A Game of Inches.

Posted November 11th, 2019 @ 01:11pm

The setting was perfect. The snowflakes were falling, the crowd was going crazy and the Panthers were two yards away from a potential game-tying touchdown at Lambeau. The entire galaxy knew that Christian McCaffrey was getting the ball. Standing in his way: the Packers' defense, which had just allowed the Panthers to march 89 yards down the field, setting them up for this moment.

And what do you know? The Pack got the stop, barely. After giving the Panthers extra chances with mind-numbing penalties in the closing seconds, they did just enough to keep McCaffrey short of the goal line. We think. There was no camera angle that proved that he got in, but he might have. Had they ruled touchdown on the field, they wouldn't have been able to overturn it. Give the defense credit: yes, McCaffrey got his 100 yards, but they avoided giving up explosive plays and took the ball away a couple of times--and that was the difference in the game.

The Packers were the more productive running team on this day, led by Aaron Jones' 93 yards on just 13 carries. Jamaal Williams chipped in another 63 and that productive running attack allowed Aaron Rodgers to hit some big plays downfield, including a huge 48 yarder to Jimmy Graham and a number of connections to Davante Adams, who finally looked like Davante Adams again.

Yes, the Pack caught a break on the roughing the passer penalty on Rodgers in the end zone in the second quarter. A punt there could have set up the Panthers in good field position. Instead, the Packers were given new life and marched down the field until they were stopped on fourth and goal on the final play of the half (I loved the aggressiveness there, even though it didn't work out). The Panthers had caught a break earlier on the fictional offensive pass interference call on Allen Lazard, which ended a Packer drive.

Remember back when the season started, we hoped/expected that Geronimo Allison and Marquez Valdez-Scantling would step into expanded roles as the #2 and #3 wide receivers. The reality is that they are afterthoughts in this offense. MVS didn't catch a pass and Gmo caught three for six yards. Instead, Lazard and Jake Kumerow have earned Rodgers' confidence and are earning bigger roles in this offense each week.

Defensively, the Smiths continue to be difference makers, with Preston Smith now at ten sacks, notching two more on Sunday. The Pack's beefed up pass rush is probably the biggest reason this team is 8-2, that and the improved run game. When Matt LaFleur remembers to commit to the run, the offense hums.

It wasn't always pretty and it wasn't perfect, but the Pack responded from their flat performance in LA with a steady performance in their only home game in November--a game they absolutely had to win as they head into their bye week. With the Vikings exorcizing their demons by winning a prime time road game against a winning team, the Pack's lead remains just one game in the North. There's a good chance that after week 12, both teams will be 8-3 heading into December, when the schedule turns to the Vikings' favor.

For now, the Packers have two weeks to prepare for the unbeaten 49ers, a great test that will give us an idea how seriously we can take this team in the post-season. But sitting at 8-2 at the bye is more than we could have asked for. This team is healthy, Rodgers is playing well and their defense is making big plays when they need them. That's the recipe for a winning team.

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Christian On My Mind

Posted November 10th, 2019 @ 01:11am

We'll learn a whole lot about the 2019 Green Bay Packers by how they respond after their flat, uninspired, shocking performance in LA.

With the bye looming, followed by another California trip, this time against the unbeaten 49ers, the Pack cannot afford to slip up again at home against the 5-3 Panthers and their superstar Christian McCaffrey. The young back is on a historic pace, with his sights set on the record for yards from scrimmage. And after watching what the previously inept Chargers rushing offense did to the Pack's D, he may believe he can set the record on Sunday.

The Panthers announced this week that Cam Newton is done for the year, so for the first time on Sunday, rookie QB Kyle Allen takes the field knowing that his audition is over and that this is his team, at least for the rest of the year. He's been more good than bad, with a 5-1 record--his one dud was a terrible game in San Francisco, where the Panthers fell 51-13. His main receivers, DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel are young and on the rise, and tight end Greg Olsen has been known to have big games against Green Bay.

But we all know the Panthers will stay in this game if McCaffrey consistently wins his battle against a Packers defense that has really struggled since Week 4, ranking 31st in yards per play and third downs and 30th in explosive plays. 'McCaffrey' and 'explosive' are two words that go together often. Expect BJ Goodson to be on the field a lot more than he was last week as Pettine can't afford to live with just Blake Martinez in the middle. The return of Ibrahim Campbell, if he's healed enough to take defensive snaps, could be huge, finally giving the defense a true replacement for Raven Greene.

There are injury concerns in the secondary. Jaire Alexander injured his groin in practice on Thursday. He was limited on Friday and is listed as questionable. Meanwhile, Adrian Amos is dealing with a hamstring that kept him off the practice field until Friday. The defense really needs rookie Darnell Savage to shake the rust off--he hasn't looked the same since returning from his ankle injury. Then there's Kevin King, who logged just 20 snaps last week as he deals with a groin injury--suddenly the secondary is kind of a mess.

All the more reason we need to see the Pack's pass rush look a lot more fearsome than it did last week against the immobile Philip Rivers. Allen has been sacked 20 times in six starts and has thrown four picks. The key is to win some first and second downs, so Allen is forced to do more than turn and hand to McCaffrey or to find him on simple screen passes. He's their second leading receiver.

Now, how does the offense respond to last week's head scratcher? It has to start with running the ball and this needs to be an Aaron Jones, as the Panthers' run defense is most susceptible on the edges. They're ranked 25th against the run, so let's hope the Pack recalls how the Jones vs. Zeke matchup worked out last week and looks to repeat in this matchup between Jones and the NFL's best back.

Carolina's defense is #1 in sacks and #2 in interceptions, this after beefing up the unit in the offseason by adding Bruce Irvin, Gerald McCoy, Tre Boston and rookie Brian Burns. You figure interceptions will be hard to come by against Aaron Rodgers, but they saw what Bosa and Ingram did to the Pack's tackles last week and are poised to make things tough for #12.

If the Pack can get the ground game going, that will open things up for big plays. It feels like this is the week Davante Adams finally finds the end zone. And maybe this is the week tight end Jace Sternberger gets some snaps and makes a big play or two.

It's going to be the first cold game of the year, with temperatures starting in the mid-30s and will drop as the game goes on. You'd like to think that works in the Pack's favor. A win over the Panthers would be the Pack's fifth against a team currently with a winning record. By contrast, the Panthers have beaten just one team with a winning record (a late September road win in Houston). They've fattened up on the likes of the Cardinals, the Bucs, the Jags and the Titans. The Packers have a better pedigree and figure to be angry, embarrassed and focused. At least, they'd better be. I'm going to believe they do just enough. McCaffrey will pad the box score, but Rodgers deliver a late victory.

Packers 27  Panthers 23

 

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U-G-L-Y. You Ain't Got No Alibi.

Posted November 4th, 2019 @ 12:11pm

The NFL can humble you very quickly. The Packers players learned that on Sunday and we fans were reminded of it. All the luster and shine of the Pack's 7-1 start came crashing down in a performance that stunk in every phase.

I wasn't surprised to see the defense struggle out of the gate, figuring the Chargers would respond to their new play caller. The fact that the defense was holding them to field goals provided hope that the Pack would take care of business once the offense figured things out.

But that never happened. The most perplexing aspect of this performance was the flat, uninspired play on the offensive side of the ball. From pre-snap penalties to a complete inability to block Joey Bosa. From turning Aaron Jones invisible to not adjusting to what the Chargers were throwing at them, the Pack and their head coach had no answers.

After the game, we heard all the usual cliches. 'Maybe we needed a game like this. Maybe we were listening to all the praise. They were better prepared than we were.' None of that holds water. Aaron Rodgers' comment after the game raises eyebrows: "We've got to be honest about our routine and decisions we made in the last 48 hours and make sure that our heads are in the right place the next time we come on a big road trip." Huh? What the heck does that mean? What decisions in the last 48 hours? Maybe he's referring to the Za'Darius Smith traffic stop. I don't know, but that sounds alarming to me.

The Pack had a grand total of 65 yards of offense through three quarters. How is that even possible with the talent on that side of the ball? Bulaga has had a fantastic season dealing with some of the best pass rushers in the league. But he had no answer for Bosa, and LaFleur did not provide any help for him all afternoon. The triumphant return of Davante Adams was supposed to help this offense reach another level. Not on this day.

The obvious question to ask is where does this team go from here? How do they respond? They're still in first place in the NFC North and get to return to Lambeau next week before the bye. Next week's opponent, the 5-3 Panthers, are led by a backup quarterback, but it's Christian McCaffrey that makes them go and he will be a problem.

So the defense will have to figure out how to corral him and the offense will need to pick up the pieces. How LaFleur, his staff and the players bounce back on Sunday will give us a very good idea what this team is made of. Was this game just one of those clunkers that teams go through every now and then? Or was the 7-1 start a mirage? As Trent Tucker likes to say, 'only time will tell, Davey.'

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