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.