Lions and Vikings and Points, Oh My.

Posted September 21st, 2020 @ 01:09pm

Do the Packers really have to leave their NFC North cocoon? It's so, warm and comfy in here. Yards and points come in waves. By 2pm we can choose between a nap or doing some yard work, comfortable with the fact that the Packers have chalked up another W.

Ah, but all good things, and division games, must come to an end and next week's trip to the Superdome will provide a true litmus test as to where the Pack sits in the NFC hierarchy early in the 2020 season.

Matt LaFleur is now a perfect 8-0 in division games and he's 16-4 in his first 20 games as head coach of the Packers. I'm not sure even Carl Gerbschmidt would have predicted that when Mark Murphy introduced the relatively unknown Rams offensive coordinator as the new guy to lead the team 20 months ago.

Yes, the Packers faced a crippled Lions team, missing two starters on the offensive line, a defensive tackle two corners and its top wide receiver. That's a fact. But they did what they were supposed to do and then some, after falling into a 14-3 hole to start the game.

With the Lions committed to making sure Davante Adams wouldn't torch them like he did the Vikings, the Packers were happy to feed the ground game and Aaron Jones once again reminded the NFL world that they could leave him out of the elite running backs conversation at their own peril.

He had the best day statistically of any Packer back or receiver in team history. His 75-yard burst to open the second effectively ended the game and his beautiful high point downfield catch showed why he's so dangerous no matter where he lines up. The Pack will have to swallow hard and sign him to an extension averaging around $10 million per year, as the Saints and Vikings have done in recent weeks.

History tells us that signing backs to lucrative second contracts rarely works out for the team, but for the Packers, who are desperately hoping to cash in on another Lombardi Trophy before Aaron Rodgers moves on, it's a move they have to make. Both Jones and David Bakhtiari need to be locked up soon.

With 259 yards on the ground, the Packers are proving that they just might have the most well-rounded offense they've had in recent memory. Jones averaged over nine yards per carry (and more than five yards even if you toss out the long TD run); Jamal Williams continues to serve as a valuable complement, gaining 63 yards on nearly eight yards a pop. At this point AJ Dillon will have to wait for an injury or the 2021 season, when Williams most likely moves on to greener pastures.

Two games: 85 points and more than 1,000 yards of offense. Yep, I think it's safe to say the team is more comfortable in year two of LaFleur's offense. Think about what those numbers would look like without the drops. Sunday it was the tight ends' turn, as both Jace Sternberger and Robert Tonyan left yards on the field. It skewed Rodgers' completion percentage a bit, but not his effectiveness, once again demonstrating that he is ready to show the world that he is still capable of playing at an MVP level.

On the other side of the ball, it was an eye-opening performance from Rashan Gary, who notched 1.5 sacks and 1.5 tackles for loss and was in Matthew Stafford's face all afternoon. Give Gary much of the credit for the Chandon Sullivan pick six--he forced Stafford to get rid of the ball before he wanted to. On a day when Za'Darius Smith was asked to do some work inside, to help deal with the loss of Kenny Clark, Gary was all over the field.

And the Pack's run defense held up after another slow start, holding the Lions to 89 yards on the ground. Adrian Peterson found some room to run early, but the Pack found their footing and corralled him for most of the day. They still need to work on their tight end defense: TJ Hockenson caught all four balls that went his way.

On a day when some teams (49ers and Giants) saw injuries put their seasons in jeopardy, the Pack seems to have escaped relatively unscathed. We'll wait to hear about the severity of Adams' hamstring injury, but the fact that he was standing on the sidelines gives hope that he'll be ready for the prime time showdown with the Saints.

Green Bay catches a bit of a break that the Saints will be coming off a short week, and may or may not have Michael Thomas available next Sunday night. But having taken care of business in a big way in their two divisional games to kick off the season, they're kind of playing with house money. They'll be underdogs on Sunday night in a game that you figured was an "L" when the schedule came out.

But this team has made a quite a statement to the rest of the NFC North in its first two games. If they can dodge the injury bug, the Pack looks like they can play with anybody. They are now emerging from their NFC North cocoon. Let's hope a colorful butterfly will be on display when they take the field at the Superdome next Sunday night.

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Here Come the Angry, Embarrassed, Banged-Up Lions

Posted September 18th, 2020 @ 03:09pm

It's Week 2, which means it's time to talk about injuries. We wondered if we'd see a rash of muscle-related injuries early in the season--in light of the fact that there was no preseason to truly prepare the players for the rigors of the brutal and lightning fast game they play.

The Pack and Lions already both have their share, and the missing players on Sunday will likely help determine which team comes away with the win. We've been raised to understand that home games against the Lions are automatic wins, which nearly always held true--until five years ago, when Detroit started a run of three out of four wins at Lambeau. They nearly made it three in a row last year, but the Pack squeaked out the come from behind win, thanks in part to a couple of friendly calls by umpire Jeff Rice.

Fortunately for the Lions, Rice has retired, because his crew, led by Clete Blakeman returns to officiate this one, meeting #180 in the series.

The injuries: the Pack will be without their best defensive player. Kenny Clark's groin injury has yet to be discussed publicly, but he hasn't practiced this week. It weakens the weakest part of the defense, with no reliable replacement on the roster. Za'Darius Smith will be asked to play inside on passing downs, but either Kingsley Keke or the perennially banged up Montravius Adams needs to step up on early downs.

The concerns on the offensive line don't appear as daunting as they did on Sunday. Yes, the Pack has lost right guard Lane Taylor for the season (tough break for a kid who beat the odds to reclaim his job). Billy Turner, who missed the opener, is practicing fully, as is Elgton Jenkins who popped up on the injury list on Wednesday. Ditto for Lucas Patrick, who exited early Sunday with a shoulder injury.

The question is, how will the Pack line up? I assume Jenkins returns to left guard and Billy Turner gets the start at right tackle. Would Patrick play right guard or would rookie Jon Runyan get the spot? It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

The Lions' injury list is much more damaging. They'll likely be without star receiver Kenny Golladay, who missed the Bears game while nursing a hamstring injury. He hasn't practiced this week. Hamstrings are all over the injury list: Cornerback Desmond Trufant was brought in via free agency to replace Darius Slay. The former Falcon has practiced all week.  Fellow corner Justin Coleman was placed on IR this week, also with a hammy. Yet another corner, Darryl Roberts, is nursing a calf injury. He missed practice Wednesday, but returned (limited) on Thursday. Right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai has yet to practice this week, and defensive tackle Nick Williams is limited with a shoulder injury.

Talk about adding injury to insult. The Lions still have to be fuming about how they let the Bears game get away. After allowing Mitch Trubisky to lead a furious comeback in the fourth quarter, they were ready to escape in the closing seconds, until rookie running back DeAndre Swift dropped a perfect pass from Matthew Stafford.

So they're coming into Lambeau, banged up and angry, not just about last week's loss, but also about how they let both games get away against the Pack last season, leading both games the entire way--until the final play of the game.

I'm really curious to see how the Pack's defense performs. It's hard to get a feel for how they played last week because they weren't on the field much and held the Vikes for three quarters and gave up big chunks of yards late, when the game was no longer in question.

The loss of Golladay is huge, meaning Jaire Alexander can spend much of his time on perennial Packer-killer Marvin Jones. Former Badger Quintez Cephus was targeted a team high ten times last week, catching three of them. The big challenge will be second year tight end TJ Hockenson. The former top ten pick was productive last week, after missing most of his rookie season injured. The Pack's D has to improve against talented tight ends. This will be a good test.

The Lions will feed their three-headed running attack to see if the Pack can slow them down, especially without Clark. The trio of Kerryon Johnson, Swift and the ageless Adrian Peterson rushed for 138 yards and nearly five yards per carry against the Bears, led by AP's 93. This will be a good test for the Pack's new inside linebackers, both coming off good efforts against the Vikes. Christian Kirksey and undrafted rookie Krys Barnes, were the top two tacklers last week. Barnes flashed with six tackles, two for loss, in just 15 snaps. He figures to be on the field a lot more this week.

While I think the Lions will move the ball on the Pack, I can't see how they stop Green Bay. They have very little pass rush, relying mostly on Trey Flowers, who now has some history with David Bakhtiari. And with Rodgers unlikely to be under duress, he'll have time to find open receivers against the Lions' depleted secondary. They should have their #1 pick (and #3 overall) Jeff Okudah on the field on Sunday. The corner from Ohio State missed last week, dealing with, wait for it, a hammy. Welcome to the NFL, Jeff. Please meet Davante Adams.

Coach Matt LaFleur said this week that he wants to get rookie AJ Dillon more involved, after just two carries in the opener (for 14 yards). He, Aaron Jones and Jamal Williams should all be productive, considering the fact that they won't see primarily eight man boxes like they did last week in Minneapolis. Mike Zimmer dared Rodgers to throw all afternoon. The Lions won't be foolish enough to try that. They usually play man to man, and they are at a distinct disadvantage on the back end.

This has all the makings of a high scoring game, in my opinion. I hope the Pack's defense shows me something, but Stafford has been up to the challenge in recent meetings. I think the loss of Clark will be felt and the Lions will chew up yardage on the ground and over the middle. But Rodgers and the Pack will be able to keep up and ultimately take care of business.

Packers 31  Lions 27

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Rodgers to the World: You Can't Hurry Love

Posted September 14th, 2020 @ 01:09pm

Well that was fun. Gotta say, it might have been the most enjoyable day of 2020 so far.

Who am I kidding? It was, by far, the most enjoyable day of 2020. Granted, it doesn't have a lot of competition. That was the Aaron Rodgers we hoped we'd see in 2020. A driven, competitive, not ready to give up his job, in-complete-control of everything version of Rodgers. Granted, the Vikings defense appears to be a shell of its former self, especially without Danielle Hunter. But to see a Packer team rack up more than 500 yards against a proud Mike Zimmer defense? As the Common Man would say, "Delicious."

It was a little shaky early, when the first three trips to the red zone resulted in just six points, including a stout goal line stand by the Purple (aided by some strange play calls). But when Jaire Alexander came a blitzing and sacked Kirk Cousins for a safety, you could feel the momentum change. And when the Pack scored twice in the final minute, with a Cousins pick in-between, they suddenly had a 22-7 lead and were in command.

Allowing a field goal try in the closing seconds of the half was a disappointment, as was the sight of Kenny Clark walking gingerly to the locker room. It quelled what should have been  a good dose of optimism after thirty minutes. We later learned that Clark is dealing with a groin injury and we'll hold our breaths to hear about the severity. Make no mistake: he's as important to the Packers' defense as Hunter is to the Vikings'. For me, I hope the worst case scenario is he is good to go following the week five bye, when the schedule toughens up.

The other injuries caused the offensive line to shuffle throughout the afternoon. I was very surprised to see Elgton Jenkins get the start at right tackle and I found myself glued to his performance, to see if he might be the right tackle of the future. What we saw was encouraging (albeit against a subpar Purple defensive line); unfortunately he didn't get to stay there for long. Left guard Lucas Patrick exited with a shoulder injury in the second quarter, moving Jenkins back inside and putting Rick Wagner in by default (he seemed to hold his own). Just hated to see Lane Taylor get carted off with a knee injury that looked serious. Rookie Jon Runyan stepped in--the Pack was down to six linemen the rest of the day.

Yet despite all of that shuffling, the Vikings never got close to Rodgers--just two QB hits and no sacks on 44 drop backs. Rodgers was in maestro mode and Davante Adams toyed with whatever cornerback Zimmer put on him. Adams once again showed that he should be mentioned along with the very best receivers in the game. His 14 catches tied a Packer record held by the great Don Hutson, which makes me wish I could have watched Hutson in his prime. I mean, nobody was catching 14 balls a game in those days.

I thought LaFleur called a great game (other than the aforementioned red zone calls early). He used all of his backs, keeping Aaron Jones fresh and found a way to get Tyler Ervin involved as well. Rookie Josiah Deguara was a big addition in the blocking game--he may end up being the most impactful rookie in 2020. Lost in Rodgers' big day was the fact that the Pack churned out 158 net yards on the ground.

Defensively, it's hard to know what to think. After allowing a touchdown on the first drive, they settled down. But they were only on the field for 18 minutes and change. It was the lowest time of possession for the offense in Vikings history. I think what stood out most to me was the play at inside linebacker. Christian Kirksey (12 tackles, six solo) was all over the place making plays, as was Krys Barnes, the undrafted rookie out of UCLA (and high school teammate of Jordan Love), who was a surprise starter and chipped in seven tackles, including two tackles for loss.

And what a day for Alexander, who became just the fifth player in the last 20 years to record a sack, a pick and a safety in the same game. He got burned by Adam Thielen once or twice, but the kid is a playmaker.

It's just one game, and the Vikings will get better as the season goes along, but what a great season-opening performance by Rodgers and the Pack, who delivered an early message to the rest of the NFC.

Keep telling the Pack that they were the worst 13 win team in NFL history. Keep telling the Pack that they didn't get Rodgers any weapons (the WRs caught 22 passes for 315 yards and four touchdowns). Keep telling the Pack that they're the most likely NFC team not to return to the playoffs.

Aaron Rodgers is listening.


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