Sunday, November 23, 2008

Secondary Becomes Primary Threat

It's not often that I find myself standing with my mouth agape, shocked that one of my clever little theories isn't working out the way I thought it would. And yet, it would appear that this year's Packer secondary is indeed proving my "need for a great free safety" rants as little more than a moot point.

I came into this season ready for our secondary to be our biggest area of weakness, and for three reasons:

1) The play of our corners was likely to decline due to age, and after the Giants' playoff game, it appeared Al Harris was already there.

2) Lack of depth: there were no corners ready to take the field if one of our aging starters couldn't make a go of it anymore.

3) The play of the safeties has been a sore point for many years: a collection of run stoppers with poor instinct and coverage skills. Their deficiencies have been minimalized by such strong play from our veteran corners, but if/when they failed, the lack of smart play by the safeties would become glaringly obvious.

So, here we are, ten games into the season, and it is crystal clear that the results have changed. And, when facts change, so do my opinions, with the caveat that, perhaps, I may have been surprised by the strong play.

The stats speak for themselves: the Packers are No. 1 in the NFL in several key defensive categories: interceptions (16), touchdowns by defensive backs (6), completion percentage (51.5) and quarterback rating (59.5).

And why is this? By proving my theories wrong:

1) Charles Woodson is having a Pro Bowl year. While I didn't think he'd be the one to decline this year, he's actually established himself as the veteran leader of the defense, if not the entire team, in the absence of Brett Favre. Tied with Nick Collins for the league lead in interceptions (5), has two sacks, two defensive touchdowns, and is 9th in league in passes defensed.

But the guy I was most worried about was Al Harris, especially after being dressed down by Plaxico Burress in the NFC Championship game. He was his usual steady self to start the season, and after returning from injury, has probably stepped it up even more. He has a troubling high number of pass interference penalties this year, excused by head coach Mike McCarthy as "combat penalties".

But, the lack of passes even thrown Harris's way means that most of the time, he's actually playing the part of the "shutdown corner", something we didn't expect at the beginning of the season.

2) When AJ Hawk made his best, most solid, most punishing hit of the season, it unfortunately came against Al Harris, who injured his spleen and had to miss the rest of that game, followed by the next four and a bye week. It was at this time that I felt that the wheels would come off.

Enter Tramon Williams, who filled in for Harris at secondary and perhaps exceeded Harris's play this year. The stats certainly bear out that, in the four games started by Williams, he had 14 tackles and three interceptions (Harris has no picks this year). He also has ten passes defensed this year, good for a tie for 19th in the league.

There are many reasons to be excited about Williams, who is by far the most exciting nickel back we've had in years. Not only can we pencil him in whenever Woodson or Harris begin to fail, there are those who feel he's ready to take over starting today...a far cry from where I saw our reserve situation before the season started.

3) But the biggest reason for the ascension of this secondary has to be the advent of Nick Collins, a guy in the preseason I predicted to be labeled a bust and to be benched in favor of Aaron Rouse. Collins has been a very athletic player, but has been responsible for many busted coverages and big plays in his previous three seasons, when he was drafted in the second round and immediately placed in a starting role.

But this season, Collins has been a monster. He's backed up his hard-hitting run support with finally playing the ball and taking the right angles in coverage support. The results are clear: a league-leading 5 interceptions, a league leading 230 return yards, a league-leading three defensive touchdowns, and responsible for very few big pass plays this year.

In other words, Collins is playing more like the complete safety that defensive coordinator wants to have in his scheme, in which both safeties are interchangeable in both coverage and run support. Starting with the ill-fated Mark Roman free agency signing in 2005, the Packers have tried to play this interchangeable safety scheme with prototypical strong safeties like Roman, Collins, Bigby, Rouse, often suffering as the coverage skills weren't solid enough. I called for a strong instinctive free safety to be signed, the Eugene Robinson to compliment all of these LeRoy Butlers that we had on the team...a smart quarterback for the defense. Certainly, we can all remember the big pass plays the Packers have given up the past few seasons.

But not this year...the game-changing big pass play has been almost invisible, and this seems to be largely because of how the safeties are playing. It could be that the scheme has shifted this offseason, that the assignments are perhaps simplified, clearer, or more effective.

But, I am growing to believe that Nick Collins has "Javon Walker-itis", a condition with symptoms like freakish athletic ability and disturbingly low Wonderlic scores. It took Javon Walker a couple of seasons before he was able to translate his ability into effective play on the field, because the mental part of the game was harder for him to master (especially when he probably never needed much of a mental game coming up through high school or college).

Collins, who played at Division II Bethune-Cookman, probably had a longer road to hoe on his way to understanding the nuances of the professional game, and it has taken this long for the mental parts of the game (understanding angles, coverage responsibilities, tendancies, positioning) to finally ferment. He's always been a strong, athletic, and physical player, but at the professional level, so is everyone else around him.

So, as a result, the 2008 brand of the secondary appears to be among one of the league best, with the strong likelihood of at least two members going to the Pro Bowl this year. For a 5-5 team that has had as many defensive concerns as the Pack, it is a strong reflection of the great individual efforts we've seen from our secondary this year.

This isn't to say that there isn't still some concern. The other safety spot has been spotty, with last year's media darling, Atari Bigby, spending much of the season injured and nowhere near the playmaker he was last year. Aaron Rouse has also been injured and not quite as effective as last year.

The other reality is that the opposing passing games we've faced aren't exactly world-beaters, either. Of the nine teams we've faced, not one has a passing efficiency rating of above 87.8, or ranks in the top ten passing teams in the NFL.

Limiting opposing quarterbacks to a 59 efficiency rating is great, no matter how you slice it. But, you have to remember that we've faced teams that have an average of 79.8 in efficiency rating anyway.

The interesting part is that tomorrow night's game against the New Orleans Saints will be against a quarterback that is throwing at a 95.4 clip, and Drew Brees will be getting his receiving corps healthy, including pass threat Reggie Bush out of the backfield. This will be a test for a secondary against a top-flight passing offense that will likely be willing to test it.

The good news, however, is that the rest of the Packer schedule will continue to be played against teams that are in the bottom half of the league when it comes to passing offenses: Carolina (24th), Houston (13th), Jacksonville (19th) , Chicago (18th), and Detroit (27th).

Chances are that those teams will likely try to beat the Packers with the ground game, placing more onus on our front seven to continue to establish themselves like they did against the Bears.

But, the chances are also high that our secondary will continue to dominate. A refreshing change, indeed, and one of the times I am happy to stand corrected.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Onus on Rodgers' Arm to Beat Bears

As generalized as NFL rankings are, they are very useful in showing where the Packers have to be successful today in order to pull off a win.

Packers rushing offense (98 ypg, 23rd in NFL) vs. Bears Rushing defense (74.9 ypg, 4th in NFL)

I believe that our struggling run blocking is going to see Ryan Grant returning to early-season form and a non-factor in today's game. I may be wrong, but the Bears have been stout against the run, and the Packers have struggled to run against those kind of defenses. Big Edge: Bears

Bears rushing offense (110.6 ypg, 15th in NFL) vs. Packers rushing defense (154.6 ypg, 28th in NFL)

Again, the Bears appear to be able to control the ground game on both sides of the ball. With the Packers D-Line sporting injuries up and down and AJ Hawk making his first start at MLB, Matt Forte will likely have a strong game. Edge: Bears

Bears passing offense (213 ypg, 13th in NFL) vs. Packers passing defense (179 ypg, 3rd in NFL)

The Pack's secondary has asserted itself in a big way this year, but so has Kyle Orton at QB for the Bears. I do predict that the Packers will take away a lot of passing lanes for Orton, though, and the big plays against them will not come through the air. However, the Packers have relied on big turnovers this year, and while the Bears have 13 giveaways, only 5 have been interceptions. Small Edge: Packers

Packers passing offense (221 ypg, 11th in NFL) vs Bears passing defense (251 ypg, 30th in NFL)

By simply using the standings, one would say this is a huge edge for the Packers, and indeed, it is. If the Packers are going to beat the Bears, it is going to have to come through the air. However, the stats are somewhat skewed, much as it was for the Packers' 2005 defense: if you can't run on them, you must pass. The Bears lead the league in passing attempts against (350) and are 27th in rushing attempts against (216). The Bears are right in the middle of the pack for pass completions (15th) and 6th overall in yards per attempt (only 6.4). The Bears have only allowed opposing quarterbacks a overall rating of 76.6, nowhere near as incredible as the Packers' 58.8, but enough to realize that this isn't as much a weak pass defense, but a busy one.

However, it is highly likely that the Packers are not going to win this game on the ground. They've shown very little more than promise in making the run game a consistent threat this season, and the Bears don't appear to be a likely candidate for it to suddenly get well.

This means that Aaron Rodgers is going to have to bounce back from a poor week against another divisional opponent, overcome his spotty decision-making, and get back to the type of play that defined him the first five games or so.

With so much riding on this game (divisional hopes can be effectively squashed to day with a loss), it is time for our money players to deliver, and that man now happens to be #12. The matchups
are all in his favor to take over this game against a tough opponent at home, an opponent running a four-game win streak against the Pack in Lambeau field.

Look for the Packers to do everything they can to slow down the Bears and stay on the field on third down (the Bears defense is 5th in the league in 3rd down conversions allowed). More spread formations, max protects, and shotgun formations will be in store for Rodgers as he hopes to lead this offense, likely without the help of the threat of a running game.

Friday, November 14, 2008

AJ Hawk's Moment

In the spring of 2006, there were few in the Packer blogosphere who petitioned harder for AJ Hawk to be taken with the #5 overall pick in the draft than yours truly. To me, of the players that would still be available, it was a slam dunk. Oh, there were certainly some folks who were screaming for the freakish talent of Vernon Davis over the fears of Hawk's low ceiling, but in the end, we all seemed happy with the pick, at the time.

Fast forward two-and-a-half seasons and AJ Hawk has turned in a solid, yet flawed perfomance. Even more, the promise of the 2007 season led us to believe that Hawk was in store for his breakout season this year. Unfortunately, putting it as succinctly as possible, he's probably taken a step back this year.

So, when it was announced this week that Hawk was going to move to the middle linebacker slot vacated by injured Nick Barnett, it made me reflect back on that draft, and how that impacts this game against the Bears.

In 2006, there were an assortment of players that the Packers were going to have the benefit of being able to pick early in the draft, though it was murmured that this wasn't a particularly strong draft class. Mario Williams, Vince Young, Reggie Bush, D'Brickeshaw Ferguson, Vernon Davis, Michael Huff, and Hawk were considered the top tier of players in the draft. And of those seven, three would fall to the Packers at pick #5.

Most of us believed (correctly) that Bush, Young, and Williams would be gone by the time we got to pick, so most of the debate ran around Davis, Ferguson, and Hawk (personally, I had Huff as my second choice). As I looked at the scouting reports, we saw a range of promise. Ferguson was the likely bookend tackle you could put in and not worry about for ten years. Hawk was the solid, if unspectacular dynamo, and Davis was the boom-or-bust freakish talent.

The reason I got behind Hawk wasn't some product of my intensive study of measurables and viewing of hours of game film. I looked at scouting reports and one thing stood out to me: of all the lists of negatives, Hawk had the shortest list.

Well, it wasn't quite as simplistic as all that, but the idea was there....Hawk was the least risky pick. Overly conservative, I stand accused. But we witnessed the impact of the misfires of Tony Mandarich and Terrell Buckley on the team, realizing you can't afford to mess up when you get one of the first picks of young talent. The Jamal Reynolds lesson taught us that under today's draft cap, a early pick mistake not only costs you talent, it can tie up money in your cap for years, even if the players sits and rots on the inactive list.

I looked at Hawk, and felt that he did have some faults. He was short for a linebacker, a trait that would likely limit him to the weak side, mostly covering runners out of the backfield in coverage. I knew that he might be limited in terms of stats...Will linebackers aren't necessarily known for making huge impacts on the game when compared with the Urlachers and Ray Lewises of the NFL. I felt that critics would start picking apart his numbers and saying he wasn't worth his draft status or contract, when most weak siders aren't put into a position to make plays as often.

People said that he had a very low ceiling. When playing with a draft pick that high, I was happier than he had a very high basement. I proposed that, at worst, we'd have the next John Anderson, able to fill a hole solidly for the next ten years. If you think about it, when compared to the Mandariches and Buckleys, getting a solid position player seems like a better use of a draft pick than spinning the wheel on a high-ceiling/low-basement guy like Davis.

In retrospect, of the players available to the Packers at #5, Hawk has probably been the best pick. Both Huff and Davis have recently been benched by their respective coaches. But Hawk's struggles since his rookie year with pass coverage has been a liability at times. Now that Hawk appears to be struggling even more with basic pursuit and tackling, it almost seemed as if Hawk was on his way to joining them. The acquisition of Brandon Chillar had already impacted AJ's playing time, and it wouldn't have surprised me if Hawk may have taken more and more of a seat as the season went on.

But now, Hawk is getting his golden opportunity, the chance to not only regain a full-time starting position, but to do even more: Hawk gets a chance to take over the middle linebacker position, likely have the green-dot helmet and make the defensive play calls and adjustments, and most of all, to be put in the position to make all the plays that we were wishing Nick Barnett would be making.

This doesn't change his limitations, and his height may be cause for some concern. But this is a chance for Hawk to show the flash and high-energy that we drafted him for. Height isn't everything, and certainly players can succeed, even at less than prototypical height. Hawk's endless motor and fanatical attention to study of plays and gameplans may well work to his advantage in the middle. It can also give him the opportunity to simply break loose, play all-out, put all that athleticism to good use.

There's no doubt that this game is going to be a rough one for him. The entire front seven has struggled and underperformed all year, and the linebackers on each side of him (Poppinga and, likely, Brandon Chillar) have both been inconsistent, too. The injuries along the defensive line (Justin Harrell and Jeremy Thompson) means that all three linebackers are going to be very busy in stopping the run game. And since Chicago often runs a two tight-end set, the outside backers are going to be busy enough.

In other words, he's not going to get a lot of help from the guys around him.

But this is Hawk's chance to really make a name for himself, struggles or not. No one likes to see an injury, but if this ends up being Hawk's true position for the future, chances are without Barnett's injury we would never have had a coaching staff that would have been willing to shake things up enough to find it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

McCarthy: Gruff and Ornery Ain't Gettin' the Job Done

Normally, you won't find me offering a ton of criticism of Mike McCarthy. After starting out categorically opposed to his hiring in 2006, I have given him the benefit of the doubt and have been generally quite happy with the job he has done since then.

But yesterday, McCarthy went on a contentious, defensive snarlfest with the media in his press conference, and it did very little to alleviate any concerns many of us took away from the Viking game. He was Gruff and Ornery with the press, as he has often been in the past, but this is a different situation for him: having a team fail under high expectations. Right now, we are looking for leadership.

Repeatedly, he seemed to take a defensive posture with the media, coming off as frustrated ("I'm not going to nickel and dime specifics here for you today. "), sarcastic ("He has a ligament tear. If he wants to tell you which one, he can tell you. "), and bordering on combative ("Focus and discipline is your opinion."). Certainly, he's a frustrated coach, frustrated with his team and the results on the field, but after a loss like this, people are looking for answers and hope.

This is the second game in a row in which we faced a team that played poorly enough to lose, and gave us chance after chance to take the game on a silver platter. However, for the second week in a row, we didn't take advantage of enough of those opportunities to win it.

The play has been sloppy and undisciplined, and unfortunately, the same problems keep resurfacing: a lack of consistency in the run game, league-leading penalties, and a sieve of a run defense. We keep getting the same explanations, ranging from "We need to clean up our house" to vagaries like "pad level" and "gap protection". Yet, nothing appears to be getting done about it.

The most eyebrow-raising comment, to me, was the one in which he denied his own playcalling might be to blame for some of the struggles.

(Did the constant pressure deny you the opportunity to stretch it deep early in the game?)

I'll say this guys. You can sit here and dissect it all you want. And I'd love to tell you the play-calling was just flat awful. You can blame it on me. I'd be all for it. But I don't think that's the case, especially after viewing the film...[lists each squad and critiques their performance]...We had a chance to win the game in the end, we did not. I understand how this works. You get to swing all the way to the right when you win, and you want me to swing all the way to the left when we lose. I'm not going to do that. We were one play away from winning the game. For as many things that went wrong in the game, there were many things that went right.
Why does this bother me?

1) It wasn't even answering the question that was asked. He was asked if he thought the pressure denied the long ball, and he went into a discussion about whether the play-calling was to blame. Defensive much?

2) He seems to be saying that as long as you have a chance to win the game at the end, the play-calling must have been fine.

3) He seems to be calling his team out publicly. Sometimes that isn't a problem. But McCarthy's credo has been to keep a positive locker room, and I don't quite see how this is helping that. Just a few weeks ago, the talk was that despite the three-game losing streak, McCarthy seemed to be keeping the locker room together.

This is just a week removed after McCarthy had to deal with Jarrett Bush publicly questioning why he was pulled of the kick block unit, James Jones publicly questioning why he was inactive without being told, and Jermichael Finley publicly throwing his quarterback under the bus. McCarthy had to do damage control on all three situations.

And, the very next loss, McCarthy absolves himself of his play-calling accountability while going into a squad-by-squad critique of where the problems were?

Sorry, even if it is true, its not cool. Not at this point in the season, not with the biggest game of the year coming up next week, not with self-doubt already starting to creep in.

Gruff and Ornery has been celebrated here in Titletown. When the Packers had just gone 4-12 and fired Mike Sherman, Gruff and Ornery was celebrated as a house-cleaning, no-nonsense attitude that this team needed. When you are in the midst of a 13-3 season, Gruff and Ornery is kind of cute...the grouchy coach who just can't smile in the face of success, still finding things to gripe about.

But, coming off a 13-3 season with high expectations, as well as being a part of a critical decision to trade away Brett Favre this offseason, Gruff and Ornery is losing its appeal, especially when it doesn't appear to be making a difference on the field.

In what will be my biggest potshot in this article, McCarthy's repeated vagaries are starting to sound uncomforatably Sherman-esque. Instead of getting the weekly "It is what it is," we are getting discussion of the pros and cons of "combatative penalties" instead. We are getting "we'll be cleaning it up" week after week, but the penalty yardage is still pretty dirty. We hear the words "moving forward", but in the last two weeks, we've done nothing but move backwards.

As I've said, I have really liked Mike McCarthy, and think he has been a gem of a coach. But high expectations and the pride that comes with being so successful so quickly can be a bad mix when the microscope suddenly gets much more intense.

What I respected so much about McCarthy in the past was his ability to take problems, go back to the drawing board between games, and "spit and wire" solutions that you could see the results of on the field. Instead of getting contenteous with the media for repeatedly pointing out the problems, its time for McCarthy to do what he is best at, and fix them.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

TundraVision QuickHits: VIkings Aftermath

As I said earlier today, this was a game the Packers couldn't afford to lose. Yes, the Packers are far from out of the division race, thanks to the Bears loss to the Titans today, but on both a tiebreaker and a psychological standpoint, this game really set the Packers back today.

The game finished 28-27, with a last-second missed field goal by Mason Crosby, but this game was far from some closely matched battle between two NFC North heavyweights. This was a sloppy, messy, undisciplined mess that we almost won in spite of ourselves. Our defensive secondary and punt return team almost won this game for us, but they weren't good enough to compensate for poor play in nearly every other facet of the game.

So, let's get to this week's QuickHits:

* First and foremost, this game has to be hung directly around the neck of head coach Mike McCarthy. In addition to his now-typical strange playcalling, it is evident that this team is continuing to be undisciplined. Ten penalties for eighty yards is unacceptable in any game, but in this one, it was likely the tipping point. And, playing conservatively at the end of the game and trusting the entire result to your kicker who has hit very few game-winners in his career was inexplicable.

Many people piled on Brett Favre for assuming an air about himself when he started believing his own press. I'm beginning to wonder if McCarthy started to believe his own press after last year, coming in this year with a different (maybe smugger) attitude. I have always like McCarthy's ability to connect to his players and get the most out of them in past seasons, but this year it seems like there are far more players underachieving than overachieving.

* The offensive line is officially a major concern. The pass protection for Aaron Rodgers was pitiful today, allowing four sacks and almost constant pressure in the backfield. The Packers gave up two safeties in the second quarter when Viking defenders got into the backfield almost immediately, once with a forced fumble and once with a straight sack.

Daryn Colledge is officially a liability. I like the guy, but face it...he's a serviceable tackle and a poor guard. The fact that guys like Sitton, Barbre, and Moll are sitting behind him and unable to supplant him is a sorry reflection on the state of the talent of our line.

I'm beginning to think that Ted Thompson was all for the switch to the Zone Blocking Scheme because he felt that he could plug in any old mid-level draft pick and, as long as they ran the scheme effectively, they would be serviceable. Thus, he wouldn't have to pay any free agents money to come in and do the job effectively. It would seem that Thompson's approach to the interior offensive line is proving to be a less than passing grade.

* Ryan Grant is a ZBS running back. Today, he had a couple of nice runs, and if you look at each one of them, they came off a zone blocking pattern, in which all the linemen went one direction, and Grant was able to take one cut and run downhill.

This would be perfect, but unfortunately, the Packers try to pull some other kinds of runs, with pulls or stretches, and Grant either isn't that good at those runs, or our line just can't open anything up for him. Either way, his 16 carries for 75 yards were too inconsistent to be a true impact on the game (and 23 yards of those came on the touchdown drive in the first quarter, leaving 12 carries for 52 yards the rest of the game).

The Packers had only 18 rushing attempts all game, compared to the Vikings 41. Tell me...if your quarterback is having a bad day, how do you overcome it and still win the game? You got effective, consistent running game.

* Aaron Rodgers has had two games in a row with some poor decision making. Indeed, the Vikings were in his grill all day, but we got a good look today at a young quarterback that still gets shook up under pressure. Some of his bad habits that we saw from two years ago resurfaced today: he held on to the ball too long, he wasn't aware of blind-side pressure and took unnecessary hits, he zeroed in on one receiver, and threw the ball too low when excited.

When I noted these tendencies during the 2006 season, I said that he wasn't ready to play QB in the NFL at that point. So far this season, he's appeared to have overcome them for the most part, but against a keyed-up defensive rush, he reverted back to old habits.

It's these kinds of old habits that haunt a kid the rest of his days when rushed into the game too early in his career ...just ask David Carr and Alex Smith. The Packers need to give this kid time to throw the ball or that big investment they just made is going to depreciate faster than your 403(b).

Earlier in the season, when Rodgers came off the field after a few tough series, I saw him look angry, frustrated, or focused. Today, I saw him looking bewildered. That's not a good sign when you are facing a defensive line next week that is as good or better than the one that just plastered you this week.

* I am giving official props to our defensive secondary. As a guy who has been particularly critical of our safety play the past few seasons, I think I am at a point where I have to say that those problems have figured themselves out. This is an incredible pass defense.

The obvious awards go to the interceptions by Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, and Nick Collins (who made a great return for a touchdown). The Packers lead the league in turnovers and points scored off those turnovers. Fantastic job, and great leadership.

The not-so-obvious award goes to Al Harris, who you heard little from today. That's because he was busy completely shutting down Bernard Berrian, allegedly the Vikings #1 receiver. Even the one penalty called against Harris was questionable. Great job.

And a great job to all the pass coverage. I saw on numerous occasions Viking quarterback Gus Frerotte standing in the pocket--one-two-three-four-five-six-seven--and have no one to throw to. Bad rap against our pass rush, but a great day for our secondary. Without them, Frerotte had all the time in the world to gash us.

* Not one Packer receiver had more than 50 passing yards, and while I don't have the official stats, I would guess that none had more than 10 YAC. The Vikings wrapped up quickly and the Packers biggest asset among their receivers was negated.

Our tight ends had two receptions for 11 yards, but Rob Demovsky can rest assured that that percentage of all completions (15) was close to the same percentages as last year (13% today). Seriously, though...they were completely invisible today after the first quarter.

Incidentally, all five receivers were active today, which begs the questions:

1) If you whine about being inactive, are you made active the next week?

and 2) if you activate all five WRs and all 3 TEs, who sits instead of one or two of them? Golly, I hope it wasn't someone important that could really be contributing in an area of weakness. More on that later.

* If the Packer run defense was hoping to improve their tarnished image coming into this game, they failed. Miserably.

They allowed 220 yards on the ground, with 192 to Adrian Peterson, who single-handedly won the game on the final drive. In addition, running backs Peterson and Chester Taylor had 117 yards receiving on the day, too.

Peterson made the Packer defenders look silly. In contrast to Grant's "downhill" style, in which he gets on a line and rumbles as far as he can before getting knocked (or falling) down, Peterson mixed a deadly blend of strength, speed, and agility to constantly change direction and create new running lanes, leaving the Packer linebackers and linemen grasping at air and forcing the secondary to bring him down.

You will not win if you can't stop the run. Period.

* Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.

I read all over the forums and blogosphere this past week about how people wanted to bench Nick Barnett and see what Desmond Bishop could do. The answer is...not much more than what Barnett was doing. Bishop had a stupid unnecessary roughness penalty and gave up a huge touchdown play in his time replacing Barnett today.

However, Barnett was really struggling before his injury in this game. One play in which Peterson came out of the backfield and caught a pass with Barnett in coverage was abysmal.

For that matter, our other starters were also terrible. Poppinga had repeated arm tackles that missed, and AJ Hawk looked as bad as he has at any point in his career today, tentative and ineffective.

Oh, and by the way, Brandon Chillar was inactive today. Thank goodness, because we sure needed James Jones and Jermichael Finley in the game instead of Chillar's good coverage skills.

* Why in the name of Vince Lombardi would you play so conservatively at the end of the game, barely trying to gain any yards in order to give a young kicker a nearly-50 yard kick to win the game? The pressure of this entire game came down on Mason Crosby, and the Packers could have done so much more to give him just five more yards to work with.

The kick missed by probably less than five feet, wide right, the difference in the ball game. Funny how one week we are talking about how overly aggressive Mike McCarthy is, and the next week we are wishing he would have pushed a little harder to win the game.

* Tell me again why we let Jon Ryan go on the last day of training camp and signed a guy who had never kicked with us because we thought he might be better. And, go slowly for me. I just don't get it.

* Wil Blackmon returned a punt for a touchdown today, a critical play that put the Packers ahead in the game. This made up for a rather idiotic mental error in which he fair caught the ball inside the ten yard line, with a safety resulting two plays later.

It's great to have a big play like that, and without those big plays, we wouldn't have been close in this game. But the Packers have lived and died by the big play this season. The Vikings had a consistent run game and a consistent pass rush all game long. They outlasted the Packers and survived the big plays.


In the end, the Packers were in a game they really didn't deserve to be in. The Vikings gave them opportunties to get back in the game, and while the Packers took advantage of them, it wasn't enough to compensate for a terrible offensive performance and an even worse run defense. If it weren't for two defense/special team scores, the scoreboard would have reflected the blowout it really was.

The Packers looked undisciplined and frustrated all day. The Vikings looked like they wanted this game for every reason, and now stand in a tie for first place in the division. The Packers fall to 4-5 and face the division-leading Bears next week. A loss to the Bears at Lambeau Field will certainly end much of the optimism for this season, and the microscope will fall firmly on Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy, who will not likely be up for any post-season honors this year.

Next week is a must-win for the Packers, a game against an opponent they don't match up well with. It's too bad that we lost a game that many of us assumed was an given.

This Game Is Bigger Than We Want To Admit

Yep, after a long and toiling season, sure is nice to have a game against the Vikings, isn't it? I mean, no matter your ills, we can always count on Brad Childress to lay down for us and give us one in the win column, and that sure would be nice right now. Right?

This game is more than just another Vikings game, and most of us don't want to admit it. But, the Packers and the Vikings are both sitting at 4-4, and are a game out of first place. It is highly unlikely and statistically improbable that any team from the NFC North will earn a wild card ticket to the playoffs for mediocrity, so whether we like it or not, this game will go a long ways toward determining who is going to have a chance to challenge the Bears for the division.

Lose this one, and your odds just got mighty slim.

But they are the Vikings, you say. Mike McCarthy has run off five straight against them. He's never lost to them as head coach of the Packers!

But the game we had to open up the season was far from a blowout. A special-teams touchdown marked the difference in that game, as well as Childress inexplicably putting the game in the hands of Tarvaris Jackson instead of Adrian Peterson. Don't expect to see that again today.

The Packers are coming off a 13-3 season, with all the expectations in the world for this year. The Vikings are where the Packers were last season, coming off an 8-8 record with a late-season surge. They are starting to find their groove and gain some confidence.

The Packers are underachieving. The game last week against the Titans is still being ballyhooed by the Thompson defenders as a moral victory (see Rob Demovsky). I don't see it that way. I see a Titan team coming off an emotional divisional win and a short week against a well-rested team riding high from a Colts victory. The Titans were exhausted, and played that way. Neither team did much to take that game away from the other, and in fact the Titans literally offered it to the Packers on the silver platter several times.

The Packers didn't take it, whether it had been a dropped pass, an interception, a muffed interception, a failed defensive stop. A good team takes those opporurtunities.

And, if you haven't noticed, there are signs of cracks in the concrete of this team. Jarrett Bush decided to pop off to the media not knowing why he was taken out for the last field goal attempt. James Jones pondered publicly why he was inactive and not told why. Jermichael Finley went on a public rant, throwing his quarterback under the bus to explain why he missed a fourth down pass.

In every case, McCarthy was called out on the carpet and had to explain these situations publicly, too. If we have learned anything from FavreGate, it is that public airings of grievances through the media isn't the most healthy thing for team cohension.

Last week, we saw cracks. A loss this week may cause the wheels to come falling off, especially with a game against the Bears the following week. High expectations have a way of doing that to you, especially when you don't meet them.

Yet, the Thompson Defenders' biggest headlines this week is citing how the Packers made a genius decision in letting Favre go and keeping Aaron Rodgers. Mike Vandermause of the Press-Gazette went on a diatrabe explaining how Thompson was so smart not allowing the Vikings to get Favre, because then they'd be that much better.

The other side of the coin is that you need to focus on what makes your own team strong first. Perhaps spending two months embroiled in a media circus and soap opera should have been spent focusing on what was happening at 1265, not worrying about what was happening in the Twin Cities.

The stench is that we wouldn't have been good enough to beat a Viking team with Favre at the helm, hidden by cheap shots and good press for the guys who made the decision.

And now, it comes to a head. The Vikings have every reason to win this game, whether it be payback for the opening season loss, the accusations of tampering, the obvious efforts to keep their targeted quarterback away from them, or just plain wanting to beat a division rival at home.

The Packers need this game. Let's all hope that they understand that, too. And, that they've actually communicated this to each other in the locker room, not through the media.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Demovsky: Channelling Mark Twain

Anyone that knows my writings on the Packers and sports in general knows that one of my biggest pet peeves is the misuse of statistics. We see it far too much nowadays, often with the caveat that statistics are facts, and if you doubt the statistics, you must be doubting facts.

Mark Twain said it best..."There are three kinds of lies: lies, d*mn lies, and statistics." It's not that statistics are a bad thing. Personally, I love stats...crunching them, researching them, presenting them. But, in the wrong hands they have the capacity to be completely misleading, particularly when a set of statistics are used in isolation and other factors (or stats) are ignored.

Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette is normally an adequate writer, but over the years, I've repeatedly observed Rob wanting to prove his points so badly that he'll take some stats and hammer them out as if it were the judge, jury, and executioner in the case. In his latest online chat, he made a such a point:
[Comment From Aaron - Green Bay] Why have the tight ends been so under uitlized? Is it because they are needed to block for a shakey O-line or is Rodgers not comfortable hooking up with his TE?

Rob Demovsky
: Aaron: I looked at that during the bye week, and here's what I found: Last season, Favre completed 57.4 percent of his passes to receivers, 22.2 percent to running backs, 17.8 percent to tight ends and 2.6 percent to fullbacks. This season, Rodgers has completed a higher percentage to his receivers (62.6 percent) and a lower percentage to running backs (17.7 percent) than Favre did. His tight end (16.3) and fullback (3.4) percentages are similar.
The use of percentage of passes in this case is just one statistic that can be used to respond to this question, but it is grossly inadequate in giving a proper response. The question asked why the tight ends weren't being used more. "Well, the percentages are the same."

So? It's all "okay", then? We shouldn't complain about how the tight ends are being used because the percentage of passes completed is the same is last year (note: when BRETT FAVRE was quarterback!)?

Did you know that of all African-American men who have served as the Presidential nominees of the two major political parties, 100% have won the Presidency? In comparison, only 50% of all white men have ended up winning the presidency in the same time span.

What conclusions would you draw given just that information? Do you think, perhaps, there are more statistics or information that might help flesh out this picture just a tad?

Aaron's question didn't get completely answered by Demovsky, and with the information given, you'd imagine that there's no problem with the tight ends. However, let's take a look at some other stats.

For one, the production from tight ends have been significantly diminished from last year. At this point last year, Donald Lee had 29 receptions for 382 yards and a touchdown, a 13.2 average. This year, Lee has 22 receptions, but for only 163 yards and 7.4 ypc (he does have two touchdowns, however).

Clearly, Lee is not producing like he did last season, and isn't stretching the field like he used to.

Furthermore, departed Bubba Franks had 14 receptions for 90 yards by this point, a 6.4 average and 2 touchdowns. Putting together the statistics of both Tory Humphrey and Jermichael Finley, they have combined for 6 receptions for 80 yards...and 0 touchdowns. The 16 yards-per-catch average is inflated by Humphrey's long of 37 yards, incidentally.

So, why are Demovsky's percentages the same? Because at this point last year, Favre had 205 completions out of 308 attempts. Rodgers is 167 for 262 as of this point, a pretty significant difference. Favre had 47 more completions and 46 more attempts.

I'm not trying to make any point that we would have been better off with Favre this year, or that Rodgers is lacking (in fact, I suspect that part of Demovsky's intent was to divert blame from Rodgers).

However, it is clear, percentages or not, that tight end production has taken a major hit this year. The loss of Bubba Franks, who had drastically fallen off in his receiving production from the Sherman years, hasn't been even been made up by all the backups combined. Perhaps more importantly, Franks was a major asset with his run blocking.

I was, and still am, disappointed in the Jermichael Finley selection in this year's draft. He may grow into something someday, but to subtract a player like Franks and add a long-term project player in a season with high expectations seems a bit foolish.

There is no doubt that with the addition of Jordy Nelson, the strength of this offense is now in the hands of its receiving corps.

However, this is also because of the incredible drop-off of both the running game and the tight ends. Both of those struggling facets of the offense that would be helped with a solid all-around tight end, that could both catch and run block. Tony Gonzalez, anyone?

At this point, I would be happy with Bubba Franks back.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Can You Run the ZBS Some of the Time?

Brian Hook at Football Outsiders has a nice little explanation about what zone blocking actually is. It was a good little review I found, as I was stewing about the FOX announcer claiming that the overtime run by the Titans came off a zone blocking play.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Denver offensive line scheme, they use a technique known as "zone blocking". In a "man" or "drive" blocking scheme the lineman is responsible for an individual, and the play is designed for a running back to hit a particular gap. The zone blocking scheme, on the other hand, has a lineman blocking an area instead of a designated defensive player. If multiple linemen are blocking an area than one can break off and block into the second level.
I find that interesting, because I don't see that much of a difference between the concept of zone blocking and that of a simple "smash left" or "smash right" when it comes to the basic idea of the linemen all heading one direction and trying to take out the guy in front of them. About the only big difference is the proud claim that the lineman not actively blocking anyone is allowed to cut block (which I still believe should be banned from the league and perpetrators punished with having to act as Jermichael Finley's mentor).

So, when Daryl Johnston (I think) commented on the zone blocking opening up that hole, it kind of got me thinking. Is zone blocking really something you do once in a while, or is it something that you do all (or, at least, most of) the time? We keep having talks about teams, like Packers, which do "zone blocking" some of the time, and yet, none of them seem to have success like the Broncos did for so long.

Chris Johnson has been described as a "good fit" for the zone blocking scheme, mainly because he is strong and very, very fast (4.2 speed). But, you also see him have success when the Titans don't run a "zone block". Furthermore, LenDale White, a behemoth, is far from an ideal ZBS back.

From Hook:
One reason it has not been widely adopted is time: it takes time to teach, time to master, and time to get the smaller, more agile offensive linemen that the system requires. If you take zone blocking and try to implement it with 340 pound behemoths, you will probably fail, and for better or for worse, 340 pound behemoths are what you'll find on a typical offensive line in the NFL.
Which is why I don't like it when an announcer throws a comment out like "they did zone blocking on that play". To me, saying a team that runs a smash left or right and makes a play doesn't make it zone blocking. Even Hook states that it is a scheme that is built in and tends to be used the majority of the time, with players brought in to fit it.

It's kind of like saying that whenever the Packers line up with four- or five-wide, they must be running a "Run and Shoot Offense". We know that isn't the case...we just run some plays that resemble it. For the Packers to have a true Run and Shoot like the Oilers and Lions used to run in the 80's and 90's, we'd likely have short, fast receivers and a running back that would be able to run out of a single-back setting (like Barry Sanders). Our receivers would be assigned Choice Routes and Switch Routes, not curls and slants.

But the Packers don't have that. So, we don't call it a "Run and Shoot" when we run something that looks like it on a play or two a game.

I feel like the ZBS is much the same way, and it is clear that whatever the Titans are doing with their running game, it is far more successful that what the Packers are doing. But, I wouldn't classify them as a zone blocking team.

As Hook states, the Titans would have invested heavily in the smaller, quicker offensive linemen. Atlanta did this not too long ago, and after finding little success with their version of the ZBS, they abandoned it They had to reload much of their entire offensive line, which was limited in a traditional run scheme.

The Packers have invested heavily in those types of players, too. And, even though Ryan Grant has had more success in the past few weeks, his best runs do come off the zone blocking plays where he makes one cut and is able to run downhill. The designed pulls and stretches (not a part of a true ZBS) that the Packers try to run don't usually end well.

The point? Running what looks to be a zone blocking play doesn't make it a zone blocking scheme, any more than running what looks to be a run and shoot play makes it a Run and Shoot Offense. Just my humble opinion.

The Titans can attrubute their success in the running game to having the venerable "Thunder and Lightning" running back tandem...a fast Chris Johnson who can find seams and go upfield, partnered with a titanic landmass like LenDale White who can crash the power game.

If I were building a team and a choice between investing in a scheme or investing in talent, I think I'd choose talent.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Mediocrity Never Felt So...Mediocre

Following yesterday's overtime loss to the unbeaten Tennessee Titans, the Green Bay Packers find themselves looking in the mirror and facing the reflection of a 4-4 record at the midpoint of the season.

Oh, certainly, there's bright spots along the way...Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, Charles Woodson, and Tramon Williams have all been great stories this year. And the Thompson rah-rah's are out there painting a smile on every angle they can. I certainly have no problem with that. Being a .500 team means that you have as many positives as you do negatives.

But looking at yesterday's loss and trying to believe there is a moral victory to be found is grasping at straws. A loss is a loss, especially when the win was easily within reach. The Packers had opportunity after opportunity to take that game over, but a dropped pass here, a foolish penalty there, and turnover here, a dropped interception, and a sack there all led to one thing: the Titans did nothing to take the game away from us, but we didn't take it when it was there for the offing.

The fact that this is a team coming off a 13-3 record last season, returning nearly every starter this year is cause for concern, beyond just the let-down of expectations. While we're seeing some young players step up, we're also seeing other players take concerning steps back.

At risk of simplifying it, the team is 4-4. Our four losses have been against teams with worse or equal records to the Packers:

Minnesota: 4-4
Detroit: 0-8
Seattle: 2-6
Indianapolis: 4-4

And, every team we've lost to has a winning record:

Dallas: 5-4
Tampa Bay: 6-3
Atlanta: 5-3
Tennessee: 8-0

The Packers have fallen behind the Bears in the NFC North standings, a division so weak that it was presumed we had it wrapped up before the season even began. Given the strength of the NFC East and Atlanta, unless something turns upside-down there will not be a wild-card team from our division.

So, the Packers have gone from "favorites" to "contenders", and are in serious danger of becoming "also-rans". All this from a promising season in 2007 and reassurances over the summer that this team was built on its defense and would be a winner.

Hard to be a winner if you can't beat a winner.

The most difficult question is where is help going to come from? We've returned nearly all our injured players and have a starting lineup of veterans hand-picked by GM Ted Thompson that this team would be built around. Unfortunately, many of these players aren't playing up to the level they were last year...Many are, in fact, going backwards.

The problem then becomes, how does this team improve?

Quarterback: As many folks have pointed out, Aaron Rodgers is keeping pace with much of Brett Favre's overall stats last year, and will point out several statistics in isolation (such as third-down percentage) to assert he's a vast improvement.

I will stand at the front of the line and declare that Aaron Rodgers is not the one losing these games for us. He's been consistent and efficient. However, he also hasn't been the reason we've been able to come back and win close games, either. Only in the Detroit game has Rodgers led a semblence of a fourth-quarter comeback, and in the fourth quarter of all four losses he's been at best servicable, and at worst, ineffective.

With two rookies behind Rodgers, the only improvement we'll get at this position is from Rodgers himself. Even with 2007, but only just.

Running back: Ryan Grant has still been far from the back who averaged 5.1 yards per carry the latter half of the season. Even his recent surge the past two weeks has produced a per-carry average still under four yards. While his hamstring injury takes some of the blame, an ill-advised holdout from training camp almost assured such an injury would occur.

With only Brandon Jackson behind Grant, who is more of a third-down receiving back, it is unlikely that we're going to upgrade our present starter at this point in time. Step back from 2007

Offensive line: The Packers continue to shuffle this line around and around, trying to find a combination that will work. Daryn Colledge's move to replace an injured Chad Clifton proved to be a far better use for him, but the struggles of the interior line are still glaring, as they have been for years.

Josh Sitton is, for all practical purposes, the best hope we have for upgrading the performance of the line. But after sitting out much of the first half of the season with injury, it is unlikely we'll see an impact from a rookie this season. Slight step back from 2007.

Receivers: The high point of this team, Greg Jennings and Donald Driver are as good as any starting tandem in the league, and the backups make this perhaps the deepest receiving corps in the NFL. If DD does end up retiring soon, there's no doubt there will be someone to step in. Step forward from 2007.

Tight ends: Donald Lee was a favorite of Brett Favre last season, but his production in 2008 appears to be halved in nearly every category. His yards per catch has fallen from 12 to 7.4, and is on pace for only 320 yards this season after nearly 600 in 2007. The departure of reliable vet Bubba Franks left a void behind Lee that is being filled by Tory Humphrey and rookie Jermichael Finley, with neither equalling Franks' prodcution.

Finley, in particular, appears to be very raw and, given his comments yesterday, quite immature. The tight end position has been perhaps the biggest disappointment this season. Big step back from 2007.

Defensive Line: After getting 36 sacks last year, the Packers have only 14 so far this year. More importantly, though, the Packers are allowing 146 yards rushing per game (only allowed 99 per game last year), and even worse, are allowing nearly five yards per rush.

Aaron Kampman, though still playing relatively well, is nowhere near the animal he was last year. Ryan Pickett has been inconsistent, and the loss of Cullen Jenkins has placed the line further behind the eight ball than they were before.

The Packers have turned to two young unproven players, Justin Harrell and Jeremy Thompson, to try and turn the tide, but alas, the Titans rushed for 178 yards and took control of the game on the ground in overtime. Step back from 2007

Perhaps our most suprising unit on the field, we've seen what we once thought was the heart and strength of our defense come apart. Nick Barnett, who did have a solid season last year, has been out of position and less effective every week this year. AJ Hawk, who we hoped was going to blossom from a solid starter to a star this year, has seen himself become a role player at best, losing downs to third-tier free agent Brandon Chillar. Brady Poppinga, once thought to be the one supplanted by Chillar, is continuing to play his brand of linebacker, a solid run stopper but a liability in coverage.

After these four players, the Packers literally have no one on the shelf to make this unit better, having dismissed Abdul Hodge. Big step back from 2007.

Secondary: Like the recievers on offense, our secondary actually hasn't played that badly. It is rare that we get beat by the long ball, and they have returned five interceptions for touchdowns this year. Charles Woodson is playing like a man possessed, and Nick Collins has drastically shown improvement. When injuries struck Atari Bigby and Al Harris, the shelf wasn't bare. Tramon Williams, Aaron Rouse, and Charlie Peprah all performed well under duress. Step forward from 2007.

This many steps back has to be a concern for a team that was a field goal away from the Super Bowl last season. The next place that has to be looked at is coaching, and HC Mike McCarthy is certainly learning that with higher expectations comes a much larger microscope on him.

McCarthy has to take accountability for this team's struggles, especially with so many players and units seemingly regressing from last year. Has he focused so hard on trying to make Rodgers' successful that he's allowed other parts of the team to slide? Has his playcalling become predictable and sometimes questionable? Has he lost that edge he had when he still had that chip on his shoulder, trying to prove himself?

The talent of this team is nearly the same as what is was in 2007, but it isn't succeeding the way that team did. Next week, we visit a Viking team in Minnesota that is going to be keyed up to put the Packers down to third in the division, an all-important game when it comes to divisonal and conference tie-breakers. The next week, we host the division-leading Bears.

The next two weeks will make or break this Packer season. The Packers need to at least split those games.

Which of course, will put them at 5-5...still mediocre.