Sunday, December 30, 2012

Packers end the season with a lackluster performance that falls just short of victory.

The Green Bay Packers had everything in front of them on Sunday: they were playing for the #2 seed in the NFC playoffs and the much-needed bye week to get healthy. All they needed to do was beat the Minnesota Vikings. You would think the coaching staff would have them primed and ready to play. Sure, it wasn’t do-or-die, win-or-go-home but it was still a pretty important game. Instead, the Packers came out flat, committed stupid mistakes and saddled themselves with self-inflicted damage time and time again.

All the Vikings needed to do was win and they were in. And they did so they are. And guess what? They get to play the Packers again next week. Oh, joy. I can’t tell you how much that pleases me.

The Packer defense had one plan going in and it was a good one: stop Adrian Peterson and make Christian Ponder beat them. Unfortunately, they could not accomplish the former and made it easy for the latter to occur. AP is a fantastic athlete and a dominating football player but I cannot believe he is THAT good! He is invisible, has deflector shields and some sort of mind control device that makes would-be tacklers try to take him down with fingers and hands. So many Packers whiffed on tackle attempts there will probably be a major logjam in the training room tomorrow for guys with severe windburn. Peterson did not get the single-season rushing record (he fell 9-yards short) but it wasn’t because the Packers had anything to say about it. There were times, I swear, when our defense would have been just as effective if they all fell down and prayed Peterson would accidentally trip over them. Our front seven was not only ineffective through large stretches of this game, they were absent.

Our pass defense was very inconsistent. In key moments, they let second- and third-string wideouts school them. One key moment on the penultimate drive for the win, the Vikings were facing 3rd-and-11 and the Packers dropped eight men deep in a prevent scheme. Instead of keeping everybody in front of them, they let one guy slip in behind and pick up the first, which led to more Peterson runs which led to the winning field goal. All the fantastic theatrics to allow the Packer offense to claw their way to a tie was pissed away in a fairly easy drive that ate up all the clock and set up the most accurate kicker in the NFL with a chip-shot field goal.

Aaron Rodgers had a pretty good day, if you look at his stats (28 for 40, 365 yards, 4 TDs and no picks) but that was not the whole story. Hammered all afternoon and sacked five times, Rodgers also lost a fumble on one of those sacks, which set up a short field for Minnesota and eventually a touchdown. This pressure on him also caused several penalties by the line and forced Rodgers to fight against long down-and-distance all day long. The play-calling early in the game was puzzling at best. McCarthy’s favorite play (the first down run) was never successful for more than two yards until the third quarter. The early scheme seemed to confused and it showed in the lack of production. They spotted the Vikes 10 points before anything happened at all. Is this the mark of a championship team? A championship coach? I’d have to say “no” to both.

And even with all that awful play, the Packers were still in it in the end. A few more defensive stops and they win. A few more clean pockets for Rodgers and they win. The margin was that slim.

I cannot in good conscience say I will be picking the Packers to win next Saturday night. Sure, they will be home in the friendly confines of Lambeau Field and the huge advantage the Vikings get from their loud, artificially full (and atrificially loud for that matter), dome will be flipped. Sure, the playoffs are a bigger deal and our team should be much more ready to play. But take a look at which team has the momentum: The Packers just got smacked around and the Vikings just pulled off an emotional, last second victory. The Packers had their win streak snapped and lost their first North game since 2010. The Vikings won their last four games and defeated their biggest rival to get into the playoffs. Which team would you be picking? I’m probably the biggest Packer fan you know but I’m also a student of the game and there is a lot to be said about getting hot and staying hot. Right now, the Packers look extremely cold to me. Coming off the destruction of the Titans last week, the Packers have fallen from a hot, powerful team to a team that has to depend on clutch plays on every series just to stay even with a team like the Vikings who, to be honest, we should have dominated. The Packers looked lackluster and, to be frank, overwhelmed today. I can’t say that fills me with a great deal of confidence. 

Of course, the Packers can win and here is how they do it: TACKLE and BLOCK. The two most basic skills in the game of football and they are at the root of the Packer loss today. IF they can improve their tackling by a modest amount (say 10%), they can win the game. IF they can improve their blocking (let’s be greedy and say by 25%) they can win the game. If they can do BOTH of those things, I believe they have a shot at a decisive victory. 

IF, however, Adrian Peterson is allowed to run wild, there will be problems. IF Rodgers is harassed and sacked often, there will be problems. Here’s another way to win: don’t make stupid mistakes. And how about an aggressive game plan and play-calling from our coaches?

There is no way the Packers want to go one-and-done in the playoffs again. That happened in 2009 and again in 2011 and to lose a playoff game to a North foe, our biggest rival, would be too painful to even contemplate. So Mike McCarthy had better pull out all the stops. Dom Capers had better unleash the dogs of war. Aaron Rodgers needs to be ON. The running game needs to CONTRIBUTE. Clay Matthews needs to make Christian Ponder UNCOMFORTABLE. 

The defensive line needs to tackle and the offensive line needs to block. Do these things and we will win. Fail to do them and we will lose. Again. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Packers play their first complete game of the year in an ass-kicking for the ages.

The Green Bay Packers waiting until week 16 of the 2012 NFL season to finally (finally!) put together a complete game. Sure, the Tennessee Titans are not exactly what you would call a powerful football team, even under the best of circumstances. Even more injury-ravaged than the Packers, the Titans are the NFL poster-children for the term “undermanned”. They have all five of their starting offensive linemen on the IR list. Even so, they are a professional football team and it takes nothing away from the achievement of Mike McCarthy and his team pulled off this afternoon. 

On offense, they not only threw the ball with their customary aplomb but they stayed with the rushing attack and, while it netted 140 yards (not earth-shattering but pretty good for the Packers) the bigger factor were the four TD’s the Pack scored on the ground thanks to Rodgers, Harris and Ryan Grant, who put two scores up.

The defense was equally dominating. You might call the Titan offense “inept” or “disjointed” or even “piss-poor” but you have to acknowledge the power and the glory of Clay Matthews and his cohorts, limiting  Locker to only 140 yards through the air, picking him off twice and sacking him seven times. If you take away Locker’s 39-yard pass to set up the 2-yard TD throw deep into slop time, the Packer defense put up a performance for the ages. Until that late lapse, the Packers were on the verge of the largest margin of victory since the pre-NFL Green Bay Packers hung a 62-0 thrashing on DePere in 1920. I’m sure it hurt to give up the shut-out (the Packer defenders appeared to be pretty disinterested at that point) but the win is what matters the most.

As critical as we’ve all been of Mason Crosby and his struggles, you have to give him props today. He went out there and made both of his field goal attempts and all seven of his extra points. Sure, his first make was aided by doinking the ball off the right upright from 48-yards out, but I’m sure he (and we) will take any and all help we can get. His kick-offs were a little inconsistent but I’m sure that’s just because his leg was getting tired late in the game. Which is a GREAT problem to have!

As much as I’d love to wallow in the victory, there is one key point I’d like to make, something more important to the continued success of this team in the coming weeks: Mike McCarthy kept his foot on the gas. This is not something he does. He likes to get a lead, establish the run, chews up some clock. All good things to do but it does afford lesser opponents the opportunity to get themselves back into football games. Today, however, with the game firmly in hand, Mike McCarthy declined the opportunity to coast to victory. Here we were, in the latter minutes of the third quarter and everybody and his mother are thinking “pull Rodgers, this game is done.” MM does not pull Rodgers. What he does do is call a masterful West Coast-style 80-yard drive for a touchdown. Here we go...

  • Packers ball at their own 20, 3:31 left in the third, up 34-0. First play is a run for no gain. Then we light things up - short pass to Jones turned into a 27-yard gain. Short pass to Finley for 18. Rush by Grant for no gain. Short pass to Taylor for 11. Short pass to Jennings for four. The quarter ends and suddenly the Packers are set up at the Tennessee 24. Another short pass to Jennings sets up a 12-yard TD to James Jones, Packers up 41-0.

Did you see what I saw? Not only did I see a coach who is normally conservative with a lead go for the jugular but I also saw him do it with controlled, high-percentage quick passes. No bombs forty yards down the field on third-and-short. This is now yet another way the Packers can take control of game and score. Not just with Rodgers’ laser-guided cannon for an arm. Short, ball-control offense that methodically eats up a defense, one bite at a time. I hope this is a sign of things to come from McCarthy. Too often, he counts on Rodgers’ obvious skills to complete passes far downfield. It’s fantastic to have that in your quiver, but if you can shift from a quick-strike, downfield attack to the short game and back again, there isn’t a defense in the league that can stop you.

This game was not without it’s costs: We saw Randall Cobb go out with a leg injury. As of this writing, all we know is that MM thinks it’s “not serious”. Davon House went out with a shoulder injury (possibly similar to the one he suffered in the preseason). Grant went out late with an unknown ailment. The injury to Cobb is, obviously, the most concerning. His contributions in both the return game and in the passing game are this year’s most welcome. Without Cobb, this season might have been lost given the games that Jennings and Nelson have spent in street clothes. Jennings is back in but not the deep threat he was pre-injury. Nelson in progressing but no one can say if he will be anywhere near 100% next week or beyond. That leaves James Jones as your primary receiving threat (and a big threat at that!) with Finely, Driver and a host of rookies to pick up the slack. Jeremy Ross (the guy who fumbled the ill-conceived backwards pass from Cobb last week) looks like he’s got some skills in the return game but if Cobb misses any significant playing time, the offensive production will suffer.

The tilt against the Vikings next week certainly has some meaning for both teams. The Packers need to win that game (and get some help from the Seahawks tonight!) to secure the #2 seed and a week off to start the playoffs. We can debate all day on the merits for and against the bye, but for a team as beat up as the Packers, a week to get healthier is nothing but good. Minnesota will not only be playing for a playoff spot but to put Adrian Peterson over the top for the single-season rushing record. They’d love to do both and I’m sure the playoff slot is the bigger prize but it will be a double-dose of motivation for the Vikes. The Packers can do no worse than the #3 seed even with a loss but we all know the importance of momentum and playing hot to end the season. Here’s hoping that Mike McCarthy, Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the Packers can keep their collective feet on the gas and power their way into the playoffs.

Mrs. MMQB and I wish all our readers the happiest of holidays. We plan on spending the next few days celebrating with family, enjoying excellent meals and sublime libations. We encourage you to do the same!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Packers lockup the NFC North in victory over the Bears.

The Green Bay Packers , in their last two contests against NFC North opponents, have come out flat and found themselves down by multiple scores. Key failures by those opponents have led to the comeback victories. Do you need me to list them? OK, since you’ve obviously not been paying attention, I’ll recount them for you here:

Two weeks ago versus the Vikings, the Packers were down to start the second half. Adrian Peterson had just ripped off one of his patented HUGE bursts through the middle to set up the Queens inside the red zone. If they put up six (or even three) the Packers probably don’t win that game. Christian Ponder, who some say is the worst QB in the NFL, throws a pick into the end zone and the Packers leverage the turnover into a 4th quarter victory. 

A week ago, the Lions are DOMINATING the game in the second quarter and can win going aways when Matthew Stafford pulls a Favre move and has the ball fall off the back of his hand and the Packers convert to an immediate six points. They would take that leverage and craft another beautiful victory. If that drive continued to it’s inevitable conclusion, the Packers probably do not win that game.

So here we were, down by seven again thanks to a missed field goal (more about that later) and needing a spark or a big play to turn the game around. So what happened? What would provide that massive shift in momentum?

The answer was not what you’d expect.

It wasn’t one play, it was methodical play. The Packers took the ensuing kick off and went 89 yards in seven plays and put points up thanks to a Rodgers-to-Jones touchdown. They then forced a three-and-out but couldn’t take advantage and punted themselves. 
An interception by Hayward on the first play of the Bears next drive set the Packers up in great field position. Five plays later, Rodgers hit Jones for his second TD of the game and the Bears suffered the ignoble fate of getting booed off the field (and rightly so) by their “fans”. Following the halftime break, the Packers went on an almost seven-minute drive ending up with Jones’ third scoring catch of the day and the game was essentially over. 

Can we point to a certain moment, to a certain play in this critical Packer victory? I don’t think so. You have to admire, however, the incredible work of Aaron Rodgers in converting third downs. His coach, ever the predictable one, ran the ball on every first down in the second half. It worked one time, when Duanne Harris ripped off 22 yards on the first carry of the second half. But Rodgers was saddled with third and long on too many occasions in the second half and, more often than not, converted to keep the drives alive. Here is a guy playing behind a jerry-rigged offensive line and, in most situations, running for his life. He was keeping plays alive by escaping sacks and extending the plays and finding open guys. Is any QB more important to the ultimate success of his team? It would be a wonderful thing to point to the continued rise of the running game but the 113 yards they could manage on the ground were not what I would call impactful.

The return of Clay Matthews, however, would certainly meet that criteria. He had five tackles and two sacks and provided a needed focus for the Packer defense. It’s hard to overstate the effect when Matthews is in the lineup: he’s just that crucial. Over the last month while Matthews sat out with a hamstring injury, the Packer defense has only managed three sacks. Now, to be fair, they’ve gone 4-1 over that period. But each game has been a struggle and the fact that the defensive secondary has stepped up has mostly hidden the ineffectiveness of the pass rush. Now, with the secondary still in place, if you add the rush of Matthews (and the disruption he causes) you have a defense that has the potential to be dominating down the road.

Two other factors to mention here:

First, you have to start questioning the continued viability of Mason Crosby. I am nothing but admiring of Mike McCarthy’s continued faith in his embattled kicker but there comes to a point where you have to start thinking about the future. Crosby has missed at least one field goal in eight straight games. He has, over the course of two months, gone from one of the most consistent kickers in the game to one of the most problematical. I am convinced that things have gone from some possible mechanical issues to mental issues to completely snake-bit mode. Every time Crosby takes the field is an adventure. His first attempt went wide right before it passed the line of scrimmage. His second doinked off the left upright. All that tells me is that it’s entirely a mental problem and there is little that can be done by coaches to improve it. He may break out of it next week or he may never recover. So far, it hasn’t cost us a football game. I can guarantee you that it will at some point. If Ted Thompson isn’t scanning future free agents or possible draft picks he’s not worth his salary. I hate to say it but Crosby’s tenure, despite years of success, is over at Green Bay.

The other major gaff in this game was an ill-conceived special teams play. Up by eleven points with just over eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Packers decided to get cute. After a Bears punt, Randall Cobb attempted a backwards pass to fourth-string wideout Jeremy Ross, who promptly fumbled the ball and the Bears recovered. Unable to move the ball (a common problem all day) the Bears kicked a field goal. I have watched a great deal of football, spanning the Lombardi era of the 1960’s to the present and I am unable to remember a call that was more idiotic or more stupidly timed. Up by two scores, midway through the fourth quarter in a game that can win you the North, what would possess Mike McCarthy and Shawn Slocum to approve such a risk? Sure, if the game is on the line, maybe you throw caution to the wind and do what you need to do. But the game was in hand and all the Packers needed to do was possess the ball, make a couple of first downs and walk out of Chicago with a win. Instead, they committed themselves to and ill-conceived course, failed to execute it and essentially handed their opponents three points. Even if the play had been executed perfectly, there was plenty of coverage on that side of the field and the gain in field position would have been inconsequential. You have to question the mind-set of the coaches that called such a play in that particular situation.

The Packers, despite the rough victory, have clawed out of a 2-3 start, climbing over the overrated corpses of the Bears and Vikings to secure the NFC North for the second year in a row. Now comes a seemingly-gimme game versus the Titans and another tough road test against the Vikings. They have a shot at the #2 seed in the NFC and a much-needed week off but I think I speak for all the Cheeseheads I know when I say we don’t need a week off, we need to stack victories: beat Tennessee, beat the Queens (and knock them out of the post-season) and go into the playoffs on a major roll. Can you say 2010, Packer fans? I know you can.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Another come-from-behind effort vs. the Lions puts the Packers solidly in first place in the North.

The Green Bay Packer defense couldn’t stop the Lions’ offense in the first half. Not once. The two turnovers committed by Detroit were entirely the fault of Matthew Stafford. Aside from that, the Lions drove effortlessly for two easy TD’s and held the ball to end the half. The great and powerful Packer offense could only muster one drive that ended in a strip-sack and another that ended in a long field goal. To be honest, the Packers had no business being only four points down at halftime. Their offensive line was a liability, committing holding and false-start fouls when they weren’t letting rushers make Rodgers skitter around in the pocket. The defense couldn’t stop the run, never pressured the quarterback and was unable to cover all of Stafford’s receivers, always leaving at least one open. This is a team that had been handed golden gift when the Vikings beat the Lions earlier. “Coming out flat” is a uber-cliche but it’s an accurate description of the Packers at Lambeau on Sunday night.

So would Dom Capers have any answers? Would Mike McCarthy be able to make an adjustment, anything at all, to jump start his lethargic offense? Obviously his first-half game plan (aka: The Find Cobb and Throw Him The Ball plan) was flawed and poorly executed. 

Down by only four and playing like crap on both sides of the ball, the Packers came out and drove right down the field, scoring on a huge 23-yard QB run by Rodgers and the defense, while still not themselves, quit allowing Detroit doing whatever they hell they wanted. I can’t put my finger on the precise changes, but whatever they were, they worked.

Perhaps the biggest change was the emergence of the running game. It came on so strong, they Packers actually scored a TD on a drive that consisted solely of rushing attempts. Whaaaaa? The PACKERS scored on an all-running drive??? Green Bay went from a “who the heck is going to run the ball this week?” to having a four-headed attack with Green, Harris, Grant and Rodgers himself combining for 145 yards on 24 attempts. By creating some balance, it slowed the potentially-devastating Lions’ pass rush and with the ability of Rodgers to move the pocket and throw on the run, the passing game become much more effective.

I have to say that I was not impressed with the way Mike McCarthy called this football game, even in the second half. This is (supposedly) a WEST COAST OFFENSE! You have the best QB in the NFL under center and you limit him by focusing too much on one receiver (Cobb) and then, when that doesn’t work, you swing for the fences again and again. Listen: Aaron Rodgers can make the long throws. We get it. He doesn’t have to prove anything to us. But this consistent game plan of forcing him to stand in the pocket, scramble about and throw the ball 20+ yards on almost every down is nuts. West Coast-style football is all about ball control. Short, high-percentage throws, effective running, spread the ball around, keep the chains moving, take total control of the game clock. Once the defense adjusts and tries to take that away, you can take your shots downfield. But MM seemingly forgets those first parts and goes right for the end zone. Come on, Mike! I saw a couple perfect opportunities for you to put this game away in the second half and you couldn’t do it because you wanted to put up six instead of getting the first down. 

The long wait for a completely healthy Packer team will not, I’m afraid, come to an end any time soon. But you have to be encouraged by the looming return of Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and maybe even Jordy Nelson. Without Matthews, the Packers simply do not have a pass rush. I know those guys are trying and I know that Capers dialed up some blitzes but it just isn’t there. Without Woodson, the defensive backs are in a pretty passive mode back there and the picks they are getting are more about opposing QB mistakes than great play by them. Without Nelson (or Jennings: it’s been a see-saw year with them) the Packers passing offense is only partly as effective as it can be and leans much too heavily on Randall Cobb. With a healthy cadre of receivers, the Packers become a crazy passing machine, capable of almost anything. The only sore spot is (and will continue to be) the offensive line. Nobody is coming back from injury there to save the day. There is no Tauscher or Clifton coming back into the lineup next or any other week. That is truly the wild card here. I will say it again (for those that have never heard it all the other 97 times I’ve said it) that the Packers will only go as far as their offensive line will take them. Ted Thompson made a conscious decision to carry fewer linemen this year and that’s come back to bite him in the ass. Don Barclay was not bad again tonight (he was impressive on running plays) and he may yet prove to be that savior for this line. One more injury, one more strain, one more pulled pinky  muscle and the Packers are pretty much toast on the line.

So, as expected, the winner of the North for this season will be decided by the Packers vs. Bears game next Sunday at noon in Chicago. The Bears, after tearing up the NFL with their opportunistic defense, have gotten into a slump - those breaks that were all going their way earlier in the year are not falling in place for them now. Like the Packers, injuries have played a major role. Brain Urlacher may not make it back and now Cutler has a neck injury that might put him back on the sidelines again. Their two most important players on either side of the ball out and that’s a huge blow. The Packers, whether they get those injured guys back or not, will need to play their best game of the year because I do not for one minute believe that even an undermanned Bear team will lay down and give up without a fight. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Packers fight back and win after trailing to the hated Vikings. It only gets harder, kids.

The Green Bay Packers knew that they were going to face a pretty one-dimensional team on Sunday. With Percy Harvin watching from the state of Minnesota, the Vikings were going to win or lose this critical North Division match on the legs of Adrian Peterson. Christian Ponder wasn’t going to beat anybody with his arm. So you can imagine that Packer defensive coaching staff clustered around their laptops, dialing up all the eight- nine- and and ten-man fronts in their arsenal. 

Aside from the crap the defense put on the field last weekend, the Packer stalwarts have been pretty good against the run this year, so you’d think without much of a passing threat, AP would be kept in check, right? WRONG! Peterson ran for a two-season high of 210 yards and chipped in for another ten through the air. Two MASSIVE runs (including an 82-yard scoring scamper) made up the bulk of it but you have to question the focus of the Packer defense if they know who is getting the ball and still cannot keep him corralled. The TD was a play that should have been finished in the Minnesota backfield but awful tackling and some comic collisions by would-be defenders. 

The missing pieces of the defensive puzzle (Matthews, Woodson) have been sorely missed in the last two weeks and you have to start hoping those two guys can make it back sooner than later.

On the offensive side of the ball, the return of Greg Jennings certainly had an effect on the passing game (he had four catches for 46 yards) but I can’t really say he was too impactful. The good news was that Aaron Rodgers was able to hit nine different receivers for 286 yards and 1 TD and the offensive philosophy of spreading the field (instead of just watching where Cobb went) and short, quick passes (he was sacked only twice) certainly looked worlds removed from the “swing for the fences on every down” that failed so miserably last week. The makeshift offensive line was not great, but they certainly were not awful. Losing TJ Lang to injury forced Don Barclay (and a weary Packer nation collectively says “who???”) into a major roll. Most telling of all was the 152 yards rushing, thanks to workman-like efforts by Starks and Green, the former scoring only the third Packer rushing touchdown of the year on a great 22-yard run.

Aside from the critical loss of Lang, another injury that will have an adverse affect on future games will be the loss of Jordy Nelson. Injured on a sideline tackle after his one and only catch, Nelson immediately knew he had a problem and his body language on the bench spoke of something fairly substantial. With Donald Driver inactive due to a thumb injury, the weight of the offense fell upon Cobb, Jones and Finely. No one man carried the entire load as it was shared all around. But you have to worry going forward if Nelson is out again that the newly-recovered Jennings will need to be 100% on every snap for the Packers to be successful.

Mason Crosby had a better-than-average day, going 3-for-4, one of the made attempts doinking off the right upright and in. For better or worse, it’s going to be an adventure on every attempt this year. I can’t decide if I’m impressed or disgusted by Mike McCarthy’s continued trust in his kickers’ erratic leg, but it is what it is, I guess. He did contribute 11 points to he win (three field goals and two extra points), more than any other player including Aaron Rodgers, so you have to give the guy some credit, don’t you?

With the Bears getting beat in overtime by the Seahawks, the Packers once more slip into first place with Minnesota falling back and Detroit in danger of becoming irrelevant this season. You can’t help but like the position the Packers are in: first in the division with four games to play and one contest with the only team within reach. After the on-field excrement from last week, this game against the Vikings had all the hallmarks of a must-win. It certainly wasn’t easy but you have to give the Packers credit for putting that loss behind them and focusing on what they can control: the next game. The problems are still there (offensive line is suspect and paper-thin, no pass rush without Matthews, wide-outs can’t get open, defense susceptible to the big play) and there will be no fixes. Yes, we can hope Woodson and Matthews can get back in on defense but the O-line will finish the season with the guys they have. So each and every week will be a struggle. We all hope that the struggle will make them stronger.