Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Packers 14, Philadelphia 19. 5 Packer turnovers, including 2 kickoff return fumbles and 2 interceptions in the end zone, decided the game. For the second week in a row, the Packers offense was awful in the 2nd half, only 109 yards on offense in the second half vs. Philadelphia after less than 100 yards on offense last week vs. Minnesota.

First Quarter: Two three-and-out on offense and two poor punts combined with poor punt coverage started Philadelphia's first two possessions inside the Packers 40 yard line. DE Aaron Kampman forced a fumble on the first Philadelphia possession and Philadelphia only gained 13 yards on the second possession, leading to only a 3-0 deficit. Then RB ReShard Lee fumbles the kickoff return. If that was the only kickoff return fumbled by Lee this season, then Lee has caught, ran, or returned (total touches) 27 times and has 3 fumbles. Last week CB Jason Horton blew coverage against Minnesota in the final minute of the game and found himself on I.R. and out for the season, now Lee finds himself on I.R. with injured ribs after his latest (and last) fumble. Maybe the injury was causing all the fumbles?

The next drive really showed the worst part of the game; the complete collapse of the run defense. Minnesota had a lot of success running right at DE KGB and DT Cullen Jenkins, but also they were able to push NT Grady Jackson way off the line of scrimmage. DT Colin Cole got the start instead of Jenkins, but the results were the same. On RB Brian Westbrook's TD run, he ran to the left side, but then cut back across the middle because it was wide open after Jackson was pushed out of the play. It has been surprising that Jackson has held up this late into the season, considering that he opened training camp by flunking his physical and there is no backup nose tackle on the roster. NT Donnell Washington is on the team, but he has been inactive every game this season. Jackson either needs to be benched or given more time off. The Packers probably need to play DT Kenny Peterson at nose tackle and just hope for the best.

Then RB Samkon Gado shows off why he is NFL offensive rookie of the month by breaking 2 runs for 51 yards and a touchdown. Either constant fumbling is not a factor in being named offensive rookie of the month or it has been a quiet month for rookies. A big reason for Gado's big month is that G Scott Wells has started the last three weeks in place of benched LG Adrian Klemm. Over the last three weeks, the run blocking was great against Atlanta (one of the worst run defenses in the NFL), awful against Minnesota (average run defense this season), and great in the first half against Philadelphia (one of the best run defenses in the NFL). If Gado struggled against Philadelphia, the Atlanta game would look like a fluke. Maybe Gado and Wells have improved the run offense into at least an average unit, but the next few games will have to determine it.

Second Quarter: TE Bubba Franks is injured after taking a shot to the head. QB Brett Favre threw the ball to the wrong side of Franks, but it wasn't an obviously dangerous pass. Unfortunately FS Brian Dawkins timed his hit just as the ball got to Franks, but Franks was at an odd angle reaching back for the ball. Dawkins wasn't to blame, but it was an unfortunate situation and far too similar to the hit that ended WR Terrence Murphy's season a few weeks ago. The good news is that Franks will recover from it. Favre throws the first of his two interceptions in the end zone. SS Michael Lewis hadn't caught an interception all season until Favre threw the pass up for grabs. The Packers need to stretch the field, the offense isn't good enough to slowly work down the field throughout an entire game, but the interception was awful. It looked like the cold weather kept the ball from going to the back of the end zone as Favre intended. But this interception, and the game ending interception in the fourth quarter on a pass attempt to WR Robert Ferguson in the end zone, were either held up by cold weather or an ill advised attempt to throw the ball up for grabs and see what happens. Maybe Philadelphia brings out the worst in Favre's instincts. In the 2003 playoff game at Philadelphia, Favre threw up a pass for grabs in overtime that was intercepted and led to the game losing Philadelphia field goal. Favre did make up for it later in this quarter with a brilliant TD pass to TE David Martin. Despite the poor decision by Favre, the poor special teams play, and the collapse of the run defense; Packers 14, Philadelphia 10.

Third Quarter: The Packers offense has the ball for almost 9 minutes in the quarter and manages a whopping 59 yards. The big drive, a 33 yard drive, ends with another Gado fumble. Fortunately, Andy Reid forgets the Packers run defense is in shambles and actually has useless QB Mike McMahon throw 10 passes in the quarter and only runs the ball 5 times. Unfortunately, Reid lets Westbrook run on 4th and 1 at the 50 yard line, Westbrook runs right at DE KGB (again) for a 22 yard gain, and sets up the only score of the quarter. With the release, excuse me injury, to Horton last week, CB Mike Hawkins receives his first substantial playing time this season as the third CB. The Packers one great strength this season is that they have shut down opposing wide receivers this season. CB Al Harris is probably having the best season of his career and should be heading to the Pro Bowl. Philadelphia only completed 5 passes for 31 yards to their wide receivers in this game to continue the trend. Unfortunately, all the wide receivers with catches started the season competing for the number 3 wide receiver spot and they were thrown by Philadelphia's number 3 QB, so this is not a clear sign the trend will continue. Packers 14, Philadelphia 13.

Fourth Quarter: Neither team decides to run a pro-style offense in the 4th quarter. The Packers gain a whopping 22 yards in the quarter, although they didn't have too many opportunities. Philadelphia has a six minute, 60 yard scoring drive that kept the offense on the sidelines. Philadephia ran it some, McMahon dumped off a couple passes, and he scrambled on a couple other plays. Just enough offense to score a field goal. Then WR Andrae Thurman had the Packers 2nd special teams fumble of the game, which led to a time killing field goal drive. How Thurman didn't end up on the I.R. this week with a rib injury is a complete mystery. A personal foul by the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Week, DE Trent Cole, negated an interception and gave the Packers another chance, but the Favre threw the interception into double coverage discussed during the second quarter that ended the game. Packers 14, Philadelphia 19.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Maybe CB Jason Horton blew the coverage that led to the game winning field goal Monday night because he was injured? Horton injured his shoulder on October 23rd, was given more playing time after CB Joey Thomas was released on November 2nd, and played the entire game (as far as I could tell) whenever the Packers went into nickel coverage, including in the final minutes of the game on Monday. But today his month old shoulder injury is so bad that he is placed on injured reserve and he can't play for the rest of the season? If this was punishment for his bad play on Monday, then why not just release him? Do the Packers want Horton out of their sights for the rest of the season, but want to keep their exclusive free agent rights for 2006 just in case? In any event, Horton's season is done and the Packers signed CB Jerron Wishorn from the practice squad to take his place. It would seem CB Mike Hawkins is the nickel cornerback, but I can't remember seeing Hawkins actually play in a game in several weeks. The Packers have usually brought S Marviel Underwood into the game when they play with a sixth defensive back.

Despite the revolving door of nickel cornerbacks, the Packers defense has improved to an average NFL defense, according to Football Outsiders. This is quite an accomplishment, considering the Packers do not create a lot of turnovers and has made the transition to a new scheme while using almost the same personnel from last season's 29th best defense. Last offseason I thought that if the Packers defense could improve to an average unit, then the Packers will have a great 2005. Unfortunately, I didn't expect K Ryan Longwell to be the first half season Loser League MVP and the Packers great run offense to completely collapse.

The Packers made two other moves this week; releasing WR Chad Lucas and S Earl Little. Lucas was signed for depth a couple of weeks ago, but with the return of WR Robert Ferguson, Lucas wasn't needed anymore. Little was signed as a free agent last offseason to compete for the starting free safety spot. FS Nick Collins emerged early as the starter in training camp and Little was moved to a backup roll almost immediately. A hamstring injury ended Little's season on October 29th and his release ended his career as a Packer.
Packers 17, Minnesota 20. The season gets longer and longer. It is payback for the two 3 point victories last season that won the Packers the NFC North division title. Unfortunately, the home field advantage it created did not lead to a win in the opening round of the playoffs. The same can be said this season; Minnesota wins two close games against the Packers, but it doesn't help in the offseason when both teams need to retool the rosters and the Packers are selecting a few spots ahead of Minnesota in every round.

The biggest disappointment is that this probably ended any chance that Mike Sherman had at returning as coach next season. Sherman isn't a perfect coach, but he knows how to coordinate a successful offense and he built the team that won the division three seasons in a row. His biggest sin is that he isn't GM Ted Thompson's chosen coach, but the Packers inability to win at home the last two seasons and two home playoff losses in three seasons is probably unforgiveable. Losing to division rival Minnesota in a cold, non-dome situation is probably the worst possible home loss.

First Half: The Packers came out with a lot of energy and Minnesota looked flat. Minnesota didn't have any success running or throwing the football. The Packers offense had some life, but the lift that RB Samkon Gado brought to the running game vs. Atlanta vanished. The defense abused QB Brad Johnson badly in the quarter, especially DE Aaron Kampman. Kampman dominated the two right tackles that played against him. The player that really shined in the half was rookie FS Nick Collins. Collins had his first career interception and was much more involved in the game. The Packers are starting to see the rewards for letting Collins learn how to play in the NFL on the field in his rookie season. QB Brett Favre's two great TD passes to WR Donald Driver in the half were great, but his interception returned for a touchdown by a player forced into the lineup due to the injury to starting CB Fred Smoot was awful. In the Packers last two losses, Favre committed a turnover that was returned for a touchdown and it was the difference in each game. Packers 14, Minnesota 7.

Second Half: Minnesota came out of the locker room with a spark and now the Packers looked flat, as the two teams repeated the same game played in Minnesota last month. The Packers offense plays worse the longer the game goes on. In the first half, the opposing team gives some respect to the Packers running game, just in case someone like Gado comes off the bench and has a great game. In the second half, the opponent has first hand knowledge that the run offense is no threat and it gets much harder to throw the ball. It doesn't help Favre that his #2 WR could not get open as he is probably playing with an injury (Robert Ferguson), his #3 WR is short (Antonio Chatman), and his #4 WR is bad (Andrae Thurman). The offense had a spark in the 4th quarter when TE Donald Lee lined up as the slot receiver and Favre threw four completions to him.

The big story in this half was that Minnesota ran up and down the field against the Packers' defense. Minnesota's offense had been slumbering for at least the last game and a half, but they turned it around. They started exploiting that the Packers are awful at covering tight ends. TE Jermaine Wiggins had two big catches on Minnesota's first touchdown drive. S Mark Roman had a illegal use of hands penalty that kept the drive alive and was as much of a difference in the game as any other play. Then Minnesota discovered the benefits of rushing right at DE KGB. Gbaja-Biamela wasn't at fault for getting blocked on the run plays right at him, only once was he blocked cleanly out of the play. But the defensive tackle to that side was usually blocked by the center, the left guard was able to move downfield to block the linebacker, if one was actually present on that side, and RB Mewelde Moore was able to run untouched for at least seven yards. It didn't help either that the defensive line all appeared to tire as they spent the entire second half on the field and Minnesota started to get a solid push from their entire offensive line on running plays. The run defense that looked solid in the first half was tired and shoved around in the fourth quarter.

The big play that sealed the game was the long pass to a wide open WR Koren Robinson. After CB Joey Thomas was released after the Cincinnati game because he committed a big penalty late in the 4th quarter that sealed the loss. Enter new 3rd cornerback CB Jason Horton. With a minute left in the game, the Packers blitz, Horton thinks he is playing a cover 2 short zone, lets Robinson run right by him, but only Collins is deep in coverage for the entire field. Horton was obviously playing the wrong defense. A typical play in a season filled with big mistakes and few big plays. Packers 17, Minnesota 20.

Friday, November 18, 2005

It's never too early to look at the 2006 NFL Draft. Especially since the Packers' bad season is positioning the team for their first top 10 draft pick since the DE Jamal Reynolds experience. Reynolds had a knee injury in his rookie season that effectively ended his NFL career, but it should be talked about as one of the most lopsided trades in NFL history; the 1st round pick that became Reynolds for QB Matt Hasselbeck and the 1st round pick that became OG Steve Hutchinson. The last time the Packers played bad enough to earn the right to draft in the top 10, former GM Ron Wolf made the mistake of drafting the immortal CB Terrell Buckley with the 5th pick and passing on ex-Wisconsin and future Pro Bowl CB Troy Vincent who was drafted with the 7th pick. Sometimes it pays to be a homer.

Scott Wright projects the Packers with the 8th pick and selecting Minnesota RB Laurence Maroney. I agree with Scott's analysis. The 2005 injuries have created the need at running back and RB Ahman Green might never be the same after his knee injury. Both Green and RB Najeh Davenport are free agents too. Scott's analysis also has 6 linebackers and 5 defensive tackles drafted in the first round. If the Packers win more games and fall closer to the 15th pick than the 5th pick and after Maroney and RB Reggie Bush are long gone, then the Packers might go that direction too. If the win against Atlanta was not a sign of more wins to come and just a sign that Atlanta has a bad case of the fumbles, then a top 5 pick could net Bush or LB A.J. Hawk.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The NFC North has had its share of weird stories over the last 12 months. From Mike Tice selling tickets, to Ahman Green's court dates, to Charles Rogers suspension. It didn't seem possible that the Minnesota Vikings "Love Boat" cruise would be topped, but an FBI investigation of the Chicago Bears might do it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Packers 33, Atlanta 25. The Packers put it all together in Atlanta. RB Samkon Gado ran the ball, the defense forced multiple turnovers, QB Brett Favre limited his turnovers to one interception, and K Ryan Longwell made all his attempted kicks. P B.J. Sander botched another snap and took one field goal attempt away from Longwell, but that was as bad as it got.

In some ways, it was just another game for the Packers. Although the running game came alive after a season of slumber, it was against the 29th best run defense. Although the kick return unit had their longest return of the season, it was only returned out to the 35 yard line. The kick coverage was good, but Atlanta struggles returning kicks almost mimic the Packers' struggles.

The biggest differences between this game versus the seven losses is that the Packers won the turnover battle and Longwell made all his kicks.

First Quarter: Although Gado held onto the ball against Pittsburgh, he had his first of two fumbles. Both fumbles were recovered, but it was just lucky that the ball bounced the Packers way. RB ReShard Lee lost his chance to start due to fumbles too, so apparently the Packers have more faith in Gado than Lee at this point. Gado has good accelleration through the holes opened by the offensive line and his speed made his 10 and 20 yard gains possible. The offensive line had their best game of the season too and made Gado's big game possible. The Packers run defense struggled in the first half. RB Warrick Dunn had some good runs and there were a couple of missed tackles. Although Atlanta ran the ball, QB Michael Vick didn't make any big plays and couldn't push the ball downfield to his wide receivers. The Packers use of the blitz on defense was the best it had been all season; the blitzers, such as CB Al Harris, were able to put pressure on Vick while not allowing him the chance to exploit single coverage downfield. Use of the blitz has killed the Packers at various times this season because they can't get to the quarterback before he can exploit the single coverage it creates. Packers 14, Atlanta 0.

Second Quarter: The Packers gave up two touchdowns pretty quick. The Favre interception and the pass interference by CB Ahmad Carroll brought back memories of various Packer losses this season. A big play that may have turned the game back around was the sack of Vick by DE Aaron Kampman. Atlanta was at the Packers 35 yard line on second down, driving for a go-ahead score when Vick dropped back to pass, felt pressure from his left, rolled to his right towards Kampman, who pushed his blocker into Vick, and made the sack. It led to a punt and Atlanta never got closer to a lead in the game. It was good to see LB Na'il Diggs back after a seven week injury absence. He rotated in and out with LBs Paris Lenon and Brady Poppinga but was probably on the field more than either player. Diggs played well, but seemed a step behind on each play, understandable considering he was returning from a serious knee injury. Packers 17, Atlanta 14.

Third Quarter: The offense played well, but this was the defense's quarter. Atlanta couldn't run the ball and ran no play for more than 10 yards. DT Kenny Peterson forced a fumble, LB Nick Barnett blitzed Vick, and the Packers scored points off the turnovers. Peterson has played very well the last couple of weeks, alongwith DT Colin Cole, both creating an inside pass rush. On the fumble, Peterson was actually a substitution for DE KGB at defensive end, so his versatility has been an asset too. Packers 23, Atlanta 14.

Fourth Quarter: The punt coverage fails and lets Atlanta start at the Packer 26 yard line, but the defense holds Atlanta to a field goal. The offense can't push it into the end zone, settling for field goals, until WR Rodney White helps with a fumble that is returned to the 2 yard line. Gado's TD run effectively ended the game. The Packers prevent defense helped Atlanta get close with a touchdown drive and 2 point converstion, but failed on side kick ends the game. Packers 33, Atlanta 25.

Friday, November 11, 2005

I've been asleep at the wheel. The Packers released 2004 3rd round pick CB Joey Thomas last week after he made a big mistake in the loss at Cincinnati and then failed to admit it. Obviously 2005 has been a major disappointment for Thomas. In the 2005 mini-camps, Thomas had been the starting cornerback opposite CB Al Harris, but he had an injury and lost his job to CB Ahmad Carroll. When he was finally healthy, he didn't play very well. He was beaten badly by WR Braylon Edwards against Cleveland for a long touchdown a few weeks ago and then he committed an illegal use of hands penalty at Cincinnati to seal their victory. It wasn't absolutely necessary to release Thomas last week, the Packers used his roster spot to pick up DB Jeremy Thornburg who had just been cut by defense-challenged San Francisco, but it appeared the Packers, certainly Mike Sherman, had given up on Thomas and felt he had no future with the team.

The only active roster move this week was bringing WR Chad Lucas up from the practice squad. Lucas played some in the preseason and he didn't really stand out. If the injury to WR Antonio Chatman keeps him out in Atlanta, say hello to 3rd wideout Chad Lucas! Chatman is listed as probable and should play on Sunday. What is worse is that WR Andrae Thurman is the current 3rd wideout. Thurman played at the end of the 2004 season and he looked confused on pass routes during the playoff game versus Minnesota. He also committed at least one illegal shift penalty against Pittsburgh. Thurman hasn't caught a pass in 2005 and has a grand total of 2 catches for 12 yards in his NFL career. This might be the reason QB Brett Favre is feeling so lethargic this week.

Maybe OL Scott Wells will take over for OL Adrian Klemm this week at left guard. Klemm was the Packers big free agent signing this season, although it was not a big spending offseason. Klemm was not missed in New England, where he spent his first few seasons recovering from injuries and usually disappointing on the field. Klemm committed a big false start penalty against Pittsburgh which helped set up the sack of Favre, fumble, and return for the touchdown by Pittsburgh. The bigger sin Klemm might have committed is his inability to pull on running plays. After watching ex-Packer LG Mike Wahle pull and destroy whatever defender happened to get in his way over the last few seasons, I haven't seen anything like that from Klemm. It might be part of the reason the Packers running game has struggled this season. It was very noticeable against Pittsburgh, because the Packers could not run outside the tackles at all during the game. This seemingly small move might make a big improvement.

Footballoutsiders.com handed their First Half Loser League MVP award to K Ryan Longwell. The article is about half way down the page. Go read the article or read my comments regarding Longwell I've made this season. I was surprised to read that no one in the NFL was less valuable than Longwell, but I can't disagree with it either.

Another bit of knowledge from footballoutsiders.com com (via Fox Sports) is that the Packers are the worst team in the NFL by far in late and close offense. I don't have an exact definition or late and close, but you probably get the idea. That statement is true, but not really the whole story.

It is true that the Packers often have a chance late in games to tie or win and fail to pull victory from the claws of defeat. However, the Packers have shown the ability to rally and come from behind, but they are usually so far behind they can't make it all up. The Cincinnati game is a great example. The Packers were down 21-7 early in the 4th quarter and the Packers spent the next 10 minutes of the game clock driving for a touchdown to close it to 21-14. The Packers have had few big plays on offense this season and the scoring drives are usually long. It took so long to get close, that when they got the ball back, there just wasn't any time left to march down the field again. It isn't so much that when the game is on the line the Packers choke, but that to come back in the first place took so much time that the situation is almost impossible when they catch up within one score.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Packers 10, Pittsburgh 20. The Packers have found different ways to lose this season. Sometimes the offense is MIA (Detroit), sometimes the defense is MIA (Cleveland), and once neither the offense or defense came back out of the locker room after halftime (Minnesota). But usually the Packers lose because the running offense is bad, they lose the turnover battle, and the special teams are bad. Against Pittsburgh, the Packers' leading rusher averaged 2.5 yards per carry, they had 3 turnovers (all of them led to points) and forced 1 turnover (led to no points), and missed a short field goal attempt. Just a typical 2005 Packers' loss.

The defense played very well in this game and have gotten better each week this season, but the lack of turnovers created by the defense has been one of the factors that has killed the team this season. When the Packers force more than one turnover in a game this season, they are 1-0. When they force zero or one turnover in a game, they are 0-7. It is not the sole reason for the Packers struggles this season, but it is a hard stat to ignore.

First half: After a half of football, the Packers dominated on both offense and defense and were down 13 to 3. QB Brett Favre was almost perfect on 3rd down in the 2nd quarter, RB Samkon Gado stepped off the practice squad and had a very good first half, and Pittsburgh offense did nothing after a big 43 yard reverse on their first drive of the game. But RB ReShard Lee's fumble and Favre's fumble led to Pittsburgh scores.

When Chicago played at Lambeau in 2004, RB Ahman Green was about to run in for a touchdown but LB Brian Urlacher stripped the ball and it was ran back for a touchdown. The Packers lost by the swing in the score on that single play. The same thing happened in this game. Pittsburgh overloaded the left side of the line with two blitzers while the Packers played with an empty backfield. Favre couldn't avoid them both, fumbled on the sack, and it was ran back for a touchdown. It was at least a tying 10 point swing and possibly a winning 14 point swing. The whole game was decided, in the end, by this one play.

This half also had a lot of penalties; most of them were false starts and illegal shifts. Most of them were probably due to so many new players playing together, but they were all unacceptable mental mistakes. K Ryan Longwell missed another field goal he would have made in any of the past few seasons, as the special teams continued their decent to the worst in the NFL. The one bright spot remains P B.J. Sander (when he is punting, but not when he is holding). The kick return unit has been anemic for the last few seasons, and it hasn't even been good since ex-Packer CB Allen Rossum was still on the roster. The kick coverage has been hampered by Longwell's short kickoffs for a few seasons.

Second half: The offense struggled as the running game disappeared and the passing game vanished in the 4th quarter. The defense was outstanding for most of the game, until RB Duce Staley came in and some success running the ball. The defense continues to get better, as CBs Al Harris and Ahmad Carroll, SS Mark Roman, FS Nick Collins, LB Nick Barnett, DE KGB, and DE Aaron Kampman remain in on almost every play, while rotating linebackers and defensive tackles during the entire game. LB Robert Thomas had a first half interception, while DT Kenny Peterson had an impressive second half as parts of their respective rotations. Unfortunately in the end, the defense couldn't stop Staley and the offense turned the ball over twice on downs to end the fourth quarter.

The Packers are not likely to fix the running offense this season, but they could still improve their special teams, which is ranked 28th according to footballoutsiders.com, although the Packers have been needing to improve the special teams for at least the last three seasons and still haven't done it. With Chicago on a winning streak, four games ahead of the Packers, the Packers should start looking towards next season, but that is probably not going to happen. With Mike Sherman playing for his job and Favre playing in maybe his last season, they probably won't give up until week 17 is over. Plus the Packers aren't out of the division race yet; they still have the easiest of their division games (home against all of them and at Chicago) still to play and every one of the other teams in the division has major shortcomings, but it will be hard to keep up the intensity while trying to fix the running game and special teams for the rest of the season.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Packers 14, Cincinnati 21. Another week, another close loss. I missed the game this week, but the Packers didn't win (again) because they can't run the football and their turnover margin is awful. Only Arizona and Baltimore are worse at running the football than the Packers. Remember, the problem isn't only that QB Brett Favre threw 5 interceptions, but the defense has forced more than one turnover in a game only once this season, and the Packers won that game. Special teams has been costly in the Tampa Bay and Minnesota games this season, but one more turnover and better run offense in either game would have won it too.

The only good news is that the NFC North is still winable. Chicago has a three game lead, but the Packers still play Chicago twice. Two wins versus Chicago this season makes it a one game lead with over half the season to go. The Packers haven't played any division opponent at home this season. The Packers win all four of those games, and the playoffs are still a possibility. That is amazing considering the Packers are tied with Houston for the league's worst record.