Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Not Everyone Was A Fan Of Aaron Rodgers' Dismantling Of The Chiefs

I love Pro Football Focus because each week (and season) it assigns a grade to each player, and this is especially helpful for players like offensive lineman who rarely generate any traditional stats at all. PFF assigns one point for a good play and one negative point for a bad play. The only problem is that it's subjective; a person assigns the grade and different people focus on different things.

It's like with scouting, where some teams see QB Aaron Rodgers as worthy of a 1st round pick and 22 other teams (the Vikings twice!) decide he's not the best available player on their 2005 draft board. Different scouts have different opinions. I'll look at other stats when they're available for players, such as ESPN's QBR and Football Outsiders, and add additional facts to PFF's grades, such as I did last week about how the huge negative grade PFF assigned to David Bakhtiari and Don Barclay against the Seahawks wasn't the whole story.

So PFF got a lot of flack (deservedly) this week for assigning a negative grade to Rodgers after he threw for 5 touchdowns and no turnovers. Their defense of this grade has generated over 700 comments. For some comparison, they gave a positive grade to QB Nick Foles as he led the Rams to 6 points, no touchdowns, and the loss at home against a weak Steelers defense.
So how did Rodgers earn a negative grade?

Of his five touchdown passes, only two of them earned him a positive grade. The other three were "expected throws" to WR Randall Cobb and Cobb earned the positive grade (not Rodgers) for "fighting through contact or defeating the coverage with speed to the edge."

He earned negative grades for two turnovers that didn't happen. One of them, a dropped INT by LB Josh Mauga, was a real negative for Rodgers. He either didn't see him standing there or threw an ill advised pass. The other was a fumble in the second quarter when he stood in the pocket too long, but it was overturned by a penalty on CB Marcus Cooper. Rodgers picked on Cooper the entire game, and when he fumbled the ball, Rodgers was looking into the corner of the end zone where Cooper was defending. The flag was for illegal contact, and while sometimes those flags are called for a quick jab after 5 yards, on that particular play, Cooper was riding the receiver out of the back of the end zone. Somehow, PFF didn't appear to give Cooper a negative grade for that terrible penalty. The only reason it wasn't pass interference was that he didn't actually throw the ball. He held the ball too long because his intended receiver was being ran right off the field.

So two positive touchdown grades, and two negative turnover grades, and something else slightly bad, pushed him down to a negative 0.8 grade. That would be OK so long as you ignore everything else that was going on:
Rodgers is like an offensive coordinator standing on the field. He's watching everything, reading defenses, and picking them apart, like he did to the Chiefs on Monday. How about a positive grade for every time he adjusted the pass blocking? Or every time he saw single coverage while he was lined up before the snap and threw the receiver open? Or whenever he saw CB Tyvon Branch was "covering" someone and threw the ball to that receiver? Did he get any points for his two hard counts, when he drew off-side penalties and threw a long pass/touchdown while the defense was standing around? He made a 100 little decisions that made it look easy to throw 5 touchdown passes against the Chiefs, but he appeared to have received no points for it.

Many NFL QBs (such as Nick Foles) didn't manage a single TD pass last week, but Foles didn't receive any negative grades for the passes he couldn't even attempt because he couldn't move his team's offense into scoring position. It's a flawed scoring system that considers any NFL touchdown an "expected throw" because it's never that easy. Quarterbacks are so important to any offense that they always deserve some of the credit for their team's success.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

It's Hard To Lose When Aaron Rodgers Is Playing Like This: Packers Over Chiefs, 38-28

The Chiefs scored on three late touchdown drives and made a comeback seem possible, even if it was never very likely, but the Packers stopped a two-point conversion and recovered the resulting onside kick before running out the clock.

The Chiefs were going to have problems on defense, and losing one of their starting cornerbacks mid-game (when another startering CB was already suspended) made it almost impossible. The Chiefs should have known what was coming, the Packers just kept throwing touchdowns on a variation of the same play to WR Randall Cobb, but apparently they didn't have the personnel to adjust. LB Justin Houston was held in check, and outside of a nice overload blitz in the first half and a couple of bull rushes from LB Tamba Hali, the Chiefs couldn't sack or hit QB Aaron Rodgers, who ended up with 333 yards, 5 TD passes and no turnovers.
They built a huge 31-7 lead but the Chiefs got back into the game for a couple reasons.

The Packers couldn't run the ball late without RB Eddie Lacy. While he did play for most of the game, he appeared to have a slight limp near the end, and the offense went with RB James Starks on their final two drives. The Packers brought in their biggest lineman, G Josh Walker, for some power rushing that went nowhere. They probably would have been better off spreading the Chiefs out and seeing if Starks could make a defender miss in the open field. They punted on 4 of their 6 second half possessions, and they couldn't eat up enough clock.

The defense was a disaster in the red zone. It wasn't a monster game for RB Jamaal Charles, except when he got the ball within 10 yards of the goal line, and then he was automatic for a touchdown run. These red zone problems popped up last season too, and they don't seem to have gotten a lot better in 2015. They probably missed SS Morgan Burnett because the secondary seemed confused a lot of the time. I thought they might go with disappointing SS Sean Richardson, but instead they started rookie CB Damarious Randall and Chris Banjo played safety in their dime packages. Randall did make a couple plays, but then got lost on a couple others, especially when he was spun around and beaten badly by WR Jeremy Maclin on a long catch and run. This was pretty disappointing because the defense was all over QB Alex Smith, who was sacked 7 times, and shut down the Chiefs for first 40 minutes.

There were also 12 penalties on the Packers, which isn't going to make Mike McCarthy very happy. The defense needs to straighten out their confusion in the secondary, and I can't believe I'm writing this, but maybe the return of DE Letroy Guion from suspension will help their run defense. It's never easy on the road, but the Packers travel to San Francisco next week, and 49ers are coming off two road beatings and a 40 point loss. It'll be a good test to see if the Packers can contain a good rushing attack that features a QB who's absolutely torn them up on the ground in the past.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Packers Will Be Without Morgan Burnett Against The Chiefs

While the Green Bay Packers offense has been dominant (thanks Aaron!) the run defense has been the worst in the NFL so far in 2015 (according to Football Outsiders), and the injury to SS Morgan Burnett is not helping:
It's good to see that Lacy and Adams should play. But the drop off from Lacy to James Starks isn't as great as the drop off from Burnett to SS Sean Richardson. Starks was effective in relief against the Seahawks, but Richardson's looked a bit lost at times. Richardson's negative grade at Pro Football Focus is almost the same as Burnett's after two games, but Richardson's struggles have come in half as many snaps and he's not been playing through an injury. Burnett was great against the run in 2014, so his absence is a big loss when the Chiefs's best offensive weapon is at running back.

While RB Matt Forte was dominant on the ground in Week 1, the Chiefs aren't going to copy that game plan. Their head coach is still Andy Reid; who's never been known as a run-first play caller. But without Burnett, holding the Chiefs to under 4 ypc is probably a pipe dream. Burnett's loss combined with the season ending injury to LB Sam Barrington takes away the two defenders who were expected to be responsible this season for calling out the defenses. The duties have largely switched over to LB Clay Matthews, and while neither Burnett or Barrington are irreplaceable, their combined absence is sure to have some negative effect.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Packers Might Throw The Ball A Lot Against The Chiefs

Mike McCarthy never abandons the run completely. Sometimes it's a key part of the game plan and sometimes it's just there to distract the defense, and with RB Eddie Lacy, the defense can never ignore the ground game. But this looks like the week that the Packers will go into a pass heavy mode.

Part of the problem stems from their bookend tackles. Here's the analysis from Pro Football Focus after their win over the Seahawks:
They’re teammates on the Packers, and teammates on this list. Aaron Rodgers was running for his life as Barclay, filling in for injured right tackle Bryan Bulaga, allowed an unbelievable 10 QB hurries. Bakhtiari was hardly better, allowing seven QB hurries and both of the Seahawks’ sacks.
Neither of them is particularly strong when it comes to getting a push in the run game, or holding up against a bull rush on passing downs, but that pass blocking criticism above is a little too harsh. While they did allow many QB hurries, those hurries rarely resulted in hits or sacks. Both tackles were pushed around but they stayed on their blocks, which made pursuit difficult, and Rodgers moved around to find wide open areas where he picked the defense apart, as he did on this touchdown pass:
The tackles can hold up against the pass rush better than they can open up big holes for the running backs. It also doesn't help that Lacy might miss the game as he recovers from a sprained ankle. Though RB James Starks proved that he can be effective replacement, the Chiefs defense is really good against the run.

The Chiefs are ranked as currently having the 2nd best run defense by Pro Football Focus, and the 3rd best by Football Outsiders. But neither site had them ranked highly against the run in 2014, so these first two games might have been a sign that they played against teams (Houston and Denver) who are having trouble running the ball.

The Chiefs were pretty good to really good against the pass in 2014, depending on the site's rankings, mostly because of LB Justin Houston, who's a terror rushing the passer. But they're still missing their top cornerback for one more game, and outside of Houston, their pass rush and coverage isn't dominate. Despite Houston's presence, I don't know how they'll game plan for him, they'll probably have an easier time throwing than running against a stout run defense.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Packers Beat Seahawks 27-17, But Lose Eddie Lacy To Ankle Injury

It was hard to watch all the carts drive off players during the first half (Eddie Lacy, then Davante Adams and Josh Boyd). But QB Aaron Rodgers was fantastic once again, including a sick touchdown pass to WR James Jones (of course) against CB Richard Sherman while jumping in the air. However, LB Jayrone Elliott was the surprise, big playmaker of the game.
Elliott has been a star of the last two preseasons, but it hadn't carried over into the regular season yet. The Packers tried everyone at outside linebacker in this game and they all struggled to generate a pass rush or contain QB Russell Wilson on the bootleg and cut backs. Most of the pass rush came against Seattle's interior lineman. Elliott was the last outside linebacker to take the field (Peppers, Matthews, Perry, Mulumba, and Neal all played snaps outside before Elliott) but the interception above was the turning point, and his forced fumble on RB Fred Jackson sealed the victory.

The pass coverage had at least one busted coverage and CB Micah Hyde allowed a couple big plays, but generally the coverage was tight and TE Jimmy Graham was held to only one catch. After getting exposed last week in Chicago, CB Sam Shields was rarely seen against the Seahawks (which is probably a good sign that he's getting the job done and we don't see him). The interior of the defensive line (Raji, Daniels, and Pennel) often overpowered the unheralded interior lineman of the Seahawks, and they were the big reason why RB Marshawn Lynch never got going on the ground.

RT Don Barclay struggled badly in the preseason during his first action since injuring his knee in 2014, but he was decent in place of RT Bryan Bulaga. Though it wasn't a perfect performance; he did miss blocks and was overpowered on one sack (LT David Bakhtiari was overpowered on the same play). It wasn't perfect and Rodgers was hit on more plays than I'd like to see, but his lineman overall gave him time to throw and RB James Starks some room to run against a tough run defense.

While Starks did have a great game, except for a first half fumble which, at least, wasn't turned into any points by the Seahawks, it was made possible by an ankle injury to Lacy. The early indication is that it's not serious, so hopefully it will be one of Starks's few big moments in 2015. He's a solid running back, but his track record with injuries makes it unlikely he'd survive an entire season.

It was a small coming out party for WR Ty Montgomery, who didn't blow up the stat sheet (4 receptions for 37 yards) but he had a couple 3rd down receptions on their final scoring drive that helped eat up a lot of clock. Also, he slipped away from Sherman in the first half and drew a 50+ yard pass interference call. It's not going to be all Jones as a replacement for WR Jordy Nelson, and it looks like Montgomery can take on some of the responsibility.

The Packers now get a little more time to recover, and let Lacy's ankle heal, as they don't play until next week Monday night. The Chiefs are a good team but playing them in Lambeau (the Packers last game against the Chiefs was in 2011, when they lost their only regular season game that year on the road in Kansas City) is a big help.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Packers Lose Starting Linebacker Sam Barrington For The Season

LB Sam Barrington is not my favorite player, he had a huge negative grade from Pro Football Focus in 2014 and a slightly negative grade on his only 16 snaps of 2015, but it never helps to lose a starter for the season.
The Packers have already previewed their defense without Barrington. They played most of the Bears game without him, and the different schemes involved a lot of Nate Palmer and Clay Matthews. They were the only other inside linebackers who played last week. LB Jayrone Elliott unexpectedly received some playing time, but maybe that was because LB Nick Perry was stinking up the joint (his negative 4.3 grade from PFF was the worst of any defender last Sunday) and he wasn't playing just so Matthews could spend more time inside.

It's going to be a rocky ride for Palmer, who's new to the inside backer position, still playing with a splint on his injured hand, and now has to wear the speaker helmet for the coaches instructions on the field. Maybe with an extra week to prepare, they'll plan on working rookie Jake Ryan into the defense, though he didn't take the field against the Bears (except on special teams). Without a lot of depth on the inside, the loss of Barrington might become a big problem if Palmer struggles with his role on defense.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Packers Start 2015 1-0: Defeat Bears 31-23

The big story was obviously WR James Jones, who looked like he never left Green Bay. He signed early this week after being released by the New York Giants, and caught two touchdowns with a 3rd that was taken away by a penalty.
Technically the Packers had 30 run plays to only 23 pass attempts, but 8 of those rushes were by QB Aaron Rodgers and one was a lateral to TE Richard Rodgers after the pass protection broke down. So the Packers are keeping their pass heavy ways even though Tom Clements is technically calling the plays now instead of Mike McCarthy. Rodgers still calls a lot of the plays himself, so some things won't change, and again it was a nearly flawless game from Rodgers with a QBR of 94.4, 3 touchdowns and no turnovers. He even looked good when running, though I hope he does less of it as the season goes on.

Only five receivers were targeted, which surprised me because I was expecting the Packers would rely on many receivers to overcome the preseason loss of WR Jordy Nelson. All those targets that would have gone to Nelson last season have to go somewhere. Instead, they got a break when the Giants released Jones. I wasn't sure he would actually move ahead of WR Ty Montgomery, but it doesn't look like JJ's forgotten any of the offense, while I'm sure Montgomery is still learning it. Though Montgomery did make his mark with a big kickoff return.

Oh, CB Sam Shields. The Bears saw something they liked, and almost every running play and crossing route went to Shields's side of the field. He's great in single coverage down the sidelines, he knocked a touchdown pass away from WR Alshon Jeffrey in the end zone, but he struggled with nearly every open field tackle that came his way. It'll be something to watch as the season goes on, and the absence of starting S Morgan Burnett might have made the situation worse.

LB Clay Matthews is still a beast. He ran across the field to tackle a running back from behind on one play, and on the game clinching INT he ran from left to right tackle to make the interception. He didn't have a huge impact as a pass rusher, it was LB Julius Peppers's day in that department, but as long as Matthews's is healthy and still running at full speed, it's only a matter of time until the sacks come.

LB Nate Palmer in pass coverage. As you might expect, there's been some rough patches watching Palmer, a former college defensive end, adapt to life as a pass covering inside linebacker in the NFL. And he's coming off a lost season, and played the entire preseason with a giant club on his injured hand. The Packers lost LB Sam Barrington mid-game with an ankle injury, and though Barrington's no great shakes in pass coverage either, he's still probably better than Palmer.

As much as they struggled with RB Matt Forte on defense, they once again had no problem with QB Jay Cutler (who always seems to play his worst against the Packers) and the offense hummed along with the addition of Jones. Next week they host the Seahawks, who are looking for answers after their upset loss to the Rams, in arguably the biggest regular season game of the season.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Packers Beat Saints On Thursday and Set Their 53 Man Roster on Saturday

Few projected starters took the field for the Green Bay Packers last Thursday against the Saints, and those that did see the field like DE Mike Daniels weren't there for long. It was the QB Brett Hundley show again as the Packers have found a NFL starting QB in the 5th round but I'm not sure if anyone played well enough on Thursday to have changed the team's mind.
WR Ty Montgomery didn't take the field against the Saints which looked like a sign that he had the No. 3 job locked up, that was until the Giants released WR James Jones. He hasn't been gone for long and should step right back in. Plus he's been working this year with former Packer coach Ben McAdoo in New York. Though Janis catches a TD pass in almost every preseason game, he also vanishes for stretches and does drop a pass or two. White is a handy emergency receiver who's familiar with the system but he has either a drop or penalty in every game. I love Abbrederis's game, but he had a fumble in his only preseason game played (ball security in the preseason is huge) and he hasn't been healthy over the last two years.

They keep nine offensive lineman. OL Don Barclay and Josh Walker led everyone in snaps played this preseason, but neither of them was very good. At times, as many as four starting lineman were out with injuries, so this might have to do more with keeping depth than quality.

RB Alonzo Harris stays, RB Rajion Neal is released. I'm a little surprise that either of them were kept. It had to help Harris that he's a big guy, he out weighs Lacy, and McCarthy generally prefers size and power.

They keep five defensive lineman. This could become a seven man rotation after DE Datone Jones and DT Letroy Guion finish their suspensions but they won't have much depth for their first game. Despite being a 3rd round pick, Thornton never did show much (though he was never terrible either) and his release isn't a big surprise. I'm not sure how DT Josh Boyd has kept his job, the Saints shoved him all over the place in the 1st quarter, but he'll be part of the rotation in 2015. Hopefully Pennel and Gaston play bigger roles during the regular season than Boyd.

They keep nine linebackers. I'm a little surprised to see LB Nate Palmer survived the transition to inside backer while wearing a club on his broken hand, but his rivals (like Carl Bradford) never surpassed him. LB James Vaughters had a nice preseason and it would be good to see him back, and LB Joe Thomas (though he's too small) is another quality player, though neither brings something that they don't currently have on the roster from another player. I hope they find a role for rookie 4th round LB Jake Ryan during the regular season.

They'll have three rookie cornerbacks on the 53-man roster. CB Ladarius Gunter was the surprise of the preseason and it's not at all to see him make the roster in addition to their two top draft choices, who both struggled as the preseason wrapped up. They really needed someone like Gunter to emerge because they lost three veteran CBs this offseason (Williams, House, Bush) and they needed replacements. Who'll be that 3rd CB, someone who occasionally lines up outside in place of Shields or Hayward? Gunter deserves the job on merit but it's not clear he's actually moved ahead of either Russell or Rollins so far.

It's a pretty deep roster and while WR Jordy Nelson's loss casts a shadow over the preseason, he's the only player currently on the I.R. In recent years, the Packers have sometimes had several players on the I.R. to start the season, so Nelson's injury is huge but overall the roster is in good health. Compare that to their first opponent, the Bears, who have five players on I.R. right now. It does seem like Aaron Rodgers is correct and the preseason is too long, especially that fourth game that probably changed their roster little, but I don't see how that would have avoided Nelson's knee injury. Bring on the Bears!