At Least There's Still Football...

Posted March 16th, 2020 @ 03:03pm

Man, I go dark on this site for a month or two and look what happens to the world. As we all strive to stay healthy, keep others healthy and hope that the spread of Covid 19 abates as quickly as possible, we do have the NFL's free agency/draft seasons as our sole sports distraction.

We learned on Monday that the Pack got a jump on free agency by signing former Cleveland linebacker Christian Kirksey to a two-year deal. We knew they were going to let solid, but ultimately underwhelming linebacker Blake Martinez get paid elsewhere and that this had to be a focus in free agency. The prize is former Ram Cory Littleton, but he's likely going to break the bank. The Pack figured to make a play for either Joe Schobert or Nick Kwiatkoski, but they settled on Kirksey, whose head coach his rookie year was Mike Pettine.

The gamble with Kirksey is his injury history; he's played just nine games the last two seasons, after a very productive start to his career. Over his first four years, he was a tackling machine and a guy who can make plays in the passing game. He was elected captain and is said to be a top notch locker room guy. When talks broke off with the Browns, the Pack swooped in and paid him as he was slated to be paid in Cleveland.

If he can stay on the field, he appears to be an upgrade over Martinez and a guy who is familiar with Pettine's system. It takes the number one need off the Packers' free agency to do list. Sure, they could add another guy, but my guess is they move on to other priorities with whatever money they have left.

The Pack stayed busy on Monday, signing Milwaukee native and former Badger Ricky Wagner to replace Bulaga at right tackle. The former Raven and Lion will step right into the starting lineup. At 30, he's about the same age as Bulaga and is not quite the same level of player. He does come with some past injury concerns, but he joins a better offensive line and a much stronger organization.

As I write this, I don't know what Kirksey and Wagner's deals leaves Brian Gutekunst to play with in free agency. Here's my guess on who the Packers re-sign, who they let walk and who they prioritize in the next couple of weeks. Obviously, as signings happen much of this will be outdated, but here are my thoughts at this moment:

Gone But Not Forgotten: We knew this before the Wagner signing, but it's the end of the road for Bryan Bulaga. Like Kirksey, he comes with risks, but Bulaga figures to be one of the top three tackles on the market and he's going to get paid. So it's one Hawkeye (Kirksey) brought in and another sent packing. Bulaga will be missed big time to be sure, but the Pack didn't have the cap room to bring him back and address other glaring needs.

I think the Pack will also move on from Martinez, Tramon Williams, Lane Taylor, Kyler Fackrell, Geronimo Allison, Ibrahim Campbell, Marcedes Lewis and Jason Spriggs. The three that may have a chance to return are Williams, Lewis and Campbell. The first two are in their upper 30s and while they may still have some gas left in the tank, I think Gutey swallows hard and moves on from the two veterans who both contributed beyond expectations in 2019.

Back With the Pack: We know the team prioritized bringing back Mason Crosby, after a big bounce back season.  I think linebacker BJ Goodson returns, joining an inside linebacker group that includes Oren Burks, Ty Summers and Curtis Bolton. He proved to be a solid run stopper--an above average situational guy. I think returner/RB Tyler Ervin returns as well. His instant impact as a punt returner was obvious and much needed and he showed late in the season that he could be a nice guy to run out there with the offense, with his quickness and versatility.

The biggest areas of need the Pack will need to address now in free agency and then the draft: WR, DL and TE. There isn't a wide receiver in free agency that figures to be a top notch #2 guy. Former Jet Robbie Anderson would fit nicely, but he's expected to get a monster contract. To me, the guy that can make the biggest instant impact on the offense is tight end Austin Hooper--he's the top guy at his position on the open market. I think this is where Green Bay makes its only real splash and he's reunited with Matt LaFleur, who made an impact on Hooper in their year together in Atlanta, even though LaFleur was the quarterbacks coach. Hooper would be the best tight end Rodgers has played with in years and he's only in his mid-20s.

If the Pack can reel in Hooper, they'll have to be spectators for a while to see if there are a couple guys sitting out there that they can get with their remaining available dollars. Keep an eye on WRs Breshad Perriman (Bucs) and Demarcus Robinson (Chiefs), a couple of guys who would fit the Pack's WR wish list: both have speed and are over six feet tall. Perriman finally kicked the injury bug last season and Robinson made a lot of big plays with Patrick Mahomes.

If Gutey prefers to locate a defensive lineman that can slide in next to Kenny Clark and be an upgrade over Tyler Lancaster, a couple of names to think about are Michael Brockers (Rams) and Vernon Butler (Panthers). Both are productive and under 30 and both might get big offers. But if they get passed by in the initial wave and ultimately have to settle for short-term deals, either would be a big upgrade on the defensive line.

With Kirksey and Wagner in the fold, we'll see if the Pack pounces on Hooper, or if another team blows him away with an offer. We won't see the splash the Packers made last year because they don't have the space, but if they can come away from free agency with one big upgrade in the receiving game and a defensive lineman, they will have plugged their biggest holes and can turn their attention to the draft.


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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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