Monday, December 26, 2016

Packers (9-6) Build Big Lead, Fade In 4th Quarter, Beat Vikings in Lambeau, 38-25

The talk that QB Aaron Rodgers is in the mix for MVP is nice but it ignores his mid-season slump and a couple early season games when he couldn't stop fumbling the football. Though he's finishing up the 2016 season on a hot streak.

Over the past few games, with the return of TE Jared Cook from injury and the elevation of Ty Montgomery to starter at running back, the offense has transformed from good to great. A few weeks ago, I knew they needed to find some threat of a running game to open up the passing game, and Montgomery has provided a legitimate rushing threat that defenses have to consider. The return of Cook, as a hybrid WR/TE who always has a few inches height advantage over any defender, has been an additional wrinkle. But it's really been the effective running game that's allowed some wide open spaces for Jordy Nelson downfield.
The injuries are starting to pile up (RT Bryan Bulaga and CB Ladarius Gunter both left the game early) though they are something that every NFL team is dealing with at this point. The real problem is that the cornerbacks aren't getting any better.

CB Damarious Randall was benched last week but he ended up playing a lot after Gunter was injured. It looks like his confidence (or his knowledge of the defensive schemes) are shot. He spent a lot of time looking around at his teammates after a Viking receiver (usually WR Adam Thielen) torched him. Unfortunately CB Quinten Rollins is just as ineffective, more because of bad technique (getting turned around by a receiver or not enough recovery speed). To be fair, CB Micah Hyde gave up a late touchdown reception too. Other than giving the undrafted rookies a shot (which isn't a good option at all) or moving a safety or two to cornerback (again, not a good idea this late in the season), there's not much to do other than stick with those top three cornerbacks.

And that is the biggest issue going forward. They still need to beat the Lions next week. Then how can these cornerbacks possibly hold up over a four game playoff run to the Super Bowl? Every contender has some significant weakness but being bad against any NFL passing attack is a big problem. I'm enjoying the current winning streak and looking forward to a big game next week against the Lions, but anything afterwards would just be gravy. This defense doesn't look good enough to hold up for a playoff run.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Packers (8-6) Survive The 4th Quarter, Hang Onto Defeat The Bears, 30-27

I'm writing this after the Redskins lost at home to the Panthers on Monday night. With the loss, the Redskins fell out of the final Wild Card spot and behind the Green Bay Packers in the playoff standings. The Redskins are one of four teams (along with the Lions, Buccaneers, and Vikings) battling the Packers for two playoff spots (the second Wild Card spot and NFC North title). All four of those teams lost this weekend, except the Packers, who now can win the NFC North title by winning their last two games.

So losing a big 17 point lead on the road against the last-place Bears looks embarrassing but what's really important is the win. Something none of their playoff rivals could do in Week 15.

QB Aaron Rodgers doesn't look quite right with injuries to both legs. WR Davante Adams dropped two touchdown passes. WR Randall Cobb was questionable right up until game time, and he's obviously hurt because he wasn't even targeted once against the Bears. Luckily Rodgers had an explosive ground game (WR/RB Ty Montgomery!) because none of his wide receivers were useful to him. Except for WR Jordy Nelson, who also had a big drop, but made up for it with this great route which turned what should have been an overtime game into a last second win.
Rodgers was really good and that pass to Nelson was great, but the story was Ty Montgomery. If his position change from WR to RB wasn't official, it should be now. His ability to find openings in space and break tackles makes him the No. 2 weapon behind Nelson. Adams will bounce back and TE Jared Cook has quietly become a dangerous option since he returned from injury. If they can get anything from Cobb down the stretch, this offense has suddenly become very dangerous.

The defense struggled against QB Matt Barkley, of all people. He had a big statistical game (except for the 3 INTs plus one fumble) and he was very good at directing their offense (when he wasn't turning the ball over). The pass rush wasn't much of a factor because Barkley was able to get the ball out so quickly. That was made possible because CB Damarious Randall was giving so much cushion to the receivers he was covering. Barkley seemed to ignore CB Ladarious Gunter almost the entire game and focused on throwing to whoever Randall was covering.

The coaches noticed too and Randall was benched during the 4th quarter. Unfortunately his replacement was CB Quinten Rollins, who was torched just as badly as Randall. Both corners gave up too much ground at the snap and seemed more concerned about getting beat deep than giving up a short pass. But it was those short passes that wrecked everything the Packers were trying to do on defense.

This isn't a new story. The pass defense has been a problem all season long. CB Sam Shields is badly missed while Randall and Rollins have regressed in their second seasons. There isn't an obvious replacement without moving CB Micah Hyde from his current hybrid role into a true outside corner, but that potentially weakens two positions. Randall had a bad game against the Bears but he's had better games in the past, and he remains their best option for the rest of the season.

They should be pumped for their home finale of 2016 against the Vikings, who looked like they had completely quit on the season when they got demolished by the Colts in the first half last week. They can't just assume the Lions will lose in Dallas and they need to beat the Vikings, and then they can focus on beating the Lions in Detroit on New Year's Day.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Packers (7-6) Clobber The Seahawks, 38-10, In Lambeau

I was optimistic about this game though the Green Bay Packers entered it as an underdog and the Seahawks have statistically been a much better team this season. But you can throw stats out the window when it comes down to one game, and one team showed up with their worst performance of the year.
One stat that defined this game; turnovers. Seattle had 6 turnover and the Packers had none.

Even if the turnover battle was even, the Packers might have had an edge. Their offensive line is the team's unsung MVP and they kept QB Aaron Rodgers clean for almost the entire game. He had plenty of time to wait for a receiver to get open as the pass rush wasn't a problem. CB Richard Sherman was his usual All-Pro self, but the Seahawks badly missed FS Earl Thomas. His replacement, FS Steven Terrell, didn't provide the same play making at all. That's a tough role to fill but Seattle's defense didn't have anyone to fill it.

TE Jimmy Graham, who I worried about coming into this game, didn't catch his first pass until midway through the 4th quarter. But he was a factor on the first INT, when Graham slipped and SS Morgan Burnett jumped in front of him for the interception. Though the morning's snow was all cleared away by game time, the Seahawks still seemed to have trouble with their footing. Burnett's INT was a great play by him, but the next 4 INTs were a series of missed balls and deflections that landed right into a Packer defender's hands. Each defender did a great job to keep their eye on the ball, but it just bounced their way all game long. Seattle had an opening drive for a field goal, and scored a late garbage time touchdown, but otherwise almost everything was working for the Packers' defense. It was a strange sight, considering how the defense fell apart during their recent four game losing streak.

The Packers had to keep winning, and they did it. Now they finish the season with the rematch stretch against the NFC North, three games they probably have to win. They can move ahead of the Vikings (7-6) in a must-win game in two weeks at Lambeau but they can't over look the Bears next week in Chicago, despite the fact they haven't lost in Chicago since 2010. The Bears did beat them last season and they're still playing hard for their coaches and fans.

The big problem remains the Lions, who sit 2 games ahead in the standings with only 3 remaining. However, the Packers finish their regular season on a must-win game in Detroit, so they can close the gap by one game then (and they have the tie-breaker due to the earlier win over the Lions in Lambeau). Meanwhile, the Lions other remaining two games are brutal (at Giants, at Cowboys).

And worst of all is the injury to QB Matthew Stafford's throwing hand. That is a major problem for them against any NFL team for the rest of the season. QB Derek Carr looked terrible last week trying to throw with an injured finger on his throwing hand. QB Carson Palmer would disagree but his finger injury last season held back the Cardinals' offense over the final few games. The Lions will try to remain positive but that is a major problem for them.

Friday, December 09, 2016

What To Expect When The Packers Host The Seahawks

I've been dreading this game because the Seahawks keep looking better each week. There are some odd things about this match-up, such as that the Seahawks' leading rusher will be playing for the Packers. As I looked closer at the match-ups, there are some major concerns and the Seahawks are 3 point favorites for a good reason, but there are reasons to be optimistic.
The loss of FS Earl Thomas, one of their best defensive players over the past several seasons, is a huge blow. In his place is FS Steven Terrell, who was released by the Jaguars and Texans before earning a spot with the Seahawks, and this will be his 2nd NFL start. On what might be a snowy field. He'll have a lot of help from his talented defensive teammates but his lack of experience could help the Packers.

Football Outsiders currently has the Seahawks ranked as the 5th best defense, just below the Eagles, who the Packers played pretty well against two weeks ago. Though the wheels have seem to come off the Eagles D over the past couple games. The Packers did well against the Eagles by holding up against their pass rush (except for rookie RG Jason Spriggs, who struggled against All-Pro DT Fletcher Cox, though RG T.J. Lang might return this week). If the Packers can protect QB Aaron Rodgers, then they should have some success against them.

The defense is a bigger concern. Their outside pass rush is weakened by the loss of OLB Nick Perry and who knows who might be healthy to play at the other LB spots. While Seattle's offense is only ranked 13th overall, that's about the same as the Lions and Colts. The Lions tore apart the secondary while the Colts only did OK (Luck was intercepted twice). The good news is that against the Lions their secondary was falling apart with injuries, and it's somewhat stable at the moment since CB Damarious Randall has returned. They might do better against WR Doug Baldwin but TE Jimmy Graham is problem. And QB Russell Wilson has been running better the past couple weeks too. RB Thomas Rawls had a huge game last week against the Panthers, but he's their 4th biggest concern (at best). It'll be a small victory if they can keep them under 30 points, though if the weather's bad, then the game might be low scoring.

If the Packers win, it'll be a close win, but they have a chance, and I'm optimistic.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Packers (6-6) Beat The Texans In The Snow, 21-13

It's hard to arrive at any conclusions about the Green Bay Packers during a snow game when the elements turned the ordinary into a challenge. Each team had some forgettable moments with turnovers and bad play from their secondaries that could have either made a game of it for the Texans or turned it into a blow out for the Packers. Sometimes it looked like the players were on skis. FB Aaron Ripkowski had a Texans's defensive lineman sliding alongside him on his touchdown run. On the touchdown pass to WR Jordy Nelson, LG Lane Taylor was pushed back like a blocking sled (Rodgers rolled out to his left to avoid him) and slid back a couple feet while standing straight up.
The offense still can't run the ball much and it's kind of strange how it's hard to tell whether its RB Christine Michael or WR Wes Montgomery carrying the ball. No receiver other than Nelson had more than 19 yards receiving and WR Davante Adams had one of those forgettable home games (1 catch on 7 targets) that he had too often last season. The offensive line was great in protection (1 sack, 4 QB hits) and rookie RG Jason Spriggs looked a lot better this week in place of T.J. Lang than he did last week, when he had to hold off All-Pro DT Fletcher Cox. They didn't have much success on 3rd down (33% conversion rate) which is why they lost the time of possession battle and didn't have much offensive yardage (309 in total) for the game.

A long final drive helped push QB Brock Osweiler's stats up to about the same as Rodgers, and it soured what was looking like a decent performance by the Packers' secondary. While it still didn't look great for Osweiler, remember that he's arguably the worst full time starting QB in the NFL and the Texans' passing "attack" is also the worst. The run defense was weirdly good; great most of the time on early downs but then they would give up big chunks of yards (multiple times for 1st downs) on long draw plays that shouldn't have worked that well. They're looking much better against lesser offensives but they haven't turned the corner either.

It was a game they had to win to keep their weak playoff dreams alive. Onward next week to face the Seahawks in a much tougher game when they'll need everything to go right for them in order to win it.