Did the Packers seriously win a close game?

Greg Jennings

By Jake McCormick

Thanks to the preseason, the Green Bay Packers have suddenly turned into the Gonzaga of the NFL. Thanks to guys like Skip Bayless and Bill Simmons, both of which I am about as big a fan as gun-touting, toothless Wal-Mart patrons are to President Barack Obama, the Packers seem to be gaining steam as an underdog pick for the playoffs and Super Bowl. I don’t claim to be an expert of wordplay and semantics, but doesn’t that make you a favorite if everyone is talking about you?

There were plenty of these subliminal message at Lambeau.

There were plenty of these subliminal message at Lambeau.

Anyways, Green Bay’s 21-15 win over the Chicago Bears was a bigger game than just the continuation of sports’ longest rivalry if the Packers are going to even come close to those expectations. Although it was pretty sloppy throughout the first 50 minutes for both teams, the game certainly ended in a way we have not seen, as Packer fans, since before Terrell Owens’ illegitimate touchdown in the playoffs as time expired. I say illegitimate because Jerry Rice clearly fumbled a few plays earlier and instant replay was not adopted until the year after. It sounds like I’m harboring some sort of resentment, and I am. But I digress.

Now the Packers have to face the Cincinnati Bungals and St. Louis Hams before heading into their Week 4 matchup with the Minnesota Vikings. Both teams should be 3-0 at that point, and the NFL will count its cash after the most watched regular season game in league history. That is, until Week 8. And given the reactions to Viking highlights during the game, there will be blood.

Instead of doing a weekly generic analysis of why the Packers won or lost, I’m going to grade out each side of the ball by individual unit and give the key plays that contributed to that grade.

Offense
Quarterback

He just looks like a kid out there!!

He just looks like a kid out there!!

Aaron Rodgers was tap dancing for most of the game from the surprisingly strong Bears pass rush. Although he was sacked for a safety, Rodgers had no turnovers and was generally on target. But whatever failures he did have, he TOTALLY REDEEMED HIMSELF by carrying the team when they needed it the most. Congratulations A-Rod; you’ve cemented yourself as the best overall quarterback in the NFC North by answering people’s biggest question about your game. But I did love the graphic that said his only two comeback wins were against the 0-16 Detroit Lions. What a confidence boost that was.

Grade – A-

Running Back
At least no one got hurt. That’s really the only big positive I can draw from this unit. Ryan Grant had a few flashes of his 2007 season, and was definitely impressive when he pushed the pile for his first touchdown of 2009. The Bears defense was an overall solid unit against the run throughout the game, and the Packers will have a much better opportunity to develop the ground game against the lesser Bengal defense this Sunday.

Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
For a receiving corps that is considered one of the best in the league, they must’ve forgot to wash their hands after all those McDonald’s angus burgers before the game. But the receivers came through when they had to, especially Greg Jennings, whose jersey sales should spike nationally by midseason. A funny sidenote to his game-winning 50-yard grab on the 3rd and 1 audible: after the play, he didn’t realize the team was going for two and Donald Driver had to grab him out of the stands to get into the huddle, only so he could catch the successful conversion attempt. The guy is a pure stud.

Grade: B

Offensive Line
I know Mark Tauscher, and you Allen Barbre, are no Mark Tauscher. The O-line was sloppy all game, giving up four sacks to the Bears and causing Rodgers to hurry his progressions. Even his game-winning pass to Jennings was a blown assignment. Coach Mike McCarthy acknowledged that the line play was the biggest problem throughout the game, although Barbre did improve in the second half after giving up two free fantasy point plays to Adewale Ogunleye.

Grade: C

Defense
Defensive Line

Who ever said Purple Drank and Vicodin slowed hand-eye coordination?

Who ever said Purple Drank and Vicodin slowed hand-eye coordination?

Good golly, Mr. Jolly, you made the second best defensive lineman interception in Packer history, only behind Gabe Wilkins’ 1996 pick and leap over Buccaneer quarterback Trent Dilfer for a touchdown. Cullen Jenkins was an absolute force throughout the game, and this unit that was inept in the 4-3 in 2008 helped catalyst Jay Cutler’s career-worst four interceptions. This was the biggest defensive question mark going into the game, and they straightened that punctuation mark out real quickly.

Grade: A

Linebackers
The best play from this unit came from a backup. Brandon Chillar leaping over running back Garrett Wolfe for a sack was “Chill”ingly awesome. LOL…get it? Aaron Kampman turned in a very good performance for his first stand-up start since college, and the rest of the corps did a great job shutting down a premier running back that was used far too sparingly. Then again, Matt Forte hasn’t played well since Week 12 of last year, but overall the Packer linebackers lived up to expectations.

Grade: A-

Secondary
Al HarrisThey had three interceptions, including Al Harris’ finger pointing clincher, but they gave too many big plays to guys that can run but are still learning how to catch a football. They finally shut down a good tight end in Greg Olsen, but they got some help from guys like Desmond Clark, who stopped running a few routes that could’ve resulted in Bear scores. They must not be used to having a quarterback that isn’t forced to throw the ball in the first three seconds of the snap. Big plays can be nullified by big turnovers, so I’m not going to complain about a unit riddled with playmakers.

Grade: B

Special Teams
Returners/Coverage
Jordy Nelson did a good job filling in for an injured Will Blackmon and gives me confidence in their depth. It wasn’t extremely flashy, but if you get at least one 40+ yard return in a game, you’ll get a touchdown every once in a while. The coverage and return units, led by rising linebacker Desmond Bishop, held Devin Hester in check, thwarted that bone-headed fake punt, and had some big hits to spring Nelson. But here’s a quick memo to Jordy: when defenders are five yards away, please fair catch the ball. Thank you.

Grade: B+

Kicker/Punter
Mason Crosby can kick the ball a mile, but has problems with his accuracy. He missed a 49-yard kick, but more than made up for it by booting a 52 yarder in the second quarter and 39-yard field goal that put the Packers ahead in the fourth. Punting was a real adventure in 2008, but Jason Kapinos did a good job, averaging 44.7 yards in six kicks, including a 58 yard jack. You can’t ask for much more out of both in a low-scoring, defense-dominated game.

Grade: B+

Coaching
Offense
The Packer offensive game plan was pretty stagnant, but once again a Dumb and Dumber reference applies here. I didn’t have any objections to the play-calling because the Bear defense definitely exceeded expectations and made some good plays, and I typically judge a coach’s ability in crunch time. In this case, Mike McCarthy outcoached Lovie Smith and called the right plays at the right times.

Grade: B+

Defense
Have I already spent too much time mentally masturbating Dom Capers? After Sunday night, no. The Packers executed more blitzes in the first two quarters than all of last year. They were physical, aggressive, and unpredictable. And this came from a unit that didn’t have the right personnel for the 3-4 system. As Terry Boers from 670 The Score out of Chicago put it: A team doesn’t need the right personnel for the 3-4 if they are smart enough for the scheme. I already called Capers the MVP move of the offseason, and even though it’s Week 1, the change in attitude is already apparent.

Grade: A

If the Packers can contain Chad Ochocinco, get the offense rolling early and defense playing just as aggressive against a Bengal team that couldn’t score against a lesser Denver defense that is also converting to the 3-4, Green Bay will be sitting in a much better position a week from today.

Packer preseason predictions and awards: From 6-10 to 11-5

Browns Packers Football

By Jake McCormick

I was originally going to devote a full article to the Packers’ special teams units, but I think I can sum them in one sentence. Kicker Mason Crosby is one of the best in the league, Will Blackmon is a great return man, and the punter battle between Jason Kapinos and Durant Brooks needs to be solved soon because I feel like I could try out for the position. Now with that condensed to simple explanations, here’s my list of preseason award prediction for the 2009 Green Bay Packers.

2009 record – 11-5 (4-2 in the North)

Getting the Cowboys at home helps, and they will split the series with the Vikings and Bears, with the home team winning each battle. I don’t trust Favre in cold weather, and the Bears won’t win at Lambeau in Week 1 on national television. The team’s toughest games come at Minnesota, at Pittsburgh, Baltimore at home, and at Arizona the last week of the season. Otherwise, the Packers have a very winnable schedule until the last five weeks of the season, and there’s no game that is considered a guaranteed loss.

Offensive MVP – QB Aaron Rodgers

Aaron RodgersThis is a big duh. Rodgers won’t have to put up the numbers he did last year that basically carried my fantasy football season (I drafted him again this year as a thank you to my autodraft a year ago). Given the overwhelming pressure on Rodgers last year for the obvious reasons, it’s safe to say he exceeded all expectations mentally and statistically. Now without the ESPN interrogation light shining directly in his eyes, Rodgers can improve his clutch decision making and leadership abilities during pressure situations. Both of those were really his only flaws, and I’ll trade fantasy points for more heroics any day.

Defensive MVP – MLB Nick Barnett

Nick BarnettI could easily pick a defensive back here, but I have a feeling Barnett will be the glue in the 3-4 defense similar to James Harrison’s role with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He’s obviously not the same player, nor is he as dumb (not visiting the White House because he didn’t like the fact that the Cardinals would’ve been invited if they had won? C’mon…). But Barnett will provide a spark in emotional leadership that was all too sparse in 2008.

Most Improved Defensive Player – Justin Harrell…just kidding! It’ll be the Jeremy Thompson/Clay Matthews LB platoon

Jeremy ThompsonI’d love to think that Harrell’s back, which has roughly the toughness of a 79-year-old man, would be healthy enough for him to contribute the way a semi-bust first round pick should. The Packers need all the help they can get from the defensive line, but the player that will get everybody turning their heads in a “who the hell is this guy?” fashion will be converted linebacker Jeremy Thompson. He is the overlooked 3-4 DE-to-LB conversion project, as Aaron Kampman grabs most of the questions and spotlight, but Thompson has played well enough to pass rookie Clay Matthews on the depth chart.

I think they’ll eventually be splitting time, but for now Thompson looks like he’s on his way to a successful 2009 after being drafted in the fourth round last year. Of course, this is all contingent on both players staying healthy, as neither will play in Saturday’s game against Buffalo. Another successful late round selection acts as a good tranquilizer when I start thinking about the bust that is Justin Harrell.

Most Improved Offensive Player – RB Ryan Grant

Ryan GrantGrant’s career high 1,200 rushing yards in 2008 shouldn’t fool anyone into thinking he had a good season. He averaged 3.9 ypc, only scored four touchdowns, and elicited an always-hilarious sarcastic remark from my roommate because of his lack of fantasy value. But now that Grant has his precious contract and has been through his first full training camp as a Packer, he will return to his 2007 form and take a lot of pressure off of Aaron Rodgers and the passing game.

Brandon Jackson outplayed Grant towards the end of the year and DeShawn Wynn is reportedly becoming a confident runner. They won’t take too many carries away from Grant, but it allows the Packers to be flexible and will wear defenses down so Grant can execute the Shake N Bake to finish them off. This is the year that Grant will become a consistent runner, which means I might not get so pissed at Mike McCarthy for his run-run-pass play-calling.

Defensive Comeback Player – DE Cullen Jenkins

Cullen JenkinsBefore he was injured in Week 4, Jenkins was looking like a great compliment to Aaron Kampman. The Packer pass rush noticeably suffered without him, and Jenkins’ health is crucial if this defense is going to fulfill its potential. Although the 3-4 system will ask him to do more hole-plugging than pass rushing, Jenkins can be an absolute beast and has experience playing as a DT/DE hybrid. Jenkins had 2.5 sacks before going down for the season last year, and with the other starting defensive end position still unknown, he will be counted on as a consistent and experienced player. You may not hear his name called every play, but Jenkins’ versatility will elevate the play of everyone around him.

Rookie of the Year – DE/DT B.J. Raji

BJ RajiRaji will see playing time at both the nose tackle and defensive end positions, and he has the body and power to do it. The Packers went almost purely defensive in the 2009 draft, and with Clay Matthews’ development slowed by a hamstring injury, Raji wins this award almost by default. He will contribute right away and I can guarantee he won’t be another Justin Harrell. Raji, Jenkins, and nose tackle Ryan Pickett have the talent to make volleyball-like rotations around the entire line. As long as he stays healthy, the Ewok-looking Raji will fulfill every expectation the organization and fan base has for him. I’m definitely looking forward to his debut against the Bills on Saturday.

Biggest Improvement Needed – Finish the game!!!

If we look at the Packers’ 2008 season by quarter, you’d swear Mike Packers loseMcCarthy prefers to let his car warm up a bit before putting it into drive, as they were shut out in the first quarter in six games. Green Bay was only shut out seven times combined in the second and third quarters. When it came to closing the game out Trevor Hoffman-style, the Packers opted for a much more acceptable Derrick Turnbow/Eric Gagne impersonation. In the two overtime games against the Tennessee Titans and Chicago Bears, the Packer offense didn’t even sniff the ball. Likewise, Green Bay threw up a big o-fer in games decided by four points or less in 2008, going 0-7. A Bleacher Report article does a good job of breaking down their late game deficiencies.

The bottom line here is that the offense, defense, and special teams need to pull their weight in crunch time. If the Packers prove they can play football after the 6:00 mark in the fourth quarter, there’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll finish at the top of the division, or at least take a wild card spot.

Packers preview part 2: The defense

"I'm the NEW minister of defense around here"

"I'm the NEW minister of defense around here"

By Jake McCormick

Twenty two NFL teams changed defensive coordinators this offseason, but none has been talked about more than Green Bay’s transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4 headed by Dom Capers. The Packers Donald Trumped nearly their entire defensive staff after a dismal 2008, where the team finished 20th in Total Defense, 26th in Rushing, 12th in Passing, and 11th in Points Allowed on their way to blowing seven fourth quarter leads. The change to the more unpredictable 3-4 will take time, but Capers is easily the Packers best 2009 offseason pickup, as he is known for quick turnarounds when transitioning to his scheme.

Capers turned the 1998 26th ranked Jacksonville Jaguar defense into the league’s 4th-ranked defense in 1999, and vaulted Miami’s defense from 18th in 2005 to 4th in 2006. Now with the Packers, he’s got two former Capers’ system standouts (outside linebacker coach Kevin Greene and secondary coach Darren Perry), and an experienced defensive coordinator that was willing to take a demotion to coach under Capers (defensive line coach Tom Trogvac). The defense will remain a massive question mark until Week 1, but in Capers I trust.

Defensive line
In a 3-4 scheme, the nose tackle must be able to absorb more than one blocker on a regular basis to open pass rushing lanes. Likewise, the defensive ends need to play like a 4-3 tackle-end hybrid (if that makes any sense) and create an effective rush while taking on multiple blockers.

Ryan PickettThe Packers closest thing to a definitive 3-4 nose tackle is Ryan Pickett, who has been very open to the change. Johnny Jolly will rotate with him, provided he isn’t suspended for his involvement in a Purple Drank smuggling run. It’s important to note that the San Diego Chargers’ switch to the 3-4 was eased considerably by tackle Jamal Williams’ embrace of the scheme. Pickett’s attitude could have a similar impact, although he isn’t the same player as Williams.

Cullen Jenkins was on his way to a career year in 2008 before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 4. Reports from the Packer training camp are showing that Jenkins is already showing a lot of potential as a 3-4 end and is enjoying the transition, although he is a bit undersized for the position. But the key to the defensive line’s cohesiveness lies with a pair of first round picks in Justin Harrell and B.J. Raji, who remains unsigned.

Harrell continues to insist he is healthy, but having the back of a 75-year-old man doesn’t give me too much confidence. He is a prototypical 3-4 end, and any consistent production from him will be a huge step forward for the line. That means that Raji will see a lot of playing time at end and should give the Packers a combined 700 lbs of bulk between him and Pickett.

Linebackers
The last time Green Bay transitioned to a 3-4 defense in 1980, new coordinator John Meyer noted that “Linebackers are the heart of a 3-4. That’s why you go to a 3-4.”

The Packers are very deep at all the linebacker positions, with Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk starting in the middle and backed up by Brandon Chillar and Desmond Bishop, who has reportedly been outplaying Hawk in camp so far. When Barnett went down with a knee injury last year, Hawk stepped into the middle linebacker position and began to look a lot more comfortable than on the outside. Barnett still isn’t cleared to return to full practice, and Chillar has filled in nicely with his pass rushing and coverage skills.

Hopefully we see more of this from his position at OLB

Hopefully we see more of this from his position at OLB

Green Bay’s outside linebackers are facing the most question marks, most notably surrounding former defensive end Aaron Kampman’s positional switch. The success of the entire corps will depend on Kampman’s ability to adjust to a completely different role. The closest comparison I can give is Greg Ellis’ switch with the Dallas Cowboys, where he registered 12.5 sacks in his second season in the 3-4. A lot of pressure is being put on the Packers’ best pass rusher, but his constant motor and willingness to learn the position can’t set him too far back. I don’t expect him to repeat his sack numbers from past seasons, but any type of consistent play will help the defensive unit as a whole.

As for the other outside spot, rookie Clay Matthews was penciled in as the final starter before training camp began. However, Jeremy Thompson, another converted end, has been the biggest defensive camp surprise and looks to be the starter as of late. Throw in Brady Poppinga, who plays a lot like Kampman, and Capers has to really like this unit.

Secondary
The Packer secondary was probably the only consistent playmaking part of the 2008 defense, as they sent cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Al Harris, and safety Nick Collins to the Pro Bowl. If Atari Bigby can avoid his pension for accumulating injuries and return to his 2007 form, the secondary will be the least of Capers’ worries.

I LOVE Craig Newsome! Oops...I mean Charles Woodson.

I LOVE Craig Newsome! Oops...I mean Charles Woodson.

Woodson and Harris are used to playing predictable man-to-man coverage, which gave me enough headaches because it allows for a lot more big-play and game-winning opportunities (see: pass interference on third and long to set up Week 10 Vikings win). Now they are expected to play more zone and face the quarterback under Capers’ philosophy, which should cut down on pass interference tendencies while still allowing them to make interceptions. Nickle corner Tramon Williams will continue to develop into a solid player, and backups Patrick Lee, Will Blackmon, and rookie Brandon Underwood give the Packers a nice balance of developing youths and savvy veterans.

The fact that Collins is reporting to camp despite his contract issues shows that he understands the difficulty of learning a new scheme. Both Bigby and Collins will be expected to be secondary “quarterbacks” of coverage, and as long as they stay healthy there’s no reason to believe they won’t do their jobs well. Newcomer Anthony Smith, who was a very capable backup in Pittsburgh behind Troy Polomalu, is the only player with experience in the 3-4. Aaron Rouse is a big guy that made some key plays a year ago, and he should continue developing into a solid option should Collins falter at free safety.

The Packers definitely have the personnel to transition to the 3-4 scheme, and after last year’s terrible play and ungodly predictable packages, they can’t finish any worse with a guy like Dom Capers calling the shots. Green Bay’s 2009 success will once again hinge on the performance of the defense, and if Capers can just get them to close out games effectively while keeping the offense guessing, the Packers will be in the thick of the NFC North race.