Monday, November 24, 2003

Packers 20, San Francisco 10. THIS was the best game of the year for the defense, replacing the Tampa Bay game as the previous best game. They held San Francisco to 192 yards and 3 for 12 on 3rd downs. Brett Favre threw 3 interceptions to give San Francisco some hope, but those 3 turnovers only led to 7 points. The score looks like this was a close game, but it was not close.

First Quarter: After the great run defense (they only allowed 73 yards on 21 carries all game) keys a 3 and out, Favre connects to Javon Walker on the first side line bomb I can remember working all season. Favre throws at least one of these passes a game, but this one worked, in large part to the single coverage on Walker. The next San Francisco drive dies in Packer territory in large part to Cletdius Hunt. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila got the sack, but it was caused by Hunt. Hunt had several big plays in San Francisco's back field, generated a pass rush all game, and easily had his best game of the season. Unfortunately, Favre throws a pass too high for Bubba Franks and Zack Bronson is in the right place at the right time to intercept it. Although they start at the Packers 20 yard line, the drive stalls and Todd Peterson, San Francisco's third kicker of the year, misses a gimme 28 yard field goal. Franks ends the quarter with a holding penalty to call back a first yard run by Ahman Green. Packers 7, San Francisco 0.

Second Quarter: Franks did not have his best game, as another pass intended for him is intercepted. Although San Francisco has great field possession again, this time at the Packers 22 yard line, 2 penalties and 2 incompletions push them out of field goal range and they have to punt. At this point I am thinking the game is over if San Francisco has the ball twice on 1st down at the Packers 20 yard line and they come away with no points. The passing game keeps leading to interceptions, so the Packers run 7 times in a row. What was amazing was that San Francisco knew they were going to run, because backup tackle Kevin Barry and backup fullback Nick Luchey were in as extra blockers on multiple plays, but they just ran it right at them. On the 25 yard run by Najeh Davenport, he had a giant running lane. The two passes Favre attempted were both completions and Robert Ferguson had a fantastic catch on a pass throw behind him and then he spun around after he caught it to cross the plane of the end zone just before falling out of bounds. San Francisco responds with a nice looking 6 minute drive which leads to a gimme field goal that Todd Peterson actually makes. Last week in Tampa Bay, the Packers ran an awful 2 minute drill at the end of the first half, but this week they did everything right. They ran and pass the ball successfully, ran all the time off the clock, and Longwell kicked a short field goal. Packers 17, San Francisco 3.

Third Quarter: More running Packers. Why not when your top two rushers Green and Davenport are averaging over 5 yards per carry, and 3rd string running back Tony Fisher isn't too far behind at 4.2 yards per carry. Longwell has been accurate all season on field goals, but he can't get enough distance for a 45+ yard field goal and his 49 yard attempt falls short. San Francisco answers with a 3 and out series and Antuan Edwards stuffs Terrell Owens (he tackles him around the waist, lifts him up, and slams him to the ground). Edwards is solid in coverage, apart from a poor week 1 vs. Randy Moss, but he hasn't been too good in run support, which is very important for a strong safety. For example, Anthony Thomas ran over and around him a few weeks ago in Chicago. So to see Edwards come up in run support and make a big run stop on 3rd down is a very promising sight. Unfortunately, Darren Sharper got hurt during the series. San Francisco can't get anything going on offense until Favre throws his 3rd interception of the game, when Mike Rumph plays the quick slant perfectly and cuts off Antonio Freeman on the route. Favre should have seen Rumph sitting there, but he probably thought he could squeeze it in. This leads to San Francisco's touchdown drive, when on 4th and short, Marques Anderson, Sharper's replacement, takes a bad angle on deep coverage of Owens and Owens runs past Anderson at the 5 yard line to catch the ball in the end zone. Anderson is great in run support, but his problems in coverage have led to him falling behind Edwards on the depth chart. You could see Al Harris talking at Anderson after the play. The Packers run, literally, out the clock on the quarter. Packers 17, San Francisco 10.

Fourth Quarter: The Packers ran the ball 16 times in the quarter and passed only twice. They had the ball for literally 13 minutes compared to 2 minutes for San Francisco who only had 8 plays (with 4 incompletions and 1 interception). San Francisco couldn't stop them from running the clock out and Edwards (what a great game for him!) jumped a corner route by Tim Rattay to intercept the ball with almost 6 minutes to go. The Packers just ran out the clock for the last 6 minutes, went 3 for 3 on 3rd downs on that last drive, including a great 3rd down run by Favre (of all people) to end the game. Packers 20, San Francisco 10.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Packers 20, Tampa Bay 13. As Darren Sharper commented after the game, they have to figure out why they are winning in Tampa Bay and Minnesota this year, but keep losing close games in Green Bay. If the Packers had won their two close defeats at Green Bay this season to Philadelphia and Kansas City, then it is likely the Packers are being talked about as a favorite for the Super Bowl at 7-3. This doesn't say as much about the Packers as it does about the parity in the NFC this season. Brett Favre had his worst game of the season (although the first half of week 1 vs. Minnesota was his worst half game of the season) but the defense had its best game. With the exception of the two big Thomas Jones runs, the Packers defense dominated Tampa Bay's offense.

First Quarter: After Tampa Bay's first punt, Antonio Chapman had a great punt return to start the drive at the Packers 47. Special teams and defense needed to make more plays, and both units delivered this week, although Tampa Bay is one of the weakest special team units in the NFL. The Packers only had two good looking drives in the game, where they passed and ran the ball effectively, but both drives ended with touchdowns. On their second drive, which led to their first touchdown, Favre completed 4 passes on the drive (he only completed 13 in the entire game) and 3 of them were on 3rd down. Ahman Green is already getting good yards running the ball. The difference between Green this season and past seasons is his production in the first halves of games. Tampa Bay had three drives in the first quarter, didn't convert a single 3rd down, and had one of the more laughable drives of the NFL season when they had three penalties in a row that resulted in only 3 penalty yards because they were pinned back so far against their end zone. Packers 7, Tampa Bay 0.

Second Quarter: Najah Davenport comes in to spell Green a couple times, 3 rushes in the first half, and every time he came in even I knew it was a running play. He gained no yards on his 3 rushes. I thought the Packers were being too obvious with their personnel packages, but in the second half it turned out to be a setup as they start running pass plays with Davenport in the backfield. A turnover! After only 2 turnovers in the last 4 games, a fumble recovery is big news. The Packers forced 3 turnovers in this game alone. Unfortunately the great field position only leads to a field goal. Thomas Jones second run of the game is a 61 yard explosion. Jones ran to Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila's side and the linebacker on that side (Na'il Diggs?) is blocked out of the play. Its bad news, but remember its only one of three big plays for Tampa Bay on offense all game while the rest of the time Green Bay dominated them. And the Packers hold them to a field goal. Great kickoff return by Davenport, of all people, leads to a field goal. With about 7 minutes left in the second quarter, Tampa Bay converts its only 3rd down of the game, and the drive ends in a punt. After Nick Barnett (What the heck is he doing so far down the field in coverage? Well it worked) intercepts Brad Johnson, the Packers spend the rest of the half confused: Are they going to try for one more score? Are they going to run out the clock? The Packers call a time out while Tampa Bay is trying to run out the clock, Mike Sherman is shown on the sidelines shaking his head in disbelief, and after a couple of 3 and outs on offense, Tampa Bay gets great field position on a bad Josh Bidwell punt and two Keyshawn Johnson pass completions later, Tampa Bay gets a gift field goal. Packers 13, Tampa Bay 6.

Third Quarter: Tampa Bay starts the half out with a rerun of Jones's big run over Gbaja-Biamila and Diggs's side which leads to a Keenan McCardell touchdown against Mike McKenzie. It seemed like a good start to the half for Tampa Bay, but their offense didn't do much after that drive. McCardell ran a nice route and Johnson put the ball right where it was needed, and McKenzie couldn't do much about it. Gbaja-Biamila hasn't been an obvious problem against the run this season until these two big Jones runs, and I don't know if its a problem or just well executed plays by Tampa Bay. The rest of the quarter is filled with drive killing penalties and failed 3rd down conversions. Favre threw an interception on a deep pass to Donald Driver on the type of forced pass he hadn't tried to throw in weeks. Everyone was covered on the rollout, but instead of throwing the ball away, he tried to force it into double coverage. Favre does make a great 3rd down completion to Robert Ferguson at the end of the quarter from the end zone which sparks a dominant 98 yard touchdown drive, so all is forgiven. Packers 13, Tampa Bay 13.

Fourth Quarter: Touchdown! Nothing sucks the life out of an opponent like a 98 yard almost 10 minute touchdown drive. Almost all of the plays were runs, and Tampa Bay just couldn't stop the Packers. Favre only threw 4 passes on the drive, all completions, and 3 of them were on 3rd down. This is the best run offense in the entire NFL right now. Favre only attempts 2 more passes on the next 2 drives. Tampa Bay has 3 more chances to get some offense going, but they can only manage 42 yards on the 3 drives and the last drive ends with a Sharper interception on a hail mary pass. Packers 20, Tampa Bay 13.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Packers 14, Philadelphia 17. Ugh. This was a defeat snatched from the jaws of victory type of defeat. The Packers had more yards on offense (307 to 282) and had the ball longer on offense (31:15 to 28:45), but they were killed on return yards (46 to 159) and turnovers (3 to 0). The Packers defense has only generated two turnovers in the last four weeks, and the special teams have been outperformed on kick returns (253 to 424) over the last three weeks. The Packers offense continues to make big plays, but unless the defense and special teams contribute big plays, the Packers will continue to lose close games. Although a 7-9 record might win this division (if Minnesota can't beat San Diego, who can they beat?) and the Packers get a Chris Berman inspired Bay of Pigs matchup next week with equally desperate Tampa Bay.

First Quarter: Fumbles. Its hard to blame Brett Favre with his broken thumb, but he just couldn't grip the ball in the rain with his cast on. Favre shouldn't have been benched, but I found myself considering the possiblity. On a team with no margin for error, Favre's fumbles were as deciding a factor as any in this game. The Packers start the game by running successfully. After watching Ahman Green struggle in the first half of games over the previous 3 years, and now to watch him succeed all game long is exciting. They started with a two fullback set, but the Packers were successful running without that alignment too. Unfortunately Favre's fumble on the first drive effectively kills the it, and Green's fumble on the second drive kills an even more promising drive. Philadelphia can't run or pass the ball, and Donovan McNabb got really lucky when he got hit on a pass and his dying quail wasn't intercepted. These two turnovers lead to punts, but Philadelphia is lucky not to be down by 6 to 14 points at this point. The Packers also got their lone sack when New Orleans castoff Grady Jackson and Jacksonville castoff Larry Smith generate more pass rush than any other high paid defensive lineman for the Packers. John Madden just seemed to ramble at times (e.g. "Philadelphia drafted TE L.J. Smith because they thought he could fill the TE/WR type of receiving position..." duh!), but Madden noticed the slick black elbow pads Green was wearing during Green's two fumbles, and Green didn't fumble the rest of the game once he removed them. Packers 0, Philadelphia 0.

Second Quarter: The Packers had as many critical penalties in the first half as they had all year up to this point. TE David Martin had a rare offensive pass interference call in the first half to call back a first down, and WR Robert Ferguson (I believe) had a holding penalty that called back another one. Favre's second fumble kills the first drive of the quarter. Philadelphia's offense is still comatose. Madden calls it again when Madden says that Nate Wayne, who was in statement game mode to prove the Packers made a mistake with him, has forced a turnover every time he has played on MNF. The second drive of the half in Philadelphia territory ends with a turnover, when Wayne makes the best one handed catch of the night for either team. Al Michaels is explaining how this is a Gold package game for former Milwaukee season ticket holders tonight and I am wondering if the Packers are trying to get their Milwaukee season ticket holders to turn in their tickets. Its hard enough to go to a Monday night game and then to work the next morning, but by the time the Milwaukee area residents fight traffic and get home its probably Tuesday afternoon. Why do the Packers schedule Gold games for Monday night? Luckily the Wayne interception only leads to a missed field goal. Philadelphia gets a chance to run the clock out for the half and let their inept offense regroup, but they can't even do that. The Packers offense finally puts together a drive without a turnover, Favre completes a couple of passes, and Green runs loose on a screen pass for the touchdown. Packers 7, Philadelphia 0.

Third Quarter: Philadelphia gets the ball first and changes the tone of the game. They still can't run (yet) but McNabb completes a few passes for the easy field goal. The Packers have a nice answering drive, but they run it one too many times, and a big negative loss on a 3rd down carry puts it out of Ryan Longwell's range, and he misses his first field goal of the season. This quarter is consumed by the first two long drives. MNF decides to show some great sauercraut footage and lets Madden do commentary about the sauercraut production workers techniques. Plus the ever exciting Turducken reference. I might have missed the thrills, but I didn't see any shots of the horsetrailer tonight. Packers 7, Philadelphia 3.

Fourth Quarter: The Packers first drive this quarter was really wasted. Three passes for 1 yard and punt. The passing game hasn't been working and the running game has been so why three passes? I don't know. Great tackle by Antuan Edwards (I think) stops Todd Pinkston from a first down on the next drive. The Packers respond with a run-run-pass-punt drive and then Philadelphia gets really lucky. McNabb uncorks another dying quail "long" pass but Mike McKenzie isn't playing the ball, he runs past James Thrash and slips, but Thrash is paying attention and goes back to the ball for the big play. If Favre had thrown that pass this season, it would have been intercepted. It is just one of those years. McNabb runs in for the short yardage touchdown. But Green makes up for his two fumbles and rips off his second big play of the game on a 4th down 45 yard touchdown run. The defense comes up big after a big kickoff return by Thrash, but then the Packers do the same thing Philadelphia couldn't do at the end of the first half; get first downs and run out the clock. McNabb dusts off the forgotten Duce Staley and Chad Lewis on four plays that take it down to the Packers 12 yard line. Edwards had Staley wrapped up on the screen pass, but he missed the tackle, and I am left wondering if Marques Anderson was playing safety whether he makes the tackle and changes the outcome of the game. Then Madden has another lucid moment and notices that Bhawon Jue is playing at cornerback for an apparently injured Al Harris. Jue has given up game winning touchdown passes before this season (Kansas City) and he is burned by Pinkston for Pinkston's first touchdown catch of the year and only the second touchdown caught by a wide receiver this season for Philadelphia. Nice. Additionally, Jue was one of the problems in the Arizona loss this season, and I don't think the Packers can afford to rely on him anymore. The Packers almost get back into field goal range again, but the football slips out of Favre's hand on the last chance pass and the game is over. Packers 14, Philadelphia 17.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Mid season review. Although the Packers' record, 4-4, indicates that they are an average team, only the special teams can be considered NFL average.

The offense has been outstanding: 3rd in the NFL with 365.8 yards/game and 3rd in the NFL with 28.8 points/game. The balance between the running game (154.3 yards/game) and the passing game (211.5 yards/game) is outstanding. Stopping Ahman Green from running should be the focus of every opposing defense, but only St. Louis has really shut down the running game all season. I think this is Brett Favre's best season. He doesn't have numbers comparable to his MVP seasons, but ever since the first half disaster in week 1 vs. Minnesota, he has made few mistakes and he has been very consistent. Favre often struggled at certain places in the past; Minnesota, Dallas and Tampa, but this season it hasn't mattered where he has played, and he has spread the ball around and moved the offense down the field.

The defense had a disappointing first half season: 30th in the NFL with 357.9 yards/game and 24th in the NFL with 24.1 points/game. They have had problems in pass coverage, generating a pass rush, creating turnovers, and getting off the field (teams are 46% on 3rd down against the Packers). The pass coverage was good against a great pass offense in Minnesota last week and might have turned a corner with the return of Antuan Edwards from injury and the promotion of Michael Hawthorne to the nickel cornerback. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Cletdius Hunt have not played up to their big offseason contracts, but neither of them are hurt and it wouldn't be surprising to see both of them have a big second half season. Nick Barnett has had an outstanding rookie season at middle linebacker, but he appeared hurt at the end of the Minnesota game. The Packers have to find a way to generate a consistant pass rush with a four man rush. The nose tackle position is a concern with Gilbert Brown playing through an injury and backup Rod Walker having problems with a bad knee, but the Packers picked up Grady Jackson this week to provide some depth. Unfortunately Minnesota was 6 for 12 on 3rd down last week and the Packers forced no turnovers.

Special teams had one bright spot, Ryan Longwell, who has not missed a field goal or extra point all season long. The punt return and kickoff return blocking seems to be getting worse as Antonio Chapman has seem less effective on returns in recent weeks. Still they are playing better than last year, but they can't let the special team unit regress.

The next two games are favorable for the Packers. They play Philadelphia at Lambeau and although Philadelphia has won three in a row they are not a dominant team, and the injuries are starting to pile up for them. Then the Packers travel to Tampa, where Favre has often struggled but I don't expect him to struggle in Tampa this year. Tampa has followed each win with a loss every game this season. Last week Tampa lost, this week at Carolina they should win, then they should have the corresponding loss to the Packers in Tampa in the following week. Added bonus: Tampa is 1-3 at home this year.

Monday, November 03, 2003

Packers 30, Minnesota 27. Are there two more evenly matched teams in the NFL this season? They have played twice, each team has won once, while the Packers have scored 55 points to Minnesota's 57. The Packers have the #3 offense and the #30 defense. Minnesota has the #3 offense (both the Packers and Minnesota have so far averaged exactly 365.8 yards/game on offense) and the #29 defense. The biggest difference is in the record; Packers 4-4 and Minnesota 6-2. The Packers score a point more per game but allow almost 4 more points per game, and Minnesota has forced more turnovers and has 18 interceptions to the Packers 9. Both teams offenses seem to be improving each week and both defense seem to be getting worse. This was a very close game.

First Quarter: The first Packers drive was excellent and it was a sign of things to come. Ahman Green ran for 45 yards on the opening drive on the Packers way to running for 261 yards for the game. I thought it was a bad sign that such a great looking drive stalled in the red zone, and the Packers had to settle for a field goal. Minnesota responded with a great drive of their own. The Packers defensive line was stood up and blocked out from making any plays, especially on the touchdown pass to Randy Moss when Daunte Culpepper had enough time in the pocket to wait for the play to develop and to finish reading a novel. The Packers defensive line got better as the game went on. It reminded me of their game vs. Seattle when the Packers defensive line was shoved around in the first half but got better as the game went on. In this game, the Packers pass rush just got better each quarter. The long touchdown catch was the only big play Moss made in the game. Donald Driver got a big play on a reverse and I can't remember the last time the Packers got a big play on a reverse. Driver also caught a touchdown pass on the drive, but Robert Ferguson was flagged for an illegal shift (while in motion he was weaving around like a drunk walking a white line) which negated the touchdown and the Packers settled for a field goal. The rest of the quarter is good defense by both teams, which was quite unusual for this game, and three punts. Packers 6, Minnesota 7.

Second Quarter: Minnesota's run defense continues to break down and Green and Najeh Davenport run for 33 yards on 2 carries. Brett Favre spread the ball to three different receivers on the drive and Green catches the touchdown pass on a quick pass coming out of the backfield and Green beats the defender to the corner of the end zone. Minnesota punts again, and by this point the Packers pass defense is playing very well. After the 43 yard touchdown pass to Moss, Minnesota only has 4 passes for over 10 yards the rest of the game and the longest was a 24 yard pass to Nate Burleson. Minnesota has killed the Packers with big plays in the past so this was an essential part of the win on Sunday, but the Packers defense couldn't stop the run and they couldn't stop Minnesota on 3rd down (Minnesota was 6 for 12 on 3rd downs). The Packers have another great drive but it is stopped by a Favre interception. Minnesota outcoached the Packers on this play; Minnesota blitzed to force Favre into a hot read and Corey Chavous was playing right in the throwing lane. Favre didn't see Chavous, he should have seen Chavous, but Minnesota blitzed to give Favre no time to read the field. Turnovers have killed the Packers this season, but this was the only turnover and it was meaningless. There was 6 minutes left in the half and Minnesota was guaranteed to get the ball back anyway. The Packers have had turnovers on offense kill them on offense, but the offense was almost perfect in this game and the lack of turnovers caused by the defense didn't cost them this game, but this is still a problem for the defense. Minnesota scored the touchdown on the drive, but the way they were successful running the ball, they might have scored on the next possession anyway. Minnesota had a nifty touchdown pass to Jim Kleinsasser when Kleinsasser did a great job of fake blocking and then turn to catch the short pass. Fortunately the Packers had enough time to retake the lead for good before half time with a two big plays by Green and Tony Fisher (all the Packers running backs, Green, Fisher and Davenport, had a great game) and a touchdown pass to Javon Walker wherein Walker made a great move on his namesake, Denard Walker, to run in for the touchdown. Packers 20, Minnesota 14.

Third Quarter: The bend but don't break defense quarter. Even when the Packers had a great defense with Reggie White in the mid-90s, the defense was successful because it didn't allow touchdowns and it forced turnovers, but they had trouble preventing teams from running up and down the field. In this quarter, Minnesota had the ball for about 12 minutes, but only came up with two field goals. The Packers often allowed a good gain on first down, and had trouble stopping Minnesota on 3rd down. Culpepper was 3 for 5 on third down in the quarter, but those two stops were huge. I was worried that these long drives would leave the defense exhausted in the 4th quarter. Packers 20, Minnesota 20.

Fourth Quarter: This touchdown drive started in the third quarter, but was played mostly in the 4th quarter. The Packers converted both of their 3rd downs on the drive, including a rocket pass and great catch by Walker in the end zone for his 2nd TD catch. The first 3rd down conversion was short yardage, but a 1st quarter drive was stopped when Green tried to rush on 3rd and short, so the Packers went to using William Henderson out of the backfield on a pass. The Packers had a key 3rd and short on their next drive too and threw a quick slant to Walker for the first down. On the best day the Packers have had running the ball in almost 20 years, it was interesting that they converted two crucial 3rd and shorts by passing the football. This quarter was the opposite of the 3rd quarter because the Packers had possession for most of it. With over 10 minutes left in the game and Minnesota down by 7 points, Minnesota's first drive in the 4th quarter died when they passed on three consecutive downs and had to punt. The Packers defensive line must have been worn out by this point on run defense, so this play calling might have cost Minnesota the game. The Packers pass rush, keyed by some great effort by backups Larry Smith and Chukie Nwokorie, started generating pressure on Culpepper. The Packers also had to start blitzing and although it forced Culpepper to hurry, it did not force any sacks or turnovers. The Packers last drive of the game used up almost 7 minutes and was 10 rushes to 1 pass, but the Packers run offense was so effective, including one 3rd and short converted on a Green run, that it set up the field goal that put the game out of reach. Ryan Longwell made 3 field goals and he made it look easy. The Packers special teams did not have a great game today, few quality returns and Minnesota had almost double the Packers return yards, but Longwell's 3 for 3 on field goals was a difference in the game. Minnesota scored a late touchdown but the resulting onside kick failed and that was it. On Minnesota's last touchdown drive, Nick Barnett hurt his ankle at a point earlier in the 4th quarter but he was still limping around on this drive. He probably should have been pulled. At one point, both Mike McKenzie and Al Harris blitzed from the corner, but Culpepper stepped up to avoid them and McKenzie and Harris collided with each other. Culpepper almost fumbled Minnesota's week 1 victory away to the Packers, but in this game he had no turnovers. Both quarterbacks had great games and Culpepper avoided his usual turnovers and Favre his usual Metrodome jinx. Packers 30, Minnesota 27.