Saturday, February 12, 2011

Video: Return to Titletown

Hey gang...sorry this is a little late, but you will find my pictures from the Return to Titletown celebration at Lambeau Field last Tuesday.  You'll find a couple of familiar faces in the beginning, and a little video of the fireworks at the end.  It was very cold day, so forgive the shivering of my hand as I tried to film the fireworks!

The Punt That Helped Win the Super Bowl

The Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in a nailbiter, winning 31-25, having to stop the Steelers on what would be the game-winning drive.  It was a beautiful, unbelievable moment, but most of us look earlier than Jarrett Bush's final stop to determine what was the critical play of the game that spelled victory for the Packers.

Most Packer fans (and likely, most Steeler fans) would point to the Rasheed Mendenhall fumble at the start of the fourth quarter.  The recovery by Desmond Bishop on his own side of the 50-yard line diverted what would have been at least a field-goal attempt, if not a go-ahead touchdown.  And certainly, that was the moment where the Packers found their steam again.

Others will point to Nick Collins' dramatic pick-six in the first quarter, a dagger that left the Steelers reeling and unable to get anything going for nearly the rest of the half.  Again, you could see the momentum tip all the way over to the Packers' side in that moment.

It's the NFL's biggest game, to be forever defined by its biggest plays.  When NFL Films goes to show the best highlight of the winning team, chances are it will be Collins' interception, Matthew's forced fumble, or Bush's defensed pass.  But, there's a much smaller game always at work, too...and in a 6-point game, every decision in that chess match is critical.

The one moment that gets oft-overlooked amongst all of the flashy plays in the Super Bowl is the decision of Mike McCarthy to punt in the ball in the third quarter.  In the end, it could well have spelled the difference in the game, but not without the Steelers' help. 

Face the third quarter, the Packers' were reeling.  On their first two possessions of the half, the Packers amassed seven total yards and held the ball for 3:06 of just over ten minutes of play.  The Steelers had piled up 76 yards of offense and had already scored a touchdown on their first drive, and were in Packer territory on their second.  The score was 21-17, and the Steelers had whittled down an 18-point deficit, looking to close it out.

The Steelers were stopped on the Packers' 34-yard line, after Ben Roethlisberger held onto the ball for an extraordinarily long time, allowing Frank Zombo to sneak in for a sack.  This left Pittsburgh with a 4th-and-15.  At this point, Mike Tomlin chose to send out kicker Shaun Suisham to attempt a 52-yard field goal, despite not having attempted anything past 50 yards in the regular season.  It was a risky move, but a logical one.  A field goal would keep the momentum going, would shave the Packers' lead to one point, and keep the Packers' playing on their heels.

As it turns out, Suisham missed it, badly.  The impact of the missed field goal was huge, as the Steelers had been freely moving the ball since Charles Woodson and Sam Shields were injured at the end of the first half.  Not only did Pittsburgh finish up a 9-play, 4:31 drive with nothing to show for it, they gave the Packers the ball on the Green Bay 43-yard line. 

Now, not only did that missed field goal have an emotional impact, it played large for a Packer offense that was in a rut and unable to move the ball.  On their two previous possesions, the Packers started at their own 20, then their own 18.  After punting, the Steelers started on the 50-yard line and their own 40.  That's a huge advantage in field position, as well as psychological advantage.  Now, the Packers made a stop and had their ball on their own 43 to start.

Now, the Packers continued to have problems moving the ball on that drive, gaining one first down, then going three-and-out.  But, the same temptation was there for Mike McCarthy.  The Packers finished with a fourth-and-eight on the Pittsburgh 38-yard line:  a mere 55-yard attempt for Mason Crosby in a dome environment.  Crosby was 2-4 on the regular season from beyond 50 yards, and we all know he has the leg strength for it.  And a field goal would extend the lead to seven points in what had to be a moment on the sidelines desperate for something on the scoreboard.

But, McCarthy realized the importance of field position when his offense was still running in neutral.  Any advantage gained by the Packers after a missed field goal would be lost if they did the same in kind.  So, McCarthy sent out Tim Masthay to put the ball.  It was a 25-yarder, fair caught by Randle-El at the Pittsburgh 13-yard line.  It would be Masthay's only punt inside the 20-yard line all game long.

In a flash, the field position battle was turned around.  No, it didn't "turn around" the momentum of the game, but it did take the steam out of the Steelers.  The two teams traded two more punts on three-and-outs, but a penalty on Tramon Williams on the Steelers' punt return gave the field position back...and it took Matthews' forced fumble to prevent the Steelers from driving further into Packer territory.

Had the Steelers made that field goal, and the Packers gotten the ensuing kickoff back at around the 20-yard line again, the momentum would have been very much against them.  Furthermore, had the Packers missed their own field goal attempt, the Steelers would have gotten the ball on their own 45 yard line, and only had to move 25 yards or so to get into range for a go-ahead field goal attempt...or worse, another touchdown.

The Packers have won ballgame after ballgame, particularly during their final six-game winning streak, with aggressive play.  Yet, in a moment where the team was struggling, McCarthy made a wise move that the coach on the other sideline did not, a decision to kick or not to kick.  It was a passive play, a "we're not going to risk it" play, but the smart play (no matter what Aikman says). 

It's like the boxer who is getting whipped in the ring by an opponent, who covers up and looks for ways to take the momentum away from the other guy.  Wrap him up, separate for a bit, get your wits about you, get saved by the bell.  The punt didn't "win the game" for the Packers, but played a critical part in putting them in a position to not get taking away the advantages enjoyed by the Steelers.

Yes, it's small ball and not nearly as sexy as a pick-six or forced fumble, but there are many moments like this that go overlooked in the course of a game that come down to coaching decisions.  And in this case, Mike Tomlin was outcoached by Mike McCarthy in a simple decision of risking field position to get a few points.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Packers' Report Card: Super Bowl Edition

Overall: A

The Packers may have entered this game as the favorites to win, and even played the first half like they were on their way to an easy Lombardi Trophy.  But a string of injuries quickly dampened those thoughts and doubts began to creep into everyone's mind...that is, except the Steelers, who quickly capitalized and captured the momentum from the Packers.  Losing Donald Driver early in the game was bad enough (leaving Aaron Rodgers to pass to James Jones and Jordy Nelson, each afflicted with an acute case of the dropsies), but losing defensive backs Sam Shields and Charles Woodson on consecutive plays late in the first half shook the Packers to their core.  The Steelers racked up 14 unanswered points and pulled within four points of taking the lead, and the Packers didn't look ready to put up much of a fight on offense or on defense.

Now, you may have questioned some of the strategies in the third quarter, like why the Packers' best defensive player, Clay Matthews, was being marginalized as a spy instead of wreaking havok in the pass rush, or why the Packers only ran the ball three times in the third quarter, despite trying to protect a lead.  But one thing you cannot question is the ability of this team to scrap and claw when its back is against the wall, and once again, the Packers delivered.

In Super Bowl XXXI, a similar third-quarter fade by the Packers was saved by Desmond Howard, who lit up the Patriots for a touchdown on a kick return that brought the entire team back to life.  In Super Bowl XLV, it was another Desmond:  Bishop, who opened the fourth quarter by recovering a fumble jarred loose by Matthews from Rashard Mendenhall in Packer territory.  What happened next will go down in Packer lore, as Rodgers led two fourth-quarter scoring drives, leading to an 8-yard touchdown by Greg Jennings and a field goal by Mason Crosby.  No, it wasn't a game-winning drive by Rodgers, per se, but it was a game-preserving drive that gave the defense room to breathe, with the Steelers having to score a touchdown to win, down by six points as time ticked away.

No, it wasn't pretty.  In fact, at times, it was pretty ugly.  But on every play, bodies with both colors of jersey were flying around and laying the hardest hits they could.  Neither team left anything on the field in Super Bowl XLV.  But coach Mike McCarthy's Packers won this game exactly the way they made it to the big game itself: by rising up when things looked bleakest, championing themselves on, if nothing else, pure heart and desire.  No one will ever claim this was the most talented team to ever win a Super Bowl, but no one will question the heart, drive, or determination this team had as it took the hardest possible route to the Lombardi Trophy.

Rushing Offense: C+

The Packers sent a pretty clear signal that the running game would be a secondary weapon when they chose to make power fullback Quinn Johnson inactive for the game.  As the Packers spread out the defense and went primarily with Rodgers throwing from the shotgun, James "Neo" Starks was seldom-called upon, but did well when he was given the ball.  He finished with 52 yards on just 11 carries, but you saw flashes of the playmaking ability he possesses, particularly on a first-half run when he ran up the right side, crashing through tacklers for a first down and looking like he wanted to keep going despite having been pushed out of bounds.  On the Packers final drive (ending in a critical field goal), Starks re-emerged with two rushes for 15 yards on a 75-yard, 10-play drive.

Rushing Defense: C

The Packers' best bet was to stuff Mendenhall like they had so many other quality backs they have faced in this preseason, and force the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger to become one-dimensional against the Packers' secondary.  However, the Packers had trouble containing Mendenhall (63 yards) as well as Mewelde Moore (13 yards on two carries) and Isaac Redman (19 yards on 3 carries).  With Roethlisberger doing damage with his feet as well, the Steelers 5.5 yards per carry.  The Steelers' 50-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter was completed entirely without one pass attempt.  In the end, however, the Steelers were forced to go to the pass in the fourth quarter while trailing, thanks in part to Mendenhall's fumble in Packer territory, the turning point of the entire game.

Passing Offense: B

Aaron Rodgers delivered another sparkling stat line (24/39, 301 yards, 3 TDs, and a 111.5 efficiency rating) that earned him the Super Bowl MVP honors.  But, the passing game gave us plenty of scares, not the least of which was Jordy Nelson's four critical drops (with another added by James Jones).  In fact, while Nelson finished with 140 yards on 9 catches, he was targeted 15 times in the game.  Rodgers himself would probably admit there were a couple of passes he would like to have back, with some hurried throws caused by the 4 sacks, 8 hits, and pressures on seemingly every dropback.  Certainly, the offensive line had its hands full with the Steelers' front seven.  But most of the time, Rodgers was zeroed in and throwing with his usual needle-point accuracy (even if it went through a receiver's hands), with Greg Jennings finding the end zone twice on beautiful passes.  Most importantly, Rodgers did not throw an interception or turn the ball over, and in a game that came down once again to the final drive, taking care of the ball is the difference between a Lombardi Trophy and disappointment.

Passing Defense: B+

The Packers seemed to have their secondary in command of the game throughout much of the first half, forcing Roethlisberger to make mistakes, including two interceptions to Nick Collins and Jarrett Bush and looking more and more frustrated as the game went on.  But, when Sam Shields and Charles Woodson exited the game, Big Ben began gaining confidence, going 4/4 for 41 yards and a touchdown to finish off the half.  The secondary struggled to find its new identity with reserves Pat Lee and Jarrett Bush forced into full-time action, and appeared to come unglued when the Steelers went 6/7 for 66 yards in the fourth quarter to cut the Packers' lead to three points.  But, it was the final drive of the game where Jarrett Bush and Co. stopped Roethisberger from using all that playoff experience we heard so much about, shutting him down and sealing the game for the win.

Special Teams: B

It wouldn't be a normal Packer game if there wasn't something to take Shawn Slocum's name in vain, and a critical unnecessary roughness penalty on Tramon Williams, who retaliated against a player pushing him towards a third-quarter punt about to be downed, made us question why Williams was anywhere near the ball to begin with.  That play put the Packers inside their own 20-yard line and played a key part in giving the Steelers great field position for a go-ahead touchdown.  Williams also muffed the first punt of the game after being run into by Shields, a bullet barely dodged as Williams got it back.  Tim Masthay had an average day, punting for a 40.1 yard average and had difficulty keeping the ball  outside the end zone, only downing one inside the 20 on seven punts.   A forgotten man this postseason, Mason Crosby kicked a 23-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter that put the Steelers behind the eight ball on their final drive.  The Packers passed on a third-quarter field goal attempt from 55 yards away, allowing Masthay to punt instead.  That may have been a wise decision, as Shaun Suisham had just missed a 52-yarder going the other way that gave the Packers good field position.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

CheeseheadTV Live Blog and Cheesehead Radio LIVE Post-Game Show

Looking for someone to share the Packers' Super Bowl experience with?  Head on over to CheeseheadTV's Live Blog, being commandeered by the inestimable John Rehor tonight.  Share in the fun as we watch the Packers battle it out!

After the game, join me on Cheesehead Radio for our LIVE Post-Game Call-in Show!  John will join me as we take your calls at 917-932-8401 and hear your thoughts on how the game turned out.  We're hoping to have some guest shots from all the members of the CheeseheadTV family, including those down in Dallas for the game, so you don't want to miss this LIVE call-in show tonight, starting at 9:00 PM CST. 

The CheeseheadTV Live Blog will continue to run during the Cheesehead Radio broadcast, so to do both, just click on and put it in the background while having the Live Blog open at CheeseheadTV.


TundraVision's Super Bowl Keys to the Game and Prediction!

The day is finally here, as the Packers take on the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.  Here's my take and game prediction:

The game is going to come down to what the Packers' offense can do against the Pittsburgh defense, period.  I think the Steeler offense/Packer defense is a relatively even matchup that the Packers will get the upper hand in.  Unlike most, I don't think the Pouncey injury is going to make any more impact on the Steelers line than what they've already had to deal with this season.  The Packers will be able to get penetration, but to be honest, not having Eric Walden is going to be just as much of an impact as Pouncey.  Frank Zombo is the master of almost getting to the quarterback in time, and that will be the great equalizer in this matchup.

In the end, you can count on a couple of interceptions by the Packer secondary, but the damage that the Steelers will do will be on the ground:  either with Mendenhal on the ground or with what Rothlisberger can do with his feet.  The pressure is going to be on the Packers to stuff the run, contain Big Ben, and let the secondary do its work.

I think the Packers will allow between 15-20 points on defense, with the potential for more point to come on special teams or by the Steelers' defense.  However, the defense will do their job and open the door for the Packers' offense to win the game.

Aaron Rodgers will have the weight of the world on him, as I don't think Starks is going to do any consistent damage in the run game.  The more the Packers go away from the run game (especially if the simply give up on it altogether, as they've done many times this season, the worse it will be for the Packers in the long run.

The Packers need to gain at least 70 yards on the ground on around 20 carries or so.  They don't have to dominate the ground game, but they need to establish a commitment to it, even if it is a consistent 2-3 yards per carry.  The Packers' record in post-season games with a running game under 50 yards is bleak.

In the end, though, it still will come down to the pressure the Steelers' front seven will place on Aaron Rodgers.  I will go on record that Rodgers will throw one interception (or have a turnover of some kind today), and the Packers will be able to absorb it because of the strength of their defense.  But they won't be able to survive two interceptions without some heroic plays to make up for it.

I am not a fan of the Big Five formation, and do believe that it only works against teams that aren't expecting it.  With all the talk about the set these past two weeks, there's little doubt that the Steelers will be ready for it.  I do think that a four-wide formation will have some impact on the defense, but the Steelers will allow a five-receiver set to go with a minimal zone coverage and bring six against Rodgers.  It won't end well.

Instead, look for the Packers to continue to use the play-action and look for three receivers in the progressions.  Rodgers has to play smart, both with his arm and his legs.  This is the biggest variable in the game.  Rodgers can dominate or end up like he did against the Bears, allowing the defense to dictate the game and punting it away, hoping the defense will bail the offense out.

I am going to change my X-Factor in this game from Andrew Quarrless (as I predicted on Cheesehead Radio) to James Jones.  Now, I really do think Quarrless will be an x-factor, but Jones is going to be the biggest variable in the game.  He will (I repeat, will) have at least one incredibly frustrating play today...a drop, missed route, maybe even a turnover, but he has the ability to more than make up for it with an incredible play.  Against a tough Steeler defense, Jones will have to make that spectacular long play for a touchdown...and to be honest, it might be the only long play the Packers' offense has all day.

My Packers game prediction:

The Steelers will score two offensive touchdown, and will add another on special teams or defense.  Tack on a field goal and they will finish with 24 points.

The Packers will get two touchdowns through the air by Rodgers and one on his feet.  What will spell the difference in the game is the ability for the offense to get Crosby in field goal range at the end of the game.  I am going to say that the Packers will have two attempts for Mason, and he will kick one late in the game that will end up spelling the difference in the game.

The TundraVision Super Bowl Game Prediction:  Packers 27 Steelers 24