Friday, January 8, 2010

Great finish to the regular season

I can’t wait for this weekend’s game.  Ironically, the last time I felt this optimistic about the Packers was after their blowout against these same Cardinals in the pre-season.  We’ve put together two very impressive games in the desert, and I hope it will be a third this Sunday.

A Packer buddy of mine re-sent an article this week by Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel beat writer Bob McGinn back in September.  In it, he makes remarkably accurate predictions for the Packer season so far.  I encourage you to read it (despite the antiquated and annoying requirement to pay for access).  Let’s hope he keeps his accuracy through the playoffs, which he predicted would lead to a Super Bowl berth.

The victory over the Cardinals Sunday was a satisfying cap to a great regular season.  It was really remarkable to watch the team solidify over the last 8 games, finishing the season 7 of 8 with their only loss on a one-in-a-million drive by Pittsburgh.  After the Bucs loss in week 8, it felt like this could be another season like last year – spinning out of control in the second half of the schedule to finish a disappointing 6-10.  Instead, Green Bay took it the other way, and not only finished the season strong, but is entering the playoffs with a head of steam.

What made the Packers second-half of the season so strong?  Here are my observations for the biggest changes that enabled the Packers to improve so significantly. 

1) Pass Protection – we still gave up more sacks this season (51) than any other team in the league, but this was a significant area of improvement in the second half of the season.  I was extremely skeptical in week 8 that the Packers would be able to fix their pass protection problems, but they did.  Tauscher got back into form.  Clifton got healthy.  But more than anything, they ended the deck chair shuffling and started to gel as a unit.  Plus, shorter pass plays, quicker decisions by Rodgers, and improved blitz pick-ups by our backs also all helped.
  • Sacks allowed in the first 8 games: 37 (4.6/game)
  • Sacks allowed in the last 8 games: 14 (1.75/game)
That’s a pretty remarkable improvement, and it has made an enormous difference in our 3rd-down conversions and overall offensive effectiveness.

1) Jermichael Finley – not only was it a win against the same team and the same place, but the same player (Finley) and same play (a jump ball in the right corner of the endzone) was what made me so optimistic back in the pre-season.  With the exception of the Vikings game in week 4 (6 receptions for 128 yds and a TD), Finley got off to a slow start.  Then he missed 3 games due to injury.  Since he’s been back, he’s been a force.
  • Finley’s stats in the first 8 games: 17 receptions, 260 yds, 1 TD
  • Finley’s stats in the last 8 games: 38 receptions, 416 yds,  4 TDs
Do that for a full season, and you’re going to the Pro Bowl next year, Jermichael.  And it’s not just his stats – it’s what he opens up for the rest of the offense.  The guy is an absolute stud and a match-up nightmare for every team in the league.

3) Clay Matthews and Brad Jones – If you had told me at the start of the season we’d have two rookie linebackers, added to an already deep linebacking corps, not only starting but emerging as impact players, I would have been stunned.  I would have a man-crush on Matthews even if he didn’t have the hair.  The guy had 10 sacks on the season.  10 sacks as a rookie!  Jones has 4 sacks since coming in for Kampman.  It was unfortunate to see Kampman go down, but he’d only logged 3.5 sacks to that point in the season.  Poppinga had none in the 3 games he started.
  • Sacks by Kampman and Poppinga in the first 8 games: 2.5
  • Sacks by Matthews and Jones in the last 8 games: 11
4) Rush Defense – 83.3 yards rushing allowed per game.  Not only was that #1 in the NFL, but it set a Packers franchise record.  The difference in this area isn't as stark compared to the first half of the season, but it's dramatic compared to last season.  Packers finished last year #26 against the run, allowing 131.6 yards per game.  Quite an improvement.  Another rookie, B.J. Raji, has certainly helped in this area.
5) Player Leadership – Finally, though it’s hard to quantify in the statistics, Aaron Rodgers on offense and Charles Woodson on defense have fully stepped into the critical leadership roles they needed to play.  After the loss to the Bucs, these guys stepped up and took responsibility, but also demanded more from their teammates.  Both are playing very confident ball, and, deservedly, are Pro-Bowl bound.

I have every reason to believe that the Cardinals will come out fighting on Sunday, but if the Packers can continue to do these things that nearly got them a perfect schedule in the second half of the season, I like their chances to do some damage.

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