Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Packers Host Bears On Thanksgiving; Plus Brett Favre Is Honored At Halftime

I'm never thrilled to see the Green Bay Packers play on a short week, so I'm not a fan of them playing on Thursday night. But it is cool that this is the first Thanksgiving game in Green Bay since 1923.

In honor of the ceremony for Brett Favre at halftime, has put together a very slick interactive webpage and it's really about time he's been honored. I've been a reluctant to say much about him lately, the dramas in 2008 and 2009 still linger with me, but he's one of the all time greats and should have his number retired.

While it's been a surprisingly good season for the Chicago Bears, and QB Jay Cutler is back to being a good quarterback (he's currently ranked No. 8 this season according to Football Outsiders), the Bears were/are in danger of coming into this Thanksgiving game severely undermanned.
They're already going to miss TE Martellus Bennett and WR Eddie Royal, two players who'd start if they were healthy, and losing Jeffrey and Forte too would take away almost all of Cutler's supporting cast. They survived last week without them (Bennett played but was hurt mid-game) against the Broncos; RB Jeremy Langford had a touchdown and WR Marquess Wilson had a career game. Even if Jeffrey and Forte do play, they'll be hurting and somewhat limited on the field. And I haven't even mentioned that they might be without their best pass rusher; Pernell McPhee.

Unfortunately the Packers aren't in perfect health either. The big problem is the offensive line, where every starting lineman is on the injury report and C Corey Linsley is not going to play. Backup C JC Tretter should be fine in his first career NFL start. Since Tretter was supposed to be the starter last year over Linsley (before Tretter got hurt) it's appropriate that he's getting some recognition, finally.

Maybe none of these injuries matter because Cutler's always been very bad at Lambeau in addition to a 1-13 lifetime record against the Packers, but this has been the year for long losing streaks to be broken (the Lions won for the first time in Wisconsin since 1991). Still I'm not expecting the Bears to win on Thursday and they might not even be competitive if the Packers play like they did last Sunday against the Vikings.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Packers End Three Game Losing Streak With A 30-13 Win in Minnesota and Take First Place Back From Vikings

Well that's the Green Bay Packers I've been used to seeing. Though QB Aaron Rodgers still isn't on the same page as his receivers and he had a completion percentage of under 50% (though his receivers had a couple terrible drops) with a poor yards per attempt of 6.2, but there were three big changes from last week's home loss to the Lions.

His top two targets were WR James Jones and WR Randall Cobb. It wasn't a great game for Cobb outside of his touchdown reception but WR Davante Adams proved against the Lions that he's only a No. 3 WR right now. Adams still had a good game against the Vikings (4 targets, 3 receptions, 36 yards) but he's only a complementary player right now and he appropriately had half as many targets as either Jones or Cobb. Right now the offense works when Rodgers leans on his best receivers and gives them a chance to make a play. Against the Lions, when Jones had zero receptions, that was a big reason why they lost that game. Also, Fear The Hoodie.
The return of RB Eddie Lacy. I had written off Lacy for the near future (I'm sure I wasn't alone) and he surprised me with a 100 yard game. The running game won't carry them but the offense works a lot better when they're getting something on the ground. It's also his 2nd consecutive 100 yard game in Minnesota, and he ran for 94 yards with a touchdown in the Metrodome during his rookie season, so there's something he likes about playing in Minneapolis.

The defense recorded 6 sacks. The Packers' defense is all about getting pressure on the quarterback, and when the pass rush isn't working, they end up with the bad defensive performances they had in Denver and Charlotte. The defense wasn't unstoppable, QB Teddy Bridgewater was very good when he wasn't running for his life, but they also did a very good job against RB Adrian Peterson (and forced a fumble). Bridgewater can't carry the offense by himself and the Packers did a very good job of taking away his pass protection and his running game.

The game was closer than the score in a lot of respects but the Vikings were flagged for 110 penalty yards and gave up a 70 yard return to WR Jeff Janis. That's a lot of extra yards to overcome.

There were a couple injuries to DB Micah Hyde and C Corey Linsley that weren't talked about after the game, hopefully they aren't serious, and they'll have to bounce back quickly because of the short week before their Thanksgiving game against the Bears.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Packers Lose Third Straight; Embarrassing Loss At Home To 1-7 Lions

The only good news is that the Green Bay Packers have seven more games to figure out what's gone wrong over the past three losses. As bad as it looks now, it wasn't this way four weeks ago. They're certainly capable of making adjustments and getting themselves back on track.

On defense: where's my pass rush? Another week, another zero sack game. They played another shaky offensive line, but they still haven't gotten to the quarterback and it only seems to be getting worse. They've got play makers (Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Mike Daniels, Datone Jones) and they have to start making plays.

On offense: it's frustrating because they've scored 28 points combined in their last two fourth quarters but only 10 points combined in the last two first halves. Dropped passes were a problem and QB Aaron Rodgers and his receivers often don't seem to be on the same page. It didn't help that Rodgers's accuracy was off early in the game. But the biggest problems were WR Davante Adams and WR James Jones:
Adams ended the game with 21 targets and 79 yards. That's about as inefficient as it gets. Their best receiver this season has been Jones, and he had zero receptions in this game and has only 3 in their last three games. Throwing the ball 21 times to your worst receiver and only twice to your best receiver is not a successful formula. They knew that Adams would be going up against a back-up cornerback and this might have been their attempt to push him into a big game.

The receiver who did step up against the Lions was TE Justin Perillo. I've thought that the best option would be for the Packers to get as many receivers involved in the passing game as possible, to compensate for the loss of WR Jordy Nelson. Rodgers was a combined 16 of 18 for 134 yards and 2 TDs on passes to Perillo, TE Richard Rodgers and RB James Starks. These three receivers aren't getting separation in the passing game against anyone but they're also big receivers and if anyone's great at throwing a receiver open, it's Aaron Rodgers. These bigger guys have to run their route and fight for the ball when it comes to them in tight coverage.

I don't want to make a big deal out of WR Jared Abbrederis's game. It was great that he got his first NFL reception and caught 4 passes for 57 yards, but he also had a fumble out of bounds and suffered a rib injury. If he's having trouble staying healthy and holding onto the ball, he's not going to be a help. WR Randall Cobb had another inefficient game as he continues to struggle as the No. 1 receiver, but they just have to keep him involved and hope he can improve as the entire offense improves.

Also, for the second consecutive game, the interior of the offensive line struggled. Against Carolina, the pass blocking assignments were missed in the first half, and against the Lions, the run blocking assignments were missed. The Lions's defensive tackles were in on nearly every running play right at the line of scrimmage. The running game has vanished in too many games this season and it's putting more strain on the struggling pass offense.

So the answer on offense should be less of Adams and Cobb and more of everyone else. Aaron Rodgers got into the habit last season of leaning heavily on his top two receivers (for good reason, they both had a great season) but that isn't the case anymore. They also should be more aggressive on 4th down, especially on their opponent's side of the 50 yard line. It would help if WR Ty Montgomery would return since he's been their 2nd most efficient receiver (behind James Jones) this season according to Football Outsiders. This is the third week in a row that they came into a game with a plan, and it didn't work. If the players can't execute the plans that have been drawn up, it's time to find some new plans.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Mike Daniels and The Interior Defensive Lineman Have To Start Bringing the Pass Rush Back

This season, when I'm watching the Green Bay Packers defense, I often focus on DE Mike Daniels at the snap. Whether he beats his blocker(s) is a strong indicator whether the defense is going to make a play or not, and over the last couple weeks, I've noticed that he's usually not winning the one-on-one battle against his blocker. I'm not blaming him for the entire defense's struggles over the past three games but the interior pass rush has been part of the problem.
At the link above, NT B.J. Raji tries his best to explain what's gone wrong. He mentions the defensive mentality and playing with his instincts. Maybe he's trying to say that the defense wasn't playing their game and they've let the offense dictate the approach.

It's not been a case of playing against superior opponents either. On the offensive line, the Panthers are pretty good on the interior of their offensive line, led by C Ryan Kalil. On the other hand, the Broncos don't have a very good line (LG Evan Mathis and RG Louis Vasquez are good in run blocking and pass protection, respectively, but neither one is great at both) and the Chargers' offensive line is a borderline disaster.

Maybe it's just a matter of pushing through their mid-season exhaustion and minor injuries. The defense was on the field a ton against the Chargers (Daniels recorded 73 snaps out of 94 played). They did have the bye week right after that game and before they played the Broncos, but it might not have been enough of a break. Having their last two games on the road hasn't helped either.

A lot things have gone wrong for the defense over their last three games but benching ILB Nate Palmer and reviving the inside pass rush might fix the problem. When you watch the Packers host the Lions, keep an eye on Daniels (and DE Datone Jones, when he rotates in on the defensive line) and see if they can get in the face of QB Matthew Stafford as he's trying to throw.

Monday, November 09, 2015

I've Got The Two Game Losing Streak Blues: Packers Lose at Carolina, 37-29

I was expecting a lot better from the Green Bay Packers, who followed up their worst loss of the season (at Denver last week) with their worst half of the season (first half against the Panthers). The Panthers were outplaying them on the offensive and defensive lines. They couldn't get anywhere near QB Cam Newton or protect QB Aaron Rodgers. The secondary couldn't cover and the Packers' receivers weren't getting open.

The good news is that they came out in the second half and played the style of game I'd rather see them play. No more JC Tretter at tight end. Instead they spread out their receivers and started attacking down field. The offensive line still struggled but they weren't allowing free releases on blitzes up the middle anymore. The long touchdown pass to WR Randall Cobb that got them started wasn't anything exotic, a good old wheel route that left the cornerback a step flat footed, but it'd been a while since Rodgers even attempted a pass like that. What was looking like another embarrassing blowout turned into a near comeback.
There are still problems on offense, especially at tackle, and their conversion rate on 3rd down remains terrible. They had almost as many conversions on 4th down (2) as 3rd (3). The running game didn't help but it was better in their previous two games. WR Davante Adams finally came alive, which helps because spreading out with multiple receivers in the shotgun is their best formation at the moment. It would also help if WR Ty Montgomery could return next week.

As for the defense, their pass rush has vanished over the past three games and it's turned them into one of the worst (if not the worst) defense in the NFL over that time. The secondary will get better once CB Sam Shields returns but they've got to find their pass rush. They rarely made Newton move around in the pocket and they finished the game with no sacks. Their defense goes into funks, especially on the road (remember back to 2014 when they got overwhelmed by the Saints in New Orleans), but it's something they could snap out of quickly.

It's time to dump these last two games down the memory hole. It'll all be a distant memory if they win their next four games, which are all divisional, including two Thursday games. Taking care of the division and winning those four alone will win them the NFC North and put them into the playoffs.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Playing The Panthers on the Road Isn't The Same As The Broncos

At first glance, a road game against Panthers for the Green Bay Packers, one week after getting pummeled by the Broncos on the road, looks like a terrible matchup. The Broncos defense is far and away the best defense in the league, according to Football Outsiders, but the Panthers are ranked No. 2 overall. They have a lot of talented players on defense, highlighted by LB Luke Kuechly and CB Josh Norman, and their offense has played a whole lot better then the Broncos this season. If the Broncos can completely outplay the Packers, so can the Panthers.

On the other hand, facing the Panthers is completely different than facing the Broncos:
Last season, the Packers hosted the Panthers and beat them 38-17. Sure the game was at Lambeau and the Packers still had WR Jordy Nelson, but for the most part these are the same two teams and the Packers crushed them. The game wasn't even as close as the score would appear because the Panthers had two late touchdowns (it was 38-3 entering the 4th quarter).

The Panthers haven't exactly played an awesome schedule. Winning at Seattle is impressive and they just beat a 2014 playoff team at home (Colts) but four of their wins have come against teams from two of the worst divisions in football (AFC South, NFC South) and another win was against the Eagles, who don't have a NFL caliber QB. Their defense has taken advantage of playing against teams that feature some of the worst QBs in the NFL (even the Saints game was against Luke McCown). The best QB by far they've faced this season is QB Russell Wilson. The 2nd best QB was Blake Bortles. They haven't been tested much.

The Panthers secondary isn't the same as the Broncos. CB Josh Norman is arguably the best CB in the NFL but the Panthers also feature arguably the worst pair of cover safeties (Kurt Coleman and Roman Harper) of 2015. Harper's more of a linebacker than safety and Coleman is on his 3rd team in 3 years. All these guys aren't maintaining coverage against the Packer receivers for several seconds like the Broncos did last week, and the Panthers' pass rush is struggling (they traded for DE Jared Allen to provide some type of outside pass rush). When QB Aaron Rodgers extends plays because of his pass protection, he's going to find open receivers on Sunday.

The Packers can stop the run if they want to. The Panthers might have the worst group of wide receivers in the NFL, headlined by WR Ted Ginn, who dropped everything he touched in his last game. Even without CB Sam Shields, I don't expect the Packers to give the Panther WRs a ton of respect. The Packers run defense is a lot better if either safety drops down into the box. They also appear willing to bench ILB Nate Palmer mid-game, as he was against the Broncos. If the Panthers struggle with their passing game and don't force the Packers to play two deep safeties, then their offense is going to be in a lot of trouble.

This is still a road game (always tough) and a really good opponent but in no way am I expecting a repeat of last weekend's game vs. the Broncos. The Packers will start looking like the Packers again in Carolina.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

All The Packers Must Fix The Offense Articles Are Coming Out After Getting Clobbered By The Broncos

The short answer remains that the Green Bay Packers miss WR Jordy Nelson. By one measure, he accounted for 40% of their passing offense in 2014. So now some good intentioned articles are focusing on how the Packers can improve mid-season without Nelson.
Author Andy Benoit liked it when the Packers brought a wide receiver out of the backfield on short passes. I actually wish the Packers would do that more with RB Eddie Lacy instead of WR Randall Cobb, though Cobb has better hands. There's always the potential for a big play when Lacy has the ball in the open field and he hasn't been nearly productive enough this season in Nelson's absence.

When I initially looked at how the Packers could replace Nelson, I focused on the Packers getting more receivers involved in 2015. That hasn't happened but here's who can step up.

WR Davante Adams. He's missed most of the season with ankle injuries but finally returned against Denver. Unfortunately he did next to nothing in the Broncos game but it was only his first game back. He's got to get better as the season goes on.

WR Ty Montgomery. He's been sparingly used and plays an almost identical role to Cobb but he's also been the 2nd best WR of those who have had fewer than 32 targets this season. An ankle injury kept him out against Denver and he'll be welcomed back.

TE Justin Perillo. Perillo is the preferred No. 2 TE at the moment. The answer might be more receivers out in the formation with fewer blockers, and Perillo could become that forgotten TE in two-TE sets that can take advantage of a linebacker in coverage.

RB Eddie Lacy. He too has been battling an ankle injury but looked like his old self in the Denver game. Hopefully he can finish the season strong.

But maybe nothing will help as much as avoiding negative plays and converting on a higher rate of 3rd downs. Their 3rd down conversion percentage has been slowly sinking all season long, and it bottomed out at 25% against the Broncos. Remember that early drive when Lacy carried it twice from on 2nd and 3rd and short when they didn't pick up the 1st down? They can't afford any negative rushing plays at the moment and have to find plays that work on 3rd and short.

As much as the knee injury to Nelson has been the big story of the season on offense, a lesser story is the trifecta of ankle injuries (Adams, Montgomery, Lacy) that has taken away the three players who combined could replace Nelson's production. It's next man up time for one (or more) of these players to make the offense better for the rest of the season.