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. 

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