Monday, December 31, 2012

Black Monday: Who Might The Packers Lose Now That Everyone Has Been Fired?

The Green Bay Packers should expect to see some changes in their front office, and possibly their coaching staff, in the near future. Unlike the other dozen or so teams that are clearing house on Black Monday, the Packers shouldn't be expected to fire anyone for doing a bad job. But they might be on the short list for teams in the market for a new General Manager.

At least, that was my first thought when I saw that the San Diego Chargers hired former Packers GM Ron Wolf to help them find their new GM. Last year, Wolf was outspoken in his support for Reggie McKenzie as the Raiders next GM, who was eventually hired in Oakland.

If I was in the market for a new GM, I would certainly speak with the Packers' Director of Football Operations, John Dorsey. He took over their pro operations after McKenzie departed last spring. He had been in charge of their college scouting for the previous decade. Those years come with some good times (the Ted Thompson era) and some bad moments (the Mike Sherman era). Either way, it's a solid resume with a long history.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Vikings Beat Packers, 37-34; Rematch Scheduled For Next Week At Lambeau

It's a weird quirk of the regular season schedule and final standings that brings the Green Bay Packers and the Vikings back together for another game to start the playoffs. The loss wasn't all that surprising since the Packers haven't had a lot of success at the Metrodome over the years. It's a tough place to play and the Vikings proved it with an outstanding home record this season.

While it would have been nice to have seen the Packers won and earned a week off, QB Aaron Rodgers wanted it to help Woodson and Cobb get back for the playoffs, I can't say I'm really disappointed. That rust last year during their playoff loss to the Giants was real and having to play an extra playoff game didn't stop their last Super Bowl run. The Packers secondary has shown their depth all season long, and WR Greg Jennings and WR Jordy Nelson looked like their old selves on Sunday.

The key to the Vikings' win, and what the defense needs to focus on next week: beat QB Christian Ponder. He had the best game of his professional career on Sunday. The good news is that he's been absolutely horrible in his two games at Lambeau Field, including his dud on December 2nd. RB Adrian Peterson is going to get his yards one way or another, but they won't score over 20 points if their passing game isn't working.

This back-to-back setup did remind me of the 2009 season, when the Packers traveled to Arizona on the final week to crush the Cardinals' reserves, only to get shredded by their starters a week later. Obviously it's not the same this time since both the Packers and Vikings were playing to win.

Both organizations have been completely turned over since 2004, but this is more like that season, when the Packers won in Minnesota to clinch the division title before losing the playoff game rematch two weeks later.

So maybe history isn't on the Packers' side, but history isn't going to help them win next Saturday. Beat Ponder and they'll beat the Vikings again at Lambeau.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Three Packers Named To The Pro Bowl: Rodgers, Matthews, and Jeff Saturday?

QB Aaron Rodgers' 2012 season isn't as good as was when he won the MVP, and LB Clay Matthews isn't playing as well as he did in 2010 when he finished second in the voting for defensive player of the year, but both of them are playing great and deserve to be named to the Pro Bowl.
Last week, Bill Barnwell wrote an article at Grantland about who should make the Pro Bowl. What he said about the selection last year of Broncos LT Ryan Clady sums up why C Jeff Saturday was named to the team:
He made the Pro Bowl last year because nobody who votes on the Pro Bowl actually watches offensive linemen.
Saturday didn't deserve to make the Pro Bowl, but name recognition is just as important as anything else, so his selection is business as usual when it comes to the NFL's annual beauty pageant.

For the purests out there, who'd like to see the voters actually select the best player at each position, take heart in the fact that Saturday was voted in as a backup. The starter is Seattle's center Max Unger, who actually deserves a trip to Hawaii and might have played his best game of the season last week when the Seahawks' offensive line demolished the 49ers' defense.

The backup nod probably should have gone to Vikings C John Sullivan, who's great at attacking the second level, which is what I look for in a standout center.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

How Did The Vikings Get So Much Better This Season?

It's obvious that RB Adrian Peterson is having an epic 2012 season for the Minnesota Vikings. He should be a shoo-in for comeback player of the year and he probably should be named league MVP. But, you might recall, that Peterson was a great player before this season and he only missed four games in 2011. He also had a pretty average game last week (25 carries for 86 yards and no touchdowns) while his teammates demolished the Texans. He's their most valuable player, but he's not the only reason why the Vikings improved from 3-13 in 2011 to 9-6 in 2012.

Here's how the Vikings have improved on offense, percentages and rankings from Football Outsiders:
Season Pass Offense Pass Rank Rush Offense Rush Rank
2012 -2.9% 23 6.0% 8
2011 -21.3% 28 11.7% 5
Surprisingly the rush offense has declined this season, which has nothing to do with Peterson, and everything to do with the 49 empty carries they've given to RB Toby Gerhart, who remains one of the worst rated running backs in the NFL. QB Christian Ponder's future is still in doubt, but he has improved this season. In 2011, his passer rating was only 70.1, and it's up to 78.8 this season.

Here's their defense, percentages and rankings again from Football Outsiders:
Season Pass Defense Pass Rank Rush Defense Rush Rank
2012 15.8% 23 -13.7% 9
2011 22.9% 32 -10.5% 9
The run defense is slightly improved, but for all practical purposes it's just the same. The real improvement is against the pass and that improvement might be summed up in two players: CB Antonie Winfield and S Harrison Smith. Winfield, even at age 35, remains their top cornerback and he's played in every game this season (so far, he broke his hand against the Texans) after playing only 5 games in 2011. Smith was their second first round pick last April and he's played like he deserved that high selection and his stats are almost identical to that of Winfield's. While those two players haven't made them an elite pass defense, they have made the Vikings a whole lot better as a team.

One other key addition is rookie kicker K Blair Walsh, who's been a big improvement over former Packer K Ryan Longwell, and he's carried the Vikings' special teams up to No. 6 overall.

Bottom line: the Vikings' secret this season is that they aren't as unbelievably awful as they were in 2011. That's a back handed compliment, but they have managed to improve in the two areas (pass offense and pass defense) where they really needed it. Moving up from the bottom to almost average in those two areas has made them an average team this season (No. 16 overall) which is good enough to earn a playoff spot.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Packers Beat Titans, 49ers Lose To Seahawks, Packers Lead For No. 2 Seed

I was expecting the Seahawks would beat the 49ers in Seattle on Sunday night, but I didn't expect a 42-13 thrashing. The 49ers should beat the Cardinals next week and clinch the NFC West, which is probably for the best since it would prevent the Seahawks from hosting a playoff game, but the Packers now lead for the No. 2 seed and a first round bye.

As for the Packers win over the Titans, it wasn't much of a game: the Packers dominated. Even K Mason Crosby was perfect, though his 48 yard field goal did hit the upright before bouncing good. Everything was working, from dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball to dominating the passing game on offense and defense. The only criticisms were that the offense was lousy on 3rd downs (2 for 11), QB Aaron Rodgers could have had even bigger game if he had been a little bit more accurate on a couple of near touchdown passes to WR Greg Jennings and WR James Jones, and the secondary didn't properly rotate their deep coverage on a long completion that set up the Titans' lone touchdown at the end of the game. Otherwise, the Packers excelled and the Titans looked so bad that it might have cost Titans' head coach Mike Munchak his job. The Packers clearly proved Mike McCarthy right and that they'll be playing the whole regular season through.

The only question is how severe is WR Randall Cobb's ankle injury. While I was watching it happen, a Titans player landed on the back of Cobb's leg during a punt return and twisted it on the ground, I was expecting the worst. He did manage to run/limp off the field on his own power, and the last I saw of him, he was on the trainers' table having the wrappings removed from his right ankle.

Losing arguably their best wide receiver would be a blow, but it could be offset by the return of WR Jordy Nelson. Though he has not been practicing over the last couple weeks, the Packers take their time with hamstring injuries as an organizational rule. For example, once they let LB Clay Matthews finally return to the lineup, he's been his usual dominant self over the past couple games. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the same from Nelson.

This sets up a match-up next weekend against the Vikings, which the flex schedule has moved to 3:25 CST next Sunday, The game will be in Minnesota against a Vikings team that needs a win to secure a wild card spot, while the Packers want the No. 2 seed and a first round bye. Since their last meeting on December 2nd, a 23-14 win for the Packers, the Vikings have been on a roll with three quality wins to improve to 9-6.

While the Vikings are finishing the season strong, the same thing could be said about the Packers (winners of 9 of their last 10), Redskins (winners of their last 6) and the Seahawks (winners of their last 4). The Falcons and 49ers aren't exactly struggling, but they've each had an ugly loss in recent weeks (the 49ers loss to the Seahawks; the Falcons lost two weeks ago in Carolina). The Redskins and Vikings are probably the pretenders of the NFC playoff picture, ranked No. 11 and No. 20 respectively coming into Week 16 by Football Outsiders, but their late season surge can't be ignored.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Packers Bench Starting Center Jeff Saturday

Last offseason, the Green Bay Packers made veteran C Jeff Saturday their biggest free agent signing since the team signed CB Charles Woodson in 2006. Now, they've asked him to take a seat on the bench.
I'm a little surprised at the timing. If anything, he seemed to have been playing better as the season progressed. While I don't believe he was a problem in pass protection, he did seem to be overruled by RG Josh Sitton at times on blocking assignments. The Packers probably weren't expecting perfection, but Saturday did seem to struggle more than they might have expected from a 13 year veteran. It probably didn't help that he was adjusting to his first non-Peyton Manning led offense in over a decade.

Saturday's weakness was in the running game. He didn't seem to provide any push or the ability to take a linebacker out at the second level. While pass protection is the offensive line's top priority, Mike McCarthy has always spoken about doing more on the ground and I would expect better run blocking from Dietrich-Smith.

Unfortunately, Dietrich-Smith hasn't done a lot earn a starting job this season. He was OK at left guard, but he's fallen behind rookie RT Don Barclay on the depth chart over the past few weeks. Blocking against a bull rush isn't the best part of his game because he's undersized, however, that concern will be lessened by playing at center. He should be more mobile, and better able to move off the line and block a linebacker. What he can add to the running game may be the reason this move was made.

NFC Playoff Picture: Can Packers Reach The No. 2 Seed?

Instead of a preview of the Green Bay Packers upcoming game against the Titans, it's more interesting to consider the NFC playoff picture. There was a shakeup last week, as the Giants and Bears both fell out of the Top 6 after losses last week, so the final playoff picture seems far from settled.

But I can't resist a mini-preview anyway. According to Football Outsiders, the Packers are currently the 5th best team in the NFL while the Titans are 4th from the bottom. If the Packers lose next Sunday at home to this Titans team, then they've already checked out for the regular season. Their intensity level would have to bottom out, such as it did a few weeks back against the Giants, for them to give the Titans any hope of winning, though Mike McCarthy has made it clear that he still wants to win their final two regular season games. However, intensity might be more of a concern for the Titans players, who may not be excited to see 15 inches of snow.

Back to the NFC playoff picture, rankings by Football Outsiders:

Team Record Overall Rank Offense % Off. Rank Defense % Def. Rank
Falcons 12-2 96.811-4.510
49ers 10-3-1 4 18.53-17.12
Packers 10-4 5 17.35-6.68
Redskins8-61112.76 2.218
Seahawks 9-5 2 17.64-15.16

There is really no explanation for the Vikings. While all the teams ranked below them by Football Outsiders are out of the playoff picture, a couple teams ranked just ahead of them still have legitimate playoff hopes (Cowboys, Steelers, Rams). Right now they're living off of their tie-breaker advantages, with a better division record than the Giants and a better conference than the Cowboys. Also, Football Outsiders has ranked their special teams unit as the 6th best in the NFL.

The Falcons got a slight bump in the rankings by thrashing the Giants, but it's hard to move the percentages after 14 games, and they still look a step behind the 49ers, Packers, and Seahawks. The Bears and Giants both deserve to be mentioned (ranked No. 6 and No. 7 overall by Football Outsiders), but each team has suffered a late season swoon (Bears have lost 5 of their last 6; Giants have lost 4 of their last 6). On the flip side, the Redskins are on a 5 game winning streak and they've moved into the NFC East lead.

For the Packers to win the No. 2 seed (and a first round bye), the 49ers would have to lose in Seattle next Sunday night because it seems impossible that they'd lose at home to the Cardinals in the regular season finale. The Packers could even move ahead of the Falcons, but Atlanta has two winnable games against good teams who in slumps (at Detroit, and home against the Buccaneers). I really like the Packers' chances of claiming the No. 2 seed but it won't be easy on the road in Minnesota on December 30th and they need some help from the Seahawks (who really do owe the Packers one).

Though winning a bye, or even home field advantage, didn't help the Packers last season. So I'm not very concerned that they earn it again this season. Maybe all they need is the Giants to miss the playoffs. Whatever happens, the most important thing is to see them in the playoffs and ready to face whatever opponent on whichever field.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mason Crosby Has To Be Replaced

I have a lot of patience with coaching and front office decisions because there is usually more than one point of view. Sometimes patience is rewarded, but an NFL career is such a short time period that maybe a quick hook is the way to go. The Green Bay Packers have usually been aggressive about making personnel changes, replacing aging, underperforming veterans with younger players, but the decision to stand by K Mason Crosby has become a glowing exception.
Maybe this is a rhetorical question. There's no excuse now for avoiding a change. Even earlier in the season, when Crosby's kicking percentage was higher than his unbelievably awful 58.6% (17 of 29), he was missing badly at times. This isn't a recent problem; he's been struggling all season.

Maybe the memories of releasing P Jon Ryan factor into this decision and they felt like they gave up too soon on him, which happens to be the truth. Ryan wasn't great with the Packers, but he turned it up as soon as he arrived in Seattle, and he's gone onto have a solid career. The Packers, on the other hand, struggled for two seasons with a couple replacement punters before finding P Tim Masthay, who was awful in his first half-season before becoming a solid player.

They're right on some level: Crosby is going to figure it out at some point. But right now, they should have no faith that he'll figure it out this season. Kickers are often inconsistent, but it's unknown when they'll come out of a slump. Betting on Crosby to find his groove again as the playoffs start is a huge leap of faith.

In general, under 85% is poor for a kicker. Currently there are 16 kickers who have 15 or more attempts this season and are over the 85% mark. This isn't an unrealistic goal and Crosby is nowhere near hitting it. The cap savings and money paid to him don't even matter at this point; he's unacceptable at any price.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Recap: Packers Defeat Bears and Win NFC North, Despite Mason Crosby

With the Green Bay Packers' win on Sunday, they've clinched their second consecutive NFC North title. Winning the division isn't going to matter in the playoffs, see last season, but they've still got to secure a playoff spot first and then worry about the postseason. At least now, they can legitimately look ahead and make some decisions with the playoffs in mind.
The first item of business has to be the special teams. Mike McCarthy said after the game that he's standing by his man, Mason Crosby. That might have been the right thing to say immediately after clinching the division title. Let's see if the Packers actually work out some kickers early this week. Many great teams have been undone in the postseason by a field goal kicker collapsing during the playoffs. He's had enough chances and they have to make a change.

This game may have also ended the coaches' urges for trick plays on special teams. While they made a couple of them work back in September, they haven't had any recent success. Since the end of October, P Tim Masthay has not been expected to throw another pass. On Sunday, the backward cross-field lateral from WR Randall Cobb didn't fool anyone and led to a turnover.

The Packers' defense dominated. The Bears were 0-9 on 3rd down (plus one failed 4th down attempt) and held the Bears to only 190 yards on offense. And that was after they had trouble stopping the Bears' ground game on their first drive. NT B.J. Raji had a great game, LB Brad Jones too, while CB Sam Shields did a fantastic job of drawing offensive pass interference calls. And of course, LB Clay Matthews was well worth the month long wait as he recorded 2 sacks, 4 tackles for a loss, 1 pass defense (tipped pass at the line) and 2 QB hits.

The Packers' offensive line wasn't great (3 sacks allowed, 3.5 ypc as a team) but they seemed to play better than the stats showed. RT Don Barclay wasn't perfect, but he looks settled in on the right side. The return of T.J. Lang to left guard gave QB Aaron Rodgers a better pocket to step up into then he's had in recent weeks. I wouldn't be surprised if the Packers did release TE Jermichael Finley in the offseason, TE D.J. Williams and TE Andrew Quarless (when they're both healthy next season) could replace most of what Finley has done over the past two seasons, but Finley is playing much better over the past few weeks and making catches to help move the chains. WR Greg Jennings might not be helping his chances of securing a mega-extension from the Packers this offseason, his No. 1 role is currently owned by Cobb, but he's been making a couple big catches and had best run after the catch on Sunday that I've seen from him this season.

I can also see why Mike McCarthy likes RB DuJuan Harris. He might be their best back at breaking a tackle.

Only two more games remain this season as the Packers wait to see how the playoff seeding dust settles.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Packers At Bears Preview: Injuries and Turnovers

The probable return of LB Clay Matthews is the best news in regard to injuries that the Green Bay Packers have heard in a while, but another injury on the offensive line showed up:
Despite his presence on the practice field, CB Charles Woodson is still listed as out this week on the injury report, along with Nelson, Starks and Wilson. RG Josh Sitton injured his hip during practice on Thursday, and despite the return of T.J. Lang, who played at left guard while Evan Dietrich-Smith moved over to the right side in Sitton's absence, the offensive line could remain a patchwork unit on Sunday.

However, the Bears are dealing with their own injuries. Most importantly, LB Brian Urlacher and CB Tim Jennings are both out. In addition, DE Shea McClellin and DT Henry Melton are listed as doubtful because neither player was able to practice this week. The Packers may be having injury problems on the offensive line, but the Bears might have trouble taking advantage of them without McClellin and Melton. Despite all the talk about QB Jay Cutler, who was injured last week in Minnesota, he fully participated in practice on Friday and should play on Sunday.

Of all those injuries, Jennings might be the most significant one because turnovers are such a big part of the Bears' success this season and he leads their team with 8 INTs, though CB Charles Tillman and his 9 forced fumbles will still be on the field. They've lost 4 of their last 5 games and they've forced only 4 turnovers in their losses while recovering 3 in their lone win (against the Vikings at home on November 25th). The Bears seem unable to score over 20 points when they are losing the turnover battle.

If the Bears' defense can't help the offense to some easy points, then I don't see how they can't beat the Packers, who have only been held under 23 points once during their current streak (winners of 7 of their last 8). The only exception was their lost to the Giants back on November 25 when they got beat physically on both sides of the ball, and that game looks more like an exception than the rule.

Packers 27, Bears 13.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

NFC Playoff Picture: Packers 3rd In Playoff Standings

As a distraction from all the Aaron Rodgers Day festivities, the following is a look at the NFC playoff picture.

Football Outsiders published their Week 14 ratings, and the Green Bay Packers came in at Number 5 overall in the NFL. The big story is the Seahawks, who've climbed up to No. 2 overall despite their modest 8-5 record. One interesting point: while Seattle's offense has been great over the last several weeks, their defense has slumped and only been slightly above average since Week 8. Here are their ratings for the current NFC playoff teams:
Team Record Overall Rank Offense % Off. Rank Defense % Def. Rank
Falcons 11-2 11 4.1 13 -0.7 13
49ers 9-3-1 4 20.1 2 -15.9 4
Packers 9-4 5 15.5 4 -5.3 9
Giants 8-5 7 13.4 6 -3.5 10
Seahawks 8-5 2 15.4 5 -16.7 2
Bears 8-5 6 -12.8 26 -27.8 1
The best NFC team that's currently out of the playoff picture is the Redskins, who are No. 7 in the playoff standings and ranked No. 10 overall by FO. However, their defense is below average and they're dealing with a bunch of injuries, so there isn't some great NFC team lurking in the background. I'd be surprised if this isn't the final six teams.

Each of these teams has their own strengths and weaknesses (and injuries) but the Seahawks, 49ers, Packers, and Giants are all similarly balanced teams with great offenses and defenses. When they meet in the playoffs, we'll have to take a closer look at match-ups and injuries, but they're in the mix. The remaining two teams standout in not-so-good ways.

The Falcons have the best record in the NFC despite ranking just above average on offense and defense. There isn't much separating them from the Redskins except four wins in the record column. They've played against the weakest strength of schedule in the league, currently sitting at .391, and only the Colts are anywhere near them at .420. That'll change a little when the Falcons play the Giants next Sunday. It'll be only the second time this season that the Falcons will have played a likely playoff team (they beat the Broncos in Week 2).

The Bears stand out by having the best defense in the NFL and will likely have the worst offense of any of the playoff teams. After they play the Packers on Sunday, they'll have finished the toughest part of their schedule with six games versus teams at or above .500, before finishing up the season with games at Arizona and Detroit. Unfortunately (for them) they've gone 1-4 over this stretch and their dominant defense has been struggling, in large part due to injuries. A loss to the Packers on Sunday could push them below one of the three 7-6 teams on their heels.

There's no playoff guarantee here to be made, but it's clear that there are four NFC teams that stand out and the Packers are one of them. They can't look too far ahead, they haven't yet clinched a playoff spot, but they'll be in the hunt come the postseason.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Don Barclay Is One Of The Packers Five Best (Healthy) Lineman

If T.J. Lang is ready to return next Sunday against the Bears, he might not be returning to play right tackle.
The article quotes Mike McCarthy who praised Lang's versatility. Reading between the lines, it means Lang could return to play either left guard or right tackle. Recent times have been tough for LT Marshall Newhouse, but I don't think he's in danger of losing his job to Lang.

RT Don Barclay. Right now, Barclay is one of their top five lineman, which indirectly means he should be starting. He's not good in pass protection, but the combination of Barclay and RG Josh Sitton on the strong side has been a boost to the running game. If he can't improve as a pass blocker, then I'm not sure if he'll fit into their long-term plans, but he's the best alternative they have at the moment.

LG Evan Dietrich-Smith. His game against the Lions was actually one of his better starts, though he was blown up on a bull rush by DT Nick Fairley, which led to a sack. But in previous weeks, he's struggled in pass protection and with penalties. They still need him as a backup, but Barclay's moved ahead of him in my mind.

That would leave the door open for moving Lang back to guard, and it should make the entire offensive line a better unit. It's not an ideal situation for the future, and they'll still have problems trying to protect QB Aaron Rodgers, but they need their best five lineman on the field next week to face the Bears' defensive line.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Recap: Packers Come From Behind To Beat Lions, 27-20

Anyone start RB DuJuan Harris on their fantasy team? While he wouldn't have been the best option, a touchdown never hurts. Bonus points for picking some guy Mike McCarthy only threatened to use from the practice squad, but hadn't actually given a single carry to until Sunday night.

I had a bad feeling about this game because the Green Bay Packers had only won by four points back in November in Detroit, in a game in which the Lions had four turnovers. If the Lions took better care of the ball, it seemed like the Packers would be in trouble. While the Lions only had two turnovers in this one, the first turnover, a fumble by QB Matthew Stafford that was returned by DE Mike Daniels (of all people) for a 43 yard touchdown run, decided the game. The second one, an interception with 2:42 left in the first half, probably took points off the board for the Lions since they were already down to the Packers' 41 yard line with a 1st and 10.

The big standouts in this game were the players up front, on both sides of the ball. The pass protection struggled, QB Aaron Rodgers was sacked three times and was chased from the pocket on several occasions, but the run blocking again was strong, in part because rookie RT Don Barclay was able take out the linebacker at the second level (see Harris' touchdown run) while a tight end could block DE Cliff Avril. Also, the line was able to take advantage of the Lions' defensive tackles tendency to over-pursue on running plays as they raced up-field to get after Rodgers. 5.6 yards per carry is amazing for the Packers, even if 27 yards came on Rodgers' touchdown run. LG Evan Dietrich-Smith got blown up on one sack by DT Nick Fairley, but Fairley's been as good as any defensive tackle as I've seen over the past few weeks.

The defensive line got off to a slow start, allowing 85 yards rushing on the Lions' first two possessions (both for touchdowns), but the defense only allowed 50 yards rushing over the last three quarters and the pass rush (which only officially was credited with 1 sack and 2 QB hits) put a lot of pressure on Stafford to throw the ball early. On only a couple occasions did he really have time to sit back in the pocket. After the running game was no longer a factor, the Lions didn't find themselves in those 3rd and shorts they converted so often on their first two drives, and their offense didn't back into a rhythm again.

The pass defense had a great game, though they did drop a couple of interceptions. WR Calvin Johnson ended up with his usual 100 yard game (118 to be exact) but he wasn't involved for a large chunk of the game. Megatron had 46 of his 118 yards on their final two possessions, at which point the Packers were up by 10 points and the Lions were in desperation mode.

Rodgers and the pass offense didn't have much of a game through the air (only 14 completions). Seven of them went to WR Randall Cobb, who's gone from their number four receiving option to No. 1 in less than a season. WR Greg Jennings might still be recovering from his surgery (only 1 reception on Sunday) but in his defense, Rodgers did miss him on a touchdown pass in the third quarter. Of all the receivers, Cobb is the only one who's been a threat in every game this season.

In the end, this game was similar to their earlier win over the Lions, and the Packers managed to score 27 points in an ugly fashion. With their win and the Bears loss, the Packers extend their lead in the NFC North. The Packers have been the least impressive of the division leaders this season (outside of Baltimore), but hopefully that situation improves once LB Clay Matthews, CB Charles Woodson, and WR Jordy Nelson return. And some bonus good news: no injuries to report.

Bring on the injured Bears next week, win in Soldier Field, and clinch the NFC North.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Preview: Lions at Packers On Sunday Night

At first glance, this injury report looks bad. On the other hand, the Green Bay Packers are almost in the same situation they were when they last faced the Lions back on November 18.
Having RT T.J. Lang would be a big help, and it looks like he'll play. It's always a concern when LB Clay Matthews is out, but the defense put a lot of pressure on QB Matthew Stafford in their last meeting (5 sacks, 2 INTs, 1 fumble) without him. WR Jordy Nelson had a quiet day (3 catches for 45 yards) during their last meeting, and his loss is offset by the return of WR Greg Jennings. RB James Starks is replaced by RB Ryan Grant, which is arguably an upgrade. Losing DE Mike Neal and DE C.J. Wilson will stretch their depth, but I expect the Packers will spend most of the time in their two lineman, nickel package, so D-line depth won't be as important.

Though the Lions haven't won at Lambeau since QB Aaron Rodgers was in elementary school, I'm worried about this game. In their last meeting, the Lions turned the ball over four times and the Packers' offense only managed to score 17 points. While not much has changed on offense since that meeting (assuming Lang starts), 17 points is not enough if the Lions can avoid the turnovers.

However, the Lions' offense has since taken a step back. On November 18th, the Lions' second leading receiver was WR Ryan Broyles, who's now out for the year with an ACL injury, and their third leading receiver, WR Titus Young, is out for the year because he's a complete headcase. Though that's an addition by subtraction because Young was in open rebellion against the Lions and ended up helping the Packers more than hurting them. Still, the loss of Broyles, combined with the earlier loss of WR Nate Burleson, has to be a problem.

The Lions haven't scored under 20 points in their last six games, so assuming they don't commit four turnovers again, they should still manage around 24 points. The Packers, on the other hand, haven't scored over 24 points in their last three games, but they did have 31 points against a very good Cardinals defense back on November 4th. In that game, Rodgers threw for four touchdowns and he'll have to make plays like that again for them to win next Sunday.

Packers 31, Lions 24.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

The Packers' New Look Offensive Line

It hasn't been a great season for the Green Bay Packers' offensive line and they could be making some changes across the line next year. But in the meantime, the o-line is getting a new lineup because of injuries. The new starting right tackle has only one regular season game under his belt and the backups don't even have that much.
The hope was that RT T.J. Lang could bounce back from his ankle injury and return on Sunday, but that hope seems to be lost. It appears undrafted rookie RT Don Barclay will have to start this week, and he'll probably struggle as he did against the Vikings, even if he does gets some help with a chip block from the tight end.

If coaching the offensive line is a thankless job, then this has to be the low water mark. QB Aaron Rodgers has been getting sacked too often and the running game has been going nowhere. Now offensive line coach James Campen has to help Barclay get ready to start, and see if he can get a better performance from LG Evan Dietrich-Smith, who's been struggling and committing too many penalties. Even LT Marshall Newhouse, who allowed two sacks last week to DE Jared Allen last week and a lot of pressure against the Giants, could use some extra advice. Finally, he's got to get a couple rookies up to speed.

LG Greg Van Roten has been on the active roster for a few weeks, but he hasn't played on offense yet. Since he's the next man up, he'll see playing time if any of the other lineman are forced out of the game. He'd probably replace either of the guards if they were hurt, but if another tackle was injured, I wouldn't be surprised to see Van Roten play at guard and RG Josh Sitton move to tackle.

The other option might be to play rookie OL Andrew Datko at tackle. With the re-signing of OL Shea Allard to the practice squad, it's been speculated that Datko could be added to the active roster if Lang is ruled out. As for Allard, he was bad during the preseason, and he confirmed that by admitting he hadn't drawn any interest since the Packers released him at the end of preseason. Familiarity seems to be as good as any other option at this point. Since the Packers probably don't want Allard to do anything more than play on the scout team, familiarity might be all they want.

There's not much for the offensive line to do except to hold on. Their struggles have been keeping a lid on the offense this season, and it's not going to get better over the next few weeks.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The Packers Bring Back Ryan Grant

Another injury, this time to the knee of RB James Starks, has forced another roster move, and this time, the Green Bay Packers have brought back a familiar face.
RB Johnny White has been out of action since he suffered a concussion against the Giants so technically he's lost his roster spot to Grant, though Starks' knee injury is reportedly season-ending. Maybe they still have some hope that Starks can return this season.

The Packers didn't re-sign Grant after last season, despite the fact that he was their best running back according to Football Outsiders. That's faint praise, Grant was ranked 28th while Starks was ranked 39th, and it skimmed over the fact that Grant was basically useless for most of the season. In their first 11 games, he ran for over 40 yards on only one occasion: against the Bears in Week 3.

But he did finish the season strong. Over his last four games, he ran for 85, 66, 44, and 48 yards. Plus, he had a big 80 yard touchdown reception against the Lions. It makes sense that it would take some time for him to get back to full strength because he missed nearly the entire 2010 season.

It's also understandable that the Packers didn't re-sign him. His best days are behind him and GM Ted Thompson doesn't fill his roster with aging, mediocre veterans. He wants to bring in some young, cheap players, and see if the coaches can turn them into something.

However, at this point, with RB Cedric Benson out for the year (and Starks not too far behind), the Packers need help now. They'll reevaluate the position before next year's draft. In the meantime, the Packers could really use a healthy, mediocre veteran running back who knows their offense.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

PFF On The Packers Over The Vikings

Pro Football Focus published it's weekly Re-Focused column on the Green Bay Packers. Some of it wasn't surprising (QB Christian Ponder had a bad day), and took note of three Packers:

TE Jermichael Finley. He had a good game on Sunday, but I couldn't exactly say why. While the praise from PFF isn't glowing, they pointed out a couple bits of good news. First, Finley's getting better as the season progresses. Second, he was somewhat of a go-to receiver, notably on their 11-minute drive in the fourth quarter. Third, he caught nearly all the passes (86%) thrown his way, which isn't something he's been good at this season.

RT Don Barclay. It was pointed out how Barclay struggled in pass protection, even with the additional help, and a missed run block was also noted. But his run blocking overall seemed strong and he made a solid block on RB James Starks' touchdown run. Still, the sooner RT T.J. Lang can return, the better.

LB A.J. Hawk. I was pretty unimpressed with Hawk versus the Giants, while I didn't think he stood out in a particularly bad way against the Vikings. Though, it's been a pretty mediocre season for him. However, in the end, I expect his 2012 season will be similar to last year, which was mediocre too. Unfortunately, that still makes him their best inside linebacker.

Monday, December 03, 2012

T.J. Lang and Jordy Nelson Are The Latest Injuries

While RT T.J. Lang and WR Jordy Nelson were the big injury stories from last Sunday, no player is more needed than LB Clay Matthews, and he'll be back sometime, maybe:
Nelson has to be getting frustrated with his third separate (or re-injured) injury of the season. He hasn't missed that much time, only being held for one game, but now he's been pulled early in two others.

While none of these injuries seem too serious, no conclusions have yet been made by Mike McCarthy. The situation might look a lot different by Friday.

And a big "Thank You" to the college scouting department for finding undrafted guys like Don Barclay to step in and hold his own. Barclay was called for two penalties (one declined) so it wasn't an All-Pro performance, but he's certainly better than a lot of other teams' third-string option.

Recap: Packers Win At Home Against The Vikings, 23-14

I wasn't expecting a pretty game from the Green Bay Packers and they pretty much delivered. More injuries, another one (hamstring) for WR Jordy Nelson and a new ankle injury for OL T.J. Lang, also left the offense struggling to find a rhythm. It's not clear yet how serious those are for either player. If Lang misses the next game, then the Packers are down to six offensive lineman and would have to make a roster move this week for depth.

The big story on offense was the reappearance of the running game. As a team, the offense ran 36 times  for 152 yards and one touchdown. RB James Starks and RB Alex Green split the carries, but Starks broke out for a 22 yard touchdown run. The offensive line had more success creating running room than in any other game this season. They were very good to the strong side, where DE Brian Robison and LB Erin Henderson struggled in run defense. Even rookie RT Don Barclay, who replaced Lang in the second quarter, provided solid run blocking.

As for Barclay, he was OK but he committed a couple penalties. Replacement LG Evan Dietrich-Smith had a couple penalties too, including a false start that seemed to enrage Rodgers. They aren't going to be able to throw a lot with those two on the line, and they're going to have to rely on the running game, whether it's working or not.

The other big story was K Mason Crosby. He almost missed a 30 yard field goal which hit the goal post, and then he missed a 53 yard attempt, very wide right, to end the first half. But the low point was when his opening second half kickoff went out of bounds. At that point, I was thinking that if he's this unreliable, the Packers are going to have no choice but find a new kicker this week. What's Ryan Longwell up to? But then Crosby went onto comfortably make his next two attempts. The coaches have been waiting for Crosby to kick himself out of his slump, and he might have finally done it.

The Vikings' pass defense isn't great, entering the game ranked No. 23 overall, and that certainly helped QB Aaron Rodgers find some open receivers. It wasn't a brilliant return for WR Greg Jennings, but he made a couple of key receptions down the stretch to help ice the game. It was really a team effort in the passing game, as Rodgers completed passes to nine different receivers.

I was expecting RB Adrian Peterson to have a big game, and he turned out to be a monster. There needs to be some tackling drills for the safeties this week in practice. However, I didn't expect his performance to be a key to the game, and his 210 yards rushing still wasn't enough to bring them more than 14 points.

If the Vikings could have gotten anything from QB Christian Ponder, then they might have come away with an upset victory. His 12 for 25, 118 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 INTs is terrible, but it's actually worse than it looks. He had 86 passing yards on their last two drives, and both of them led to zero points, so he actually had under 40 yards passing until late in the fourth quarter. And his two interceptions, one in the red zone and one in the end zone, both took points away. His receivers didn't do him any favors as they rarely created separation from the defensive backs, but Ponder also missed some open receivers. I don't think Ponder's anything more than a decent backup quarterback and he certainly didn't change my mind on Sunday.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Preview: Vikings at Green Bay Packers

Injuries are a major concern as the Green Bay Packers prepare to host the Vikings this Sunday at Lambeau.
That's three starters on defense and one on offense. Plus Shields, who'd be expected to play around 40 snaps if he was healthy. Except for White and Wilson, who both suffered concussions against the Giants, this isn't the first week any of these players have missed. But there's no doubt the season, and the team's performance, would have looked sharper if all of them had been healthy.

The injury report for the Vikings includes nine starters, but all of them except WR Percy Harvin should play. It was big news when Harvin actually practiced on Wednesday, but it was only the second time he's been able to do so all month. There's still a chance he could play, but there's no chance he'll be 100%. So the Vikings' 23rd ranked pass offense is closer to the bottom in efficiency without their No. 1 WR. The young Packers' secondary should hold up well, but the question will be whether anyone other than LB Dezman Moses can provide a pass rush.

Curiously, the Vikings rush offense is only ranked 10th overall despite the fact that RB Adrian Peterson is Football Outsiders' No. 1 ranked running back. This poor ranking seems to be entirely the fault of RB Toby Gerhart, who's played as bad as any running back in the league this season despite only 32 rushing attempts. Just as the Vikings pass offense should be taken down a notch without Harvin, the Vikings rushing offense should be carried up a few spots because the Vikings have apparently acknowledged Gerhart's problems and only given him one rushing attempt in November. He's unlikely to be given any opportunity to fumble the ball against the Packers. While the Packers' run defense has been decent this season, they're coming off their worst game against the Giants so they seem to be slumping right at the wrong time.

The Vikings' run defense isn't what it was a couple years ago, but the Packers' running game has been swirling the bowl since the injuries to RB Cedric Benson and RT Bryan Bulaga. Not that either player made their rushing attack great, but they're better than their replacements. Though they should de-emphasis the running game, their lousy pass protection is going to force them to try and make something of it. I'm expecting a lot of two yard carries by RB James Starks.

The Packers' pass offense doesn't seem quite as good as it's No. 3 ranking because of the poor pass protection. On the other hand, the Vikings' pass defense (No. 24 overall) isn't playing well either and QB Jay Cutler was only sacked once last week by the Vikings despite the fact that the Bears' offensive line is a disaster. The pass offense is going to have to produce and they should have success no matter how much they might be limiting the playbook now to compensate for their poor pass protection.

The Packers might surprise me, but I expect the Vikings will hang around in this game because the Packers don't seem able to blow out any team right now. The Packers might not score more than 24 points, which is what how much they managed in Detroit two weeks ago, and the Vikings might not be able to surpass the 20 points they scored in Seattle earlier this month.

Packers 24, Vikings 20.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

What The Loss Of Cedric Benson Means To The Packers

It's not a big surprise because just last week RB Cedric Benson said he was talking to more doctors about his injured foot, but now we know that it will keep him out the rest of the year.
Just looking at their win-loss record, his absence shouldn't make much of a difference. Since he was injured during their loss to the Colts, the Packers have gone 5-1, while losing 3 of 5 with him as their starter. Of course, that isn't the entire picture.

While Football Outsiders gives him a negative DVOA percentage, his percentage is still higher than either RB James Starks or RB Alex Green, and Green in particular has struggled. The only back with a positive grade is FB John Kuhn, who's excelled during his few carries (12). Really, Kuhn's not that good and his actual value is closer to break even based on his play in 2010. Kuhn might be better than Starks, but it's not by a wide margin. If Starks is the main ball carrier going forward, I'd expect he'll end the season closer to his 2011 performance and only slightly worse than Kuhn or Benson.

There's only one game remaining on the regular season schedule when they might really miss Benson; the December 16th game against the Bears. Here's the teams left on the schedule (two games against the Vikings) and each team's defensive rankings according to Football Outsiders:

Team Pass Ranking Rush Ranking
Vikings 24 8
Lions 20 18
Bears 1 3
Titans 29 26

He could provide a boost against the Vikings and Lions, but both teams are struggling to defend against the pass, so that's probably where the offense should attack anyway. Against the Titans, who can't seem to stop any team's rushing attack, it probably doesn't matter who's carrying the ball.

The Bears have the best defense in the NFL, so it'll be a tough game no matter. But Benson had a strong game in their previous meeting (20 carries for 81 yards). If he'll be missed in any game this season, that would seem like the one.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Packer Injuries: Matthews, Sherrod, and the D-Line

The bad news is that LB Clay Matthews may still not be available next Sunday, but the bigger concern might be on the defensive line.
They've survived so far without CB Charles Woodson and CB Sam Shields. WR Donald Driver hasn't played much this season. DE C.J. Wilson is not a surprise, neither is backup RB Johnny White, since they both were hurt during the loss to the Giants. I'm not sure why DT Ryan Pickett has been held out because the injury report hasn't been released yet, but Mike McCarthy said Pickett will return to practice no later than Friday.

While shutting down the Vikings' passing attack is probably the key to the game, I still expect the Packers to frequently line up with three defensive lineman when they face RB Adrian Peterson. That could be hard to do if two starters (Pickett and Wilson) are out. However, DE Jerel Worthy has returned from his concussion, so he'll provide depth alongside DE Mike Neal and DE Mike Daniels. But that would with only be five healthy lineman, and any setback by Pickett could leave them with a very tight four man rotation.

I doubt it's a surprise to anyone reading this but it's finally official: OL Derek Sherrod is not playing this season. His leg injury was severe, and it happened late last season, so it's not surprising he needs more time to recover. I'm not sure how much could have helped anyway, but the offensive line's problems aren't going away so he can become part of the solution in 2013.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On Jason Babin and Looking Ahead To The Vikings

The Green Bay Packers have to take a hard look at themselves this week because they didn't show up against the Giants, but things were almost as bad for the Vikings in Chicago. While the Packers need to focus on their pass protection and pass rush, the Vikings have now lost 3 of their last 4 and were blown out early by the Bears.

First on the Packers' pass rush: could the recently released Eagles DE Jason Babin provide any help? While Football Outsiders acknowledges he's not a scheme fit for the Packers (because he can't drop back into coverage or play the run like they would need him to do at outside LB) he would be a great fit for the Bears and/or Vikings. He could become a problem for the Packers as soon as next week if the Vikings acquired him to terrorize their tackles. I think the Saints should take a chance on Babin because their window to win is now, they're still in the playoff picture, and they really need a pass rush.

The Vikings' passing game was a wreck. The combination of facing a dominant Bears' defense, the absence of WR Percy Harvin, and the loss of TE Kyle Rudolph mid-game due to a concussion led to a 22 for 43, 159 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT performance from QB Christian Ponder. I don't think Ponder will develop into anything more than a decent backup QB, but he'll do better next week against the Packers if Harvin (he hasn't yet practiced since spraining his ankle on Nov. 4) and Rudolph (he still has to clear the league's concussion protocol) can return. However, both Harvin and Rudolph played in their game last season at Lambeau and Ponder had an awful QB rating of 52.3 against a much weaker 2011 Packers' secondary.

The Packers' run defense was in shambles against the Giants and RB Adrian Peterson is the best running back in the league. Last season's meeting between the two teams at Lambeau was a lopsided 45-7 victory by the Packers, and they did a good job of holding RB Adrian Peterson to 51 yards on 14 carries. But stopping Peterson isn't necessarily the key to the game. He's had some monster games against the Packers in recent years (175 yards in 2011, 131 yards in 2010) but the Vikings didn't win either one. In 2009, the Packers held Peterson to 55 yards and 97 yards in two games but the Packers still lost them both. Arguably, it's more important to shut down the Vikings' passing game, so I expect to see the Packers primarily in their nickel package next Sunday.

Both teams are looking to bounce back after getting blown out last week. Hopefully the Giants game was just an aberration and a return to Lambeau will get the Packers back on track.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Some Strange Snap Counts Against The Giants

Luckily for everyone involved, I'm not going to say much about DJ World Peace other than to point out that players often rehab away from their team's facility. LB Ray Lewis is another example of a player who isn't rehabbing at his team's facility, though I've seen him on the sidelines during Ravens' games. While it's a P.R. headache to see the team's second leading rusher booking shows at gentlemen's clubs, it probably has no impact on his recovery.

As for some actual Packer news, Wes Hodkiewicz has some interesting snap counts from their game against the Giants:
It's no surprise to see that Moses played every snap since he was about the only defensive player who stood out in a positive way. But Walden had a good game against the Lions so I'm surprised that Zombo's snaps came entirely at Walden's expense. However, both Walden and Zombo were unable to get to the quarterback or shed blocks against the run, so it didn't matter which one of them was on the field against the Giants.
Unless the coaches are concerned that Hayward is hitting the rookie wall, I don't see why they limited his snaps. Having an extra safety at Hayward's expense wasn't any help. It's even worse than that for Jones: he wasn't targeted on a single pass attempt. I'm surprised they didn't make any effort to get him involved in the offense.

Having said all that, none of these trends may continue into their next game. The Packers seem to change their player rotations every week. It wouldn't have made a difference in the results, but limiting the impact Hayward and Jones couldn't have helped.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Packers Were Embarrassed By The Giants, 38-10

The Green Bay Packers got their ass kicked by the Giants. The Packers didn't outplay the Giants in any aspect on Sunday night. It's hard to fault one area like the pass rush, or the pass protection, because everything wasn't working.
Even the playoff loss to the Giants last January wasn't this lopsided. I was going to look it up, but Kevin Seifert beat me to it: the Packers hadn't lost a regular season game by double digits in three years. There's only two things to point out:

First, one game isn't a trend. A trend is a five game winning streak before Sunday night. They'll go back to Green Bay, watch the film tomorrow, learn from their mistakes next week, and move on. They're not going to play that bad again next week. In that way, the Packers can learn from the Giants, who were whipped by the Bengals on the road in similar fashion two weeks ago. Obviously, the Giants bounced back.

Second, this game didn't end their season or even change the playoff picture. They're not leading the NFC North at the moment, but they can re-take the lead by beating the Bears again in three weeks. They still hold a wild card spot. After watching home field advantage mean nothing over the last two postseasons, I don't really care what happens other than that they make the playoffs.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Cedric Benson Is Talking To Another Doctor

Bob McGinn reported that Green Bay Packers' RB Cedric Benson may need foot surgery, and he's still not ready to practice, though he's eligible to return.

While I'm not his biggest fan, he's not a big play threat and he fumbles too much, there's no denying his success this season.
He's got a low bar to clear, neither RB Alex Green or RB James Starks has done much this season, but his hard running style is probably the best fit for the Packers' offense because their offensive line isn't good at opening rushing lanes. They need a back who can muscle his way for a couple yards even when there's nowhere to go.

Starks did a solid impersonation of Benson's style last week against the Lions, so I'm not surprised he's regained the starting job. While he won't give them a dynamic rushing attack, he'll be dangerous enough to make defenses bite on play action, and that'll be good enough.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How The Packers Defense Might Fare Against The Giants

The play of the Green Bay Packers defense, especially the standout performance by their previously underperforming defensive line, led them in their victory over the Lions. While LB Erik Walden and LB Dezman Moses recorded the big plays, the interior lineman collapsed the pocket, which had to have effected QB Matthew Stafford's accuracy and forced him to run around more than he should. When he did manage to throw the ball, the secondary, led by CB Casey Hayward, was waiting to make a play.

When I read how the Giants lost their last game, a 31-13 beating in Cincinnati, the Giants' problems with the Bengals defense was almost the same. The Giants' offensive line got abused in pass protection, QB Eli Manning made a couple of horrible decisions, and Bengals' CB Adam Jones had a huge game.

Rinse and repeat. Bring the pressure and force Manning into some bad decisions. If the Packers offense is still playing it conservative with their re-worked offensive line, then they might have to ride the defense until Mike McCarthy feels like he can open up the play book again.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

It's A Three Team NFC North Race

I'm reluctant to write off any team after 10 games, a lot came happen over the last couple weeks, but the Lions are in a really deep hole. Their 4-6 record isn't so bad, but that 0-4 record in the division is awful because they'll lose the tiebreaker. Even winning out might not be good enough for them and that might not even be possible. The last time the Lions won at Lambeau, WR Randall Cobb was one year old.

I've been mocking QB Christian Ponder and his 58 and 63 yard passing games, but no defense has slowed RB Adrian Peterson down (even with his recently reconstructed knee) and the defense has been good enough. At 6-4, they seemed poised to remain in the discussion, but their future is in their own hands. With four games remaining against the Bears and Packers, they decide for themselves whether they'll win the NFC North or finish in 3rd place.

The Bears have to feel dejected after getting flattened by the 49ers on Monday Night Football. While technically behind the Packers in the NFC North, they have one more game remaining against them to re-take the lead. The Bears should still be considered no worse than the 4th best team in the NFC and they have three winnable games remaining on their schedule (hosting the Seahawks, who are terrible on the road, at Arizona and at Detroit), in addition to three divisional games against the Vikings and Packers. I'd still make them favorites in all those games, except I'd never pick them over the Packers.

Despite the replacement ref debacle in Seattle and the poor 1-2 start, the Packers find themselves a top the NFC North and in control of the division. A potentially tough game awaits them next week, depending on whether the Giants used the bye week to solve QB Eli Manning's dead arm problems, followed by four divisional games (and a visit from the Titans). I'll pick them to win all those games because I believe in them and I'm a Packers Homer. None of the games are gimmes but they have to be happy with their situation.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Jermichael Finley Emerges From Hibernation

The one point I forgot to mention from the Green Bay Packers' win over the Lions was the big game by TE Jermichael Finley.

Earlier this season, I had still been reading the conventional wisdom that Finley's actual stats don't matter because he draws the focus of the defense. I'm not sure that's ever been the case this season. Now we've seen defenses do the opposite and almost ignore him entirely, which is what the Lions did last Sunday. At least Finley proved that he can't be ignored.

His first big reception was his 20 yard touchdown pass, where the Packers faked a screen pass to a running back and the Lions left Finley uncovered in the middle of the field. His last reception was a 40 yard catch and run down the side line that set up the game winning touchdown pass to WR Randall Cobb. On both plays, after Finley caught the ball and found himself with room to run, it seemed like he had no idea what to do. At first he was bracing for contact and when it didn't come,  he hit the gas. It was funny, in a sad way, how he seemed to forget what it was like to make a big play.

Both plays might have been designed specifically for Finley, though the Packers probably didn't diagram so many broken tackles on his 40 yard run. I saw him line up wide on a few plays which is something I haven't seen a lot this season. The Packers had been treating him like just another tight end over the past few games and Finley rewarded them with a couple big plays and no drops.

And now for something completely different: what the heck was Nick Fairley thinking? He certainly saved himself a big fine.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Recap: Packers Win In Detroit, 24-20

With the absence of LB Clay Matthews (and the ongoing absence of CB Charles Woodson) I was pessimistic about the Green Bay Packers' chances of defeating the Lions. Sure, the Lions have a lot of injury problems of their own, but the Packers usually lose games when Matthews is hurt. I expected an offensive shootout, but instead the defense led the way for both teams. It might have been an ugly win, but I'll take a win on the road any week, anyway they can get it.

So the answer to the question of where the Packers would find a pass rush without Matthews: they'd find it everywhere. A lot more blitzing by defensive backs (CB Davon House and S Morgan Burnett each recorded a sack) but also pursuit from LB Erik Walden and LB Dezman Moses. While they recorded the sacks (and Moses forced a fumble), it was the interior push by the tackles that usually forced the action. Rookie DT Mike Daniels was a factor, but all the big guys deserve credit: QB Matthew Stafford rarely had a pocket to step up into. And when they did get a pass off, the young defensive backs made plays, led by a huge game from CB Casey Hayward (5 pass defenses, 1 INT) and the INT returned for a touchdown by S M.D. Jennings. RB Mikel Leshoure had some success on the ground, but the Packers were letting the chance by rarely playing with more than two defensive linemen. Even with some running room available, the Lions preferred to throw the ball, calling 46 pass plays to only 22 carries.

My biggest complaint with the offense was the featured role for RB James Starks. With a make-shift offensive line, I'm sure Mike McCarthy wanted to keep the pressure down on QB Aaron Rodgers with a conservative game plan, but the result was a stalled offense. Starks had 26 touches while WR Jordy Nelson, WR James Jones, and WR Randall Cobb combined for only 23 carries and targets. While the Lions defense didn't have a huge statistical day, DT Nick Fairley was huge with 2 sacks and 2 tackles for a loss, and he probably disrupted at least a couple other plays. The overall conservative strategy was sound and they might not have had anymore success with a pass heavy attack, but a few more pass plays might have gotten the offense going, and Nelson, Jones and Cobb should combine for more plays than Starks.

Poor K Mason Crosby. I've been on his case all season, and he came close to hitting bottom in this game with two recorded misses (plus the other one he missed while he was being iced by the Lions). The coaches probably have more confidence in Crosby than any street free agent they could bring in at this point, so releasing him seems like an extreme reaction. His job security might be better addressed in the offseason. Instead, they should focus on restoring his confidence in the interim. Kicking is a pretty inconsistent business, and Crosby's gone through more good streaks than bad. The odds are more likely that he'll kick himself out of his slump instead of falling down further.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Dezman Moses and Frank Zombo Will Replace Clay Matthews Against The Lions

The absence of LB Clay Matthews has been my biggest concern for the Green Bay Packers' defense over the past three seasons, and hopefully the game against the Lions on Sunday will be the only time we see it this season. There's no replacing him and the defense will take some lumps without him.

I'm not surprised to see LB Dezman Moses will start in Matthews' place, but I wasn't expecting LB Frank Zombo to return because he hasn't played at all this season. I don't expect Zombo to make a big impact, but Moses and LB Erik Walden seem to play better when they have to play fewer snaps. At least he can help them stay fresh.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Preview: Packers at Lions

The Green Bay Packers have only played one divisional game, a win over the Bears, and the Lions have played three and lost three in the NFC North. For the Lions, the final score looked close in each of those three losses, but it really wasn't, as they scored a late touchdown in each one to make it appear close.

The biggest story in this game might be injuries. The Lions have problems on offense with WR Calvin Johnson still unable to practice (everyone seems to expect he'll play on Sunday) and WR Nate Burleson lost for the season, but without LB Clay Matthews and CB Charles Woodson, the Packers defense is looking rather toothless. The question is whether the Packers will find a pass rush without Matthews and I'm not overly optimistic that they will. At least the return of CB Tramon Williams to health in 2012 gives the Packers a legitimate top corner to harass Johnson. QB Matthew Stafford may not match 5000 yards or 41 touchdowns again this season, but the NFL's No. 1 pass offense (ranked No. 4 overall by Football Outsiders) should had success against a wounded Packer defense. I would be surprised if the Packers can hold them under 28 points.

However, the injury situation might be even worse for the Lions defense. It's been a rough season for the Lions' defense from the start and their 2011 sack leader DE Cliff Avril has already missed practice time this week, along with nearly every member of the Lions' secondary. They've been forced to claim former Packer CB Pat Lee off waivers after he was abruptly released by the Raiders (never a good sign). Still, he might be one of their top two cornerbacks at the moment.

While Rodgers hasn't been a force over the past two weeks (218 yards against the Cardinals, 186 yards against the Jaguars) the absence of WR Jordy Nelson has seemed to have been the problem. With his expected return from a hamstring injury, the offense, which has vanished over the past two games during the third quarter, should get a much needed boost from the return of their top wide receiver.

The only concern might be the switch of T.J. Lang to right tackle, to replace injured RT Bryan Bulaga. Lions' DE Kyle Vanden Bosch still remains effective with 5 sacks and 10 QB hits so far this season. This will be a match-up to watch.

Another area that could help the Packers is special teams, where the Packers rank No. 12 overall by Football Outsiders (held down only by K Mason Crosby's poor season) while the Lions rank near the bottom at No. 29. The Lions could end up with more total yards of offense, but if they keep losing the field position battle, it might not be enough to win the game.

This match-up, between two high powered offenses and two injured defenses, looks like it will be a shoot out. Maybe something like Packers 31, Lions 28.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Looking At The Packers' Snap Counts

Football Outsiders is good enough to provide snap counts in a sortable table, so I thought I'd take a look and see if there was anything interesting to discover in the Green Bay Packers' tendencies.

Three lineman (Lang, Sitton, and Newhouse) have played on 629 offensive snaps through the first nine games, so that's probably the total offensive snaps. Since it's not instructive to learn that the Packers always play with five offensive lineman and one quarterback, I'll focus on the other five positions.

RBs Alex Green, Cedric Benson, and James Starks have combined for 456 snaps, which is probably the most unexpected aspect of the 2012 Packers offense: the sometimes use of WR Randall Cobb as a running back. In total, Cobb only has 350 snaps and it's seemed like he's lined up more often as a receiver than a running back, so the Packers have gone with an empty backfield at least a couple dozen times. Cobb would be a receiving threat even if he was always lined up in a standard formation, but lining him up anywhere and everywhere on the field has certainly caused some additional confusion for opposing defenses.

TE Jermichael Finley has lined up for 392 snaps this season, which at first sounded low, but he's only behind WR James Jones (553) and WR Jordy Nelson (440) among skill players. Behind the expanded role of Randall Cobb, the biggest surprise has been the diminishing role of Finley. The dropped passes and a shoulder injury have been part of the problem, but the Packers seems to be using Finley more as a blocking tight end. They haven't lined up Finley out wide as often this season and they seem content using him as a blocker as often as a receiver. This might be the right decision, maybe he's likely to drop a pass or fail to exploit a mismatch, but it's taken away the dangerous element he's brought in the past.

On defense, S Morgan Burnett appears to be the player who never leaves the field with 630 snaps played. Adding up all the snaps played by defensive backs (3191) and divided by Burnett's 630 equals 5.07 DBs lined up on average. There have been 2334 snaps by linebackers, when divided by 630 equals 3.7. And 1404 snaps by lineman which gives us 2.23. So the average formation for the Packers is two down lineman, four linebackers, and five defensive backs. Overall, it seems similar to what the defense lined up with on a majority of their 2011 snaps, though the healthy return of CB Tramon Williams, and the quality play by rookie CB Casey Hayward, has made it more effective this season.

The only thing I'd point out about this 2-4-5 defense is that it's susceptible to getting pushed off the line of scrimmage on running plays. However, the run defense is ranked No. 13 overall by Football Outsiders, which is pretty good all things considering. Opposing running backs almost always get a couple yards, but they rarely get past the linebackers and safeties.

Monday, November 12, 2012

It's Official: Packers RT Bryan Bulaga To I.R.

I've been disappointed with the Green Bay Packers' offensive line this season and I've been hoping they could improve as a unit over the next few weeks. That goal seems a bit less likely now.
Instead of signing an offensive lineman to fill his empty roster spot, the Packers opted to re-sign LB Vic So'oto. With LB Clay Matthews not at practice and expected to miss next week's game, they were down one player at linebacker in practice and they're obviously familiar with So'oto. I'd be surprised if he's active next Sunday so his return might only help fill out the scout team in practice.

I guess it's good news that Bulaga won't be needing surgery, but hip injuries always concern me. It doesn't sound like a long-term problem if he's able to work out and he doesn't require crutches. However, it all depends on how his hip responds to treatment over the next few months.

One positive note is that Derek Sherrod has been able to return to practice. He's still not in playing condition, but at least he's a step closer to returning by being able to practice. Mike McCarthy seems happy with backups Greg Van Roten and Don Barclay.

As for how the starting offensive line is looking now, see the post below.

Friday, November 09, 2012

How Will The Packers Get By Without Bulaga?

In Pete Dougherty's recent article, he doesn't appear to have any inside information on injured RT Bryan Bulaga, but he can read between the lines and thinks the Packers' silence about Bulaga over the past week is a sign that the injury is serious. If you re-watch the injury on NFL Game Rewind, he might have not even been in contact with another defender when it happened, though sometimes the lack of severity has nothing to do with it's actual extent. Assuming that Dougherty is correct and it's a serious injury that keeps Bulaga out for several weeks, who are their options on the offensive line?

Evan Dietrich-Smith at left guard and T.J. Lang at right tackle. While I've seen the same problems with Dietrich-Smith that the Packers have seen over the past couple years (he's somewhat undersized and can miss his blocking assignments) he played well when he replaced RG Josh Sitton last season. And he looked good against the Cardinals last Sunday too, who have a couple of quality inside pass rushers (Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell). Lang struggled at right tackle when he played it in 2009, but he's certainly improved since his rookie season, though he did allow at least one hit on QB Aaron Rodgers. It's not an ideal situation, and it might be asking a lot of Lang, who's taken a step back at left guard after a strong 2011 season, but it should work.

Undrafted rookies Greg Van Roten and Don Barclay. While both players come from humble origins, they impressed the coaches this summer. If the Packers really believed they could improve on either of them, they could have brought in some other offensive linemen for a workout. Van Roten seemed to have made a big impression on the coaches in practice, while I was less impressed with him during the actual preseason games. Barclay played well throughout the preseason at guard and tackle (Van Roten only played guard). Neither player is a project either. According to, Van Roten started 30 games in college and Barclay played in an impressive 52 games at West Virginia and stated at left tackle for three seasons. While Van Roten was probably undrafted because he played at a small school (Penn), Barclay is undersized for an NFL left tackle and probably not the most athletic player at his position. However, they both seem able to play, if needed.

Seventh round rookie OL Andrew Datko. This preseason, he didn't seem to be over the shoulder problems that plagued him in college and he finds himself on the practice squad instead of the active roster. If he wasn't healthy enough to practice then I don't expect the Packers would be stashing him on the practice squad. During the preseason, he didn't look like an asset in the running game but he did seem to hold up as a pass blocker. He might find himself back on the active roster soon depending on what happens with Bulaga.

Former first round pick Derek Sherrod. The Packers made room for him on the roster this week, but Sherrod still hasn't practiced in forever. It's possible he could return, but it's more likely he'll find himself on season ending I.R. in a couple weeks. They don't need another offensive lineman immediately (with Van Roten and Barclay active on game day, they'll give the Packers their usual seven active offensive lineman) so they can afford to wait a couple weeks on Sherrod.

While that isn't an impressive stockpile of depth, it's decent enough. At least they wouldn't have to rely on someone who's no good, such as former lineman Herb Taylor who was released during the preseason.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Nick Perry Is Probably Lost For The Season

The Green Bay Packers have been getting a lot of bad injury news lately, and some more was dropped on election night.
On one hand this isn't such a big deal since Perry has only recorded two sacks and two QB hits. On the other hand, it'll turn 2012 into a lost season for their 1st round pick who might have given the team it's best chance of weathering the storm while LB Clay Matthews is out with a hamstring injury.

Supposedly Matthews's hamstring injury isn't as bad as it was in 2010 and the Packers probably have a good idea on how to manage the injury since it's been a problem in the past. But when he does return to the field, he might not be the same player. Back in 2010, he played through the month of November with an injured hamstring and, unsurprisingly, he wasn't himself. One game that comes to mind was the win over the 49ers, when he lined up against then struggling rookie RT Anthony Davis and only recorded one QB hit (no sacks). Before his 2010 hamstring injury, Matthews was dismantling poor offensive tackles like Davis. Once he returns this season, he might not be much of a factor if he's not completely healthy.

No defensive lineman has made much of an impact this season, though DE Mike Neal did beat LG Daryn Colledge last week for a sack, so it'll fall on the linebackers to make a difference in the pass rush. That might come from inside if defensive coordinator Dom Capers dials up more inside blitzes from LB A.J. Hawk and LB Brad Jones, but primarily it's got to come from the outside.

They only offered him a minimal one year deal in free agency, and drafted Perry to replace him, but LB Erik Walden has remained and their No. 2 pass rusher with 11 QB hits on the season. Walden is as inconsistent as ever, he had a great game against the Cardinals but did nothing against the Jaguars the week before, and he'll certainly struggle if Matthews isn't around to occupy additional blockers. He'll be asked to do more, and I'm not sure he's up to the challenge, if Matthews is out.

LB Dezman Moses has gotten rave reviews all year, but he hasn't made a big impact on defense this season. In 115 defensive snaps so far this season, he's recorded 1 sack and 2 QB hits. There's an argument to be made that he just needs more of an opportunity, and it looks like he'll be getting a chance to prove it.

LB Frank Zombo has just returned from the PUP list and he was inactive last week against the Cardinals, so I'm not expecting anything from him until he proves he can step back onto the field. Even then, since he's played so little over the last two seasons, it's hard to believe he'll be an effective player immediately.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Looking At Rodgers's Struggles Against The Cardinals

I think QB Aaron Rodgers is being pretty hard on himself for saying "I've got to play better" while he's throwing four touchdown passes. His criticism was directed at his low throw to WR Jordy Nelson which forced Nelson to slide (and led to his ankle injury) and their inability to put the Cardinals away in the second half.

Overall, he completed only 14 of 30 passes, but he wasn't helped by his receivers, who might have dropped as many as four passes in the first half. The offense also struggled to start the second half, as they went three-and-out on their first three possessions and Rodgers went 0 for 6. Since that seems to be his least effective stretch, here's a closer look at the six incompletions.

(14:22) (No Huddle, Shotgun) 12-A.Rodgers pass incomplete deep middle to 88-J.Finley. While Rodgers might be hard on himself at this point, the Cardinals coverage was excellent in the third quarter (that is, until they forgot to cover TE Tom Crabtree on a 72 yard touchdown). On this particular play, no one was open and Rodgers rolled right. He then saw TE Jermichael Finley running back to the middle of the field, deep, and Rodgers made a pretty dangerous pass across his body. While it was ill-advised, it was a very low percentage play and it would have been impressive if he had completed it.

(14:14) (Shotgun) 12-A.Rodgers pass incomplete short right to 89-Ja.Jones (21-P.Peterson). On 3rd down, Rodgers threw a quick slant to WR James Jones. The ball was right where it needed to be, in front of the receiver and low so only Jones could catch it, but CB Patrick Peterson was right there and reached into knock it away. This was a great play by Peterson.

(13:25) (Shotgun) 12-A.Rodgers pass incomplete short right to 20-A.Green. Once again, Rodgers had time to throw but no one was open. His check down receiver was RB Alex Green out of the backfield, but even that play had one Cardinal defender in tight coverage. Rodgers threw the ball high and out of bounds, but if he had thrown it right on target, it would have been intercepted and a potential pick-six. There was no way he could have completed it, and he was probably throwing it away.

(13:20) (Shotgun) 12-A.Rodgers pass incomplete short left to 89-Ja.Jones. Rodgers was probably not happy with where he threw this pass because he threw it out of bounds and Jones had no chance to catch it. He was trying to hit Jones in the back of the end zone, but once again, he had a very small window to throw into due to tight coverage.

(11:43) (No Huddle, Shotgun) 12-A.Rodgers pass incomplete short right to 18-R.Cobb. I'm a broken record here, but once again, Rodgers had time to throw and no one was open. Finally, he decided to throw to WR Randall Cobb as he ran towards the right sidelines, but there was a defender right on top of him. Rodgers threw the ball out of bounds in front of Cobb, but if he had left the throw over the field then the defender could have probably made a play on it.

(11:36) (No Huddle, Shotgun) 12-A.Rodgers pass incomplete short middle [54-Q.Groves]. Rodgers was hit as he threw this pass and it wasn't anywhere near a receiver. I'm just glad it wasn't ruled a fumble.

During these three drives, Rodgers wasn't as accurate as he could have been but he looked about as good as ever. His biggest problem was that the Cardinals were playing great coverage. It also didn't help that he didn't have Nelson available, who might have had more success at beating the coverage. It's frustrating, but he didn't force a pass into an ill-advised interception and these stretches probably happen to every team.