Pack's D Should Feast On Yet Another Mediocre QB.

Posted September 20th, 2019 @ 02:09pm

After two intense divisional games to open the season, and with playoff contenders Philadelphia and Dallas on deck, the Pack get their one potential breather on Sunday as Joe Flacco and the winless Broncos come to town.

But despite the fact that Denver is winless in six trips to Lambeau, the Pack will need to avoid looking ahead to their Thursday night showdown with the Eagles. The Broncos were one ridiculous roughing the passer penalty away from knocking off the Bears last week and head coach Vic Fangio has bedeviled the Pack's offense in recent years.

His defense is a sleeping giant, sackless and without a takeaway through two games, despite being led by elite pass rushers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. Not only have they not registered a sack, they've racked up a grand total of two QB hits so far this season. Both Derek Carr and Mitch Trubisky kept the defense off balance by getting rid of the ball quickly. Aaron Rodgers will likely give them a chance, as he surveys the field looking for big plays. If linebacker Todd Scott remains out, the defense will continue to suffer in the run game and in the middle of the field.

With Flacco brought in as a stop-gap solution at quarterback, the Broncos offense has been stuck in neutral--though they do rank 14th in the league so far. He has a decent pair of receivers in Emmanuel Sanders and Courtland Sutton, but the tight ends have struggled in the passing game and as blockers, which has stymied the running game, with their two-headed attack, Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman, yet to bust loose. Freeman has been the more dangerous runner, averaging more than five yards per carry.

The Pack's defense has the definitive edge in this matchup--they have an almost unfair advantage when Za'Darius Smith lines up across from left tackle Garrett Bolles. The one-time first round pick has struggled his entire career and probably wouldn't be playing, if not for his draft capital. He was flagged for holding four times last week and has been caught 14 times over the last two seasons. Smith should have a field day, as should emerging superstar Kenny Clark, who seems poised to finally get the national attention he richly deserves. The Pack's CBs should be able to handle the receivers one on one and with Flacco's inability to move around much, the defense should have the upper hand.

Denver has moved the ball pretty well between the 20s to open the season, but their red zone play has been awful and the Pack's D has been the best in the league in the red zone so far, helped in part by the fact that they've faced Trubisky and Cousins to kick off the season.

The most interesting thing to watch will be how the Packers' offense responds to being shut out over the last three quarters against the Vikings. The 21 point first quarter start was so surprising that we almost had to pinch ourselves, but the quick three and outs that followed reminded us that this offense still has a long way to go.

Aaron Jones comes off his most productive day, with 23 attempts, and hopefully that's a trend that will continue. I expect Davante Adams to finally get his first touchdown and Lambeau Leap of the season, but it would be nice to see MVS or Geronimo Allison come up with a big day. With Davis traded (more on this in a moment) and Kumerow and Shepherd dealing with injuries, we might get our first glimpse of Allen Lazard this week.

This might be the week Robert Tonyan breaks out. Jimmy Graham is not practicing with a groin injury and Denver allowed a lot of tight end yards in week one to Darren Waller of the Raiders. I've been on the Tonyan bandwagon for a while and believe he will be the starter next season. This might be his coming out party.

The return game brings the biggest mystery with the surprise trade of Trevor Davis to Oakland this week. The oft-injured Davis didn't figure into the team's long-term plans, because they like their three undrafted receivers and want to see what they can do. To replace him on special teams, the Pack added former Chief Tremon Smith, who will likely handle kickoff returns (and joins a crowded secondary at CB). He ranked fourth in the league last season, averaging 26.8 per return. As for punt returns, rookie Darrius Shepherd gets his chance to make his mark, as he is healed from his hamstring injury.

On paper, this should be one of the four games on the schedule that you look at and say 'win' (along with home games against the Raiders, Panthers and Redskins). The biggest danger is looking ahead to the big prime time test coming four days later against Carson Wentz. But this team appears to be built to handle mediocre quarterbacks and history tells us the Broncos can't win at Lambeau, where they're 0-5-1.

Packers  24

Broncos 13

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Anyone Else Feel Like 'Kissing Cousins'?

Posted September 16th, 2019 @ 01:09pm

I've never really understood the expression 'kissing cousins,' but I certainly felt like doing it after the Vikes' vastly overpaid quarterback cemented the Pack's home opening win on Sunday.

It was a wild finish to a game that had a polar opposite start to the opener in Chicago. Here was the Pack's offense as we imagine it: in rhythm and on target, keeping the Vikes off balance with different looks and a quick tempo. The Pack led 21-0 before you could say Carl Gerbschmidt and most of us were rubbing our eyes to make sure what we were seeing was actually happening.

But alas, all good things must come to an end and the Packers were done scoring for the afternoon. We know that the offense is a work in progress and the fumble by Geronimo Allison was a lost chance to add to the scoring column, as was Rodgers' incorrect assumption that the Pack had gotten a first down late in the first half. He rushed to the line to make sure the officials didn't stop the game to check, and the fourth down loss turned the ball over.

So there were more points to be had, but the Vikings' talented defense and talented defensive-minded coach made the adjustments necessary to shut down the Pack's fledgling offense in the second half, when things got much tighter than we would have liked.

What I liked about the Pack's offense in their second performance, beyond the other worldly first quarter, was the commitment to running the football. Aaron Jones' 23 carries were a career high and he averaged better than five yards per carry against one of the league's top run defenses. Rodgers got Davante Adams involved early and often, en route to a 100 yard day against Xavier Rhodes. What I didn't like were a couple of drops by the young receivers, including MVS's big one at midfield at the beginning of the fourth quarter. I didn't like that the tight ends weren't involved at all and obviously, I didn't like the two fumbles.

Defensively, it was kind of a mixed bag. Overall, the unit played very well, but they gave up four explosive plays: the 75 yard TD run by the electric Dalvin Cook, the long pass to Chad Beebe (Cousins gets credit here for avoiding the sack and getting the pass off), the long TD pass to Stefon Diggs (that Jaire Alexander says he lost in the sun) and a long pass to Adam Thielen.

Those four plays accounted for more than half of the Vikings yards and for the other 56 plays they handled their business, only allowing them to convert 3-13 on third down, and containing the two big play wide receivers--their combined six catches for 124 yards was far below their usual production and basically added up to Adams' day.

With Alexander and King on the field, this Packers defense is nothing like recent incarnations. The speed, instincts and athleticism jump off the screen. When you combine that with a much improved pass rush, this is a defense that is going to a problem for most teams this season. Kenny Clark was a problem all afternoon--that dude is going to get paid in a big way, before this season ends. They get a bit of a respite in week 3 when Joe Flacco comes to town, but the next two tests, against Carson Wentz and Dan Prescott, will tell us a lot about how far his unit has come and how much it needs to learn.

And now, a brief word on the Diggs touchdown that got called back on the OPI call on Cook. I hate that they review this when no flag was thrown on the field. I think it's a slippery slope and takes away from the game. The fact is, they review all scoring plays and Cook did interfere with two Packers--the first two yards past the line of scrimmage and then Darnell Savage in the end zone. I've watched the play 15 times--he was not blocked into Savage, he put his hands on him and moved him so he couldn't cover Diggs. The top officiating goochies have all weighed in that this was a proper call, but count me among those who say if they don't throw a flag, it shouldn't be called.

I give the Purple a ton of credit for the resolve they showed in slowly fighting their way back from that 21-0 hole. When they methodically moved down the field late in the fourth quarter, mostly on the ground and got into the red zone, my fingernails were pretty much toast. Za'Darius Smith limped off the field and it looked like the Pack would need Rodgers to try to rescue things to avoid one of the biggest collapses in team history.

Ah, but that's where Captain Kirk steps in. Like Christian Ponder before him, he reverted to the player he tends to be when the game is on the line. One critical decision cost his team a chance at an unlikely victory. Kevin King read the pass headed Diggs' way, and though #14 had a step on him, King closed and made the game-saving pick. Why the Vikes didn't continue to pound away on the ground, or use play action, is a head scratcher. They are quickly learning that Cousins is not the guy to lean on in winning time. And that will always be a problem in close games and in the games that matter most, come January.

So the Packers are off to a 2-0 start, with both wins coming within the division. Matt LaFleur is the first Packer coach since Vince Lombardi to win his first two games and there is reason to believe this team is just scratching the surface. We'll monitor the injuries to safeties Raven Greene and Savage, both of whom left the locker room in walking boots, but otherwise the team seems to have come out of this bruising game intact.

With four out of the next five coming up at home, this team should have a chance to jump out to a lead in the division. And by the time they meet up with Cousins and the Vikings again on a Monday night in Week 16, we can hope that the Pack plays well enough to put the game in Cousins' hands at the end once again.


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Is Pack's Defense Ready For an Encore?

Posted September 13th, 2019 @ 01:09pm

Here comes Border Battle #118 with the Packers and Vikings feeling pretty good about themselves after opening week wins. But we don't really know what to believe. Is the Pack's defense going to be that dominant? Is the offense going to take a while to figure things out? Are the Vikings going to be that strong in all three areas?

Week two won't provide any solid answers, but the additional data will start to give us an idea what these two teams are all about. The Pack gets the advantage of an additional three days to rest up and prepare, but they won't be bringing in the healthier team. Thursday's injury report brought the unwelcome news that David Bakhtiari missed practice with a back injury and Jaire Alexander was suddenly limited with a knee.

Needless to say, if those two guys are limited or absent, the Packers will be in tough shape against a Vikings team that has had their number the last two seasons. Vikings fans love to throw out that it's been 900+ days since the Pack has beaten them. Of course we all remember the game at Lambeau last season when Clay Matthews crushed Kirk Cousins, causing an interception that should have been the dagger, until the errant flag was thrown nullifying the play. Over the past nine meetings the teams are 4-4-1 and the last time I checked, Matt LaFleur is undefeated against the Purple.

All kidding aside, I expect both defenses to flex their muscles in this matchup. The prevailing question outside of Wisconsin this week (and maybe inside) is whether the defense has really turned a corner and is as good as it appeared in Chicago.

Most will point to Mitch Trubisky and say that the dude his hot garbage, so what did they really prove. The fact is, no one was saying the Bears would be contenders this season if only they had a QB. Yes, he appears to have limitations, and his development will go a long way in determining how far the Bears go, but he led the ninth ranked offense in just his first year in the system in 2018 and most expect this offense to be very good.

For the first time in forever, the Packers appear to have dominant players at all three levels, with Kenny Clark up front, Za'Darius Smith (and maybe Preston Smith and Blake Martinez) at linebacker and Jaire Alexander, Adrian Amos (and maybe Darnell Savage) on the back end. They're faster, tougher and more athletic than recent Packer defenses and appear to have a firm grasp pf Mike Pettine's system.

Task number one will be to contain the electric Dalvin Cook, who picked up on Sunday where he left off in the preseason. The Packers will need to be disciplined in their gaps and they'll need to tackle as well as they did against the Bears. It's safe to say Kevin Stefanski won't have his QB drop back to pass on 80% of the offensive plays, as Nagy did last week. This Packers team is equipped to slow Cook down, which would keep Cousins from burning the defense with play action, where he is at his most dangerous.

The Vike's dynamic receiver duo has been very productive against the Pack the past couple of seasons, but Green Bay has invested heavily in the secondary and I'm very interested to see how they do on Sunday. I'd expect the Vikes' tight ends to be a bigger part of the game plan than they were in game one.

The interior of the Vikings offensive line was shaky against the Falcons, with Grady Jarrett abusing rookie center Garrett Bradbury and left guard Pat Elflein struggling as well. Kenny Clark is going to be a problem and I expect the Vikings to do their damage with Cooks bouncing plays outside.

The big question mark for me about this Packer team right now is the offense, which was kept in mothballs in the preseason and was extremely slow to get going in Chicago. Part of that was the defense, the stadium, the big stage. But Aaron Rodgers has talked a lot this week about being quicker to the line, quicker to get plays off. Yes, everyone is learning the new offense, but it's time to kick off the rust and move the football. Aaron Jones has to be productive in this game, the guards have to play a whole lot better than they did in game one, and the other receivers have to step up, if the Vikes put a blanket on Davante Adams.

I expect LaFleur to move Adams all over the field, to keep Xavier Rhodes from shadowing him all afternoon. Adams has been productive against Rhodes in the past, but look for the offense to show a lot of wrinkles that they did not show in the opener. We'll continue to see a lot of double tight end formations and I expect Danny Vitale to be a bigger part of the game plan.

After keeping Khalil Mack in check last week, Bryan Bulaga now gets tasked with trying to handle Danielle Hunter. That's as tough a first two weeks as any tackle will have to deal with. Bakhtiari, assuming he plays, will have to deal with Everson Griffen who looked more like the 2017 version in the Falcons game. If Rodgers has time, and the running game is productive, he should find matchups he likes. With CB Mackenzie Alexander injured and Holton Hill suspended, the Vikes are thin and may need to call on Mike Hughes a week or two earlier than they had hoped, as he recovers from last year's ACL.

I don't expect the Pack's offense to really hum for a few weeks and I think the defense will be asked to carry this team until it's up to speed. Count me among those who believes Pettine's crew is up to the challenge. Turnovers once again will make the difference and the Vikings' modest win streak against the Pack ends--provided Bakhtiari plays.

Packers 17

Vikings 13

If Bakhtiari is out, I've got to give it to the Purple, 13-10. I'll have much more on this one on "Packer Preview," Sunday morning at 7am on KFAN, or via podcast at iHeart Radio or iTunes, whenever you wake up.

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