Monday, December 11, 2017

Packers Avoid Embarrassing Loss To Browns in OT, 27-21

It was a battle of two teams featuring two of the worst QBs this season, Brett Hundley and DeShone Kizer, and the Green Bay Packers almost let the winless Browns get the best of them. It took a team effort to struggle badly for the first three quarters, before every unit (including a big punt return from Trevor Davis on special teams) on the team contributed to the win. A lot of players deserve mention for turning it around (Davis, Davante Adams, Damarious Randall) but this was the play that set them up for the win.
But it's depressing to even write about them having to come back. While the offense and defense eventually made the plays in the 4th quarter and OT that led to the win, those same two units led them into this deficit in the first place.

Hundley's day was statistically solid, but there was one stat that shows the problem; 5.8 ypa, which is about as bad as any quarterback is going to deliver. There was no vertical threat and the deep passes that were attempted were commonly thrown into double-coverage. Combine that a ground game that only produced 3.1 ypc, and early game struggles on 3rd down, and it led to an anemic offense for most of the game. The only quick fix to these problems is the return of Aaron Rodgers.

This quote summed up the current state of the defense:
The Packers’ pass rush was almost non-existent and defensive coordinator Dom Capers couldn’t blitz because of the coverage situation. Trying to win against the Panthers playing that way will be difficult.
The run defense got mauled too, but that's a lesser problem behind being unable to rush the passer and cover receivers. They can't do anything too aggressive to try and stop the passing game, instead they just play it pretty much straight with an ineffective 4-man rush and a mix of zone and press coverage (sometimes on the same play) to try and confuse the defense. If it's not confusing or slowing down DeShone Kizer, then I'm not sure who it's going to confuse.

Nothing would have been worse than a loss, but this win showcased all the things they haven't been able to do on offense or defense for most of the season.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Packers Win In OT over Bucs, 26-20

This was not the game I expected from the Green Bay Packers. The Buccaneers entered this game with an offense that couldn't run the ball and couldn't stop the pass, so of course the Packers allowed a 100 yard rushing game to Peyton Barber (which more than doubled his total yards rushing for the season) and QB Brett Hundley was held to under 100 yards passing.
I expected more from Hundley after he had a career game last week against the Steelers. Instead, he stunk it up against a terrible pass defense. Even though he probably faced as little pressure in this game as any he's started this season. At least he knew to run when the play broke down, which led to 66 yards rushing for the game including multiple runs for 1st downs. His legs were more valuable than his arms. Somehow the Packers converted 42% of their 3rd down attempts while not being able to throw the ball.

The beginning of the end for Hundley happened during their first drive. He looked pretty good at first, but then he missed Geronimo Allison for a wide open touchdown in the corner of the end zone and he never got his accuracy back. He only threw downfield a couple more times during the game, one of which was picked off, and the only reason his other downfield passes weren't picked off was because he usually threw them out of bounds. Mike McCarthy almost exclusively called screen passes the rest of the game, which was probably for the best but it left the offense dead for most of the second quarter and second half. They did manage to wake up to tie the game at the end of the 4th quarter, and in OT, because of a big dose of Hundley, Williams and Jones running (not Hundley passing).

At least the ground game was great. The Buccaneers are actually decent against the run this season, but they were missing a couple D-lineman and only Bucs' DT Gerald McCoy was much of a threat (he recorded 2 of their 4 tackles for a loss in this game). RB Jamaal Williams showed the downfield running that led them to selecting him in the 4th round, but he still doesn't have the home run ability that RB Aaron Jones showed on his only carry of the game, in OT when ran for the winning touchdown.
The Buccaneers line is a mess and the Packer pass rush woke up for the first time in a while with seven sacks and fumble recovery off one of them for a touchdown. But the Bucs ran the ball (though they shouldn't have been able to) and they killed them on screen passes (mostly to Barber, who led the Bucs in rushing and receiving).

In past seasons, I've looked at the Packers' defense and thought they really need to shore up one or two areas and it would make everything better. But now, no one area is especially terrible but no one area is especially good either. With the exception of their starting defensive tackles, they can't do much better up front than Clark and Daniels, they could stand to upgrade at every other position. Not that there isn't a role for all of their starters on the team (or in the NFL) but every position could use someone pushing them for a starting job. They've managed to turn a flawed defense into a uniformly below average unit.

I've been shocked that DC Dom Capers has kept his job every year since the end of the 2013 season (that defense was awful, and a couple years removed from his truly great 2010 season defense) but this feels like the end of the line. There's been no major Nick Collins or Sam Shields injury to point at as a reason why next season will be better. This defense is just not good enough as a whole.

I haven't been expecting a playoff run ever since it was apparent that Hundley was not ready to play (I'll give him a pass for his terrible relief appearance in Minneapolis but he's looked bad since his first start against the Saints). All I've wanted was for them to compete. But when they win without Aaron Rodgers (Bears, Buccaneers) it's against terrible teams in an ugly fashion. As bad as Hundley looks, he's had some good moments (Steelers game) but the defense has looked bad in one way or another in every game.

As for the rest of the season, they should beat the Browns (Kizer is one of the few QBs in the league worse than Hundley) and then they might be lucky to win one more game (at Carolina, home vs. Vikings, at Detroit) if they don't have Aaron Rodgers.

If they do have Aaron Rodgers, that would at least give them a chance though I don't see how the Vikings' offense doesn't carve up the Packers D at this point and I'd rather not see Rodgers play in a collarbone game rematch this season. At best, that's 9 wins, if Rodgers is back this season. I'd consider sitting him no matter what but it's going to be hard (impossible?) to keep him off the field if the doctors clear him to play. Even if they run the table, 10 wins might not be enough this season for the Wild Card. There are a lot of guys playing/coaching for their jobs and they're not going to give up on this season, as unlikely as the playoffs seem. I should probably just forget about all this talk and just hope they don't find someway to lose to the Browns next week.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Packers Surprise in Pittsburgh, Lose on Last Second FG, 31-28

That was an entertaining game! The Green Bay Packers had gotten overwhelmed at home in two of their prior three games (vs. Lions and Ravens) and have lost five of their last six (all the games finished by QB Brett Hundley) so I wasn't expecting much against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, but the Packers proved me wrong.
Despite a great game in Pittsburgh, I'm at the same place I was on Hundley after last week. He's a next generation Matt Flynn, a backup who can catch fire one week and become a disaster the following week. He looked much better against the Steelers than the Ravens mostly because he had good protection, and the Steelers have some serious issues in coverage (allowing deep touchdown passes to Davante Adams and Randall Cobb). Once the Steelers dialed up the pressure and forced him to do something outside of the pocket, it usually ended in an incompletion or a sack. He's still limited, but on Sunday night he did more than enough to win them the game.

All that time to throw means that the offensive line deserves credit for providing the clean pocket that led to some big plays, and a special mention for Jason Spriggs, who got the unexpected start at right tackle and probably his best game as a pro. There are still issues on the line but this was a big game for them. Hundley is only going to be as good as they are.

Also, rookie RB Jamal Williams ran hard and made some moves in the open field on his long receiving touchdown. His yards per carry isn't impressive (3.1 ypc) but the Steelers brought DBs up later in the game to take away his running lanes and stop the run. It's hard to run when their are defenders running unblocked at you in the backfield.
The defense forced three turnovers, those turnovers along with the big plays on offense kept the Packers in this game. But when the Steelers weren't turning the ball over, they were doing pretty much whatever they wanted to against the Packers D. Rookie CB Kevin King is far from a complete player, but he's their best cover corner and missed much of the game with a shoulder injury. In his place, CB Josh Hawkins and CB Davon House got roasted, mostly by WR Antonio Brown. While Brown is arguable the best player in the NFL, the Packers gave their corners safety help on seemingly every play against Brown and he still torched them.

The biggest problem was that the Packers pass rush was completely useless. Their only sack was due to tight coverage, and Roethlisberger held the ball for about 5 seconds in the pocket before DT Mike Daniels finally got to him. They gave him a clean pocket most of the night. OLB Clay Matthews was hurt and didn't play but his best pass rushing days are behind him anyway. He wouldn't have helped much on the rush, but DT Kenny Clark is probably their best player on defense this season and he also missed this game. Having his strength and energy at the line would have made a difference.

Eventually the run defense wore out, they were on the field almost the entire first half, and the tackling got sloppy, leading to a big 4th quarter for Le'Veon Bell. But to their credit, they were solid in the first half and into the 3rd quarter.

After last week's embarrassing loss to the Ravens, it has to feel good to have shown up for a road game against one of the best teams in the AFC. I'd still like them to stay competitive this season and finish with 8 wins, and this loss is a good place to start. I hate moral victories, but it's been so bad at times this season that they need to take them when they find them. In their upcoming games, they have to follow the same blueprint they followed against the Steelers; win the turnover battle, don't get away from the ground game, keep looking for those deep sideline passes, and hopefully get Kenny Clark back soon.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Packers Shut Out At Home By Ravens

I'm writing this a couple days later than usual because I couldn't stand to think about that awful game immediately after it happened. I went and binge watched Mindhunter on Netflix instead.

Looking back a couple days later, as depressing as the game was on Sunday, it still seemed like during the game that the Green Bay Packers could have turned it around. The Baltimore Ravens offense is a mess so this game didn't feel out of reach until the 4th quarter. Despite 3 first half turnover, the Ravens only had 6 points at half. The Ravens only had 219 yards of offense for the entire game!

Otherwise, this game was a lot like their previous home loss to the Lions, except the Lions have a functioning offense that put the game out of reach in the 2nd quarter.

There's a lot I could write about; the weak pass rush, the depleted, exposed secondary, this might finally be the end for DC Dom Capers, the running game misses Aaron Jones (and, though he's still a major league ass, the run blocking of Martellus Bennett), that Jason Spriggs returned from IR and brought his bad pass blocking back with him. But none of that really matters until the Packers get their starting quarterback back and send Brett Hundley to the bench.

Though I have to say that Hundley is a usable backup quarterback. He should never be handed a starting job on a full-time basis, but he has moments and that's really all that can be expected from a backup. If Rodgers is injured during a game, it's at least possible that Hundley could catch fire and finish the hypothetical game with a win. Someday he might even be as good as Matt Flynn was.
The worst sight is seeing Hundley back in the pocket, with pressure in his face. In that situation, he'll either run backwards 10 yards, take a sack, or throw an ill-advised pass into the middle of the field. The best he's done on any broken play is run for a first down. Every upcoming defensive coordinator should keep on disguising coverage (because he's not seeing the field) and blitz the heck out of him. Put pressure on him, take away his first read, and he's done.

A run heavy game plan isn't a formula for success, there's no NFL team who's currently successful with it, but the ground game has been working for the Packers. They also have to work the sidelines with deep passes to Adams and Nelson, which would keep the safety honest against the run and Hundley is best at throwing outside the numbers. They should be avoiding passes to the middle of the field at all costs. Above all else, they have to avoid all turnovers.

That strategy would really limit the offense and wouldn't stress opposing defenses. But it would keep them competitive in games against teams without much offense and it give them a couple wins. The playoffs aren't realistic so it's best to just keep each game as competitive as possible and give the fans something to stay for through the 4th quarter.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Packers End Three Game Losing Streak, Defeat Bears, 23-16

It was hardly a blow out win for the Green Bay Packers. It took an assist from a sloppy Bears team (8 penalties) and one of the worst coaches' challenges of all time, but their three game losing streak is over.
The run defense was good for the second week in a row and this time it was against a good rushing attack (Bears) instead of one that is usually among the worst in the league (Lions). But the pass defense was a mess again. They did record 5 sacks, which usually happened when the coverage held up downfield. But the Bears have probably the worst group of receivers in the league, it's so bad that Dontrelle Inman immediately became their No. 1 receiver after one week of practices. Inman had 58 receptions in 2016 but only had 2 with the Chargers in 2017 before his trade last week to the Bears. Trubisky had never completed more than 20 passes or thrown for more than 200 yards in a game until he faced the Packers. The Bears' top 3 wide receivers (and targets) combined for 13 receptions, 189 yards and 1 touchdown, which was more than the Packers' top 3 wide receivers combined (11 rec., 162 yards and 1 touchdown).

There's not much that can be done to improve that unit the rest of the season. CB Davon House is getting worse, Trubisky seemed to be targeting him in coverage during the 2nd half. CB Kevin King is their best cornerback, but he still has a couple plays per game when he looks like a rookie. CB Damarious Randall has been better at playing in Morgan Burnett's hybrid role but they already have Burnett (when healthy) to play there. S Kentrell Brice is on IR and not coming back this season, not that he was making much of a difference anyway. At least they have an easier match-up against QB Joe Flacco next week.

As for their new quarterback:
This was Hundley's best game as a starter but he's still inexperienced. He's making crazy mistakes like when he called a timeout for no reason and when he threw the ball away on a busted play instead of running into about 10 yards of open green in front of him. He shouldn't be taking so many sacks and he needs to quit running backwards in a loop for about 10 yards whenever he's forced out (or thinks he's being forced out) of the pocket. Some quarterbacks never figure these things out but at this point I'm willing to cut him a little slack in his first three NFL starts.

And despite everything I wrote above, this was his best NFL game against a solid Bears' defense in wet weather conditions. He made a couple of highlight reel completions to Adams, including one for a touchdown, and he didn't turn the ball over. He wasn't very mobile, at some point during the game he injured his hamstring and played through it, but he still ran for a big 1st down late in the game and he's already run for two touchdowns in his first 3 NFL starts. His completion percentage was over 70% for the game.

A win is always a good thing, and at least the Packers looked a lot better than they did against the Lions. I'm not looking for a big playoff run or expect Hundley to transform into Rodgers v.2 by season's end, but they played better and hopefully they keep it up over the next 7 games.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Packers Problems Are More Than Just Hundley and Bennett

There's a lot going on with the Green Bay Packers between QB Brett Hundley playing poorly, Colin Kaepernick questions swirling around, and TE Martellus Bennett quitting on them. But don't sleep on the fact that the defense got rolled by Matthew Stafford last Sunday and the wheels seem to be coming off.
I've been wondering what the heck the Packers' safeties have been doing this season (Morgan Burnett is playing well, when healthy, but he's been a linebacker/slot corner this season). I've rarely seen any of them with a big pass defense or turnover. They usually show up one or two seconds late after a big gain to get in on a tackle. Against a team built around a short passing game, like the Lions, I'd expect the safeties are playing a little deep but then ready to come crashing down on the short yardage play. They're kind of doing it but the crashing down is tentative and it's not blowing up any plays.
Again, there are reasons the coaches are running this hybrid combo coverage to try and confuse the quarterback (a questionable decision against a veteran like Stafford). But when the pass rush doesn't come anywhere near Stafford, he can wait a couple seconds until the cornerback releases the receiver into the massive void created between the corner and the deep, deep safety. Also, while Stafford isn't always accurate, he was really sharp last Sunday, though I don't know I'd scheme with the expectation that the quarterback isn't going to be accurate. I'm not sure why the safeties have to be so deep against a Lions team without much of a downfield passing threat. I don't know everything that's going on here, but the results on both of the above plays is that it made it way too easy for the Lions.

There were some good things that happened on defense. DT Kenny Clark played great and along with Mike Daniels they shut down the middle of the line against the run. DE Dean Lowry isn't much of a pass rusher but he's turned into a good early down lineman. And OLB Vince Biegel was good in his first action of the year, considering he's only played about a one week's worth of football in 2017, and he'll be a big upgrade in the rotation over Fackrell and Odom, once they let Biegel's snap count go up.
I don't know what to say of a rested defense coming off a bye week, at home against an opponent they know so well, who gets rolled like this. I'm thinking of a lot of things and some of them could be very bad for the rest of this season and cost a lot of coaches and players there jobs in the offseason. Maybe that's what needs to happen in January.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Packers Lose Third Straight: Packers 17, Lions 30

Sometimes you lose by 13 points and the game is closer than the score might indicate. This was the opposite of that for the Green Bay Packers. They were outplayed badly on defense and on offense. They came off the bye week as flat as any well rested team can be. I mentally checked out in the 2nd quarter and started comparing them to the 1987 Green Bay Packers (the defense was better that season). A team that can't score more than 20 points or hold any opponent to under 20 points is going to be bad.
The Lions can't run the ball (and didn't) but they have an effective short passing game that feasted on a Packer team with no pass rush and defensive backs who couldn't keep up with any receivers (they only recorded 1 pass defense). I wasn't optimistic about the secondary coming into the season. They've been better than last season's horror show but they're still bad.
The good news is that the defense is going to look a whole lot better over their next two games, when they battle two quarterbacks (Mitchell Trubisky and Joe Elite Flacco) who have lower QBRs than Brett Hundley.
Midway through the 3rd quarter, the Packers had the ball on 4th down at midfield. If Aaron Rodgers was on the field, the Packers would have run a quick slant or maybe a naked bootleg off play action. But with Hundley, they ran a pseudo jet sweep with WR Randall Cobb that lost 3 yards, and led to the above tweet by former Packer TE Tom Crabtree.

Maybe he's just the next great garbage time quarterback. Until early in the 4th quarter it looked like he would be held to under 100 yards passing for the 2nd straight game but two late touchdown drives after the game was out of reach boosted his passing yardage to 245, his completion percentage to 68.4% and his QBR to 51.5.

The optimist sees that 4th quarter and thinks he's adjusting to the starting role. The realist is still thinking back to the 2nd quarter:
He's been really bad over the past 2+ games but there aren't any better solutions on the roster. He got his starting offensive line back (except now it looks like Bryan Bulaga's season is over) and maybe 4 out of 5 ain't bad. The 4th quarter was probably a mirage but an optimist can say it was a sign of hope. It doesn't get any easier for him the rest of November with three good to great defenses ahead on the schedule. I'm not expecting any playoff run in their future but I do hope that Hundley can keep improving enough to make their games watchable and competitive for the rest of the season.