Look For That Other Defense to Shine on Saturday.

Posted January 15th, 2021 @ 01:01am

Here we go. For years, we've been wondering whether the Pack would ever again earn the top NFC seed with Aaron Rodgers. After four title games on the road, wouldn't it be nice to host one? Naturally, the year the Packers rise to the top, we won't get to fill Lambeau Field, but for the lucky six to eight thousand who will be there, the moment has arrived. And after a year full of difficulty, fear and uncertainty, this Packers season has been just what the doctor ordered.

It's been interesting listening to the national narrative around this game. The Rams' #1 defense against the Pack's top rated offense. It's a matchup that, when it happens, has historically favored the defensive team. It seems like a lot of talking heads are wondering how Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur will ever deal with Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and Leonard Floyd.

And I'm thinking, well, Sam Darnold had no problem with them a month ago. Josh Allen threw for over 300 yards and four touchdowns. They're a great defense, no doubt, but they also feasted on the NFC and AFC East this season, which features a lot of offensively inept teams.

Defensive coordinator Brandon Staley is a Vic Fangio disciple whose calling card is creating confusion for an offense and mostly playing with two deep safeties, forcing teams to beat them underneath. They gave up an NFL best 13 plays of 20+ yards all season. It starts with their ability to get pressure with just four guys, led by Donald, the league's top defender.

I wonder whether the Pack's decision to sign tackle Jared Veldheer meant they planned to move Billy Turner back to right guard for this game to deal with Donald. Or maybe they just wanted to have him around in case RT Rick Wagner's knee acts up again.

Of course, that idea went out the window when Veldheer tested positive one day after arriving and practicing with the Pack. The good news is no other players have been singled out with contact tracing. The scary news is we have to wait through two more days of COVID testing to make sure everyone is cleared for the game.

Donald will likely move all over the line, testing Lucas Patrick at right guard and Turner on the left side. The Pack will look to double team whenever possible. Donald's torn rib cartilage injury is something to watch, particularly as the game goes on, but he's not even listed on the Rams' injury report.

As for Floyd, he's had a great season after falling out of favor with the Bears, with 12 1/2 sacks. Though seven have come in the three games against Seattle and two came against the Bears. That leaves just 3 1/2 in his other 13 games.

If the Pack's offense is to have its way, it has to start with the running game. The Rams are a top five run defense, despite almost always playing with a light box, almost daring teams to run. If the Packers can move the ball on the ground it opens up Rodgers' lethal play action game, where the Pack was best in the league. Interestingly, the Rams D ranks 14th against play action and #1 against non-play action plays. Expect Rodgers to be under center quite a bit on Saturday. And look for him to roll out of the pocket quite a bit, to keep the pass rush off balance and protect his banged up offensive line.

Whether Jalen Ramsey follows Davante Adams around all day or not, it's an epic matchup and one that will be worth the price of admission. I expect the Pack to find ways to get the ball in Adams' hands. It might be a workmanlike day with a bunch of shorter catches, but he and Rodgers will make their usual beautiful music.

I think the magic number for the Pack's offense is 24. I don't see the Rams offense getting to that number, so that's the magic number for me. Which brings us to the other side of the ball. I think Mike Pettine and his defense have to look at the Rams like they looked at the Titans and Bears.

Stopping the run is paramount. They're going to rely heavily on rookie Cam Akers who had a historic day against last week against the Seahawks. The Pack's run defense has improved steadily as the season has gone on, with impressive efforts against Derrick Henry and David Montgomery the last two games. I would hope Pettine would use his base defense at least 40% of the time, like he did against Tennessee, especially since their passing game is going to be limited by Jared Goff's thumb injury.

With last week's starter John Wolford ruled out, this is Goff's game (the Rams will be an injury away from Blake Bortles running the show). He broke his thumb two weeks ago and clearly is nowhere near 100%, though he is not listed on this week's injury report. Sean McVay will try to use play action to make things easier, but Goff isn't great using play action. He's also not great in cold weather, but temps should be in the low 30s, so it won't bee bitterly cold.

Goff's favorite target, Cooper Kupp, is questionable with a knee injury. There's no question he's playing, but we'll see how much that knee is bothering him. I would expect Jaire Alexander to spend a lot of time dealing with Robert Woods, taking him out of the equation. Where the passing game could find success is to their tight ends: Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett are both capable of putting up big numbers.

But I think the Packers' defense has a big advantage over the Rams' offense. With Damon Harrison next to Kenny Clark, Akers will find it tough to do much between the tackles and the defense, with Krys Barnes and the safeties is much better equipped to handle the boundaries these days. Throw in a chilly day for Goff, who has struggled in two previous games in cold weather, I think Pettine and his group are ready to show that they are up to the challenge and they are not the same unit that got embarrassed by the 49ers last season in the NFC title game.

The Packers are one win away from hosting a game to see who will advance to the Super Bowl. This team will not squander that opportunity. McVay and LaFleur grew up together as coaches and are like brothers...they talk every day during the offseason.  They know what each other likes to do. There will be no surprises. But only one coach has Aaron Rodgers. And that will be the difference, with a big assist from Pettine's ready for prime time defense.

Packers 24  Rams 17

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Ranking the Potential Packer Playoff Foes.

Posted January 8th, 2021 @ 04:01pm

Thought I'd take a few minutes and think about who I'd most and least like to see the Packers host in the divisional round next weekend. There are four possibilities: the Bears, Rams, Buccaneers and WFT. I'm ranking them in order of preference.

1. Da Bears: Conventional wisdom says you don't want to play a team that you've swept in the regular season. It makes sense and usually I'd abide by it. But of the four contenders, give me Mitch and company for a third time. The Packers hold a spell over their neighbors to the South, and though they are the team that would be most comfortable with the weather conditions, they have no answer defensively for Aaron Rodgers. The Pack's D would flood the box and dare Trubisky to try his luck downfield. At least a couple would find their way into Packer defensive backs' hands.

2. WFT: This is actually the team I think the Packers will face. That's right, I'm calling for an upset of Tom Brady and the Bucs. That's only if Alex Smith plays, which remains in doubt as I write this. This is a team on the rise and Chase Young will be in consideration for defensive player of the year every season he plays. The defensive line is loaded with first rounders and can make things difficult for mortal offensive lines and QBs. Of course, those are the strengths in Green Bay and I don't think they can keep the Pack down all game long. Flip side, their offense is pedestrian and relies on a lot of underneath stuff. Their one true downfield weapon, Terry McLaurin would be left alone on Jaire Island.

3. LA Rams: This would be a matchup of strength on strength, with the Rams' tough defense matched up against the Pack's high flying offense. How would the Pack's interior handle Aaron Donald? Would shutdown corner Jalen Ramsey follow Davante Adams around and force Rodgers to find other guys? Would Jared Goff be back from injury and would it matter? They have some nice receiving options and rookie Cam Akers is coming on, though dealing with a high ankle sprain. This warm weather crew might hang with the Pack for a while, but not for 60 minutes.

4. Tampa Bay: By no means am I terrified of a rematch of the Bucs. My guess is that this will be the most popular upset prediction next weekend by the national media by virtue of what happened in the regular season meeting. Brady has gotten better and better as the season's gone on and he's not used to losing on wildcard weekend. Hell, he's not used to playing on wildcard weekend. The key will be the pass rush, for both teams and whether the Bucs can run the ball. Tampa has playmakers on all three levels of the defense, and the stable of pass catchers is as good as any team in the playoffs. But over the course of the season the only team with a winning record that they beat was the Pack. The weather will favor the home team and having around ten thousand fans on hand won't hurt either.

I don't see any of these four teams ending this magical Packers season next weekend. But if you consider the Pack will face either Tom Brady or the likes of Alex Smith, Jared Goff or Mitch Trubisky, I think it's safe to say we'd like to see some team spring the upset this weekend.

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Opportunity Knocks for the Pack.

Posted January 4th, 2021 @ 04:01pm

I'm not going to write much about the Pack's win at Soldier Field. Rodgers was brilliant, the defense was more than solid and Mitch was Mitch. Today I want to write about a special season during unprecedented times and what the next month might bring.

Think about where this organization is today, and then think back to two years ago, when the season was finally, mercifully over, the Pack was 6-9-1 and on the hunt for a new head coach who could resuscitate the organization and flip the script on Rodgers' waning years.

The decision to hire Matt LaFleur was met with derision by some, scorn by others and a non-ending yawn by most. This is the guy to revive Rodgers and the Pack's offense? A 30-something unknown with one year of play calling under his belt, one that primarily consisted of 'hand the ball off to Derrick Henry and get out of his way?'

Then just eight months ago, the Packers draft was met by derision, scorn and, well definitely not a yawn. Everyone had an opinion about the Packers draft, including me. And yet here the Packers sit, the top seed in the NFC and just two home wins away from a trip to the Super Bowl. That unknown coach has led the Pack to back to back 13 win seasons, something Green Bay accomplished a grand total of four times under Holmgren and McCarthy in 20 years. And his system has breathed new life into Rodgers and will result in his third MVP award on Super Bowl eve.

There is no more talk about the weak roster around Rodgers. There is no more talk about the lack of weapons around Rodgers. Brian Gutekunst and his staff (along with Ted Thompson) have put together a roster that includes the best offensive line in the NFL, the game's best wide reveiver, a deep backfield led by a top ten back, a vastly improved defense with a stud in the middle of line, three strong pass rushers, some youth and athleticism (finally) at inside linebacker, a shutdown corner and a pair of safeties that were the best in football over the second half of the season.

It adds up to opportunity. Opportunity right now for this Packers team to grab hold of this impressive season and bring home the Lombardi trophy, to give Rodgers a second ring that will finally and forever elevate him into the select group of best quarterbacks ever. A second ring would put him on most peoples' QB Mount Rushmore and maybe more importantly to us Packer fans, will silence Vikings and Bears fans who delight in reminding us that Green Bay has 'just' two Super Bowl victories during the Favre-Rodgers eras. Yes, there have been playoff disappointments, none bigger than the '14 and '07 NFC title games.

Opportunity right now because in a year when home field advantage was completely neutralized, Green Bay is one of just two playoff teams (Buffalo is the other) where the weather conditions can be more important than a stadium full of fans.

Opportunity because you never know what next year might bring. Yes, the Packers will bring back a very talented roster, but injuries are an unknown, David Bakhtiari may not return till '22, other NFC teams will bounce back (SF worries me if they locate a quarterback) and then there's the schedule, which will feature road games in San Francisco, New Orleans and Baltimore and home games against the Steelers, Seahawks Rams and Browns. If a 17th game is added, it will likely mean a date with the Chiefs. 13 wins seems like a stretch in 2021.

So this is the Packers' time. The stars have aligned. There isn't a big, bad NFC playoff team in the field. Yes, there are three other hall of fame QBs, Brees, Brady and Wilson, but those teams are all flawed to varying degrees. If the favorites win this weekend, the Pack will open the playoffs with a date with Brady and the Bucs, a rematch of the Packers' worst game of the season--this time at Lambeau in January.

The Packers are poised to do special things over the next few weeks. They've already delivered 16 weeks of spine-tingling diversion during a time in our lives when there's not that much to get excited about. To see Rodgers return to MVP brilliance and silence his critics, to see Davante Adams evolve into an elite wide receiver, to see a defense improve week by week with stars on all three levels. This is what we've been waiting for.

The Packers are two home wins from a trip to Tampa. If they don't get there it will be a major disappointment. But in the grand scheme of things, this Packers season has been precisely what we needed and exactly what we hoped for. Now we have nearly two weeks till the playoff journey begins. Two weeks to wait, to hope, to dream.

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