There Is No Defense For That Performance

Posted January 20th, 2020 @ 05:01pm

We'll always have that opening defensive series.

Remember? Third and one and the Pack stuffed Tevin Coleman for no gain to force a punt. After that? To quote Perry Mason, the defense rests. What a horrific, embarrassing performance by the Packers' defense. The blame starts with Mike Pettine and his staff. When Raheem Mostert gains 142 yards before he was even touched, you know the scheme was trash. Pettine refused to load the box and dare Jimmy Garoppolo to pass, instead content to watch Mostert dance into the secondary and then shake and bake his way to a record performance.

The defense had no answers for what Kyle Shanahan was dialing up, appearing to have learned nothing from the first matchup nor last week's evisceration of the Vikings. Bad angles, missed tackles and a complete befuddlement of what they were facing. It wasn't a good look for Pettine and his staff and it will be interesting to see the fall out. I expect Pettine to return, but LaFleur was pretty pointed in his post game criticism. Not that it's LaFleur's decision--Mike Murphy will make the ultimate call, but there will definitely be some changes on that side of the ball, on the field for sure. As far as the coaching staff goes, we'll see.

The game pretty much ended with the Pack down 20-0 late in the second quarter, with the offense finally putting a nice drive together. A touchdown there and then you get the ball to start the second half and maybe we have a ballgame. Then Linsley and Rodgers mess up the snap, the Niners recover and score and it's 'see ya next season.'

I do have some issues with the offensive game plan as well. This game screamed for a heavy dose of Aaron Jones, both on the ground and through the air. Yes, when you fall behind, it's tempting to give up on the running game, but Jones needed to be featured more on an offense that lacks a lot of dangerous weapons. That will need to be fixed in the offseason, with talent needed via free agency and the draft at both the wide receiver and tight end position.

The 49ers roster is stronger top to bottom than the Packers; there's no question about that. But there is no reason for that team to blow the Packers off the field in both meetings. The window on the Aaron Rodgers will remain wide open for a few more years and this organization took a major step forward this season. But this offseason will be equally important. There's a good chance this team will be stronger on the field but won't reach 13 wins again, with a tougher schedule on tap.

They need to find a way to add pieces to the defensive line and inside linebacker and speed in the passing game. There will be time to talk about free agency, which players they should try to keep and which they should let walk away.

For now, we can lament a missed opportunity and an inability to compete with San Francisco. We can feel good about the giant step this team took this season, sweeping the division and earning the #2 seed. But ultimately, with a chance to take part in a rematch of the first Super Bowl, the Pack whiffed badly. And it's gonna sting for a while.

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Will Mr. Rodgers Shine In His Old Neighborhood?

Posted January 17th, 2020 @ 07:01pm

On one hand it kinda feels like we're playing with house money. The Packers have reached the NFC title game a year ahead of schedule, with most believing it would take their rookie, first-time head coach and the offense a year to get its footing. And no one knew what to expect from a defense that got a high priced make over in the offseason.

On the other hand, their 36-year-old future Hall of Fame quarterback has officially entered his golden years and any season where he remains healthy should be one where this team contends. A healthy Aaron Rodgers has the NFL's sixth best offensive line in front of him, and a top ten running back and wide receiver by his side. That gives him a chance to win on any given Sunday.

So here come the Packers, back to the scene of the Week 12 crime, where the 49ers eviscerated them in Week 12, exposing them as pretenders, rather than contenders in the NFC. It was the low point of the season: from the Rodgers fumble on the first series inside the ten yard line, to the loss of Bryan Bulaga on the game's ninth play, to a complete inability to throw the ball downfield (0-8 on passes of 10+ yards) to a game-long failure on third down (1-15).

But everything has changed since then. Rodgers completely shifted the narrative last week against the Seahawks, with a near perfect performance on third downs. The defensive players took it upon themselves to meet privately and air things out following the Niners loss. While they were getting after quarterbacks and stiffening in the red zone, they were susceptible to explosive plays--giving up two TDs of 40+ yards against the Niners. But since that game, they've given up just one TD of 20+ yards over the last five games.

No one outside of the Bay Area expects to see another 37-8 beatdown. But you can argue that San Francisco is much healthier for the rematch, and after struggling to the finish line with a 3-2 record and a bunch of close games, they put it all together last week in their dominance of the Vikings.

Let's start with the Pack's D against Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers offense. As they did so well last week, they will try to run it down the Pack's throat with their three-headed attack. The Pack will need to win on first downs and put the young QB in tough down and distance situations. I worry most about Raheem Mostert, who's tough and slippery and capable of the big play.

Obviously, their biggest weapon is George Kittle, who was dealing with an ankle injury in the first meeting and was on the field for just 38 snaps. He was still able to dominate, with 129 receiving yards and a 61 yard touchdown. He'll get his catches, but the defense needs to limit the yards after catch--the same goes for rookie Deebo Samuel, who is so dangerous with the ball in his hands. And veteran Emmanuel Sanders gives them another dynamic target in the passing game.There has been so much talk about the Niners' great front, but the Pack should be able to bother Garoppolo as well. Getting him off his timing so he can't play catch with those three guys is essential.

The Pack's offense self-destructed when Bulaga went down in the first meeting. He's back this week, recovered from the flu, and now we know the team has a capable backup in Jared Veldheer, should he get hurt again. Bulaga's return should also boost the run game, which was non-existent in the first meeting.

Aaron Jones must get 20-25 touches in this game, with an opportunity to make plays as a receiver against this aggressive pass rush. SF gives up 4.5 yards per rush, 10th worst in the league. Green Bay absolutely must be productive in the running game. And look for Tyler Ervin to get a few more opportunities on gadget plays; he's earned snaps with the offense.

The Niners will obviously pay a ton of attention to Davante Adams but I don't expect them to have Richard Sherman follow him around. He usually mans the offensive right side and stays there. The Pack will move Adams around and seek out favorable matchups. If Adams finds success, maybe Sherman locks down on him. Regardless, others will need to step up. Jimmy Graham had three huge first down catches last week and Allen Lazard is healthy and will be needed to move the chains on Sunday night. And maybe we see some production from Jace Sternberger, who saw his most extensive action of the season last week.

The recipe for a Packers upset contains all the usual ingredients: win the turnover battle, convert on third downs and get big third down stops on defense. Tighten up in the red zone and force them to settle for field goals. Be balanced on offense and avoid special teams mistakes.

Look a little closer and here's what we need to see. Bakhtiari and Bulaga should be able to handle Ford and Bosa for most of the game. The trouble could come on the interior, where Billy Turner will have to deal with Buckner, Armstead and those great ends who will stunt from the inside. That's a matchup that could cause Rodgers to run for his life. Look for Marcedes Lewis to get a lot of snaps to help deal with the pass rush--and look for him to slip free and make 2-3 big catches.

Look for the Packers secondary to give up a few big plays, but also look for them to win a few big battles too. Garoppolo will throw some balls up for grabs inside the numbers, where most of his production comes. It feels like Jaire Alexander is ready to take one to the house on this big stage. The Packers' defense has gotten such improved play out of the safety position this season and Amos and Savage need to have their best games against this balanced offense--and Pettine will need to guess right on what's coming more often than not.

The Niners are 7.5 point favorites for a reason. Top to bottom, their roster is stronger than Green Bay's. They're healthy, they're at home and they match up well with the Packers, who have struggled against strong running games and elite tight ends.

But the Packers have Rodgers. Last week he showed that he can still rise up and put together an elite performance when the lights are brightest. And now he gets another chance against the team he grew up rooting for, the team that passed him over on draft day in a matchup that few experts give him a chance of winning. Chip, meet shoulder.

Oh, and the previous three times a team with at least 13 regular season wins was at least a touchdown underdog in the title game, they won the game outright. I love this stat. Read it again.

I see the 49ers leading for most of the game, with the Packers hanging around, always within shouting distance. The Niners lead 26-21 late and #12 gets one last chance to bring his team back. You gonna bet against him?

Packers 28  49ers 26

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12 + 17 + 55 + 91 = A Trip to the Title Game.

Posted January 13th, 2020 @ 02:01pm

There's so much to unpack from the Pack's heart-pounding 28-23 playoff win over the Seahawks, but the one thing that stuck with me as I considered what I'd just seen: Matt LaFleur passed his first playoff test with flying colors.

Despite finding out 90 minutes before kickoff that he wouldn't have the services of Bryan Bulaga, he trusted backup Jared Veldheer and stuck to his game plan, with a near 50-50 split of run vs. pass and dialing up great third down calls and letting his quarterback take it from there. Green Bay's third down success won this game, and none were bigger than the completions to the last two, to Davante Adams and Jimmy Graham.

I was surprised when Pete Carroll elected to punt on his team's final possession, as hot as Russell Wilson was in the second half and as uncertain he had to be that his defense would make one more stop. 4th and 10, 2:41 on the clock, I expect the aggressive Carroll to put it in his amazing QB's hands, knowing that worst case they give up a field goal and get the ball back in a one possession game. And let's not forget Preston's Smith's huge sack that set up the fourth down decision.

But he trusted his defense and LaFleur, Rodgers and company made them pay. The fade to Adams on third and long was the play of the game. What a night for Adams. We talked before the game about how Seattle ranks 31st against teams' #1 receivers and that stat held true. This was the Adams we've come to know and love, his toe fully healed and his release and route running at an elite level.

And then there was the dagger to Jimmy Graham, who stepped up against his former team and delivered three big catches--none bigger than the last one, when he did just enough to move the chains, even after the 'additional footage' came in for the officials to look at. What the heck was that, by the way? I was ready to throw something when Clete Blackman started to explain it, expecting the call to be reversed at the last moment.

Give the Seahawks credit for bottling up Aaron Jones for most of the night, but give LaFleur additional credit for staying with the run. It set up a number of tough third down situations, the average yardage the Pack needed averaged more than six throughout the game, but Rodgers was as sharp as he's been all season on third downs and Green Bay needed every one of them.

We've gotten used to seeing this team jump out to leads and hold on for dear life (though I'm not sure we can expect to see that in the title game). The defense was absolutely brilliant in the first half, stuffing the running game and for the most part keeping Wilson in the pocket. You figured they'd make some adjustments and turn Wilson loose in the second half. His brilliance almost pulled it off. He got on the same page as electric receiver Tyler Lockett and showed how difficult it can be to try to bring him down. Kevin King called him Houdini after the game, and that's not far off. He provided the stiffest test this defense has faced all season and they ultimately passed it.

Leading the way, as usual were the Smiths, whose box scores were identical: two sacks each, a tackle for loss and four quarterback hits. They have transformed Mike Pettine's defense and are the primary reason this team is playing for the NFC championship.

While we're at it, let's step back and consider the job Brian Gutekunst has done to remake this roster. Consider the two moves he made in the past month: signing returner/running back Tyler Ervin and tackle Jared Veldheer. Ervin has settled the return game situation, which was on an historically inept pace. He's also provided a nice little complement in the run game, gaining 25 yards on two carries Sunday night. Veldheer provided Bulaga insurance--we all saw what happened to the line when he exited against the 49ers. Having his veteran presence to fill in against the Lions and then starting against the Seahawks patched up the biggest hole on this roster. I shudder to think what might have played out if Alex Light was playing right tackle.

So here the Packers sit, one win away from a trip to the Super Bowl, with a gigantic obstacle in their way on their quest to try to earn Rodgers his second ring. We'll worry about the 49ers as the week progresses. For now, let's appreciate what this team has accomplished: a team that a year ago hit rock bottom and many mused that Rodgers' window had closed and it was time to start from scratch.

The Pack handed the keys to a young untested head coach, trusted and retained their defensive coordinator, brought in high priced defensive reinforcements, put the ball in Aaron Jones' hands, trusted that their rookie guard was ready to step up and proceeded to sweep their division games, go 8-1 at home and finish 4-2 against teams with winning records.

And now they're 60 minutes away from a trip to the Super Bowl. Sure, they're big time underdogs to get there. But they're in the NFC title game--and nobody not named Carl Gerbschmidt expected that.

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