Sunday, August 16, 2009

TundraVision Quickhits: Preseason Game 1

All in all, you have to be pretty satisfied with a 17-0 victory in preseason. No, it really doesn't count for much, but a win is always better than a loss. Certainly, you had to be happy that our #1's defeated the Cleveland Browns' #1's 14-nil in the Packers' first two possessions.

Now, a detractor can point out that the Browns offense was ranked 31st overall last year, and that Browns defense was ranked 26th. In other words, we shouldn't get too excited (or overconfident) in beating a far lesser team, much like the somewhat hollow "ending the season on a positive note" last year when we beat the Division III Detroit Lions.

But, that is the beauty of the preseason. If you win, you don't get too excited, and if you lose, you don't have to assume the worst. This is far more about getting timing and execution down rather than worrying about the final score, and in the early going, to really try and settle some starters at their positions. The real excitement comes in examining some of the individual performances.

* Aaron Rodgers Pressure Awareness Maturity

On the first quarter touchdown strike to Donald Driver, Rodgers was able to move around in the pocket and delivered a beautiful downfield pass to Driver, who needed the time to shake defender Eric Wright on the way. This wasn't just a great play, but an illustration of how far Rodgers has come.

Early in his career, Rodgers seemed nearly unaware of pressure around him, taking unnecessary shots as he was so locked in on going through his progressions. Later on, and even a little into last season, Rodgers seemed to have "happy feet", moving around haphazardly in the pocket and affecting his throws. Rodgers, unlike most quarterbacks who throw off-balance, didn't throw high, but often threw low, bouncing his passes to his receivers.

On the touchdown play to Driver, you saw Rodgers move the pocket up while keeping his feet under him. Rodgers has a quick-fire delivery, and being able to do that while balanced is critical. Those three years on the bench were perhaps the best thing that happened to Aaron Rodgers because his raw talent has developed and the game has slowed down for him, allowing him to do many things at once instinctively instead of thinking about it too much.

* Responsibilities of the Safety

One of the drums I beat most often is the use of the safeties. I'm not concerned about the ability of our secondary to force turnovers. In fact, the "big play" was rather commonplace in the early part of 2008. I'm far more concerned about coverage responsibilities and their use in the 3-4.

On Josh Cribbs' end-around on the Browns first possession, you saw a little misdirection catch the Packers off-guard. More importantly, you saw OLB Brandy Poppinga up on the line of scrimmage and go in to blitz. As I wrote earlier, one of my concerns was with the responsbility of the safeties to come up and "fill in" for the blitzing linebackers, and in this case, Nick Collins moved up from his safety spot to fill Poppinga's spot.

My initial trepidation was that the safety responsbilities would leave corners on an island in pass coverage, but in this case, it left the left side of the field open for Cribbs to rush the ball 29 yards for a big play that put the Browns in Packer territory. Poppinga took the bait of the tackle he was rushing against, took the inside route to the quarterback, and was promptly sealed away from the rusher. Collins came up full-blast to fill in, and had to quickly turn around and go into catch-up mode.

Now, mind you, this was a first, initial attempt for these players at running a new scheme, so I'm not calling this out as a dire emergency. But, it is important for the defensive coaches to note it, because now other teams have it on tape and will exploit it if the Packers do not figure out a way to counter it. Naturally, the easy solution is to insure that Poppinga holds his contain on the outside instead of taking the bait and going in, but I'm sure Capers is going to take a long, hard look at this one play and figure something out.

* Kampman Still Developing

I love Aaron Kampman. I think he's a great player and an even better person. But I am still not convinced that he is going to be a great OLB.

At times, he still looked out of his element. On one play where he was to drop into coverage, he looked more like a basketball player doing a shell drill, bouncing from place to place around Mike Furrey, who eventually caught the pass. He also whiffed once on Jamal Lewis charging in on a run stop. Kampman is at his best when he is able to put pressure on the quarterback (which he did) and when he is stout against the run. This is a whole new skill set for him and he still didn't look comfortable 100% of the time.

The conundrum may come in if you have Jeremy Thompson and Clay Matthews outplaying Kampman, simply because they may be more fluid at the position more often. Do you turn Aaron Kampman into a part-time player if that ends up happening?

* Is there any room on the Jermichael Finley bandwagon?

I've been tough on the kid since he was drafted, not because I thought he was a bad kid, but because I thought he was going to be a one-dimensional receiving tight end that was a luxury with our present receiving corps. What I wanted was a ferocious blocker that would open up our running game and our receivers on short passes.

What I saw yesterday is a kid who is on his way to becoming a complete package at tight end. I'm not even going to comment on his receiving which we assume is already part of the deal, and he looks far better at than last year's difficulties.

What I'm going to comment on is the blocking Finley did on Ryan Grant's touchdown run, where it looked like he took out his guy and another one along the way. That was one example of a lot of nice blocks he had in this game, and is enough to convince me that he may indeed be a complete tight end.

* The screen pass is not a legitimate weapon yet

Even Wayne Larivee mentioned how this team is built for the screen pass, but we just can't seem to make it the weapon they had in the 1990's. The question may be whether or not the screen pass is able to be built in to a zone blocking scheme, which usually requires pulling linemen outside to help block.

The question may also go to whether or not defenses have adjusted in general to stopping screens, something everyone had to face when WCO's reached their peak in the 90's and early 2000's. Misdirection is a critical element of both the ZBS and the WCO, however, and that is a great way to continue to advance the ball up the field without counting on the "big play".

* The Packers are back in their "Big Play" mode

Four interceptions. Three sacks. 53-yard touchdown pass. The Packers of the first half of 2008 relied on big plays to start out with a 4-3 record. But, as the season went on, those big plays became far more scarce. In the Packers' final seven losses, the big plays dried up.

Trust me, Big Plays win games. But you can't rely on Big Plays, especially as teams get stronger and have more tape on you as the season goes on. Our running game on Saturday did fantastically against the Browns, with only DeShawn Wynn having a rushing average below 4.0 ypc, But, the Bills defense next week may provide much of a stiffer challenge (allowed Tennessee and Chicago only 50-odd yards rushing in each of their preseason games).

It is critical to couple the Packers' ability to make the Big Play with a consistent nickel-and-dime threat that can both free up the Big Play, but take the game over when the Big Play is taken away.

Yesterday was a great example of that kind of two-pronged attack, with the first string offense scoring on both their drives, and the first string defense stopping both of Cleveland's drives.

*Penalties, penalties, penalties....

Lost in the myriad of the blamestorming session that took place after the 2008 season was the fact that the Packers was the second most-penalized team in the NFL last year. Now, I'm not going to sit and break down "combat penalties" versus "non-combat penalties"...that's a job for Mike McCarthy. I do know, however, that it is a lot harder to win a game when you have double-digit flags called against your team every week. The Packers had nine penalties called against them yesterday, and at least one other that was declined. Many of them were "non-combat", which means before the ball was snapped.

The "penalty situation" (as MM may himself call it) is, to me, an indicator of exactly how much the discipline has improved over last year. Sure, hard hitting in training camp and "teaching" instead of coaching are all great things, but at some point, MM has to get his team playing with poise and control.

* I'm on the Tyrell Sutton bandwagon

...and have been since he was signed back in May. The next preseason game may be a maker or breaker for him, since Lumkin had an excellent game yesterday, too. But Sutton is downright slippery. The Packers may have to find a place for him, but I have a strong suspicion if the Packers try to bury him on the practice squad, he won't be there long.

5'8" and 217 pounds? They guy has a lower center of gravity standing up than most do with bent knees. He's a guy that may not be good at anything than just simply getting yards when you need them, and given how the Packers finished last season, that may be enough to get him a roster spot.

* Matt Flynn is Ty Detmer reincarnated

Small frame, not a cannon for an arm. Good, safe passes. Has a little flair to him. Made a nice pass to Jordy Nelson that was unfortunately called back. Great heads-up play in catching his own pass and making something of it.

Not the guy you really want to take over your team for a long stretch of time, but certainly capable of finishing a game and making a spot start with a scaled-back game plan.

If Rodgers can prove to have Favre's durability, there's no reason that Flynn can't be the next Ty Detmer.


All in all, a very satisfying preseason win against fairly poor competition. Next week's game against the Bills will prove a slightly more capable opponent, and we'll get a chance to see the 3-4 up close and personal against an offense that might be able to challenge it a bit more.

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