Sunday, September 18, 2011

Trap Avoided: Packers Escape Upset

Today's match-up against the Carolina Panthers had "Trap Game" written all over it.  A home opener against a highly motivated opponent with reason for optimism.  Every team this year will give the Packers their best effort, and this one started off rocky.  Cam Newton proved he is legit -- leading his team on an 85-yard opening drive for a touchdown, and finishing the day with 432 yards through the air and another 53 on the ground.  But 4 turnovers by the Panthers proved too much to overcome, allowing Green Bay to avoid the trap and come away with a win.

This was the kind of game the Packers managed to lose last year.  It's a sign of a more veteran, confident team that they were able to overcome the early setbacks to get a win (even if it did come against a team that was 2-14 last year with a rookie quarterback).  Despite the narrow victory, there was a lot to like in Sunday's win, including:

1) Woodson, Woodson, Woodson -- though Steve Smith got away from Charles a few times, including a big 62-yard gain in the 4th quarter, Woodson had one of his signature big impact games, coming up with two interceptions and a fumble recovery.  His play really turned the game around.

2) An effective running game -- the Packers showed they could run the ball with the Grant-Starks tandem racking up 110 yards.  And that credible rushing attack was what opened up the play action and big touchdown catches by Jennings and Nelson.

3) Adjustments -- After the opening drive and a quick turn-over on the ensuing kick-off, Dom Capers' unit re-calibrated and shut down what was working for the Panthers -- intermediate passes to their tight ends.  This is a formation the Packers have trouble with: a mobile quarterback combined with fast, pass-catching tight ends.  But after the first quarter, they shut both TEs out until the fourth.

The Packers didn't panic.  They didn't let themselves succumb to Carolina's momentum.  They stayed the course and got the win -- and wins, any win in the NFL, is hard to come by.  Yet, I think most Packer fans expected this to be an easier win.  So, while I'm not alarmed and a "win is a win" and all that, there are a few causes for concern:

1) Not getting enough of a pass rush -- though the stat sheet shows 4 sacks, at least 2 were Newton running out of bounds.  Matthews hasn't been as disruptive a presence without Jenkins applying a threat.  Pickett left today's game, which made it even harder to get pressure on Newton.  It seems like the Packers pulled back their pressure from the linebackers a bit to get better coverage on Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey (who gouged us on the opening drive).  And the Packers also committed to stopping the run (Williams and Stewart combined for only 19 yards on 11 carries).  But it still felt like Newton had way too much time in the pocket, as Brees did last week.  Hopefully, Pickett and Mike Neal can get back into the lineup to help apply some pressure.

2) Lack of pass coverage -- Our defensive secondary was supposed to be a strength this year.  But they've given up over 400 yards passing a second week in a row.  Granted Tramon Williams was out today, and Nick Collins left the game on a stretcher (thankfully, according to reports, he appears to be OK).  Granted further that the pass defense came up with several big plays, including 3 picks and a force fumble and recovery.  And granted both Brees and Newton appear to be pretty damn good.  But there were several plays where Smith, in particular, was wide open.  I just hope there isn't anything symptomatic in these lapses.

3) Field goals, not TDs -- A 4:1 turnover ratio for the Packers usually means a blow-out, not a narrow one-TD victory.  The reason: the Packers only managed 9 points off those turnovers.  It was close -- Finley could have had one if the ball hadn't squirted out.  But the Packers need to be a little better closing the deal in the red zone.

Overall, the Packers showed great resiliency and resolve.  They are off to a 2-0 start, and they go into next week with a chance to get an early upper hand against the Bears -- although the real team to watch out for in the NFC North appears to be the Lions.  Oh my.

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