Reflecting on our last preseason game, and looking ahead to a critical opening night matchup against the Vikings, at home, in front of a national audience, here are some positives and negatives that I gleaned from last night.
* The first play of the game was a flashy 63 yard touchdown strike in which Greg Jennings looked much the playmaker he was last season. I may be critical of Ted Thompson and his drafts, but hands down, Greg Jennings was his Best. Pick. Ever.
I noticed his potential his rookie season when I went to Family Night, and saw him reach, twist, jump, and snag a touchdown pass in the front corner of the end zone right in front of me. I thought to myself, this is the kind of receiver we’ve needed for a long time. I’m glad to see that he is reaching that potential. I think he’s a top 5 WR in the league this year if the quarterback position can be stabilized.
* The pass from Aaron Rodgers was probably as much a testament to the Packers striking ability as it was to very shoddy coverage by the Titans, including a rather stupid attempt by the safety to pick off the pass (what did he think? Favre was still quarterback?). But make no mistake: Aaron Rodgers, when given time in the pocket, has a pretty spiral and great accuracy, and he put that pass on the money. The DB’s were taking chances, and he made them pay for it.
As Rich Gannon noted a week or two ago, he also is developing great placement of the ball. On the play Gannon mentioned it, the receiver was on a slant heading straight for a safety waiting to put a lick on him. Rodgers threw the ball behind the receiver, to slow him down and redirect his momentum instead of throwing it in stride and leading him into a dangerous impact. The pass to Jennings last night was also right on the money and in the place where neither DB could reach it.
* The pass rush was unbelievably effective against the first-string Tennessee offense, putting Vince Young in a lot of pressure situations. They only managed one sack (and that was of backup Kerry Collins), but as I’ve said a million times, I would trade all my sacks for consistent hurries and knockdowns on the quarterback.
It’s possible that the constant shuffling and reshuffling of fresh bodies along the defensive line playing against a Titan offensive line that wasn’t substituting at all might have aided the pass rush, but give them credit where credit is due. All they have to do now is contain the mobile quarterback, as Young did gash them for 57 yards on scrambles.
* Matt Flynn is proving wrong my initial assessment that he was a token extra quarterback picked up to run the scout team from the practice squad. This is not to say that he’s won my undying support, but I would say he’s earned the #2 spot over a much more highly regarded fellow rookie in Brian Brohm.
If anything, I can see Flynn developing into a Ty Detmer type. Probably not good enough to take the reins of a team for a 16-game season, but an awfully valuable guy to have on the sideline and in a pinch once in a while. He has a far better pressure awareness than a rookie should have, and his evasion skills are intriguing. Hate to say it, but if our offensive line doesn’t improve, we’re going to need those skills in a hurry.
* The backup linebackers showed exactly what Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy have been wishing all the squads would be doing: having spirited competition and making things happen to earn their spot. Abdul Hodge, Desmond Bishop, Tracy White, and Spencer Havner are likely competing for two spots, and it is going to be hard to make a decision on them. They were throwing their bodies all over the field, wrapping up, and making play after play that kept the Titans in check.
Don’t be surprised if Brandon Chillar’s name comes up on Saturday. He might be a free agent signing, but we know Thompson loves his draft picks.
* Tramon Williams is making feel a lot better about our aging cornerbacks. His play has really come on and appears comfortable in the Packers' man coverage. I still don't think Al Harris has too many more productive seasons left in him, but it looks like Williams may be ready to be the heir apparent when Harris hits the wall.
* Jon Ryan is looking like an all-pro punter. Yesterday’s game really cemented his kicking ability (a 52.2 average), but also showcased his ability to improvise. A bad snap resulted in Ryan taking the ball and running it, gaining a first down after a 34 yard gain (incidentally, establishing himself as the leading rusher for the Packers in the process). The speed and power he had going downfield, directing blockers and evading tackles, makes me think that special teams coach Mike Stock should run a fake punt a couple times early in the season. Making opposing defenses have to guard against a fake makes them play conservatively, and can only be a positive for the Packers.
* And, adding to that, our special teams overall have been fantastic. Our kickoff returners (Pat Lee and Jordy Nelson) were solid, and adding Wil Blackmon to that group means we have a plethora of good returners. Mason Crosby has been solid on his kickoffs and his field goals. We’re still looking for a good punt return, and Brett Swain doesn’t appear to be the guy.
* First and foremost, the depth at quarterback is a major problem. While Flynn has come along, he’s still not ready to start. Brian Brohm has effectively gotten worse as the preseason has gone along, and all those traits that you need playing behind a spotty offensive line are exactly the ones he doesn’t have. He’s thinking too much, hanging on to the ball too long, taking sacks and seems to be unable to handle pressure.
While you might cry out that he was playing against the #1 Titan defense, that’s exactly what he’d be playing against in the regular season. I’d rather see how he performs under duress than against JV squads.
Brohm is effectively our player acquired in trade from Cleveland for Corey Williams (#56 overall). I’m starting to think that it will be Brohm who will be starting the season as the emergency #3 quarterback, and that makes you wonder if the Packers aren’t regretting trading Williams away.
* The running game continues to be a concern. We didn’t get to see any of Ryan Grant or Brandon Jackson last night, and both of those players have to be considered question marks and in high need of some work. Grant didn’t play a down this preseason due to his holdout and predictable hamstring injury when he returned. Jackson had a nice initial game against the Bengals, but has struggled mightily since. The backups competing for time (Lumpkin, Morency, and Herron) all looked rather pedestrian last night, until the final drives when playing against the Titans #3 defenders.
* Along those same lines, the offensive line, while playing without many of the starters, still had trouble much of the night, allowing six more sacks and a lot of pressure on Brohm and Flynn, who had to move around a lot.
Many of those players who were in there are guys who are legitimately still competing for starting spots. With Josh Sitton injured for a month and Scott Wells seeming to look week-to-week at center, guys like Tony Moll, Junius Coston, and Allen Barbre aren’t just trying to make the roster, they are potentially starting against Minnesota.
This entire preseason has been a disappointment for the offensive line, who haven’t opened holes for the rushers at all, and have been quite hit-and-miss with pass protection. Going into the Minnesota game against a team that is going to be entirely motivated to not just beat us, but beat us to the ground, the line is going to have to solidify in a hurry.
* The defensive line continues to allow itself to be gashed for major yards on the ground. Vince Young scrambled for 57 yards, but as a team, the Titans running backs ground out 103 yards on the ground. While they did not rush for a high average (3.0 per carry), they did remain committed to it (34 attempts, compared to 17 for the Packer running backs).
What it did was keep drives alive, as the Titans held the ball for 36:45 compared to the Packers’ 23:15 (and much of that was in the fourth quarter), and they also held a 59-37 advantage in offensive plays called, and a 403-266 advantage in yardage.
Yes, we played against their #1 offense for the entire first half, and that has to be taken into consideration. Aaron Kampman and Nick Barnett probably would have made a difference in many of those numbers. But, even in the series the defensive starters played, the Titans engineered a 10-play, 76-yard drive that took up four and a half minutes and gave up several big plays, resulting in a field goal.
If you want to see the effects of a defense that allows a tons of rushing yards per game, take a look at the 2005 Packers defense. That’s not a model Mike McCarthy wants to follow.
* Talk about underrated. Rob Davis anchored the long-snapping position for season after season before retiring this past year. I remember looking time after time at the final roster cuts and wondering why we wasted a position on a long-snapper. Well, now I know. J.J. Jansen has been inconsistent all training camp, botched two snaps last night (that luckily, the kickers managed to make good plays out of), and then got injured. The Packers will likely be sweeping the final cuts for someone who can long-snap, and I now stand corrected: it’s an important job. Come back, Rob Davis!
* 1-3. The Packers earned more losses in the four-game preseason than in all of last year’s regular season. Counting playoffs and the preseason, the Packers are now 5-6 in their last 11 games, after finishing last season 4-3. You might think I’m twisting some stats, but no more than the folks who put the last four games of 2006 and added then onto the first games of 2007 to prove their own points.
The Packers have been stunned this off-season with some ugly public relations and both the reigning GM of the Year and the Motorola NFL Coach of the Year (all other COY awards went to Bill Bellichek) have to continue to win over fans that have become jaded with the Favre Drama and the continuous, exhausting coverage.
The best way to cure all ills is by winning. Period. You can talk all day about how Aaron Rodgers invites his teammates to his house to play video games, but if he doesn’t execute on the field, it really doesn’t matter. You can talk all day about zone blocking schemes, how much Brandon Jackson has improved over the off-season, and the promise of Josh Sitton, but if we can’t control the ball with the running game, it’s all for naught.
The Vikings are coming in to Lambeau Field with as much excitement as they’ve had in years about their chances this season. They love to embarrass the Packers at home (they are 2-2 at Lambeau in their last four games), and after the tampering charges filed against them by the Packers, are more than motivated to come in and make this a statement game.
The “Wait and See’ period is over, and the Packers need to show that after four years under Thompson’s leadership, that they can win with without Brett Favre.