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.

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