The Browns beat the Packers 27-24 on two late, long field goals by Phil Dawson in the first preseason game of 2010. Here are my QuickHits for the game:
* First of all, anyone hitting the panic button after the first preseason game is an alarmist, at best. Conversely, anyone not just a little bit concerned about special teams and our pass rush is drinking Kool Aid. There's a reason that ball security, fundamentals, and special teams have each been a "point of emphasis" this training camp, and yesterday's game showed the emphasis shouldn't be ending anytime soon.
We're a long way from the regular season, and even if we lose the first couple of regular season games, there's always a couple of Jiminy Crickets out there telling us it is a long season and there's plenty of time to turn it around (and last year proved that), so thinking that yesterday's performance is now an indicator of the entire season is highly premature.
But, we also know the lack of a pass rush is what doomed us in the playoffs last year, and we need to hope and pray that our reshuffling of the defensive line is able to eventually put some moderate pressure on the QB, because the Browns quarterbacks had all day to sit in the pocket and wait for receivers to get open, just as Big Ben and Kurt Warner did last year.
* As sure as Ted Thompson isn't going to sign any high-priced free agents, there are some other traits unlikely to change with a Mike McCarthy-coached team, and that is communication and fundamentals will seemingly be in a perpetual state of needing to be "cleaned up".
In the short term, that's why I'm not too concerned about our defense's issues against the Browns, as this just seems to happen every year. It seems like the Packers have to get knocked down before they can truly get up again, and last year's Tampa Bay debacle is a glaring example of hitting rock bottom and seeing a McCarthy team rise from the ashes. The Packers have plenty to work on, and that should get their focus off of "Super Bowl or Die" and back onto communication and wrapping up tackles.
But, in the long term, fundamentals and communication are the building blocks of everything you want to do as a football team. This is now a veteran football team that has had its core group together for many seasons. Cleaning up fundamentals is what you do with a young football team, like the ones we fielded back in 2006 or 2007. Communication is another basic concept, critical to the success of your team, that should have been mastered by many of the defensive play-callers (AJ Hawk, Nick Collins) and those they are trying to communicate with.
Simply put, the more communication and fundamentals are points of emphasis this season, the less chance we have of a deep playoff run. A team being picked to win it all should be building off of those traits, not still trying to learn them.
* Aaron Rodgers looked insane out there. I couldn't have asked for a better performance from our starting quarterback, and what impressed me most with him is his ability to make those quick drops and get the ball out accurately without having to move the pocket...especially given that he often had pressure coming up the middle. Rodgers has really grown as a passer, and if this is an indication of how his season is going to go, you can definitely pencil him in as a top QB in the NFL. His Achilles heel had always been those happy feet and losing accuracy under pressure. If he's overcome that, he is a complete quarterback.
I was reassured by Matt Flynn's performance. Some folks were appalled at his lame duck Hail Mary, but that's not what he gets paid to do...we knew he had a soft arm and that's not what we're looking for from him. What impressed me what his accuracy making the short passes and screen, and for the most part, had some very nice touches on his mid-range passes down field. If Rodgers is hurt for any length of time, we're not going to have Flynn trying to do everything that Rodgers can now do. Flynn just has to master what he can do, and the offense can adjust around him.
Flynn did have a couple of misfires in there...like, really bad misfires that luckily did not add to his interception total. His 43.5 passing efficiency rating looks alarming, but if you remove that Hail Mary interception, he had a somewhat respectable 76.19. More concerning to me are his happy feet, moving the pocket around for no apparent reason. His Hail Mary would have likely landed in the end zone if he hadn't inexplicably run backwards ten more yards.
Graham Harrell did nothing to make Flynn uncomfortable. With the preseason game tied up and a buck-twenty-four on a clock, Harrell completely wilted. Yes, he was playing with third-stringers, but so were the Browns. Opportunity knocks, and you have to take advantage.
* Grant's fumble was hopefully the one he's going to get out of the way for the season, but the number of times the ball hit the ground in this game was concerning. Ball security, another one of the "points of emphasis" this training camp, wasn't much of an issue last regular season, but put the Packers in a hole against the Cardinals in the playoffs.
I would venture to say that McCarthy will be running plenty of strip drills with the running backs this week.
* The Quinns were an interesting bunch to watch yesterday. Quinn Porter did very little to disprove that he might be challenging Brandon Jackson for the #2 running back spot, rushing for 38 yards on 9 carries. I was somewhat surprised that Kregg Lumpkin got so many carries yesterday (11 in all for 42 yards). Lumpkin, to me, is a known quantity, one that hasn't been able to rise the depth chart for two seasons now. I wonder if they gave him the lion's share of carries to increase his trade value, or simply because he might be the first cut made in the backfield and they wanted to give him his best chance to latch on to another team.
Porter, however, did a nice job with his opportunities, manufacturing a couple nice runs, including a game-high 15-yarder. Unfortunately, the Packers didn't seem to emphasize the run until the second half, but I think Porter has firmly entrenched himself as the #3 RB. If he can block and catch (he added one reception for six yards), Brandon Jackson may find himself being challenged for his job. Personally, I think Jackson should be challenged...there's no reason anyone should be handed a job based on mediocre production, and while Jackson may still win out, Porter has thrown his hat into the ring and deserves a chance to see if he is an upgrade (or simply can bring something different to the table).
Quinn Johnson's opportunities were limited, but did have a monstrous hit on punt coverage that was unfortunately called back. I am really rooting for Johnson (which is usually a death knell for any player), as I really believe he can add a new dimension to the running game. But, watching most of the first half, two-back sets were very rare. Rodgers was throwing out of a single-back set or back in shotgun most of the time, indicating to me that the Packers are more comfortable in passing sets than traditional I-formations. The appear comfortable with their running plays coming out of two-tight end sets. It's too bad, because if Johnson could establish himself as a major blocking threat, it could force defenses to bring eight in the box when they see him in there, and that would leave a ton of field open for Finley, Jennings, and Driver after a play-fake.
* The offensive line was up and down, as usual. While I didn't get a chance to really study them too closely, the stats give us a good idea of how they did: only 34 yards rushing in the first half, and quick drops and shotguns for Rodgers to avoid pressure.
* Say what you will about Jermichael Finley, he's going to be a matchup nightmare, and really expands the passing game as defenses are being forced to double-cover him. As Pete Dougherty mentions this morning, it is only going to open up more opportunities for Driver and Jennings.
Also notable was the number of double-tight end sets, with Andrew Quarless and Donald Lee even bringing in three passes. The passing game is reaching a point, between having a pinpoint -accurate quarterback and so many athletic options in the receiving game, that this could become one of the best offenses the Packers have had, perhaps since 1996 and even the early 1980's with Dickey/Coffmann/Lofton/Jefferson.
* Brandon Underwood continues to try to keep his name in the paper for positive reasons, with interception a pretty easy ball in the endzone and bringing it out 35 yards, along with a couple of nice tackles and two passes defensed. Underwood likely established himself as the nickel/dime back ahead of Pat Lee (depending on the health of Al Harris) and appears to be taking that chip on his shoulder and doing something with it.
* Mason Crosby was booming it on kickoffs. Nearly every kickoff I saw was landing 5-7 yards deep in the endzone. His 33-yard field goal (from the right hashmark, mind you) seemed almost a little set up for him, but it was a good confidence booster. It's too bad that Harrell couldn't get the offense in position to give Crosby a chance at a long game-winner, but perhaps, in the end, it might be for the best.
Unfortunately, Crosby's deep kickoffs resulted in unreasonably long returns, with the Browns averaging 26.5 yards per return. That is simply unacceptable...Crosby made 25% of the kick return tackles yesterday.
Almost an echo of the kicking game, the punters did much to alleviate fears about our punting game, with both punters posting identical marks (3 punts, 143 yards, 47.3 ypk) and generating some reasonably decent hangtime. Tim Mathsthey had one touchback and another downed nicely inside the 5. The problem comes in whether or not they are out-kicking their coverage, because on the two punt returns, the Browns' Syndric Steptoe averaged 16.5 yards per return...an astronomical average for punt returns.
I gave a heckuva rant on Cheesehead Radio a few weeks back about special teams coach Shawn Slocum, and I don't think it had much effect. Our special teams ranked 31st in the NFL last season, and I am always of the belief that special teams rarely win games for you, but they will lose them for you. Special teams isn't just about your field goal kicker (although Slocum has played a huge role in that, too), it's about field position and keeping the game under control without putting too much pressure on your offense or defense. Forcing our offense into 80+ yard drives, or giving our defense considerably short fields to defend is the hidden Kryptonite for any team.
What bothers me is, once again, "special teams are a point of emphasis" as told to us by Kareem Copeland. Last year, the Packers cut players who may have been valuable as positional players, simply because they wanted to keep three fullbacks, three tight ends, and a plethora of linebackers. Why? Because Tyrell Sutton and Anthony Smith couldn't play special teams.
Judging from our performance last year and against the Browns, neither can the players we kept.
* Side note: anyone following Kareem Copeland on Twitter had to just smile at his exuberance at being at his first Packers game. Having met him in person and witnessed his wide-eyed excitement, I could just see him bouncing around like a kid in a candy store as he Tweeted about the animated beer race on the scoreboard and his first "Roll Out The Barrel". Keep it up, Kareem! Sometimes, the local beat guys can come off as a little jaded, and it is nice to have a media guy who just seems excited about the smallest things.
* Sam Shields. Return man. Experiment over. Focus on playing corner and making the squad. Return man, not happening.
Overall, a disappointing game if you're the kind of person who expects a win in the preseason as a sign of things to come. I think that Mike McCarthy now has plenty of material to work with in practice, and the Packers have their work cut out for them. The time for Super Bowl talk is officially placed on hold until you can master the basics.
Unfortunately, that appears to be job #1 again for the Green Bay Packers.