helmet off, that was not only not flagged, it wasn’t even mentioned by the broadcast team. A non-call like that on your franchise player, that’s ridiculous.

This was a good game by the Pack. Sure, our secondary looked like they were in prevent for big stretches (were we even covering some of those guys?) and that just seems like it’s a feature of Dom Caper’s defenses lately. And giving up a blocked punt for six in slop time was pretty ugly. I think the team was already in the locker room in their heads and, suddenly, had to be reminded there was still football to be played. But it was a good game. It showed the Packers could bounce back from such an ugly collapse and win a big game against a (seemingly) better opponent. I slammed him last week for the collapse, so have to give credit to Mike McCarthy for this turnaround. He didn’t let his troops get too low and get too wrapped up in the loss last week. Plus, he knew Aaron Rodgers well enough to unleash the beast and let him control the game with his arm   

It would have been a bloody mess to have dropped to 2-4 with a loss, even though the Bears were idle and the Vikings lost. With the win, you can see a path to supremacy in the North that might have been impossible to travel without it. Having only played one division game and won it (against the Bears), the Packers can now get back on track with a few decent showings against the Rams, the Jags and the Cards to get to the bye and then start North play in earnest. I’m hoping we can look back on this victory in a few weeks and point to it as the game when the offense found itself again and the defense realized they could stand toe-to-toe with anybody.