Monday, September 17, 2012

Green Bay Packers Week 2 Recap

There are some itchy “panic button” fingers out there

Week 2 came early for the Packers and as it turns out, it may have been very fortunate that they had a short turnaround.  After suffering a tough loss at home in their season opener to the 49ers just 4 days prior, the Pack put together one of their better all-around performances and beat a tough Bears team 23-10.  There were some questions, entering the game, as to whether the Pack would be able to bounce back so quickly after such a physical contest and against a very good 49er defense.  A few Packer players were dinged up and were not able to suit up against the Bears, including #1 WR Greg Jennings.  Still, much was made of the game and how important it would be for the Packers playoff hopes and to get them back on track after the loss in the opener.  Many were said to be hitting the panic button and called this team a “must win”.  Already in week 2?  Sure, the stats showed that teams who lose their opener have less than a 25% chance of reaching the post season since 1978.  Yes, it’s realistic to think that any team, great or not, will struggle to overcome an 0-2 start to their season.  But one thing that we have seen in the past 8 or so seasons is that teams can get hot late in the year and outplay their regular season records in the playoffs.  In fact, that’s largely how the Packers won their 4th Super Bowl title after the 2010 season.  There are many holdovers from that team still on the roster so if there is one thing fans can rest easy on, it’s that this team knows how to win and what it takes to rise up to a challenge.

The defense CAN stop the pass

In addition to all of the hype amongst fans and the media, the Pack had to game plan and figure out a way to keep standout Bear WR Brandon Marshall in check.  In week 1, Marshall had 9 catches for 119 yards and a TD.  It seemed, at least on paper, as though he would likely be a stiff challenge for the Packer secondary.  Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers and the secondary, it turns out, had a very solid game plan to blanket Marshall.  He ended up with just 2 catches for just over 20 yards and didn’t have his first grab of the night until the 4th quarter.  In the week leading up to the game, Bears QB and Marshall both were vocal about challenging the Packer DB’s to try and get physical with the big WR (6’4”, 230 lbs).  The Pack used several looks to cover the Bears multiple WR sets but most commonly, it was CB Tramon Williams on coverage and S Morgan Burnett with the help over the top that kept Cutler from looking much in that direction.  With pass coverage having been such an Achilles heel last season, many wondered if the Pack had even a remote chance of keeping Marshall under wraps.  They struggled all year long with WR’s who were big and could break tackles and at the outset, it seemed like the Bears planned to test the Packer DB’s all night long. 

One area that provided a solution to this easy “pitch and catch” between Cutler and Marshall was the Packers pass rush.  Nearly absent last season, there has been a bit of a resurgence this year and in the first 2 games, the Packers have amassed 10 total sacks.  OLB and pass rush specialist Clay Matthews already has 6.  One of the reasons that opposing teams were successful in throwing against the Pack was the time their QB’s had in the pocket.  Even average QB’s were able to take advantage of their WR’s being able to sneak away from Packer DB’s who were having to hold coverage for 5+ seconds.  This was a glaring issue in the playoff loss to the Giants as Eli Manning, time and time again, waited patiently for his WR’s to get open and marched downfield at will.  So far this season, opposing passers are 31/53 with 3 TD’s and 4 INT’s.  Now, that’s just 2 weeks worth of data but it bears watching.  That’s a 58% completion percentage, which isn’t mind-blowing by any stretch.  If the Pack can maintain that trend, it will be difficult for opposing teams to move the ball and points will come at a premium.  That only puts the ball back in the hands of reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers and we all know what great things can result from that.

It’s not all vanilla

With 2 minutes left in the first half and with the Packers up 3-0, the Pack were driving and had that drive stall when Rodgers missed a wide-open Randall Cobb on 3rd down.  They lined up for a FG attempt and it seemed they would head into the locker room up 6-0.  The Bears had won the initial coin toss and took a page out of the Packer strategy book as they deferred and would receive the ball to start the 2nd half.  With the game being a defensive battle thus far, it seemed wise to take the surest route to putting more points on the board.  The ball was snapped and suddenly, instead of watching the ball sail end-over-end towards the goal post, backup TE Tom Crabtree was running downfield untouched, ball in hand and into the end zone for a score.  A very gutsy call at that time and for a Special Teams unit that seemed to hang their hat on doing it conventional and with good fundamentals.  It paid off and the Packers got the look they wanted from the Bears FG unit.  Punter Tim Masthay flicked a perfect ball to Crabtree who pulled right and raced into the open.  The irony of the play is that the Bears have had a history of trying to pull some trickery of their own on special teams.  The most recent example that comes to mind in a contest vs the Packers was in 2009 in week 1.  They faced a 4th and 11 in their own territory and attempted a direct snap to the upback.  Fortunately, Packers ST’er Brett Swain saw it coming and was able to bring the ball carrier down to thwart the effort.  Another instance happened way back in 2002 when early in a game at a frigid Lambeau Field, the Bears faked a very short FG attempt and caught the Packers completely off guard.  A Bears backup TE took the ball in for a score but the Packers ultimately prevailed in that contest.  It seems whenever there is some trickery on the field, the Packers tend to come out winners.  Now, the TD to Crabtree was one play.  I can’t call it a trend by any means.  But it is something that could have opposing teams on guard and give them one more thing to have to worry about.  Head Coach Mike McCarthy has pulled a few tricks on special teams in the past few seasons.  During a game at New England in 2010, he had PK Mason Crosby kick short on the opening kickoff which stunned the Pats and the Pack were able to recover and steal a possession.  It hasn’t always worked.  Needing a spark in last year’s playoff loss to the Giants, McCarthy again called a surprise short kick but the Giants were ready and easily recovered with great field position at mid field.  If nothing else, whenever the Pack line up it will add a bit more mystery as to what they may do with the ball.

Packer rookies will contribute this year

The Packers took 6 defensive players in a row to start the 2012 draft.  On Thursday night, 5 of the 6 were on the field and all made significant contributions in the win.  In fact, 2 of those 5 started with 1st round pick and OLB Nick Perry starting opposite Clay Matthews and DE Jerel Worthy in for an injured CJ Wilson.  Before the night was over, DT Mike Daniels had a sack, S Jerron McMillian had an interception (could have had 2), and CB Casey Hayward had 3 tackles.  Worthy had a sack of his own too.  With that kind of production from these young players, the Pack could be primed for a dramatic improvement on defense from a dismal statistical performance in 2012 when they finished dead last in the NFL in total yards surrendered.  Perry struggled a bit and split quite a bit of time with OLB Erik Walden, but Perry will surely improve over time.  His biggest issue seemed to be disengaging his blocker and needs to work on his handwork.  He was dealing with a wrist injury that may have hampered his ability to get off blocks, but he will have to continue to work on his ability to close on the pocket.  This comes with time and he is coached by one of the best in the business in OLB Coach Kevin Greene.  Perry did show some decent coverage skills as he ran well with a few out and up routes.  This will become a point of emphasis as teams playing a 3-4 defense have to have success covering the pass with their LB’s. This was something the Pack did not do well last season.  McMillian showed some good closing skills as he drew in on a Jay Cutler offering and had it bounce right off his hands halfway through this past Thursday’s game.  Had he caught it, it may have gone the other way for a score.  Yes, he needs to make that play and hang onto the ball but there’s also a reason he’s a DB and not a WR.  It was good to see him around the ball and showing those great ball-hawking instincts that were advertised with McMillian was drafted out of Maine.  He will surely get his reps as the Pack move into and out of dime and nickel coverage several times a game.  DT Daniels got his sack by overpowering his man and driving straight into cutler.  Daniels has very good strength and if healthy, will provide a huge boost to the Packer D line rotation this year.  Hayward got some snaps in the team’s dime look and played his spot very well.  He, like McMillian, has shown some good instincts and figures to develop into a solid DB for the Packers.  This is key as they often have 5-6 DB’s on the field at any one time

The Packers can and will run the ball this year

It was 80 yards on 20 carries.  Nothing flashy and in fact, they had games last season that were more productive in the running game.  But what stands out about these numbers is how they did it and what it says.  Most of those 80 yards are credited to newly-acquired Cedric Benson.  After being stifled in the opener vs. the 49ers, the former Bear was able to keep the Bear defense off balance and help the Packer offense move the ball all night.  One play that stands out was a hard run for 4 yards with about 2:30 left in the Bears game.  It was 3rd and 2 and Benson rumbled his way forward for a first down and forced the Bears to use their last timeout.  It was something we rarely saw last year.  In that situation, it surely would have been Rodgers with a short throw or run to try and convert.  Speaking of Rodgers and rushing attempts, he officially had 3 for -6 yards on Thursday.  What the numbers don’t tell us is that none of those “rushes” were designed nor attempts by Rodgers to pick up yards with his feet.  They were purely his attempts to elude the Bear pass rush and a few of which ultimately resulted in sacks.  In week 1, Rodgers ran several times to pick up yards and he surely will again.  But it was good to see that the Packers have a back who can pick up tough yards on the ground.  While they haven’t lit it up by any means, the Pack have shown that they will run the ball and that Benson will take some focus off the Packer passing game.  Expect that to open up some big play action opportunities as the season moves along.  An effective run game will also help control the clock and give the Packer defense some much needed rest late in games.  It also keeps opposing QB’s and offensive weapons on the sideline.

As they head into a tough week 3 Monday Night game at Seattle, the Packers have some momentum to build on.  Their impressive showing against a good Chicago Bears team in week 2 could be the beginning of their reclaiming a hold on being one of the best teams in the league.  They will take the extra time to get healthy and game plan for the Seahawks who lost a tough divisional game at Arizona last week and who prepare to host a good Cowboys team this week.  With games at Seattle and back home to host the New Orleans Saints, the Pack have a big opportunity to silence the doubters and put to rest any question of whether they are still an elite team.

Until next time, Beers, Brats, and Championships.

 - Jason Perone (@WSB_Jason)

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1 comment:

  1. Good all around game and a statement. The NFC is all muddled up thus far, and despite week 1, the top 2 teams are the the Niners and Packers, in that order. After watching SF handle the Lions with their rough defense and methodical run and short pass play, it should shake out that these are the top 2 teams.

    Everybody else in the NFC will knock each other off and I don't expect to see any stand out teams besides these two. The Eagles keep getting lucky at 2-0, the Giants are not as complete (thus far) as they were last year, the Saints have fallen apart, and everyone else including the Bears are in an upswing rebuilding year.

    Also, regarding the Packers D this year, it's good to see AJ Hawk making consistent play. Just as the coaches said, he's not making huge plays, but he is in on a lot of tackles, especially on downs 1-2. Let's just hope Capers can utilize his players in proper schemes and ready themselves properly for a few 'trap' games left on the schedule: i.e. Saints, Bears (on the road), and now the Seahawks after their rugged play against the Cowboys yesterday.

    Cheers -
    Nate Rio