Monday, November 16, 2009

A Winning Formula

It is so much more enjoyable to write this blog when the Packers win – particularly when they beat a good team, AND in relatively convincing fashion, AND with a game plan that suggests a successful winning formula for the remainder of the season. There was a lot of doom and gloom last week in Packer nation. Although that was an ugly loss, I maintain any team can lose to any other team on any given week (like the Saints nearly did against the Rams this week). The encouraging thing is Green Bay seems to have learned from the loss to the puffy shirts, and applied it on the field this week.

If they can continue to execute a similar game plan going forward, they still have a strong shot at making the playoffs. Here was the winning formula:

1) Defensive Pressure – Probably the most perplexing aspect of Green Bay’s losses so far this season, particularly in the two games against Favre, was the complete lack of pressure on the quarterback. We had not seen much of the swarming, scheming, chaos-creating style we saw in the pre-season. Last week, we hardly blitzed at all against a rookie QB and only sacked him once. I’m not sure what jogged Dom Capers memory, and I certainly didn’t expect us to get pressure with Kampman and Chillar out, but I’m glad he re-discovered that part of the playbook. Not only did the defense produce 5 sacks and 11 knockdowns, but that pressure was the catalyst for a bunch of other good stuff – particularly the forced fumble that decided the game.

This is the style of defense the Packers are built to play. And if they can play it successfully against Dallas (with two key injuries no less), they can play it against anyone. They have great corners who can hold up against anyone. They have speed at line-backer to pick up tight ends and backs. They have a solid defensive line that can both stop the run and sniff out screens. And, because of all that, they can usually figure out how to free up a player or two to come with blitz, confuse the coverage, or otherwise stunt their way into something exciting. ESPN showed a stat that Capers, in the first 8 games, rushed five or more players 40.6% of the time. Against the Cowboys, he did it 51.3%. That won Green Bay the ball game – stopping the Cowboys drives (3 of 12 on third down), forcing turnovers, and nearly pitching a shut-out against one of the best offenses in the league.

And Woodson! What can you say about Woodson? His stats – nine tackles, two forced fumbles, a sack and an interception – stand out, but they don’t tell the whole story. The strip of Williams was a phenomenal momentum swing. His strip of Romo set up a critical touchdown. And his interception at the goal line sealed the victory. Without Woodson, we lose that game. He is increasingly becoming the emotional heart and soul of this defense, if not the entire team. He wants it. And I hope the rest of the team can learn from his veteran leadership. I also hope Capers continues to find ways of letting Woodson loose.

Clay Matthews also deserves a call out. He picked up one of the sacks – giving him four on the season. He also recovered both the fumbles that Woodson forced. He has an impressive knack for the ball, and finishes plays definitively. Really impressed by his play.

2) Patience on Offense – the downfield plays are beautiful, but it seems like McCarthy finally recognized this week that they need to get rid of the ball faster and balance it with a rushing attack. There were a lot of three-step drops, a lot of slants, and a lot of screens. It took patience – I’m sure when fans were booing the Packers in the first half it was tempting to call some hail Mary. But the conservative play-calling helped keep a strong Cowboys pass rush out of Rodgers’ face – giving up only 4 sacks (still needs to improve but much better than I expected).

They were also patient with the running game – rushing the ball 28 times (41% of their offensive snaps). Grant had a decent game with 79 yards on 19 carries, averaging over 4 yards per attempt. If the Packers can manage to average 4 yards on first down, they are very good at converting that set of downs. Play action starts to work. Defenses need to respect both the run and the pass. And the line can’t pin their ears back and rip Rodgers’ head off.

The drive at the end of the 3rd quarter exemplified this patient style of play. It was a 15-play, 80-yard drive that burned 7:33 on the clock, and gave the Packers a 10-0 lead on a one-yard QB sneak by Aaron Rodgers that I’m surprised isn’t being compared more to Bart Starr’s one-yard QB sneak against these same Cowboys that won the Ice Bowl. Here was the sequence:
  • Pass to Driver for 5 yards
  • Pass to Driver for 10 yards
  • Run by Grant for 3 yards
  • Screen to Green for -4 yards
  • Pass to Jennings for 14 yards (on 3rd and 11)
  • Sack on Rodgers for -7 yards
  • Run by Grant for 4 yards
  • Pass to Lee for 17 yards (on 3rd and 13)
  • Run by Grant for 7 yards
  • Pass to Nelson for 10 yards
  • Cowboys penalty – hands to the face
  • Incomplete to Jones
  • Cowboys penalty – defensive pass interference
  • Incomplete to Jennings
  • Run by Grant for 4 yards
  • Pass to Nelson for 7 yards
  • QB sneak by Rodgers for the touchdown

Rodgers did a great job converting two long third downs, but other than that it was all short passes and runs. And NO penalties! If they can replicate it, this drive could be one we look back on as a turning point in the season.

3) Winning the Turnover Battle – Of all the stats, turnover ratio is one of the most predictive of which team will win the game. Dallas gave up three turnovers – two fumbles and an interception. Green Bay didn’t give up any. One of the things I most love about Rodgers, particularly after the Favre years, is that he’s careful with the football – both in the passes he makes, and in how he holds the ball in the pocket. A close game, like this one was and like I expect the remaining games to all be, is decided by turnovers. What was great this week is that these were “take-aways” not just turnovers. The defense got to the ball and created opportunities. Continue to do that, and they will continue to win games.

What still needs to be fixed.

So as tempting as it is to get all hyped up again after a big win, I need to note a few things that continue to be problems.

First, penalties – they’re killing us. The Packers had 12 penalties for 100 yards on Sunday. The fact the Cowboys are the second-most penalized team in the league (and had 10 penalties for 67 yards themselves) was the only thing that balanced out this otherwise disastrous part of the box score. It’s amazing how fast penalties can destroy a drive. Great example was Green Bay’s third possession of the game. Here’s how it went down:
  • 1st & 10: Grant 2-yd run
  • 2nd & 8: PENALTY – false start on Lang
  • 2nd & 13: Screen to Grant for first down, brought back on PENALTY – holding on Nelson
  • 2nd & 13: Completed to Nelson for 9 yards
  • 3rd & 4: Rodgers sacked, but drive kept alive by Cowboy penalty for illegal use of hands
  • 1st & 10: PENALTY – false start on Colledge
  • 1st & 15: Green run for 5 yards
  • 2nd & 10: Incomplete to Green
  • 3rd & 10: Complete to Jones for first down, but challenged by Dallas and overturned
  • 4th & 10: Punt

That’s three penalties in nine plays – two pre-snap penalties, and one that negated a first down. This was the point where the Lambeau crowd started booing. They need to clean this up. It’s should be solvable – most of it is just bone-headed, lack-of-concentration mistakes.

Second, of course, is still the offensive line. Lang got the start at right tackle in place of Tauscher and Barbre, and didn’t give up too much. But now Colledge might be hurt (not that he’d been playing well anyway), and Clifton continues to struggle in my opinion. He just doesn’t seem to be moving his feet well. There was a series in which he completely failed to get out and block for a screen to Green, which was immediately followed by DeMarcus Ware blowing by him for a sack like Clifton was standing still. I don’t know if the injury is still bothering him, but he remains a big vulnerability. Green Bay still leads the league by far in sacks given up with 41 and have allowed 66 hits on Rodgers.

Third, special teams is the weak link in the three phases. The Packers are the worst in the league on net punt yards (averaging 33 yards). Part of that is Kapinos, who is mediocre at best (averaging 43.1 yards, 20th in the league), but a lot of it is just poor punt coverage – they’ve given up 294 return yards, more than any team in the league. Their kickoff team isn’t doing well either – averaging 61.9 yards per kickoff (27th in the league) and allowing an average return of 24.5 yards (9th worst in the league). Our return game hasn’t been very good either – averaging only 6.7 yards per punt return (23rd in the league) and 22.6 yards per kick return (18th in the league). Many of our penalties have been committed by special teams as well. We need to improve this phase of the game.

The good news is Kampman, Chillar and Finley are all expected back next week. We need them, as I expect the 49ers to play a physical game. Hopefully, if we put together a game plan like we did against Dallas, this can be the start of a little winning streak. We control our own destiny for a wild card spot, but we are even with three good teams – the Eagles, Giants and Falcons – at 5-4. So there’s no room for error.

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