Monday, September 14, 2009

TundraVision QuickHits: The Chicago Aftermath

For the first time in a long time, I stood up in front of my television at the end of a Packer game and yelled loud enough to wake up everyone in the house. Late night heroics by Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, and Al Harris preserved a 2009 Kickoff game against rival Chicago, 21-15. It was a long, sometimes frustrating game to watch, replete with amazing highs (mostly from the defense) and inexplicable lulls (mostly from the offense). But in the end, the Packers start out 1-0 and get a chance to play two hapless teams before the big Monday Night game in Week 4.

Since they are coming out a little later than usual, here's are my slightly deeper thinking QuickHits:

* We were formally introduced to the Jay Cutler we can plan on seeing from Chicago for the next several years. Yes, I have a strong feeling the Jeckyl/Hyde act is going to be something that will mark his games, particularly against the Packers, sometimes from game to game, sometimes quarter to quarter.

Cutler is a gunslinger, who will take risks and isn't afraid to go downfield to his speedy receivers. In the second half, we saw a glimpse off that quarterback who has the ability to beat the Packers, striking Devin Hester deep and hitting Earl Bennett often as a possession receiver. Once he seemed to get settled down in the locker room and kept himself upright in the pocket, he did much better. You have to think that if the Bears can get Matt Forte some solid blocking in the run game Cutler may pose a significant threat.

But, for as much as Cutler seems to want to play like Favre, he also acts like Ryan Leaf. We saw that several times, as he was openly emotional and pouty. The childish interaction with Clay Matthews (a rookie linebacker) was bush league, and only served to prove that you can rattle him. For all the positives that Cutler can bring to the Bears (and I have no doubt somewhere along the line he's going to play well enough to win a game or two against the Packers), you can still see he's a meltdown waiting to happen, Terrell Owens playing quarterback.

It reminds me of the first time Mike Holmgren returned to Green Bay as coach of the Seahawks, and you saw defensive players smacktalking with Earl Dotson until he inexplicably lost it and had to be ejected from the game (with Holmgren smirking smugly). I can see players taking this route with Cutler, especially when he struggles, mocking him and questioning his manhood until he flips out.

Mark my words. Jay Cutler will be ejected from a game while a Chicago Bear.

* The three quarters of struggles from Aaron Rodgers are mostly forgiven because of a spectacular long game-winning pass to Greg Jennings in the fourth quarter. I must admit I was surprised to see the difference between preseason to yesterday's game, but I had a sneaking suspicion this might happen after watching him against the Titans.

What concerned me wasn't the poor passing, the blame of which must be shared with several dropped passes. I am more curious about his lack of escapability of the rush and not getting rid of the ball. Watching Favre earlier in the day, I remember thinking on several occasions as Favre was sacked, "Rodgers would have thrown that ball away or gotten away from that rush". But, unfortunately, he didn't. On the play that resulted in a safety, the announcers astutely noted that Manning was messing with the ball so AR couldn't throw it away, but the point stands that he probably should have tossed it before he got deep in the end zone.

But, as I said, all is forgiven. The toss to Jennings looked exactly like the quarterback we had seen all preseason. I'm wondering if both quarterbacks weren't tremendously nervous and were unprepared for fully unleashed defenses.

* An improved day for penalties, as far as the Packers go. My favorite comparison is our leading running back's yardage versus penalty yardage, and Ryan Grant won today, 61-45. As close as that game was, the Packers' 2008 average of 65 penalty yards could have impacted that final score more than we'd like.

And, mind you, I agree completely that the call on Al Harris was total bull. I'm glad Harris didn't go all "Serena Williams" on the guy that called it.

* Ryan Grant seemed to get it going in the third quarter, but was still bottled up nearly as much as Matt Forte was. Grant has to establish himself more consistently throughout a game, and especially in the first and second quarters, when defenses are adjusting to your game plan. The Bears were able to tee off on Rodgers because Grant had only 11 yards on 6 carries in the first quarter.

Grant did have a spectacular run, a weakside run off of zone blocking that I still caters to his strengths. He often has his best runs out of a ZBS set, and while we'd love to have him explode outside more, he just can't do it consistently.

* DeShawn Wynn did little to convince me why he was kept over Tyrell Sutton or Kregg Lumpkin. He was terrible as a third-down back, dropping a couple of passes, and had only 8 yards on three carries.

* The Packers took some pretty big risks in their 45 man roster, keeping both veteran fullbacks and a fifth wide receiver, but only two running backs. Given Jackson likely wasn't healthy enough to play is one thing, but this whole approach to two running backs and two quarterbacks in order to have three tight ends, five wide receivers, and two fullbacks seems to be taking some chances.

That, and I was shocked that Breno Guacamole wasn't activated to be available to substitute in for Barbre at tackle. As I have mentioned before, I believe special team are important, but not so important that you place your offense or defense at risk.

Speaking of which, did anyone else panic when Atari Bigby went down, and we didn't know Nick Collins was back in the game yet? The idea of having Jarrett Bush as our starting safety is kind of scary.

* I like what the Packers defense did to the Bears offense in the first half. I'm hoping this is a trademark of what the 3-4 can do consistently.

In essence, the Packers shortened the field for the Bears. Two of their three first-half interceptions were snagged at least 20 yards from the line of scrimmage. As the half went on, and Cutler's confidence was shaken, the passing plays became quicker and more safe...swings, slants, screens. But the defense was able to start charging the line of scrimmage, corners were playing up, linebackers were screaming into plays. In essence, they really shut down the offense because the Bears weren't willing to go more than 5-10 yards up the field. The Packers were able to stack the line and jump all over the passes.

In the second half, it was a pretty clear goal of Lovie Smith to break out of that funk, and they did. But for the first half, the Bears started looking only at first downs, not touchdowns.

* Anyone else find it funny how Packer defensive linemen can play at a servicable level, and then suddenly come alive in their contract year? Gotta love Johnny Jolly, who is playing like a man possessed (or, at least a man who was in danger of being suspended during his contract year). The interception he got likely saved the game for the Packers in the end, and it wasn't even a bad decision by Cutler. A lesser effort on Jolly's part, and that is a touchdown to Forte, or at least, just knocked down and the Bears would have had a chip shot field goal attempt.

* The Packers only had two sacks and three hits on Cutler, but I've often stated that sacks are the most overrated statistic in football. The front three of Jolly, Cullen Jenkins, and Ryan Pickett put pressure on Cutler all night (as well as bottling up Matt Forte). If I had a choice between two sacks versus 15 quarterback pressures and hurries, I'd take the latter. Those sacks only affect two plays in the game, but those pressures affect those plays AND the ones after. Cutler was off-balance, particularly throughout the first quarter.

* Nick Collins good, Nick Collins bad. Great interception, but the way Cutler was throwing that first half, I think I might have had a pick against him. But the touchdown to Devin Hester clearly showed that Collins completely took a bad angle on the ball despite being lined up thirty yards behind the line of scrimmage. Collins is certainly a playmaker, and his ballhawking has improved, but if he is responsible for the double coverage, he has to be in position to at least defend the play.

On the other hand, he did make a great play in the fourth quarter. The announcers mocked Jay Cutler for making a poor decision in trying to force a pass to Bennett with a cloud of four Packers in the way (the play Bigby was injured on). But you look closely, Bennett was behind all four defenders and none of them were able to make a play on the ball or Bennett, except for a Herculean effort on the part of Collins, the only one who actually tipped the ball away. If it wasn't for Collins on that play, they'd be talking about what a great gunslinger Cutler is.

* One of my concerns yet with the way the Packers play the 3-4 is the use of the safeties to substitute in for the linebackers who go in to blitz. It's great when the blitz gets to the quarterback, and it's great when the offense tries to pass short, but it places your corners on an island. Cutler hit a home run pass to Johnny Knox for 68 yards in the second quarter on that exact same play.

AJ Hawk lined up on the left side to rush the quarterback, and Bigby came up to play the linebacker spot in replacement of him. This then forced Collins to play the middle of the field. Hawk tried to bullrush in, but did not get to Cutler before he let it loose. On the play, Collins inexplicably zigged to Harris's side of the field, just as the ball was lauched to Charles Woodson's man, Knox. As Collins zagged back, he slipped and fell, which is why Woodson looked so alone on that play. But, I'm not sure that after Collins' mis-zig if he would have even been able to make it over to help in coverage.

Involving the safeties to cover for the linebacker rush is a good thing, and helps us on 90% of those plays. But the Packers are going to have to make sure that they can account for the single-coverage on the long pass plays, or it is going to be a long season for our corners.

* The Packers won the game, but let's not forget the efforts the Bears went to to lose the game. The Packers needed a game-winning drive with two-and-a-half minutes left, and thanks to some heroics, they got it.

But that six-point victory should have had a wider margin when you consider:
-the Packers forced four turnovers and gave up none
-one interception in the red zone took at least three points off the board, if not seven.
-one interception set the ball up on the Bears one-yard line (touchdown), and another put the ball at midfield
-a foolish fake punt gave the Packers the ball on the 30 yard line, resulting in a field goal
-their star running back was held to a 2.2 ypc average

Let's be serious...this is a dvisional game that was fought down and dirty with defense. But when a team gives you this many opportunities, you have to take them. I am very happy that Aaron Rodgers finally got the game-winning drive under his belt, but it shouldn't have even been that close. Had the Bears not been so happy to give us the ball in great field position, this might have been a blowout the other way.

If we can help it, I don't want to have to put the pressure of winning the game at the end of Rodgers and the offense every week. It's nice to know he can do it, but this shouldn't have been that close, much less with the Bears ahead with 2:35 to go.

* Is it just me, or does Brady Poppinga literally just throw his body around the field? He only finished with one tackle yesterday, but it always seemed like he was careening in after the play was over, sometimes completely off-balance, sideways, or backwards.

*Kapinos quietly had a good game punting. 44.7 average through the air, though in the mid-30's net due to two touchbacks. However, I am content with his performance, and Jarrett Bush earned his paycheck putting one down on the six yard line. He had two other touchbacks.

Now, mind you, I would normally be critical of him not getting those to sit down in the five yard line, but after last year's punting debacle, this is a tremendous improvement.


All in all, a satisfying day. Like nearly every other team after Week 1, we have plenty of places to look at for improvement as the season goes on, but there was enough encouraging signs to be able to think that this is a team that will be 3-0 when it faces the Vikings in Week 4.

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