Saturday, October 23, 2010

Packers Must Overcome Their Own Weaknesses to Overcome the Vikings

With criticism of head coach Mike McCarthy at an all-time high, it's suddenly really easy to point out the "faults" (or at least, "trends") that are hallmarks of the Packer teams he's coached; faults we easily ignore when the team is on a winning streak:

*  In general, an imbalance in the offensive playcalling, emphasizing the passing game over the running game, running out of the shotgun and passing even while trying to protect a lead late in the game.

*  General focus errors that can be attributed to a lack of discipline in execution or concentration:  special teams errors, penalties, critical decision-making at crucial points in the game

*  Reliance on the big-play to keep the team in the close games.

*  Inability to play four quarters of football until your back is up against the wall.

*  And, especially in recent years, an impatience on offense that results in drives, on average, of about three minutes, whether the Packers score or not.

Now, my goal is not to enumerate all of McCarthy's flaws, as that has been done numerous times already this week by many Packer writers and bloggers.  My goal is to take these flaws and apply them to this upcoming game, and how the Packers will need to overcome them to get a win.

Inability to play four quarters of football until your back is up against the wall.  The Packers are up against it, for sure.  While Mike Vandermause and other optimists reassure us that the season is not lost and the playoffs are still a distinct possibility, those hopes will be dealt a severe blow with a loss this week.  The Packers are 1-3 in their last four games and face a familiar opponent with some familiar faces that have tasted Packer tears before.

The Vikings are also, quite realistically playing for their playoff hopes Sunday night, as they have played even more uninspired ball than the Packers this year.  But, the Vikings are coming off an ugly win over the Cowboys and, with all of the controversy surrounding Brett Favre, may make this game their "Super Bowl or Die".  The Vikings have all the motivation in the world to beat the Packers, and you can guess they will be playing at a higher level than they have been.  The Packers need to match that, because even with all of the injuries, they still are the superior team talent-wise.

In other words, if the Vikings choose to rally around Brett, the Packers must choose to rally around Aaron and give him all the support he needs to come away with his first W against Favre.  In order to do that, they have to

Balance out the playcalling and take the pressure off of Rodgers.  This is easier said than done, both with McCarthy calling the plays and Rodgers having the option to turn runs into passes.  One of the first steps is to get Rodgers out of the shotgun so much, as they have been lining up in that formation over 50% of offensive plays the past few weeks.  It advertises either a pass or a shotgun draw play, and the Packers can not overcome giving up such an advantage to this defense.

When the Packers turned it around last year against the Cowboys, they got Rodgers back under center and had him go into three-step drops with quick hitters that minimized the pressure he could get on him in the backfield.  If you couple that with at least a half-hearted effort to make the Vikings honor the run by running it  at least 40% of the time, you put Jared Allen and Ray Edwards back on their heels instead of veering all-out into the backfield.  Just ask Greg Bedard.

The pressure on Rodgers will also be relieved if the Packers

Show patience on offense.  The Packers have to be satisfied with the nickel-and-dime plays of the West Coast Offense they are supposed to be running, instead of constantly passing and going through four or five reads to find downfield receivers.  The obsession with forcing the ball to James Jones and Jordy Nelson simply because we are trying to get them the ball has to stop, and Jennings and Driver need to start taking the quick-hitter routes, instead of always running long post patterns.  Driver made a living off the quick slant...why abandon it now?

The defense is beat up, and the cavalry coming in offers little in the way of a guarantee of solidifying a stout defensive performance that will contain Adrian Peterson.  Atarri Bigby and Al Harris aren't locks to play, nor locks to return to 2007 form.  Anthony Smith just joined the team and Clay Matthews will be fighting his hamstring the rest of the year, as most hamstring injuries go.  The Packers have to start taking time off the clock by stretching out even unsuccessful drives to six or seven minutes, allowing the defense to rest up and the Viking offense to get out of rhythm.

In order to do that, the Packers must

Play disciplined ball, avoid costly penalties, and execute consistently, particularly on special teams.  When you have gone 1-3 over your last four games, with each game decided by three points or less (and two games in overtime), there's plenty of places to look place blame.  One of those places cannot be special teams.  Special teams are the paragon of simple execution:  no schemes or exotic formations, just repetitious snapping, kicking, blocking, covering, tackling, and staying in your lane-ing.  Simply put, Shawn Slocum can not longer afford to make mistakes and think the offense and defense will cover for him.

For the offense and defense, I am reminded of (another) quote from Albert Einstein:  "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex... It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage -  to move in the opposite direction."  There's a point where McCarthy and Dom Capers may need to take a step back and simplify things for this team.  It's a sad thought when you consider that Capers' exotic defensive schemes and McCarthy's pass-happy weapons were the key to "Super Bowl or Die", but the time may have come to stop giving players so much to think about, and focus simply on winning the battles in front of them.

In essence, the Packers have to play smarter than the Vikings on Sunday night...and keeping it simple may be the smart thing to do.  When the players are assignment-sure, there is a far less chance of a pre-snap penalty.  Stop trying to do everything big-play style, and just execute what you need to do effectively...and the big plays will come of their own accord.  When you play smart and error-free ball, you frustrate the other team into making mistakes.  And, there lies my key to the game:

The Packers will need big plays to win.  I don't like it.  Never have.  Yes, big plays are awesome: the Charles Woodson pick-six or the 70-yard bomb to Greg Jennings.   They're fantastic plays made by fantastic players.  But as we saw so many times over the 2009 season, those plays had to spell the difference between a win or a loss...or at least, the difference in keeping or losing momentum in a game.

What I'm trying to say is that I would be very happy if the Packers were able to grind out wins without having to rely on the big play to keep them (or their heads) in the game, but I don't know if this team is there yet, especially with the rash of injuries.

As I stated earlier, going for the big play leaves the chance for big mistakes, and the Packers can't afford that unless they are behind in the fourth quarter.  A motivated Viking team is going to do exactly what they did to the Packers last year (twice) if the Packers play undisciplined football.  But, if you frustrate Brett Favre or you get the defense to start honoring the run or the short pass, the big plays will come of their own accord.  The good news is that the Packers have players that can make those plays:  Matthews, Woodson, Rodgers, Jennings, Collins, Williams, Driver.  Despite the injuries, this team is still stacked with playmakers, but they just haven't made them lately.

As I said on Cheesehead Radio this week, the opposite of "If it ain't broke,don't fix it," means that if it IS broke, you are crazy NOT to fix it.  With their backs against the wall in what may as well be the crossroads game of the season, the Packers will have to change their habits in order to win this game and turn their fortunes around. 

It isn't about Brett Favre coming back to town.  The Packers must overcome their own weaknesses in order to overcome the Vikings.

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