Sunday, January 10, 2010

TundraVision QuickHits: The Wild Card Aftermath

Yep.  It's a punch in the gut.  It's a game that had us all on the edge of our seats, all the way to the bitter end, a game that we should have owned.  As Packer fans, we have a lot to be proud of and a lot to look forward to in the future.

That stated, the game went very much as I figured it would.  I thought that the Cardinals would come out like gangbusters, given a Lovie Smith-esque shot of adrenaline and revenge by head coach Whisenhunt.  Unlike most, I predicted a close game and a shootout, with the Packers even falling behind early until the sugar rush of the Cardinals wore off.  Some folks scoffed at my prediction of 36-31, but in the end, even that was conservative.

The Packers gave us a roller coaster season and finished it off with a roller coaster game that, despite the loss and early exit from the playoffs, left Packer fans proud of the fight and determination of a team that fell behind and clawed its way back.

With that, here's the last QuickHits of the 2009 season:

*  Perhaps the Packers defense came into this game with a little bit of statistic inflation from blowing out so many inferior teams over the course of the season.  All I know is that I expected the #2 overall defense (and #1 rushing defense) to at least slow down the Cardinals offense a little bit.  I realized that Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald would get their share of yards, but without Anquan Boldin, I figured that our D would have the edge in the matchup on the field.

How wrong I was. The vaunted Packers defense and highly respected defensive coordinator Dom Capers allowed 531 net yards today, along with six touchdowns, and perhaps most disappointing, 156 yards on the ground with a 6.3 ypc average.

The pressure on Warner was simply not enough, with only one sack and a mere handful of pressures.  Clay Matthews was bottled up much of the day while rushing from the outside by offensive tackle Jeremy Bridges, easily deflecting him away from Warner and giving the Cardinals time to keep the pocket secure.

On one play in the first half, I watched Brad Jones try to bulldoze Levi Brown, but the Cardinal line did such a good job on that play that Jones and two other rushers encircled Warner, who remained safely in a 3'x3' pocket and completed the pass.

Capers didn't unload the Psycho scheme until the fourth quarter--perhaps he should have brought it in sooner, as it was the only time the Cardinals seemed to be nervous with where the rush was coming from.

*  There may be some folks who would like to pile on Aaron Rodgers after this game.  After all, it was his overtime turnover that will make some hearken back to a certain other quarterback's playoff performances against the Eagles and Giants and try and draw some comparisons.  And, there's some merit to that.

But it never should have come down to Rodgers' fumble to begin with.  Rodgers finished with one interception to four touchdowns and 422 yards through the air.  More importantly, he found his rhythm in the second half and brought the team back from oblivion on his arm, when it looked like the rest of the team (and coach) were ready to fold.

I will be the first to admit that I believe that Rodgers reverted back to hanging on to the ball too long after his interception, as he appeared to be tentative for a time.  And, that final fumble was, in part, due to him not being aware of the pressure around him.  But just as Brett Favre had his Achilles heel, so does Rodgers, and he does more than enough to make up for it.  At some point, the onus has to be on the rest of the team to pull their weight, too, and they simply didn't do it enough, particularly on defense.

*  Injuries opened up the lack of depth at key positions for the Packers.  When Chad Clifton went down, TJ Lang came into the game and the Packers were back where they were early in the season, worried if the line could hold up against a strong rush.

When Atari Bigby went out with a hamstring injury, the Packers were forced to play Matt Giordano at strong safety, another difficult substitution when you already have Jarrett Bush on the field against three-wide sets.

Injuries are always part of the game, but this season the Packers made some interesting final roster cuts, gorging on fullbacks and linebackers and leaving the secondary and offensive line devoid of veteran depth.  Yes, the goal was to keep players that could play special teams, but apparently, that gambit failed when the Packers finished 32nd overall.

*  The final play was interesting.  The Cardinals rushed four linemen, which were picked up by the Packers' five offensive linemen.  The left guard and tackle (presumably Lang and Colledge) doubled up Calias Campbell, leaving Packer Rag Doll Michael Adams as an extra rusher on the right side of the offensive line.  He came in virtually untouched, with Donald Driver giving him a rather quick chip block as he went out on his route.

With the Packers in an empty backfield shotgun, you would have to expect that the intent was for the ball to come out very quickly, or to have assumed the Cards would have been playing a more prevent coverage.  Either way, Adams redeemed himself for his miserable play the past two weeks in a big way.

*  I've made the case many times that this year's version of the Green Bay Packers were Creatures of Momentum.  While all teams rise and fall to some degree with the breaks of the game, the Packers seemed a bit more susceptible to gaining confidence as they rode the waves, as well as losing focus when the waves crashed down on top of them.  Today was a picture-perfect example of that.

In the first half, neither squad could get much of anything going consistently, and there were some sad looks on some of the players' faces.  Only when Charles Woodson made a beauty of a strip of the ball on Larry Fitzgerald (with CMIII recovering) did the Packers put together a concerted drive.  However, that was quickly lost when the Cardinals responded with their own scoring drive

In the second half, the offense seemed to find its footing, and then a absolutely perfect surprise onside kick seemed to keep the tide going on the Packers side.  For the rest of the game, the Packers' offense seemed to rule the field when they were out there.

On the other hand, the Packers' defense never seemed to get its feet under them from start to finish.  Warner and the Cardinals offense dictated the pace throughout the entire game.

This is shocking, because when you are talking about a defense with a Defensive MVP candidate, a Defensive ROTY candidate, three Pro Bowlers, as well as solid players in the front seven, you would expect that someone would step up and assert themselves.  But our pass rush was nearly non-existent, and our coverage was shoddy.  Even when Tramon was doing another patented arm bar (no flag) on Steve Breaston, he simply caught the ball one-handed.

AJ Hawk reverted to his concerning form, missing tackles and looking out of position.  Nick Barnett was nearly invisible the entire game.  Matthews was contained, and Woodson lost more battles than he won.

I said many times that I believed that the Packers were going to make the playoffs, but still have to prove they are a Playoff Team.  While I have a lot of hope for the future, today was hopefully a sour lesson for a young team.   Let's hope it teaches them the resolve they need to have when everyone amps it up in the second season.  Momentum (and the other team) do not dictate a how a great team plays.

*  Speaking of Woodson, Larry Fitzgerald got away with two pretty overt offensive holding calls when he essentially pushed Woodson down on his coverage and made some big-time catches.  The first play was when he clearly put his forearm into CW's chest, knocking him down.  The second, which was on his one-handed touchdown, was essentially a shoulder tackle, knocking Woodson over backwards.  Woodson looked completely in awe at the officials when he stood up after that one.

Is Fitzgerald the new "Michael Irvin", able to get away with stuff other receivers can't?  The greatest receivers shouldn't have to do stuff like that, and I do think he is one of the best in the game.  He doesn't need to cheat, and the refs don't have to look the other way, either.

*  For as great as Rodgers performed over the second half, we cannot leave out the men who were catching those passes, particularly Greg Jennings, who after an inconsistent season, asserted himself as the Yang to Fitzgerald's Yin, making spectacular catches and a highlight reel one-handed touchdown after batting down a bullet by Rodgers.

Donald Driver also atoned for his first-half fumble by catching a couple of great passes, included a 28 yard catch in the fourth quarter in which he stopped on a dime to allow a defender to fly past him, then carried another tackler down to the one-yard line.  It wasn't Driver's best game, but in the second half, he had as much heart as anyone.

Credit must also be given to Jermichael Finley, who spent much of the game bracketed in double coverage, but came loose in the second and third quarters to set up scores.  The kid is drawing a lot of attention from defensive coordinators, which means he may even be better than we think.

*  I was a little disturbed by the lack of "attack" in the red zone in the first half.  It seemed that when the Packers finally got near the end zone, they were attempting out passes and misdirection runs instead of simply taking it down the Cardinals' throat.  In their first attempt, after a poor run by Green and a sack of Rodgers, the Packers got a couple of penalties that allowed for a quarterback sneak.

On their second possession before the end of the half, the Packers had first and 9 yards to go. They attempted a run by Brandon Jackson, an out route by Jennings for minimal gain, and then Rodgers was sacked running around the backfield from the four-yard line.

Obviously, the aggressiveness in the red zone kicked up a notch in the second half, but it seemed to illustrate how the Packers played that first half:  tentative.  In many ways, it was a reversal of how the two teams played last week.

*  Lost in all of this is the missed field goal by Mason Crosby.  Yes, it was a 54-yard attempt while down 17-0, and many of us still question why we would have given the Cardinals such great field position knowing Crosby is not that reliable.  It was a couple of plays later that Woodson stripped the ball, but it could have easily been a 24-0 ball game at that point, as the Cardinals were driving in Packer territory.

Even more glaring is that, once again, Crosby had plenty of leg for that kick and, again, missed it by a hair to the right.  Crosby makes that field goal (and Woodson still strips the ball on the next possession) and this game doesn't go into overtime.

Naturally, you can point out Neil Rackers missed an even more important (and much shorter) field goal at the end of regulation.  The difference is, however, that the Cardinals won despite that miss. 

The Packers have to ask themselves some hard questions regarding Crosby this offseason.  Leg strength is great, but if it isn't going to be accurate, does it really matter?  Whomever the special teams coach is in 2010 (and I'm hoping it isn't Slocum) needs to evaluate whether or not Crosby's "wide-right" syndrome can be fixed.  If not, the Packers would be better off with an accurate kicker that maybe has only has a 47-yard range, rather than an inaccurate kicker who can barely miss them from 60 yards.

*  The biggest complaint after the game was that Aaron Rodgers had his face mask held after he fumbled the last play.  I don't know how much of a difference that may have made.  Since he had lost the ball, the penalty might have only taken back the TD but given the Cards the ball in field goal range.  There's a chance that, if a flag was thrown, the Packers might have maintained possession if they determined that the ball did not trade ownership yet.

But, as I said earlier, this wasn't a game you could count on the refs to win or lose for you (Tramon's arm bar, Fitzgerald's push-downs).  Complaining the refs lost a game for you reminds me of Viking fans, to be honest.  Let's be proud of our team and how they played.  There's plenty to be proud of, and enough blame for the loss to go around for the players and coaches, too.

*  There's a kumbaya spirit among Packer fans, with many of them praising Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy's regime for the 2009 comeback.  Certainly, Thompson and McCarthy solidified their job security, which (whether we like to remember it or not) was not nearly as secure nine weeks ago.

I still am trying to figure out, however, the difference between the team that went 4-4 and the team that went 7-1.  I asked that question last week to some folks at Cheesehead Nation, and invariably, the answer was the "Come to Jesus" meeting following the Tampa Bay game--that somehow, the players finally bought in after hitting rock bottom.

Amusingly enough, for a guy who understands more of the intangibles of the game than the Xs and Os, I still find that explanation incomplete.  There were a lot of things that physically came together around that time also, such as the ascending of Clay Matthews (and the loss of Aaron Kampmann), the return of Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, better decision-making from Rodgers in the pocket, and of course, the re-emergence of Ryan Grant.

So, which came first:  did these players individually improving their performances lead to the rise in confidence and synergy, or was there a team collective intervention that spurred those individual performances to improve?

In any case, the Packers have compiled a very intriguing series of records in McCarthy's first four years, especially when you sort them by streaks.


What will be interesting is to see how this offseason goes for the Packers, with the threat of the uncapped year on the horizon, and with a couple of holes yet to be filled in the draft and free agency.  Will this close-but-not-quite season spur Thompson to break from his modus oporandi again and trade up in the draft?  Will McCarthy start out picking up where he left off, or will the team have trouble getting out of the gate again?

*  All in all, this has been a fun year to be a Packer fan.  We went from Super Bowl aspirations at 0-0, to the sky falling at 4-4, to Super Bowl aspiration again just two months later.  We've seen young players grow and mature and become household names with bright futures.  We've celebrated and swore, cheered and thrown foam bricks at the screen, booed Brett Favre and cheered wildly for Aaron Rodgers.

The optimism will fade slightly when the playoffs continue next week and we come to grips with the fact that we won't see the Packers play again until next August, and we start wondering what might have been, what will be, and what needs to happen in between.

In other words, another memorable season for a great team and the greatest fans in the world.


holly said...

Thanks, C.D. I needed that.

Anonymous said...

thanks for a great season and adding solid analysis and a realistic take

enjoyed your site a lot