December 20, 2012

How the Packers can prime for a playoff run

Eight out of nine victories. An NFC North Championship. But in Mike McCarthy’s words this Packers team is just getting started. They’re also just getting healthy. But as fans learned last year, as beautiful as the outlook can seem in late December, the playoffs aren't so kind to teams who have an off-week. Here are a few ways the Packers can prime their squad for a deep playoff run, starting with their final two games of the regular season.

Fix the kicking situation
While the Packers are 7-1 in the past eight games that Crosby has missed a kick, the margin for error in the Playoffs is much smaller. Numbers don’t lie. Crosby is statistically the worst kicker in the NFL with a 58.6% make rate (17-of-29). He’s missed kicks not by small margins, but many by embarrassing shanks. If Green Bay’s playoff life rests on the right foot of Mason Crosby, an otherwise promising season might be flat-lined prematurely. For comparison, the Redskins cut PK Billy Cundiff Oct. 9 after he made just 7 of 12 field goal attempts, a similar 58.3% make rate. I guess Mike Shanahan isn't as patient. This issue needs resolving because the Packers will be hard-pressed to win a Super Bowl with the worst kicker in the NFL.

Packers Aaron Rodgers scampers for a first down against the Chicago Bears 
Protect Aaron Rodgers
Forty-five. That’s how many sacks Aaron Rodgers has taken this year. Only four players have taken 35 through week 15. We’re revisiting an issue we discussed at the start of the season. When Bryan Bulaga went out for the year, I’m not sure the casual fan realized how huge of a loss it was. Sure, Don Barclay has filled in admirably, but when your potential playoff foes include Justin/Aldon Smith, Jason Pierre-Paul, Julius Peppers, Jared Allen, etc. etc., a rookie right tackle can only be so effective. If Rodgers isn’t upright, neither are the Packers playoff chances.

Defense continues getting off field on third down
Perhaps the most telling stat of last week’s victory at Soldier Field was that the Bears didn’t have a single third-down conversion. Zero for nine. Additionally, the defensive unit that’s getting healthier by the week is doing what it did best during the 2010 Super Bowl run—making big plays (sacks, INTs, open-field tackles) and not giving them up. The next two weeks will reveal a great deal, as two of the most explosive runners in the NFL look to thrash Green Bay. If the Packers can hold these backs in check, it will be another positive sign heading into the playoffs, where almost every team has a formidable back.

If the above three factors continue holding steady, Green Bay will be in a position to make a deep run and earn a trip to New Orleans. Just as easily if any one of the above goes in a different direction, the Packers may be disappointed for a second straight year come February.

November 1, 2012

Packers’ Future Developing on the Field – Rating Green Bay’s Young Guns

We’ll soon find out just how prepared the Green Bay Packers are for the future. A fast-forwarding of sorts is happening right now as injuries to key players (and their backups) are piling up. This is the time "no-namers" begin developing into household names, so let’s examine who those candidates on the Packers might be.

Filling up the stat sheet with four interceptions in four games has put Hayward on the map. College coaches describe him as having a nose for the ball and for now, that’s carried over to the NFL. Learning from the likes of Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson never hurts and his size (6’2’) and jumping ability, means he plays the ball like a wide receiver. According to Pro Football Focus, opponents have completed only 44.8 percent of the passes thrown his way this season. It’s still early for Hayward, but his initial play has Packer fans hoping he’s the starting CB of the future, opposite Tramon. He already has an award on his mantle: defensive rookie of the month for October.

Household name potential: High (8/10)

The rookie outside linebacker has shown a nice burst and ability to get to and hit the quarterback. He’s certainly had trouble in coverage, but that’s to be expected of a player making the transition from end to linebacker. Perry’s raw talent and explosiveness are what should excite Packer fans. His motor churns fast, aggressive and with power – that’s the kind of combination that smells of long NFL career. Plus, you have to think he’ll continue playing alongside all-pro Clay Matthews – that won’t hurt.

Household name potential: Medium (6/10)

Green’s struggles are well documented. Minus a handful of 10+ yard bursts, Green’s vision, instincts and ability to break tackles has been lackluster. But give Green some time. The Packers offensive isn’t built to swap running backs in and out, especially when you have an antsy coach, new offensive coordinator and the best QB in the NFL. McCarthy clearly sees something in Green, in trusting him with 20-plus carries the last few weeks. Green has shown elusiveness on screen plays, perhaps it’s time for Green Bay to use him more in that capacity as a quasi-run substitute.

Household name potential: Medium (5/10)

Injuries to Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and  Jermichael Finely have forced Cobb to play a key role in the offense; Packer fans are not complaining. Cobb wasn’t a true no-namer coming out of college, but most casual NFL fans didn’t know him at the start of 2012-13 season. Rodgers has completed 37 of the 43 passes he has targeted second-year receiver Randall Cobb on this season. That completion percentage of 86.0 is the highest in the NFL for a quarterback to a receiver with a minimum of 30 attempts. Just nasty. Cobb has the potential to be the Packers’ x-factor for many years to come; that one guy all teams game-plan against, but can never stop. Look for Cobb’s role, touches and maturity to increase exponentially in the next year.

Household name potential: High (9/10)

Any other Packers young guns you think have the potential to be household names? Disagree with my rankings? Chime in below in the comments!

October 5, 2012

Green Bay Packers Quarter Season Review –The Great, Good, Bad and Ugly

Through four games of the 2012-13 NFL season, the Green Bay Packers have underwhelmed and under-performed  For a team whose identity is high-powered offense punctuated by big plays and fueled by rhythm, it’s no surprise they've lost two games and nearly a third. That’s not to say there haven’t been positives and impressive signs. Below I’ll review everything from embarrassing to surprising about the Green Bay Packers so far this season.

The Ugly
·         No offensive rhythm: It’s been difficult for the Packers to string together long drives and consistent first downs. They've had trouble with negative plays which has killed their ability to diversify play-calling. The Packers need to work toward third-and-short, which will help drives last longer and make the offense more productive in general.

·         Lack of big plays: The Packers lose the dangerous ability to strike at any time without the big play. Defenses are adjusting to their schemes and their offensive line has been below average. Aaron Rodgers has completed just 6-of-21 (25 percent) of his passes more than 10 yards down field this season, the fifth-lowest rate in the NFL.

The Bad
·         Play calling/coaching: Adaptability. Mike McCarthy should look up that term in the dictionary and apply it to his game-planning. Coming off a season where the Packers NEVER played a top-ten defense, McCarthy has far too much confidence in his offensive squad this year. His stubborn pass-happy play calling in Seattle and even against New Orleans, put his players in a tough spot on offense. Benson has showed the ability to run with power, purpose and productivity therefore McCarthy needs to run the ball early and often; it can only make the passing game more dangerous.
·         Inability to force turnovers: Outside of the Bears game, Green Bay has struggled to force turnovers and convert them into game-changing plays. It’s interesting that the Packers have put great pressure on and sacked the QB in almost every game, but it hasn't always meant turnovers. The number of rookies on the defense can explain this drop off and they’ll hopefully learn better positions to be in to as the season progresses.  

The Good
·         Running game: Benson is on pace for a 900+ yard season, but more importantly he’s given the Packers balance and power between the tackles. Nothing special or extraordinary, but Green Bay doesn’t need that in the backfield. They need someone who can pick up 3rd-and-shorts, eat time off the clock at ends of games and hold onto the ball; he’s proven successful in this capacity thus far.
·         Aaron Rodgers: Clearly Rodgers hasn't been great, but he’s worked through offensive line woes and made the big play when it has been needed. We've seen him miss an unusual amount of throws and throw a few unnecessary interceptions, but he’s also made tough throws and been pretty efficient. One thing Rodgers could do better is be more slippery in the pocket and use his feet to escape a little more. With defense playing more coverage defense, he won’t always be able to find open receivers.

The Great
·         Defensive intensity:  It must be the vigor and determination of the rookies, combined with the steadiness of the veterans that have made the defense a high-octane force to begin the season. Surely, they regressed against New Orleans but otherwise have impressed and displayed the ability to cover, tackle and bring pressure. As they play together as a unit more, communication issues (as experienced against New Orleans), will clear up and they’ll become more consistent.
·         Randall Cobb: Number 18 is a natural-born play maker  Already with a kick-off return for a touchdown and a few 6+ catch games, Cobb has the ability to score every time he touches the ball and has invigorated the offense. McCarthy has proved he trusts Cobb handling the ball, lining him up in the back field and event handing the ball off to him a few times. While it’s smart to only use Cobb in unorthodox situations sparingly, Green Bay should call more of these plays for Cobb.

September 19, 2012

Evaluating Aaron Rodgers’ Early Season Performance

Even before the 2012 season began fans, media and fellow Green Bay Packers teammates doubted Aaron Rodgers could top his record-breaking 2011 season. Through two games, Rodgers isn’t anywhere near the pace of 2011. Amid the recent criticism from Jermichael Finley’s agent that Rodgers isn’t a leader and given his only average start to the year, let’s examine Rodgers’ play in the first two games of the season. Should Packers fans be worried?

Pocket Presence
Playing against two top five defenses in a row to begin the season certainly didn't help Rodgers, but it has been hard not to notice his decreased awareness in the pocket. Taking sacks is one thing, but against San Francisco and Chicago, Rodgers didn’t seize enough opportunities to escape the pocket. When a team plays a two deep cover defense, there should be openings to run. Especially against Chicago, Aaron Rodgers seemed to hold to ball far too long and almost never sought to run.

Rhythm and timing with receivers
Perhaps the most surprising decline has been how offbeat Rodgers has been with the Green Bay Packers receiving corps, outside of Randall Cobb. How many back-shoulder completions have we seen? None. Plays over 40 yards? None. What we have seen is an unusual amount of missed and off-target throws, sometimes to open receivers. Evidenced by interceptions and sacks, the Packers’ wide receivers simply haven’t found room in the secondary.

Pre-snap demeanor
Number 12 doesn’t seem to have the command of the Packers offensive unit at the line of scrimmage. Fewer audibles, fewer hard-counts have led to less cohesiveness with the offense, especially the offensive line. Granted, the Packers have tried to use the no huddle more, but that hasn’t worked either. Why did Mike McCarthy try to mess with the tempo of a record-setting offense? Perhaps the no huddle actually gives Rodgers less control, not the opposite like previously thought.

The big question with the above inconsistencies that everyone is trying to answer – are they symptoms of playing stingy defenses or a sign that NFL defenses and coaches have figured out the Packers kryptonite? Monday night’s game in Seattle should reveal a little more.

September 7, 2012

Three Matchups That Will Decide Packers/49ers Game

Both the Packers and 49ers were the best in the NFL at protecting the football in 2011, so Sunday’s battle will likely be decided in the trenches – on both sides of the offensive and defensive lines. Everyone expects this to be a physical game, so I expect the big boys to play key roles in deciding the outcome. See below for three key matchups to watch that should decide the outcome of Sunday’s Green Bay Packers game.

RE Justin Smith's high motor will challenge LT Newhouse
In terms of consistent pass rushers in the NFL, Justin Smith ranks near the top of the NFL in sack production and games played in the last 10 season. While Smith has record at least 5.0 sacks in 10 of 111 seasons played, he’s earned the most notoriety the past three seasons in which he’s been elected to the pro bowl.

A win for Newhouse would be zero hits or sacks from Smith, on Aaron Rodgers.  But that’s certainly easier said than done and just one upfront matchup the Packers need to win. While we know Rodgers is a superb out-of-pocket passer, if he’s under fire all day from his blind side, it will negatively impact his ability to make big plays down the field – which the Packers will need to do Sunday.

2. Vernon Davis vs. Packers secondary
The Packers were historically bad at covering tight ends in 2011 and Charles Woodson did a subpar job covering Davis the last time these teams met (Davis had 100+ receiving yards and a TD). Alex Smith constantly looks to Davis as a safety valve and as a deep option up the seam.

If Davis is able to stretch the field, it will open up holes in the Packers secondary and allow the 49ers’ mostly mediocre WRs to make game-changing plays. If the Packers are getting beat by a washed up Randy Moss, undersized Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree – that certainly won’t be a good sign as Green Bay will face much tough WR corps as the season progresses. Point being, the Packers need to lock down Vernon and hold him to less than 5 catches, 50 yards and no TDs.

NT B.J. Raji, on a bum ankle, will need to plug holes vs. 49ers
Raji is perhaps the most underrated and unnoticed playmaker on the Packers. He doesn’t do flashy things (unless he’s shaking his tush after an INT and TD in the NFC Championship game), but he impacts the entire defense. His ability to push back the 49ers offensive line and slow down (not stop) the run, will allow guys like Clay Matthews and Nick Perry to make plays and get after Alex Smith.  Raji will be playing on a bum ankle, but the Packers can’t afford a sub-par performance from him. No one plugs holes like Raji, so it will be painfully obvious for Packers fans Sunday if he’s not performing.

Any other key matchups that will have a big impact on the outcome?

August 18, 2012

Left tackle and line depth are concerns for Packers offense

Coming off a 2011 season in which the Packers offense set franchise records for points (560), total net yards (6,482), and fewest giveaways (14), the spotlight rarely shined brightly on five of the most important positions on the field, the offensive line.

The line took care of business and provided Aaron Rodgers with enough protection to earn an MVP award, set the NFL’s passer rating record (122.5) and lead his team to a 15-1 regular season record.

But this year’s mix of franchise-protectors is less qualified than last year’s and lacks depth, leaving questions about the team’s ability to approach or match the offensive success of 2011. The rising star of the group, Bryan Bulaga remains confident.

“I think it’s a pretty good group, I mean I really do,” said Bulaga, who allowed just one sack in 2011, according to STATS LLC. ”You have a good mix of veterans and young guys…every guys brings a different skill set [and I think] it all gels well together.”

On paper the presumed starting group (left to right) of Newhouse, Lang, Saturday, Sitton and Bulaga seem like a very strong crew – and they are, but it’s likely this same five won’t start all 16 games. Lack of depth on the line is evident early in camp and showed in the Packers first preseason game against San Diego, in which Aaron Rodgers took multiple hits in just eight pass attempts.

“Our number one goal is taking care of the quarterback no matter what position you’re at, said guard T. J. Lang, who just inked a new 4-year deal late Monday night. “It’s certainly something we didn’t do up to our ability Thursday night [against San Diego].”

With Marshall Newhouse sidelined by a concussion and second-year backup Derek Sherrod still recovering from a broken leg suffered last year in week 15, Herb Taylor started at left tackle and had trouble keeping rookie linebacker Melvin Ingram in front of him.

“I think it’s just having confidence in the guys behind us,” said Bulaga. “We have some good players behind us, it’s just a matter of making sure they’re ready if they’re called upon.”

Taylor certainly didn’t look ready, prompting rookie Andrew Datko and free agent pickup Reggie Wells to each get a look at starting left tackle in Newhouse’s absence during this past weekend’s practices.  Uncertainty as to who backs up the most crucial spot on the offensive line can’t be comforting to the coaching staff.

What’s even more concerning is the unproven ability of the Packers starting blind-side protector, Marshall Newhouse. While he had an entire off-season to improve, 2011 was an embarrassing one for Newhouse. Here are a few stats that demonstrate Newhouse’s struggles last year:
  • Newhouse allowed 10½ sacks in, the most by a Green Bay player since tackle Tony Mandarich gave up 12½ in 1990*
  • Newhouse, with 41½, led the club in "pressures" allowed. That includes all sacks, knockdowns and hurries. Newhouse's total is the highest since the Journal Sentinel began recording the statistic in 1999, surpassing guard Daryn Colledge's 40½ in 2009*
  • Newhouse (14½) surrendered the second-highest number of “bad” runs on the team, defined as a gain for 1 yard or less excluding goal-line, short-yardage or kneel-down plays*
While Newhouse was thrown into the gauntlet last year as a rookie, he has much to improve on in 2012 and is expected to learn quickly in a high-pressure position on a Super Bowl caliber team.

"(Newhouse is) an ascending player who will learn from the mistakes made last year and will also enhance the positives he did last year," said James Campen, the Packers’ offensive line coach. "He did a lot of good things, he did some things he’s worked on already this offseason. I expect him to grow and be better than he was last year, no question."

How much better Newhouse plays may go a long way toward dictating how much better the Packers offense can be in 2012. The continuity of the starting five also figures to be important, as 13-year veteran and five-time pro bowler Jeff Saturday joins familiar faces Sitton, Lang and Bulaga.

“When you can work with the same five guys…it’s just a matter of getting Jeff in there and getting him used to the way the two guards play,” said Bulaga. “He’s doing a great job picking it up.”

Hopefully the starting five will use pre-season action to figure out each other’s tendencies, learn from mistakes and ultimately be a seamless unit come opening day against San Francisco.

August 1, 2012

Packers Training Camp Storylines to Follow (1 of 5) – Running Backs

Coming off an impressive yet disappointing 15-1 season, the Green Bay Packers have high expectations and a roster in pristine condition for deep playoff run. And with training camp in full force, a number of interesting developments have surfaced that may be early indicators of how the 2012-13 Packers will perform. Below is the first of five posts, which will examine these key storylines and point out specific details to track throughout camp. Today’s topic is running backs.  

Will the real James Starks please stand up?
Now that Ryan Grant is out of the fold, Green Bay’s clear number one back is James Starks. But, as we know Starks was nagged by injuries throughout most of last season and never established the consistency the coaching staff or fans expected out of him. Training camp figures to be a good barometer of a few key factors that may hint at whether Starks is poised for a breakout year or for inconsistency:
·         Physique: What kind of shape is Starks in compared to last year? Did he hit the weight room and/or take care of his body enough to stay healthy during camp and throughout the year? RBs have such a short shelf life in the NFL, so it’s important that he comes to camp in shape, and that he’s not just using camp to get in shape.
·         His demeanor: It may seem trivial, but mental state and sense of role on the team is vital for a player like Starks. Not only is he young and fairly inexperienced, but he’s on a contending team and in a position that requires him to take a modest role in a high powered offense. Watch for his comments to the media, specifically any goals he mentions, what he’s done to improve himself and generally his attitude in interviews.

Backup plan?
Alex Green is recovering from an ACL tear. Brandon Saine is a fairly unknown entity, with much to prove. And well, numbers three and four on the depth chart – are completely unknowns. The worry here is the youth and inexperience of this group. Not to mention, Starks doesn’t exactly seem like a natural born leader.

So who of this group rises to the occasion and separates himself as the third down back? The best blocker of the group will probably earn the spot. It’s no secret the Packers throw a lot and on third down especially – so having a great blocking back is necessary. If Starks is taking the majority of the carries on early downs, the coaching staff will be wise to rest him…but that will require faith in the number two back.

Game plan and role of the back
While the RB in the Packers’ offense may not be getting 15-20 carries/touches a game, the position still is still a key piece to the offense. It’s almost a bonus position for Green Bay, because the threat of big plays on the ground help balance the offense and most importantly, protect Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers’ elusiveness makes up for the predictability of the passing game, but I’m sure Rodgers would be receptive to a cleaner pocket at times. A running game would help that.

Lastly, the Packers need to develop the ability to pound the ball 1-2 yards against a defense that knows it’s coming. Third-and-one and fourth-and-one downs should not be shotgun formations EVERY time; the offensiveline needs to belly up and win the battle in the trenches. It’s been a long time since the Packers could do that consistently.

What kind of year will Starks have? Any thoughts on the role of RB in the Packers offense? Chime in with your comments!