Sunday, October 27, 2013

Packers say good-bye to the Hump/Metro/MOA dome in stylish fashion.

Just so you know, I have nothing but admiration for the state of Minnesota. I have many good friends that call MN their home and all are excellent folk. Brother Russ (an even bigger Packer fan than I) and his lovely wife call the state their home. Great state, great people. Heck, I travel there once every year just to bike and raise money for MS and I’m more than happy to do it. My only problem with Minnesota? It’s entirely infested with Vikings fans.

Viking “fans” are the worst kind of football fans there are. Unless their team is destroying every team they face, they can’t be bothered. If they win a game, they are going to the Super Bowl. If they lose a game, their coach, QB and owner should be executed at the 50-yard line. If the season isn’t going as planned, well, they’re all hanging at the Mall of America on Sundays instead of watching the game. It’s all or nothing with Queens fans.

So when the Green Bay Packers come to town, the biggest rivalry the Vikings have, and the seats in the Hump Dome have almost as many Green-and-Gold butts in them as Purple-and-Gold, you have to question their status as “fans”. Just a bit. 

I’d love to pronounce total dominance over the hated ViQueens but I can’t get the awful taste of a sloppy Packer defense out of my mouth. The Packer D committed three penalties that directly led to 17 Viking points, over half their total on the evening. Sure, you hold Adrian Peterson to 60 yards on 13 carries smother Ponder for 149 yards on 21 attempts. Good stuff. Now go look at the scoreboard. Take away the ridiculous 109-yard kickoff run back to start the game and you let this terrible, dysfunctional offense run up 24 points on you. NOT something to be proud of.

One thing the defense did and did well was keep Greg Jennings (1 reception for 9 yards) from being a factor in the game. His best play, by far, was to be the “victim” of a phantom interference call that kept a 2nd quarter Minnesota drive alive  that resulted in their first offensive TD of the day. I was never happy that Jennings felt he had to go and play in Minnesota but hey, at least he wasn’t acting like a jerk like some ex-Packers tended to be when first they don the horned helmet. Then he started mouthing off about Rodgers and then the Packers and then, well, acting like a jerk. So a pox upon his house. You wanted a big boatload of cash? Fine. Now you get to play on a really crappy team with a merry-go-round at quarterback. Enjoy your stay and your quick slide to irrelevance! As Hienz Ward said on the pre-game, there are no All Spice commercials coming your way in Minneapolis, Greg.

I keep having to talk about the Packer running game in this space, dang it! How I yearn for the simpler days when all the Packers had was a superstar QB and a half-dozen ninja wide-outs. Oh, woe is me! Seriously, Eddie Lacy (29-for-94, 1 TD), James Starks (7-for-57, 1 TD) and Rodgers himself (6-for-31) tallied up 182 yards, two scores and huge chunks of clock-chewing. Did you see the Vikings in the third quarter? Neither did anyone else! The Packers own time of possession 13 minutes to 2 minutes. That’s just crazy talk and that was directly the result of a Packer running game that has evolved from “keep the defense honest” to “hey, we just might have something here” in just seven football games.

The aforementioned Aaron Rodgers was stellar again. He hit six different receivers (I  think I saw Jones snag a couple balls on the sidelines...) including Jordy Nelson seven times for 123 yards and two scores including a gorgeous 73-yard TD on a quick slant across the middle. You had to figure the Vikes would double him, seeing the lack of experience in the rest of the Packer pass-catching roster. Didn’t matter. Boykin had another good game as did Miles White and Andrew Quarless. This ground isn’t Jones, Cobb and Finley but they are doing a pretty fair impersonation. While we wait for guys to get healthy, these men are gaining valuable experience. I’ve said it before - come the late season and playoffs, this offense could be an unstoppable juggernaut.

The special teams, starting the day off by allowing a 109-yard kickoff return, had the look of a unit that could cost the Packers this game. Simply awful. Then Micah Hyde took a punt return 93-yards to the house. So you gotta call that even. Mason Crosby 3-for-3 including a 45-yarder, so generally you can’t cry too much.

The game tonight was the last ever Packer vs. Vikings in the Mall of America Dome, AKA The Metro Dome, AKA The Hump Dome. Too bad so many Viking fans chose to sell  their seats or just plain skip the game. I’ve never seen a football game played there in person but from all accounts, I understand it was one crappy venue for professional football. One of the worst Packer games I’ve ever watched happened when Diva Favre led his new ViQueen team onto the nappy turf in the Hump Dome and destroyed my team. Favre himself had so little success there that the TV announcers took to calling hit his personal house of horrors. Whatever. I’m sure Zygi Wilf’s extortion-based (“State of Minnesota: Kick in a billion dollars during a recession or I’m moving to LA!”) new stadium will be the most glorious thing this side of The Jerry Dome in Dallas. Of course, if you can’t sell out your current facility and you keep putting mediocre (or worse) teams in it, I can’t say I like your business model. However, as a Packer fan, I am delighted to have you at the helm.

Next Monday night we get to see Da Bears limp into a real football stadium (named after an NFL demigod, not a shopping mall) for their first tilt against the Packers this season. Missing leaders on offense (Cutler) and defense (Briggs) this Chicago team will have a decidedly odd feel to it. No brash trash talk here: Bears vs. Packers is always a knock-down-drag-out contest, whoever the players are. The Packers will be one more week healthier and one more week experienced for the younger players. I love when the Division games start stacking up! So much to play for and so much history involved. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

It was a sloppy, wet, mistake-filled performance but the Packers win!

I lost track of how many positive plays the Packers squandered on Sunday through dumb mistakes and penalties. I know for a fact that they gave away ten points through those miscues. It’s a little disconcerting to watch a great team that could be dominating a weaker opponent shoot themselves in the foot over and over again.

A sloppy win is still a win, though. The TD pass doldrums Aaron Rodgers had been in over the last two games (eight quarters, 2 TD’s) was broken up in his 3-score afternoon. He was not exactly playing his best game (again) but he was also without two of his most consistent weapons in Cobb and Jones. Of course, a quarterback the likes of Aaron Rodgers does not let a little something like lack of regular targets phase him. A-Rodg hit six different receivers for 260 yards. Not record-setting, for sure, but pretty amazing, considering. Jarrett Boykin, who had a fairly rough afternoon last week, caught an amazing eight balls for 103 yards and 1 touchdown. For all the flak he was subjected to, he came out and performed amazingly. With Cobb out until sometime in December, Boykin will be in the lineup for a long time and after seeing him improve over the course of one week, I think Packer fans should be happy he’s getting this game experience and performing so well.

Another big weapon Rodgers counted on today was Jermichael Finley - 5 catches, 72 yards and 1 TD. After a head-to-head collision, J-Mike was knocked out of the game. A few post-game tweets indicated that he was communicative and coherent on the field but could not move. Later, he regained full use of his extremities. This will lead to a pretty careful and thorough evaluation (or at least I would hope so) and since this is his second neurological injury this year, you have to assume he will be out for at least a week and maybe more. That’s another blow to the Packer offense but let’s all keep him in our thoughts today. A word, however, about the dimwitted commentator during Finley’s injury: the guys name escapes me but he prattled on and on about how Finely made a “football move” and how the defender “led with his shoulder”, all the while they are showing replays of the defender striking a blow with his helmet. Watch the game, dipshit. It was a penalty and it will be a fine. 

The Packer defense was crazy-effective for the first half, holding the Browns to a measly three points.  In the second half, while the Packer offense was sputtering, the defense suddenly relaxed and the Browns began to get in gear. It was still hard for them to score points but it was troublesome. Obviously, this Browns team is not the perennial punch line they’ve  been for the last decade but they certainly are not at the same level as the Packers. Penalties, poor kick coverage and mistakes kept a clearly inferior team in the game for far too long. 

But you have to marvel at the effectiveness of the linebacker corps. With only one first-teamer (Hawk) still in uniform and reserves that would be charitably called “painfully thin”, the Packer defense held the Browns McGahee to only 39 yards  rushing and Weeden to only 149 passing, while recording 3 sacks. That’s nothing short of astounding!

Does anybody know how fortunate we are to have a running game? One that can be used to gain real yards? The Packers, with Aaron Rodgers under center, are always going to be a passing team. We are going to gain the vast majority of our yards and the vast majority of our scores through the air. But to watch Eddie Lacy run the ball and to watch defenses load up to stop him is a thing of beauty. By the time Rodgers gets more of his passing weapons back, the Packers will have the (deserved) reputation as being a power running team. So which  will defenses choose to stop? Double the receivers and put the pressure on Rodgers or contain Lacy? I tell you: if the injury bleeding ever stops and Cobb, Jones, Nelson and Finley can ever get on the field together again, like in December and January, the Packers are going to be an awesome offensive powerhouse.

This week, Mike McCarthy, faced with a continual barrage of questions about injuries, shared his motivational philosophy with the media: Keep calm and carry on. This was taken from the British pre-war publicity campaign in the weeks before the outbreak of World War II. And a fine credo it was. The injuries and lost impact players this year have been just terrible but MM knows that wringing your hands and spending your days complaining are totally unproductive. You know you’ve got to play a football game every week, so you adjust to the players you have and you saddle up. This is the NFL, not gymnastics or diving - You get no points for degree of difficulty. 

At 4-2, the Packers have emerged from the toughest part of their schedule at the top of the NFC North. The schedule only gets easier with only two teams with winning records (Detroit and Chicago) left to play. Could the Packers run the table? That’s going to be very, very hard to do with the sheer number of stars walking the sidelines in street clothes. You know Minnesota, despite their struggles, will play their best game of the season next week. You know that Detroit will bring it hard on Thanksgiving. You’d better know that the Bears will never lay down and let the Packers bowl them over. Could we run the table? Sure. But it will not be easy.

Special birthday wishes go out to Mrs. MMQB on Sunday. She could have done anything at all (hey, it’s her day, OK?) but she chose to spend the day at home, with me, watching football. I’m a lucky man.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Packers pull out huge win, missing key guys on both sides of the ball.

The Green Bay Packers have the right mind-set here just past the quarter-pole of the 2013 season - every game is big, every game is critical, every game must be won.

I love that. You never take a game off, you never take a series off and every freakin’ down is important. It’s a philosophy you can see on almost every down with the Packer defense. I think I’m seeing it in the Packer offense but the difference is the D is executing and the offense is not.

For the second week in a row, the Green Bay offense shows a lot of grit and determination in the middle part of the field. When they get into scoring position, however, the magic goes away. Over the last three seasons, the Packers were  the best in the NFL inside the 20: give the Packers the ball in the red-zone and you can put up six on the scoreboard. In the last two games, the Packers have zero red-zone TD’s. One score this week and one last week have both been from long distance. From one of the most consistent scoring machines in the NFL, the Packers have devolved into field goal central. In the wins last week vs. the Lions and the victory over the Ravens this week, the Pack as tallied 9 field goals and only two TD’s. 
What’s going on? The development of the more dependable running game has opened up many more opportunities for Rodgers and Co. to pass the ball. We are seeing dropped passes and overthrown passes and passes that are just plain off-target. “Out-of-synch” is a cliche but it would seem to me to be an apt one in this situation. Aaron Rodgers, even when he’s given protection, has been erratic. All the wideouts have had drops. The play-calling, especially in short- to medium-yardage situations has been questionable.

If you think the offense looked iffy this week, hold on to your butts: Things are about to get much, much worse. Both Randall Cobb and James Jones went out during the game with leg injuries and returned in street clothes, Cobb hobbling around the sidelines on crutches. Neither guy had the look of “just dinged up” to me. Later in the game, the Packers got some nice production from both Finely and and Nelson and some very inconsistent play from the #4 (now #2) receiver Boykin. But as soon as Jones went out, the offense got even more inconsistent. When Cobb went out, you could see the panic in Rodgers’ eyes. I’m not sure what possessed him to throw three times in a row (for zero catches) to Boykin, but the predictable results did not fill Packer fans with a lot of confidence in the future. We will have to wait and see what the prognosis will be for the two starters. I am having a severe case of deja vu, here. Don’t I write just about every week about some crucial starter going down? For about the last three years?

If you want to talk about crucial guys, you have to talk about Clay Matthews and his yearly excursion to the injured list. The Packers have a great defense when he is in there, gobbling up double-teams, flying all over the field and creating havoc. Last year, the Packers went 3-1 while Matthews sat out with a hammie, so you know they can win without him but it makes it so much harder. The Packers, with only one starting linebacker in the game, played a fantastic game on Sunday. They stuffed the run, got acceptable pressure on the Flacco and even forced a crucial turnover at the end of the first half. AJ Hawk was all over the field, Francois was outstanding and Neil and Perry might have just made us all say “Clay who?”. Just fantastic. Aside from one two-play span, the Packer defense did everything they could to keep the their team in the game. 

What? A two play span? One of the absolute worst two-play spans in recent memory. In the fourth quarter, the Packers had the Ravens in an ugly, ugly 4th-and-21 desperation situation. They rushed three and dropped nine players. Throughout the entire game, the Packers OWNED the Ravens on long-yardage situations. So, instead of a careful, tenacious defense, we let a young 3rd year guy named Tandon Doss (who???) split the seam, run behind our safeties and record a 63-yard reception. On 4th-and-21. What defensive scheme allows a receiver behind the DB’s on 4th-and-forever? What kind of head-up-the-ass secondary play allows that to happen? On the very next play, Dallas Clark goes up the middle and Flacco hits him for great, one-handed touchdown. It took a Packer two-score lead and trimmed it to two points. Instead of a comfortable, run-out-the-clock situation, the Packers now had to drive the length of the field, maintain possession and make zero mistakes to record the victory. They did it and the win goes up on the board, thanks to some gritty play on the part of the badly undermanned offense. The defense, who kept their team in the game all afternoon (did you SEE that goal-line stand? Wow!) had made the worst kind of mistake in the worst kind of moment.

I have to throw out some props here again to Mr. Eddie Lacy. After last weeks hard-nosed 99-yard performance, Lacy ground out 120 yards and did what he was drafted to do - make the tough yards and set up the pass. His biggest run wasn’t even his longest: On 3rd and 2, on the Ravens’ 13, with 1:32 left in the game, Lacy hit up inside, bounced to his left and gained 4  and slid down on the nine yard line to keep the clock running and avoid the possibility of a turnover. For a rookie, that is one of the most savvy football moves I’ve seen for a long time.

Next week, the Cleveland Browns come to town and these are not your pushover Browns anymore. They did not cover themselves in glory by getting smacked around by the Lions on Sunday but they have shown they can win games, something entirely missing in their repertoire over the last dozen seasons. The Packers will still be missing Matthews and Brad Jones on defense. They will definitely be missing Randall Cobb and probably James Jones. We all looked at the schedule and saw this game as a total lay-up for the Pack. With the injuries and the absence of production from the offense, this is a much, much more interesting contest. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Packers are not sharp offensively but their defense tames the toothless Lions Detroit

The Green Bay Packers had a big test to pass on Sunday. Sitting at 1-2, looking up at the Lions and Bears both tied for the lead in the North (what a revolting state of affairs THAT is!), the Packers knew that to fail this early-season test would be to hand Detroit a massive advantage in division play (they’d already beaten the Bears and Vikings) and virtually assure that their own path to the postseason would have to come via the Wild Card.

So what grade would give this team in their 22-9 victory? Well, I’m just glad this particular test isn’t graded: It’s a pass/fail situation and the Packers definitely passed.

The Lions presented a major challenge to this Packer’s team. If you look at the match-ups coming in, you just couldn’t help but be a bit pessimistic. Forget the fact the Lions hadn’t won in Wisconsin since Brett Favre was an Atlanta Falcon - that’s just history. You have a very good QB in Stafford throwing to possibly best WR in the NFL in Calvin Johnson against a Packer secondary that has been suspect all season long. You have a game-changing running back in Reggie Bush able to take any handoff  to the house unless you stack the box with defenders. You also have one of the best defensive lines in the league that can stop the run while rushing the QB with only four, something that has been the bane of the Pack for many years. 

So when news came that Calvin Johnson was going to be inactive due to a gimpy knee, a window opened and the Packer defense knew their task, while not easy, was suddenly much, much simpler. They focused their attention on keeping Reggie Bush under control and control him they did - he had only 44 yards on the ground and 25 yards in the passing game. The Lions, without their most potent weapons, had no Plan C.

So, you’d think blowout, right? The powerful Packer attack, newly energized with an effective running game, would slice and dice the Lions and win going away, right? Wrong. The Packer offense tore up the Hallowed Turf at Lambeau in between the 20’s (449 yards net offense) but was so out-of-synch all day they could only manage one touchdown (that gorgeous 83-yard score to Jones) and had to settle for five Mason Crosby field goals. All well and good but you have to narrow your eyes a bit at an offense that cannot put the ball in the end zone when presented with all those opportunities. If the Packer covert even three of those field goal drives, we’re all talking about the great blow-out game against the Lions. A win is a win, I know. So why am I so bothered by a good looking Packer offense that can’t seal the deal? Wasn’t that the problem in the loss to the Bengals? Couldn’t take advantage of the opportunities?

Maybe I’m just bothered by everything. 

One thing I’m not bothered by is the Packer running game. The whole stats-crazed sports nation is going to look at the game and say “Meh. No 100-yard rusher for the Pack. Back to their old ways again.” To those folks I say, “You want stats, I’ll give you STATS!”

Eddie Lacy had 99 yards on 23 carries. Many of those runs were gained pounding it up the middle and slamming into Suh and Fairely. He had one run called back on a penalty. He was one ankle-tackle away from breaking huge runs on four separate occasions. If the only measure of success for a runner is 100-yards, well, we’re just not paying attention. Just the threat of the run is enough to make the Packer passing attack just that much more deadly. Add in the big run by Randall Cobb who they snuck into the backfield and future offensive coordinators now have to honor the run AND the pass. Win for the good guys.

You and I and pretty much every single Packer fan called for Mason Crosby to be fired last season. We all had good reason - he had devolved from one of the best kickers in the NFL to one of the worst in the space of one game. He hit his last four in a row last year and has yet to miss a kick this year, including five field goals on Sunday, the only consistent scoring weapon the Packers had in the game. These weren’t chip shots after drives stalled inside the five. I don’t know what happened to get Crosby’s head right. Maybe it was Mike McCarthy’s faith in him. Maybe it was the competition from two separate challengers in the pre-season. Maybe it was moving the kick-off duties to the punter Masthay. Whatever it was, we should all be grateful it happened and realize that all men should have second chances, a shot at redemption.  Kudos to Crosby for taking advantage of it.

One big area we should all be concerned about is injuries to our linebackers. Brad Jones went out with a hamstring injury. His back up, Robert Francois, then had to be helped off the field himself. Most importantly, Clay Matthews, who just got over his own hammy pull, went off with a thumb injury after sacking Stafford. In a 3-4 defense, the linebackers are the heart and soul. They rush the passer, drop in coverage and make the majority of the tackles. To lose three guys in a game could be devastating for this Packer team. We won’t know for a few days what the true nature of these injuries are but if you take a guy like Matthews out of the mix, even for a little while, the Packer pass rush completely disappears. AJ Hawk really stepped up and Nick Perry really showed me something today, but the Packer defense will have to struggle if any of these guys miss significant time.

Scraping together field goals out of failed offensive possessions is not a great recipe for winning football games, but if it works, a win is a win, right? The Packers travel to the 3-2 Super Bowl Champs Baltimore Ravens next week and need to start stacking up wins to get on a roll. Field goals are not going to cut it. Aaron Rodgers is going to have to hit the open men. Those men are going to have to make the catches. No more lost drives and missed scores due to the dropsies. Eddie Lacy is going to have to continue to be threat on the run. And, yes, Mason Crosby may have to continue his streak in order to win that game. Its a world of pass/fail, win/loss and no other grades count.