Friday, October 23, 2015

Packers On The Bye Week: Sitting Strong at 6-0

When Football Outsiders recapped the Week 6 games, they specifically mentioned two NFC North teams (Packers over Chargers and Vikings over Chiefs). These were both close, one score victories by two NFC North teams, but according to Football Outsiders's advanced metrics, neither game was as close as the score suggested. The Packers significantly outplayed the Chargers in their win, and the Chiefs significantly outplayed the Vikings in defeat. The Chargers looked better than they were because they ran almost twice as many plays as the Packers (which in itself is a problem) while the Chiefs were hurt by penalties and every big play went against them.

It's too early to say the Packers are guaranteed to win the NFC North, they've only played one divisional game so far, but they're up by three games already and their only significant competition (Vikings at 3-2) are ranked as the 26th best team by Football Outsiders after Week 6. But it's fair to say that they're in great shape to win the division.
One other interesting note on the 2015 season is how it's top heavy. There are five unbeaten teams still remaining but no winless teams and 12 teams with only 2 wins, which means there's a lot of mediocrity. There are only 10 teams with a winning record and 19 teams with a losing record. There are a lot games left to play but there aren't a bunch of teams hot on the Packers' heels either. It gives them some cushion just in case they struggle early next month when they travel for two tough road games (at Denver, at Carolina).

Monday, October 19, 2015

Damarious Randall Comes Up Big: Packers Hold On For 27-20 Win Over Chargers

On one hand it's pretty good to see that when the Green Bay Packers struggle with their pass offense and defense they can still win a game and never trail in it. On the other hand, they weren't slouches either. On a per pass attempt basis, QB Aaron Rodgers's stats were just as good as QB Philip Rivers (though Rivers re-wrote the Chargers' record book on Sunday with new team records for completions, attempts, and yards in a single game) but problems on 3rd downs held them back again. And though the defense struggled a lot, when they needed a big play to close out the game, their rookie CB came up big.
I was debating afterwards whether Rivers's pass attempt could have been better, but on replay, it looked like a heck of a pass. He had a tight window at the front of the end zone and he can't throw it high because his receiver is only 5 foot 8. He threw it right where it should have gone but Randall made a great play on the ball.

It was a weird day for the defense. Their troubled run defense shut down the Chargers' ground game even without NT B.J. Raji and SS Morgan Burnett while their fantastic pass rush went missing. The stat line shows 3 sacks and 13 QB pressures, but most of those came late when DC Dom Capers dialed up the blitz as much as he dared. And the Chargers' offensive line had been a wreck for most of the season. Without a pass rush, the Chargers were great at converting on 3rd down (50%) even without a running game and this wasn't the first game the defense has had trouble getting off the field. But they were a surprisingly good bend-but-don't-break defense, which is unusual for them. On the Chargers' last 4 possessions, they ran 38 plays for 209 yards but came away with only 3 points. For as many passing yards as they allowed, to only surrender 20 points is a victory.

Mike McCarthy was asked in the post-game press conference about what happened to RB Eddie Lacy? His answer focused on RB James Starks, who he said deserved some playing time while Lacy's been banged up (though Lacy's not listed on the injury report). Starks proved his coach right and exploded for a big run and his best game in a long while, but keeping Lacy on the bench when the team is lacking play makers (WR Randall Cobb was held to only 2 receptions and he had a big drop) is an odd choice. It worked OK this week since Starks was great and WR Jeff Janis had his first receptions of the season (for big yards) but I'd rather see Lacy play a more prominent role because there's no one else like him on offense.

Getting more from Lacy would also probably help their continued struggles on 3rd down. They were only 3 for 9 on 3rd downs and needed to sustain drives to match what the Chargers are doing. 33% isn't their lowest conversion rate of the season, that came last week against the Rams when they were at 31%, but that hardly makes it better. As much trouble as the defense had getting off the field, the offense struggled to stay on it.

This is probably the best time for their bye week, as they're scheduled to play two currently unbeaten teams on the road to start November (Broncos then Panthers). The injured players can hopefully get better and the coaches can consider some mid-season adjustments.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Packers Defense Is Rolling But What About The Offense?

I've been spoiled by QB Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers offense for a while. But for the first time in maybe forever, in the Football Outsiders weekly rankings, the offense (5th overall) is rated lower than the defense (4th overall). Most of this has to do with a much better performance this season by the defense, but last season, the offense was rated No. 1 overall by FO. What's to account for this mini-slump on offense?
The short answer is that the offense is missing WR Jordy Nelson. It's also been missing WR Davante Adams, but the good news is that he's back at practice this week. As good as WR James Jones has been, which isn't his fault because Nelson is one of the best in the NFL, he hasn't been effectively a replacement for Nelson. Jones and rookie WR Ty Montgomery are effectively replacing what was hoped for from Adams. Despite the extra attention above, Cobb's basically been the same as last season, though a few more passes have falling incomplete to him.

His absence has also hurt the ground game, probably because the opponent's safety is less worried about deep coverage without Nelson around and more interested in RB Eddie Lacy. The run game wasn't helped when RT Bryan Bulaga missed a few games either. Lacy's yards per carry are significantly down this season (4.6 in 2014 vs. 4.1 in 2015) and it's even worse for RB James Starks (3.9 in 2014 vs. 3.3 in 2015). With the run offense struggling, it's getting harder to convert on 3rd down. Here's how they've done through the first five games:
Team 3rd Down % Points Scored
Week 1 Bears 60% 31
Week 2 Seattle 36% 27
Week 3 Chiefs 36% 38
Week 4 Niners 33% 17
Week 5 Rams 31% 24
The offense has scored 17 points in their last two games, and the 3rd down conversion percentage is trending downward with each passing game. The Bears have one of the worst defenses in the NFL and that Week 1 conversion rate on 3rd down is looking more like the exception not the rule. The Packers converted for a 1st down on 47.2% of their 3rd downs in 2014 vs. 38.3% overall in 2015, so many drives that kept going last season are ending up with a change of possession.

Unfortunately there's no easy answer to get the offense back to how it was in 2014. Bulaga is back, which can only help since he's much better than Don Barclay, and Adams will eventually recover from his high ankle sprain. Montgomery should continue to improve during his rookie season. But the only player who can really take them to the next level is Nelson. So the best offense in the NFL might just have to settle for being No. 5 overall this season.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Packers Sack, Intercept The Rams: 24-10

It was the second consecutive lackluster performance for the Green Bay Packers offense, but it was the second outstanding game for the defense (at least against the pass). Somewhere QB Nick Foles is still having nightmares:
The pressure on Foles was relentless, mostly from LB Clay Matthews, LB Julius Peppers, and DE Datone Jones. The coverage was good too, notably from CB Sam Shields, but the pressure was so bad that Foles couldn't get anything going. In his first 4 games this season, he had 1 INT but he had 4 INTs against the Packers.

The run defense gave up a ton of yards to RB Todd Gurley, but his offensive line was run blocking better than they were pass blocking and the Packers usually allow an extra DB to play instead of a run stuffing LB/DE. When Gurley got into the open field, he did look a lot like RB Adrian Peterson but for Gurley it's more about his speed than his power. He was lethal in the open field and the Packers run defense isn't, which was a bad combination. But the Rams' complete inability to throw the ball wasted his effort.

The big story was that QB Aaron Rodgers threw an INT for the first time since 2012 at Lambeau. The first one was tipped at the line and LB James Laurinaitis made a great diving grab. The second INT looked trapped and probably wasn't intercepted. He was also stripped sack when DE Robert Quinn (one of the best edge rushers in the NFL) beat LT David Bakhtiari off the edge. It counts as three turnovers but they weren't bone headed plays; they were great plays by the Rams. He still led them on three scoring drives and took advantage of some bad/blown coverage on long TD passes to WR James Jones and WR Ty Montgomery.

The Rams' run defense has been very good this season, and the Packers didn't have much success on the ground against them. Their lack of run success probably played a factor in their lousy conversion rate on 3rd downs (31%) for the second week in a row.

There were a couple injuries to NT B.J. Raji, RG T.J. Lang, and LB Nick Perry. Lang said his was "nothing serious" but it's not clear how bad it was for Raji and Perry.

The Packers have one more game next week (hosting the Chargers) before their bye week. QB Philip Rivers might be the best QB they're scheduled to face this season but he's got issues behind an injured offense line, which might be a huge problem for him against the Packers' fearsome pass rush.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Packers Hosting St. Louis' Pass Rushers On Sunday: Bryan Bulaga Is Back Just In Time

As it was explained to me by a colleague earlier today, the Rams only play well against NFC West teams but they're terrible against everyone else and I shouldn't worry about them in Lambeau against the Packers.

However the Rams do have a fantastic pass rush and the Packers have struggled protecting QB Aaron Rodgers. But one of their best lineman will be returning from injury just in time.
Depending on the game, Bulaga's replacement, RT Don Barclay, has varied from OK to horrible. There really is no comparison, and Bulaga is significantly better.

There will be a few notable Packers missing: WR Davante Adams is still out with a high ankle sprain, and SS Morgan Burnett with a calf injury. Both are listed as questionable, but the fact that neither one practiced on Friday is bad sign. The offense has continued to play well without Adams as Jones and Montgomery have stepped up in his absence. But the run defense has really struggled except when they're bringing an extra safety down into the box, which they can get away with against QB Colin Kaepernick, but not against QB Nick Foles, who has a good deep ball. Burnett was strong against the run last season and he's been missed so far in 2015.

He's struggled in limited snaps, but it was also reported that SS Sean Richardson suffered a serious neck injury. I had forgotten about the serious neck injury he suffered in 2012, and that was one I didn't think he come back from. This one might end his career.

The Packers favored by 9 points, and the Rams might be without a couple of notable players: LB Alec Ogletree and WR Kenny Britt. Those might not seem like the biggest names ever, but Ogletree enters this game as their leading tackler and Britt as their leading receiver in yards. Ogletree is definitely out, though Britt is expected to play through his injured knee.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Week 4 QB Rankings: Aaron Rodgers Is Near The Top

After the Pro Football Focus article that gave QB Aaron Rodgers a negative score for throwing for 5 TDs and 0 INTs against the Chiefs, I wanted to look at how quarterback performance matches up with a team's record. They can write about the plays that are expected or plays the other team should make, but a negative shouldn't be taken from a positive. I'm not big on intangibles, but they are part of the game and players have to make plays. Some do, some don't.

There are 6 teams without a loss after 4 games, and as you might expect, most of those teams' without a loss are getting great play from their quarterbacks.
Week 4 QBR 2015 QBR FO
2015 Losses 2014 Rk
1 Roethlisberger 91.3 2 72.1 6
2 Dalton 87.7 0 53.9 2
3 Rodgers 87.3 0 77.4 4
4 Brady 83.1 0 74.6 1
5 Ryan 81.4 0 71.0 5
6 Palmer 80.3 1 67.7 3
9 Bridgewater 65.1 2 56.9 29
15 Cutler 58.2 3 52.8 16
25 Stafford 50.3 4 53.5 19
The two exceptions are Carolina and Denver, who are winning despite mediocre QB play from Peyton Manning and Cam Newton. They're undefeated because of their great defenses and some help from the schedule makers.

The point is that Rodgers is just above or just below of three other undefeated QBs (Dalton, Brady, Ryan) which is right where he should be.

Former Packers head coach Lindy Infante Has Died

For those of you who don't remember (refuse to remember) the bleak era of the late 1980s, Lindy Infante was the coach who gave all of us Green Bay Packer fans a glimmer of hope with an unlikely 10-6 record in 1989 (though no playoff berth).
Unfortunately he couldn't build on that surprising 1989 season and GM Ron Wolf fired him in December 1991. Wolf then hired HC Mike Holmgren, traded for QB Brett Favre, and shocked the NFL world by luring free agent DE Reggie White to Green Bay, but Infante's contributions weren't part of the turnaround.

The best I can recall from Wolf's The Packer Way book, he wasn't too impressed with Infante's team in 1991 while Infante believed his players were just the victim of unfortunate events. Infante really believed in his players (to his determent) and Wolf knew it was time to clean house (with a couple exceptions, such as WR Sterling Sharpe and LT Ken Ruettgers). But I'll always remember that 1989 season.

Monday, October 05, 2015

The Defense Shuts Them Down: Packers Defeat 49ers, 17-3

It was a historic performance for the Green Bay Packers defense who held the 49ers to their worst offensive performance since 1963 or 1964. As the game went on, the Packer fans in attendance took over and flipped the home field advantage.
Why was the defense so good? RB Carlos Hyde couldn't run the ball, the run defense was all over him on every carry, and QB Colin Kaepernick has no accuracy downfield. At first, he wouldn't throw the ball deep, but when he finally did start going deep, he usually threw it out of bounds. He connected on one long pass to WR Torrey Smith but that was the exception. In the first half, Kaepernick had some success on designed cut back runs, but in the second half, FS HaHa Clinton-Dix went into the box to shut it all down. There were times in the third quarter when it looked like the Packers were playing with a single deep safety, sometimes it looked like it was only 4th stringer S Chris Banjo deep, but the 49ers still couldn't take advantage of it.

With so many defenders playing near the line, and LBs Nick Perry and Jayrone Elliott adding extra pressure along with the usual suspects (Matthews, Peppers, Daniels, etc.), they overwhelmed the 49ers' underwhelming offensive line.

I'd love to write that the Packers D has stepped up, but this was more about how far Kaepernick has fallen. When the announcers start talking about how much the coaches love QB Blaine Gabbert, it's a big problem. Until Kaepernick re-discovers his accuracy, he's not a starting NFL QB.

The offense struggled and QB Aaron Rodgers was frustrated in the first half. He admitted that they were off today. It looked like all the injuries finally caught up to them. Some of the receivers didn't seem on the same page, and that probably doesn't happen if Nelson, Adams and Quarless were playing instead of Montgomery, Janis and Backman.

But no starter was missed as much as RT Bryan Bulaga. I was OK with RT Don Barclay allowing pressure as long as he didn't allow hits or sacks. However, in this game, he gave up a couple hits and sacks in addition to all the usual pressures. That allowed 49ers LB Aaron Smith to get to know Rodgers up close and personal. I doubt the coaches will make a change at this point because Bulaga should be healthy in three weeks, and then Barclay can go back to the bench.

Another problem on offense was their 3rd down conversion rate (5 for 15) which is usually around 40 to 50 percent. They were 3 for 4 on 3rd downs in the 3rd quarter, and that's the quarter in which the offense score 10 points on consecutive drives. The reasons listed above ("off today" and Barclay) caused most of the problems, but penalties were also a semi-problem. LG Josh Sitton never commits penalties and he had two holding penalties on Sunday. Barclay will still be a problem in the near future, but otherwise the offense should be much improved by returning home to Lambeau for next week's game.

It wasn't the most impressive win, but winning on the road is never easy, and they've opened up a two game lead over their next closest NFC North rival.