Sunday, June 21, 2009

Rodgers Wins the Battle, But War Still In Question...

BigSnakeMan over at PocketDoppler opined an article comparing the new gunslinging quarterbacks in the division to the far more disciplined ("safe"?) Aaron Rodgers here in Green Bay. As far as Snake is concerned, the Packers are a step ahead of our division rivals, as Rodgers is not only takes care of the ball, but will be a year deep in the offense and, as Matt Loede at PackerGab reports via the MJS, will have more of a command of it, too.

From Doppler:

Favre contends that his familiarity with the Vikings system will make him more effective than he was in New York but, like Cutler in Chicago, he will be throwing to receivers who remain largely unproven.

Meanwhile, back in Green Bay, reports coming out of minicamp are saying that head coach Mike McCarthy will open up more of the playbook now that his starting quarterback has a year of experience under his belt. So, while rivals Favre and Cutler under the best of conditions will still be facing transitional seasons, Rodgers should get better in his second year under center. That can only work to the Packers advantage.

And, adding to that, from the MSJ via Loede:

Packers QB Aaron Rodgers had limitations on his audibles last season, but it appears he is going to have more options at his disposal this season. Rodgers believes he is going to be given more responsibility at the line of scrimmage this season because the coaching staff trusts him more. There were times he played like a system quarterback last year, but his teammates told him to let loose a bit.

I have several thoughts on this:

1) I tried to make the case a couple times that Rodgers was playing within the system last year, but usually got pooh-poohed from some of his staunch supporters in the face of all the Favre hubbub. And, I understand that: Rodgers sure didn't any more pressure or criticism last year, particularly from Packer fans.

But now that he has endured his trial by fire, it is time to allow Rodgers to grow and develop, for us to cheer his accomplishments and point out his flaws, just as we would with any other player.

2) Assuming that Rodgers was playing within the system, that usually does tend to build up some very efficient statistics. However, one of the biggest criticisms that arose from last season was the seeming inability of Rodgers to pick up the team lead them on a game-winning drive at the end of the game. Whether you agree with that or not, you have to agree that playing from behind in the fourth quarter has to entail a larger degree of risk-taking on the quarterback's part. While Rodgers appeared willing and ready to take the team on his shoulders at the end of a game, the results were less than shining.

So, 2009 is going to be a pretty strong test of the development and the maturing of Rodgers as a quarterback who can lead this team. It's a good sign he may be given more ability to expand the offense and have more control at the line. The more interesting development will be what he does with that control in the game.

3) The idea that Favre in Minnesota and Cutler in Chicago will be "behind" Rodgers is a bit misleading. First of all, I would far rather have Rodgers than the other two, regardless. I don't think Favre will be able to stand up to another full season of wear and tear, and I don't think Cutler's psyche will survive the Chicago scrutiny.

But to take that as some sort of great advantage for the Packers is looking in the wrong place. The Packers easily had the best quarterback in the division last year and finished well behind both the Bears and the Vikes.

In fact, the threat of a gunslinging quarterback may actually...believe it or in the favor of the Bears and Vikings against the Packers' defense. It's a bit of irony that Snake gives Rodgers such an advantage for being a year ahead of Cutler and Favre, when our defense is still being re-schemed with a lot of question marks.

The weaknesses of the 3-4 defense come in a couple of places:

A) Teams that have strong downhill run games with strong offensive linemen may find success against the front three of the 3-4, forcing the inside linebackers to have to not only make more tackles on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage, but to shed blockers to get there.

B) Teams that have a very fast passing game may also find success against the 3-4. Corners have to be physical at the line of scrimmage with receivers, and linebackers have to play their coverage responsbilities very tightly.

C) The front three of the 3-4 cannot not generate significant pressure on the quarterback on their own, and thus rely on the misdirection of the zone blitzes to create pressure in the backfield.

The problem for the Packers is that they have a lot of question marks in each of these areas.

In A, both the Bears and the Vikings are blessed with strong running backs (Forte and Peterson) and strong offensive linemen. Our front three is quite unproven, with Ryan Pickett's ability to play nose tackle yet to be seen, and BJ Raji is still just a rookie with a lot of room to grow. Our interior linebackers, Hawk and Barnett, are good tacklers but we have yet to see how well they do shedding linemen to get there.

Don't believe me? Check out this quote from Ray Lewis when the Ravens dropped the 3-4.

"We're in the 46 defense now, and finally, finally again, I get to play football," said Lewis. "My job is not to take on offensive linemen, but to make running backs not want to play against me"

In situation B, we still have some confusion as to how our corners are going to play against the receivers. By most accounts, the Packers are going away from their traditional press coverage and strict man-to-man to the 3-4 zone. If an opponent, such as the Vikings, are able to force the Packers defense to respect the run, a quick gunslinging passing game could really hurt them. The selection of Percy Harvin, a troubled but highly fast and explosive receiver, by the Vikings in the draft this offseason suddenly seems to have more of a method to the madness.

And certainly, you have to think Cutler could be much better for Devin Hester than what he's had.

Finally in C, while I am fully encouraged by the reports of how the Packers plan to generate a pass rush in the complicated schemery of Dom Capers, it still stands to reason that the Packers have been lacking in generating a pass rush with a four-man front the past several years (from 46 sacks in 2006, to 36 in 2007, to 27 sacks last year). Since the Packers rarely blitzed under the Bob Sanders scheme, it would stand to reason that the Packers will have to send at least one linebacker or corner into the backfield to generate a strong pass rush.

Which again, plays directly into the other weaknesses of the 3-4 defense. Overplay the pass rush and the running game, and the quick passing game can kill you.

So, while I am fully in agreement with Snake that the Packers are by far in the best position when it comes to who the quarterback is under center in the NFC North, those quarterbacks don't play against each other. It is going to be how those quarterbacks match up against the other teams' defenses.

I see Rodgers growing and maturing, and hopefully contributing towards and improvement of the Packers' splits against these two teams last year.

But to dismiss Favre or Cutler as gunslingers isn't taking into effect who is playing around them, who is going to be taking the handoffs behind them, and particularly, how effective the defenses they play against will be.

There's plenty of time and room for discussion and debate on these points, but let's finish off with one point that we should all agree with: everybody is going to have a lot to prove to each other in the NFC North in 2009. I can't wait to see it all unfold.

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