Tuesday, January 10, 2017

What Are The Packers Like Without Jordy Nelson?

So the real bad news from after the Green Bay Packers' victory over the Giants:
WR Jordy Nelson is the No. 3 ranked receiver according to Football Outsiders and led the NFL with 14 touchdowns. What's more impressive is that most of his production came during "run the table" time. He was so much better in the latter part of the season, and there's no way they're better without him than with him.

The good news is that the Packers did score 38 points against the Giants last weekend without him. But the bad news is that the offense fell off a cliff in 2015 without him. Assuming he cannot play in Dallas, the offense should look like they did in the 2nd half against the Giants instead of the struggling 2015 unit.

WR Davonte Adams and Randall Cobb. Without Nelson in 2015, both receivers struggled and Adams was a disaster. But 2016 is a different season for Adams. Though he's far from a perfect receiver (he's dropped three TD passes over the past few games) he's much better playing the role of a short(er) route runner. Cobb looked like a different man after having taken a couple weeks off to rest and playing exclusively in the slot against an over-matched nickel corner.

WR Geronimo Allison. If he's dropped a pass this season, I don't remember it. He's like the anti-Adams, and he's taken over the role the Packers seemed to foist onto Adams in 2015 as a deep threat. He doesn't draw a lot of attention in coverage and he's a good route runner (without a lot of speed). He'll kind of take over the James Jones role from last season.

TE Jared Cook. What a difference he's made. When Nelson was out last season, I expected the Packers would lean heavily on Eddie Lacy and the tight end position to make up some of the production. But Lacy struggled with his weight in 2015 and TE Richard Rodgers just can't do too much on offense. But Cook can truly replace some of what Nelson provided and he's been a major part of the "run the table" offense.

RB Ty Montgomery. Somehow he avoided destroying all the ligaments in his knee when he got twisted up like a pretzel in the 2nd half against the Giants, so he's still a factor. He's what I hoped Lacy could have been as a rushing threat and a receiver out of the backfield.

RB Christine Michael. Oh, the burst through the line. He doesn't bring a lot of skills to the field (he's not better than Montgomery) but when he finds a running lane, he explodes through it. He'll only get a few touches, but he'll be a home run threat when it happens.

As much as I'll miss seeing Nelson in Dallas (assuming that's the case), the additions of Cook, Montgomery and Michael make up for it in ways that the Packers didn't have on their roster in 2015 (Montgomery was out most of the 2015 season).

Monday, January 09, 2017

Packers Win Wild Card Round Over The Giants, 38-13

The Green Bay Packers aren't known for their slow starts but it does happen from time-to-time. They played a very sloppy first half against the Lions in Week 17. Against the Giants, they spent the first 25 minutes of game time with the offense firmly left back in the locker room. And then they lost WR Jordy Nelson to a rib injury! With about 5 minutes to go in the first half, the Packers offense had somewhere around 7 yards of total offense, for the game!

The defense was in trouble too. QB Eli Manning was accurate on his passes for their first two possessions and the Giants were moving up-and-down the field. Luckily the cold ball was a problem for them and there were multiple dropped passes (one on 3rd down and one in the end zone). The Giants only had 6 points (two field goals) to show for what should have been at least two field goals and a touchdown.

Surprisingly, it was the often absent special teams unit that gave the Packers their first boost. A big kickoff return by WR Jeff Janis after the second Giants field goal flipped the field position battle and pinned the Giants inside their 10 yard line. Then the defense had a big three-and-out, Micah Hyde had a nice punt return to the Giants 38 yard line, and QB Aaron Rodgers found WR Davante Adams in the end zone on a perfect pass just past the defender (who was all over him) and the length of Adams's arms.
The Giants had completely dominated the first 25 minutes of the game but they hadn't built a significant lead. All it took was one touchdown pass to take it away. After the Packers defense forced another punt, Rodgers happened again:
Then it was an 8 point deficit at halftime. That felt like a dagger but the Giants came out strong in the 2nd half. The Packers punted on their first 2nd half possession. Then they got stopped on 4th down on their second possession, gave the Giants great field position, and a blown coverage handed the Giants a long touchdown pass to make it 13 to 14.

And then the Packers stomped all over the Giants for the rest of the game. From the 5:16 mark in the 3rd quarter, the Packers outscored the Giants 24-0. Nothing worked for the Giants with two three-and-outs, a completely shredded New York Pass Defense, and even their special teams fell apart with a kickoff return run out of bounds at their 3 yard line. The Giants have the best defense that made the playoffs this season (only the Broncos were better during the regular season) and Rodgers completely shredded them.

It's hard to judge the players on this game. The defense was a complete wreck early in the game and they were only saved by some dropped passes, while the offense couldn't do anything (4 first half sacks and a lot of punts). And then over the last 20 minutes of the game, each unit was unstoppable. Which of them will show up in Dallas next week?

This was a great win and a little bit therapeutic for two previous home playoff losses to QB Eli Manning. It's not a game that could be taken for granted and (eventually) the Packers brought their "A game" (2nd half edition). The Cowboys have had a great season and they won't be taken for granted, but the Packers are rolling as they make their plans to head down to Dallas next week.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Packers (10-6) Win The NFC North Title in Detroit, 31-24

Breathe a sign of relief Mr. Run The Table:
No one's been better over the last six games than QB Aaron Rodgers, as the Packers turned a 4-6 record and a long-shot playoff dream into a 10-6 run the table reality. The offense was sloppy in the first half against the Lions, in parts because of penalties and the desire to hide RB Ty Montgomery off the field. In the second half, Montgomery played a lot more and everything started working, even though he didn't end up with a huge stat line (61 yards from scrimmage). The threat of a running game (Aaron Ripkowski doesn't count) is a huge advantage as it opens up the field.

About WR Geronimo Allison. Basically what we saw from him against the Lions was the same thing he's been doing since the preseason. He's not blazing fast, but he runs good routes and he doesn't drop the ball. He's moved into the role the Packers were trying to give to WR Trevor Davis, who hasn't been seen returning punts or running routes for the past several weeks because he couldn't stop dropping and fumbling the ball. Cobb's absence has opened up the No. 3 WR spot temporarily for Allison and he should be a factor in the playoffs if Cobb isn't ready next week.

The defense isn't as bad as it was in 2011 or 2013 (really, those were some dark times) but it's still not good. The pass rush was great early in the season but it's faded over the past few games while two of their best pass rushers have dealt with injuries (LB Clay Matthews will have shoulder surgery in the offseason, LB Nick Perry is playing with a clubbed hand after December hand surgery). The run defense isn't as good as it was back in September but it can be stout when it wants to be with Daniels, Clark and Guion in the middle. Also, DT Mike Pennel is eligible to return. It isn't important to have him back against the Giants (who can't run the ball) but he'll be welcome if they have to travel to Dallas the following week. Of course, the big story is the cornerbacks.

I've been pleasantly surprised by CB Ladarius Gunter this season, and he's had some good moments, but as the only competent cornerback this season, it seems more like he's been avoided because the opposite side of the field has been so poorly defended. It looked scary on Sunday, but CB Quinten Rollins appears to be doing well after his neck injury, though I'm not counting on either him or CB Damarious Randall next week. As poorly as those two have played when healthy, I've been wondering for the past few weeks whether they'd be better of having DB Micah Hyde outside at corner and S Marwin Evans in the dime role. But if Randall and Rollins can't play, they'll need a couple more DBs for depth, which means CB Josh Hawkins will be active and they might have to promote Waters or Whitehead from the practice squad. This group isn't going to turn into a strength over the remainder of the playoffs, but it might hold up against a struggling Giants passing attack.

They've done a great job this season just to hold it all together after a mid-season collapse, and respond with a six game winning streak to advance to the playoffs. But all the remaining playoff teams have problems on their roster at one position or another. If their offense can keep rolling (and keep avoiding turnovers) and the defense can just be decent, then they can make a run in the playoffs.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Packers (9-6) Build Big Lead, Fade In 4th Quarter, Beat Vikings in Lambeau, 38-25

The talk that QB Aaron Rodgers is in the mix for MVP is nice but it ignores his mid-season slump and a couple early season games when he couldn't stop fumbling the football. Though he's finishing up the 2016 season on a hot streak.

Over the past few games, with the return of TE Jared Cook from injury and the elevation of Ty Montgomery to starter at running back, the offense has transformed from good to great. A few weeks ago, I knew they needed to find some threat of a running game to open up the passing game, and Montgomery has provided a legitimate rushing threat that defenses have to consider. The return of Cook, as a hybrid WR/TE who always has a few inches height advantage over any defender, has been an additional wrinkle. But it's really been the effective running game that's allowed some wide open spaces for Jordy Nelson downfield.
The injuries are starting to pile up (RT Bryan Bulaga and CB Ladarius Gunter both left the game early) though they are something that every NFL team is dealing with at this point. The real problem is that the cornerbacks aren't getting any better.

CB Damarious Randall was benched last week but he ended up playing a lot after Gunter was injured. It looks like his confidence (or his knowledge of the defensive schemes) are shot. He spent a lot of time looking around at his teammates after a Viking receiver (usually WR Adam Thielen) torched him. Unfortunately CB Quinten Rollins is just as ineffective, more because of bad technique (getting turned around by a receiver or not enough recovery speed). To be fair, CB Micah Hyde gave up a late touchdown reception too. Other than giving the undrafted rookies a shot (which isn't a good option at all) or moving a safety or two to cornerback (again, not a good idea this late in the season), there's not much to do other than stick with those top three cornerbacks.

And that is the biggest issue going forward. They still need to beat the Lions next week. Then how can these cornerbacks possibly hold up over a four game playoff run to the Super Bowl? Every contender has some significant weakness but being bad against any NFL passing attack is a big problem. I'm enjoying the current winning streak and looking forward to a big game next week against the Lions, but anything afterwards would just be gravy. This defense doesn't look good enough to hold up for a playoff run.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Packers (8-6) Survive The 4th Quarter, Hang Onto Defeat The Bears, 30-27

I'm writing this after the Redskins lost at home to the Panthers on Monday night. With the loss, the Redskins fell out of the final Wild Card spot and behind the Green Bay Packers in the playoff standings. The Redskins are one of four teams (along with the Lions, Buccaneers, and Vikings) battling the Packers for two playoff spots (the second Wild Card spot and NFC North title). All four of those teams lost this weekend, except the Packers, who now can win the NFC North title by winning their last two games.

So losing a big 17 point lead on the road against the last-place Bears looks embarrassing but what's really important is the win. Something none of their playoff rivals could do in Week 15.

QB Aaron Rodgers doesn't look quite right with injuries to both legs. WR Davante Adams dropped two touchdown passes. WR Randall Cobb was questionable right up until game time, and he's obviously hurt because he wasn't even targeted once against the Bears. Luckily Rodgers had an explosive ground game (WR/RB Ty Montgomery!) because none of his wide receivers were useful to him. Except for WR Jordy Nelson, who also had a big drop, but made up for it with this great route which turned what should have been an overtime game into a last second win.
Rodgers was really good and that pass to Nelson was great, but the story was Ty Montgomery. If his position change from WR to RB wasn't official, it should be now. His ability to find openings in space and break tackles makes him the No. 2 weapon behind Nelson. Adams will bounce back and TE Jared Cook has quietly become a dangerous option since he returned from injury. If they can get anything from Cobb down the stretch, this offense has suddenly become very dangerous.

The defense struggled against QB Matt Barkley, of all people. He had a big statistical game (except for the 3 INTs plus one fumble) and he was very good at directing their offense (when he wasn't turning the ball over). The pass rush wasn't much of a factor because Barkley was able to get the ball out so quickly. That was made possible because CB Damarious Randall was giving so much cushion to the receivers he was covering. Barkley seemed to ignore CB Ladarious Gunter almost the entire game and focused on throwing to whoever Randall was covering.

The coaches noticed too and Randall was benched during the 4th quarter. Unfortunately his replacement was CB Quinten Rollins, who was torched just as badly as Randall. Both corners gave up too much ground at the snap and seemed more concerned about getting beat deep than giving up a short pass. But it was those short passes that wrecked everything the Packers were trying to do on defense.

This isn't a new story. The pass defense has been a problem all season long. CB Sam Shields is badly missed while Randall and Rollins have regressed in their second seasons. There isn't an obvious replacement without moving CB Micah Hyde from his current hybrid role into a true outside corner, but that potentially weakens two positions. Randall had a bad game against the Bears but he's had better games in the past, and he remains their best option for the rest of the season.

They should be pumped for their home finale of 2016 against the Vikings, who looked like they had completely quit on the season when they got demolished by the Colts in the first half last week. They can't just assume the Lions will lose in Dallas and they need to beat the Vikings, and then they can focus on beating the Lions in Detroit on New Year's Day.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Packers (7-6) Clobber The Seahawks, 38-10, In Lambeau

I was optimistic about this game though the Green Bay Packers entered it as an underdog and the Seahawks have statistically been a much better team this season. But you can throw stats out the window when it comes down to one game, and one team showed up with their worst performance of the year.
One stat that defined this game; turnovers. Seattle had 6 turnover and the Packers had none.

Even if the turnover battle was even, the Packers might have had an edge. Their offensive line is the team's unsung MVP and they kept QB Aaron Rodgers clean for almost the entire game. He had plenty of time to wait for a receiver to get open as the pass rush wasn't a problem. CB Richard Sherman was his usual All-Pro self, but the Seahawks badly missed FS Earl Thomas. His replacement, FS Steven Terrell, didn't provide the same play making at all. That's a tough role to fill but Seattle's defense didn't have anyone to fill it.

TE Jimmy Graham, who I worried about coming into this game, didn't catch his first pass until midway through the 4th quarter. But he was a factor on the first INT, when Graham slipped and SS Morgan Burnett jumped in front of him for the interception. Though the morning's snow was all cleared away by game time, the Seahawks still seemed to have trouble with their footing. Burnett's INT was a great play by him, but the next 4 INTs were a series of missed balls and deflections that landed right into a Packer defender's hands. Each defender did a great job to keep their eye on the ball, but it just bounced their way all game long. Seattle had an opening drive for a field goal, and scored a late garbage time touchdown, but otherwise almost everything was working for the Packers' defense. It was a strange sight, considering how the defense fell apart during their recent four game losing streak.

The Packers had to keep winning, and they did it. Now they finish the season with the rematch stretch against the NFC North, three games they probably have to win. They can move ahead of the Vikings (7-6) in a must-win game in two weeks at Lambeau but they can't over look the Bears next week in Chicago, despite the fact they haven't lost in Chicago since 2010. The Bears did beat them last season and they're still playing hard for their coaches and fans.

The big problem remains the Lions, who sit 2 games ahead in the standings with only 3 remaining. However, the Packers finish their regular season on a must-win game in Detroit, so they can close the gap by one game then (and they have the tie-breaker due to the earlier win over the Lions in Lambeau). Meanwhile, the Lions other remaining two games are brutal (at Giants, at Cowboys).

And worst of all is the injury to QB Matthew Stafford's throwing hand. That is a major problem for them against any NFL team for the rest of the season. QB Derek Carr looked terrible last week trying to throw with an injured finger on his throwing hand. QB Carson Palmer would disagree but his finger injury last season held back the Cardinals' offense over the final few games. The Lions will try to remain positive but that is a major problem for them.

Friday, December 09, 2016

What To Expect When The Packers Host The Seahawks

I've been dreading this game because the Seahawks keep looking better each week. There are some odd things about this match-up, such as that the Seahawks' leading rusher will be playing for the Packers. As I looked closer at the match-ups, there are some major concerns and the Seahawks are 3 point favorites for a good reason, but there are reasons to be optimistic.
The loss of FS Earl Thomas, one of their best defensive players over the past several seasons, is a huge blow. In his place is FS Steven Terrell, who was released by the Jaguars and Texans before earning a spot with the Seahawks, and this will be his 2nd NFL start. On what might be a snowy field. He'll have a lot of help from his talented defensive teammates but his lack of experience could help the Packers.

Football Outsiders currently has the Seahawks ranked as the 5th best defense, just below the Eagles, who the Packers played pretty well against two weeks ago. Though the wheels have seem to come off the Eagles D over the past couple games. The Packers did well against the Eagles by holding up against their pass rush (except for rookie RG Jason Spriggs, who struggled against All-Pro DT Fletcher Cox, though RG T.J. Lang might return this week). If the Packers can protect QB Aaron Rodgers, then they should have some success against them.

The defense is a bigger concern. Their outside pass rush is weakened by the loss of OLB Nick Perry and who knows who might be healthy to play at the other LB spots. While Seattle's offense is only ranked 13th overall, that's about the same as the Lions and Colts. The Lions tore apart the secondary while the Colts only did OK (Luck was intercepted twice). The good news is that against the Lions their secondary was falling apart with injuries, and it's somewhat stable at the moment since CB Damarious Randall has returned. They might do better against WR Doug Baldwin but TE Jimmy Graham is problem. And QB Russell Wilson has been running better the past couple weeks too. RB Thomas Rawls had a huge game last week against the Panthers, but he's their 4th biggest concern (at best). It'll be a small victory if they can keep them under 30 points, though if the weather's bad, then the game might be low scoring.

If the Packers win, it'll be a close win, but they have a chance, and I'm optimistic.