The unpleasant feeling of watching the Packers fall to the Cowboys last night assured us two things: the Green Bay Packers might be the class of the NFC North, but outside the division, its pretty clear the 2008 version of the Green and Gold have to prove they truly belong in the NFC elite, much less the NFL elite.
After taking a 27-15 drubbing from the team that, by most accounts, is the team to beat in the conference, the Packers are left to sort out this loss as they prepare for next week's game against the Bucs. Here are just a couple of my QuickHits as we ponder this game:
* I hate to say I told you so, Denny, but I told you so. The Packers' offensive line is serviceable when up against bottom-half pass rushing attacks like Detroit's and Minnesota's, but when up against a playoff-caliber defensive line, it was clear that Tony Moll and Daryn Colledge are still living on borrowed time.
Rodgers had pressure in the backfield with even just a four-man rush, was sacked 5 times, and was forced to move around all night. Of the eight penalites accepted against the Packers, four were again against the offensive line, with one particularly costly, as Colledge was called for holding after Brandon Jackson had gone for a big gainer late in the game.
The Packers' interior offensive line, which has been built completely through Ted Thompson's drafts since the dismissal of Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera, should be gelling and coming together. Instead, they continue to struggle when faced with a tough line.
The Packers have invested seven picks in the last four drafts to build the interior offensive line, and you would think any of them should have developed enough to supplant a fourth-round rookie, but they didn't.
The Packers are in for another tough pass rush next week against the Bucs (8th in the league last season). Let's hope that Mike McCarthy's spit-and-wire adjustments do more to protect Rodgers next week.
* The prospect of Al Harris missing the rest of the season with a ruptured spleen is cause for great concern. The Packers have already lost Atari Bigby for a couple of games, and it is clear that Aaron Rouse struggles in his coverage responsibilities.
Tramon Williams and Wil Blackmon don't have the ability to press cover as well as Harris and Woodson, and Pat Lee is still a long ways away. If one of those guys can't bump with the big boys, more pressure is going to be added on the safeties to bail them out...and neither Collins or Rouse (or Bigby, for that matter) list their coverage skills nearly as high as their big-hit ability.
Without Harris, the Packers may have to consider adjusting the scheme to fit the talent, and that's not a lot of fun to do mid-season.
* It was nice to see AJ Hawk flying around in the first half. It seems like he's usually off the radar in games, but we have to remember that as a weak side linebacker, he's not always put in position to make plays. I like to say he's been "dotting the i", coming in on the play and making sure it is finished.
Too bad his hit on Al Harris was the most punishing one of the night.
* I'm still scratching my head on the Brandon Chillar/Brady Poppinga thing. Where is this going? We didn't see Chillar at all for the first two games, and suddenly, he was all over the place in the first half. Then, it seemed like he disappeared and Poppinga was back in there.
Chillar seemed like he had it going on. Pop finished with only one tackle, while Chillar ended up with nine. Let's see how this plays out in Tampa.
*Speaking of odd things, anyone else find it amusing that Jordy Nelson was the go-to guy in the hurry-up offense? I understand the Cowboys were playing a prevent dime and had DD and Jennings doubled up, but I'm guessing that James Jones' drops earlier in the game may have had something to do with Nelson's sudden appearance? I didn't see Jones in the game much at all after the first quarter.
* Aaron Rodgers padded his stats in the fourth quarter in the hurry up, taking short pass after short pass. The Cowboys were more than happy to let him have those, as they played in the prevent and just wanted that clock down to nothing as soon as possible.
But the time between when the Cowboys went ahead 10-6, and when they went up 27-9 and went into the prevent, Rodgers was 2/8 passing, scrambled four times, and was sacked three times. Moreover, he started looking jittery and lost, and his passes seemed to lose a lot of their accuracy.
This was a little disconcerting, as we need Aaron Rodgers to be able to lead comebacks. You get the feeling that Rodgers excels at taking what the defense gives him, but when you face a defense that doesn't give anything, what are you supposed to do?
Those are the kind of defenses that we will be facing in the playoffs, and Rodgers has to get over this hurdle on the way to establishing himself as a solid NFL quarterback. As much as the scrambles are exciting, he's going to have to find a way to do it through the air if he wants to win (and stay healthy).
*Terrell Owens had a profound effect on the win, far more than what the stat book said. The Packers preoccupation with Owens opened the door for their fourth WR to exploit our weak secondary, and for Marion Barber to gash our defensive line. The next team may be forced to play more zone on pass plays, and put more guys in the box to stop Barber, leaving Owens more free to do his stuff.
Charles Woodson won the battle, but Terrell Owens won the war.
* I didn't like the Jermichael Finley pick, and his first action in an NFL game didn't do a whole lot to endear me to him. A unnecessary roughness penalty for ripping the helmet off a Cowboy player put the Packers deep in their own territory after a punt return, and made him look foolish. I would make sure the kid stays on the inactive list until he proves he can be a help instead of a hindrance.
The end I was hoping the Packers would have taken, Martellus Bennett, took a pass in the fourth quarter and ran 37 yards with it. The drive ended in a turnover, but that play meant the Packers had to start deep in their own territory again.
Taking Bennett would have meant passing on Brian Brohm. I'm not sure that would have been that bad of a trade-off.
* Tony Romo is going to get himself in trouble with those intentional grounding penalties one of these days. I do see the Favre comparisons with Romo. He's certainly exciting to watch, but he can pull some bonehead plays, too.
* The Donald Driver scramble and forward lateral seemed to be very out of character for DD, who has usually been counted on as a solid veteran leader who kept the ball moving forward. The lack of discipline on the play is, hopefully, an exception to the rule that you keep that ball moving. He wasted not only the down, the yards, but a lot of time off the clock.
* Greg Jennings is going to be a superstar in this league. I don't care if TJ Rubely is throwing the ball to him.
* Is it just me, or do these Packer alumni reunions always seem to be during the Gold Package games? Not that I own season tickets, but the tickets I do get my hands on a couple times a year are all Green Package. I would have loved to have seen those guys up close, interviewed, whatever ceremony happened on the field. There were stars on that sideline that lit up the childhoods of nearly every Packer fan alive today, from Jerry Kramer in the 60's, John Brockington in the 70's, Lynn Dickey in the 80's, LeRoy Butler in the 90's, and Marco Rivera in the 00's.
Just wish I could have seen those faces light up the field once more. It would have been a silver lining on an otherwise cloudy game.
* Our defensive line was gashed again, this time for 217 yards rushing. The Packers rank 26th in the league in rushing yards allowed (453), but rank dead last in rushing yards per attempt (5.7 yards per carry). This is unacceptable for a team that was still being touted as being the third-best team in the NFC by the Vegas bookies.
In yesterday's game, the top five tacklers were safeties and linebackers, before finally getting to Cullen Jenkins' 5 tackles. When the Cowboys attempt 35 rushes and only 31 passes, this is a sign that the line has not been properly shored up. Allowing Corey Willians to leave via trade is looking to be a very poor move in retrospect.
Both lines are big, big question marks right now.
* Finally, I am going to say that for the first two games, this team has lived and died by the Big Play, needing big interceptions or big passes or big runs to get the points on the board. This week, they died by them.
After the interception by Nick Collins in the end zone (and a great play that was), the Packers didn't have a rush of over nine yards, and while they got one big 50 yard pass play to Donald Driver, that drive netted just a field goal, and the rest of the drives were limited.
On the other side, Marion Barber gashed the Packers for big run after big run, Felix Jones added a 60 yard scamper, and Miles Austin burned the secondary not once, but twice for huge gains and one touchdown.
It was predicted than when Aaron Rodgers took over as quarterback, the Packers would become a more ball-control offense, with Rodgers playing it safe instead of sorry. Instead, we've seen this team depend on monster interceptions and big chunks of yardage to get into position to score touchdowns. When we faced a defense that limited those plays, the team seemed to lose its way.
I have always given Mike McCarthy a great amount of credit for his ability to adjust his team and schemes between games. He does a great job of making thing work, even if he doesn't have the talent to get it done. My guess is this is, after two wins, the first chance MM will have to work that adjustment magic he's done so well in the past.
But, let it be said: the teams the Packers have beaten this season are a combined 1-5. It is a good team that beat the opponents they are supposed to. But, to be considered a great team, the Packers have to show up against the teams that are supposed to be their peers.
It's a long season and there's a lot of great football to look forward to, but there are suddenly a lot more concerns after the Cowboys game than there were before.