Fall Foliage Report: Peak Conditions, Especially Inside Lambeau

Posted October 19th, 2014 @ 10:10pm

Sometimes we're treated to the perfect October Sunday. For those fortunate enough to be at Lambeau and for the many more of us who watched or listened, the Packers provided a pitch perfect masterpiece in a 38-17 rout of the Panthers. It matched the absolutely beautiful day we were treated to in the Twin Cities (and I'm guessing, most places).

It was 38-3 early in the fourth quarter when Aaron Rodgers gave way to Matt Flynn. He exited with a near flawless paser rating of 154 plus, engineering touchdown drives the first three times he touched the ball. The Pack led 21-0 after the first quarter and outgained the declawed Panthers 172-5 in total yards. 172-5. For Rodgers, it extends an incredible stretch since he urged us to relax. The Pack is 4-0 and he's thrown 13 TDs and no picks during the streak.

As sharp as the offense was early, the defense held up its half of the bargain. The big, early lead allowed the pass rush to tee off on Cam Newton and they harassed him all afternoon. His favorite targets, rookie Kelvin Benjamin and eternal Packer nemesis Greg Olsen got their numbers in the end, but virtually all of it came in garbage time, after the game had long been decided.

When Newton did complete his passes, the Packers were nearly always there to make the tackle immediately, led by Sunday's leading tackler Ha-Ha Clinton Dix, who's developing into a Nick Collins-type--precisely what the doctor (and Dom Capers) ordered. And once again the Pack finished on the plus side of the takeaway column, thanks to Casey Hayward's pick.

It was the second laugher in the last three weeks for the Packers who have one final test before the midseason bye and they'll face a shell-shocked and desperate Saints team next Sunday night, one looking to show the world that they're not as bad as they've looked, especially in a division without a team with a winning record.

But we'll worry about the not ready for prime time Saints in a few days. For now, we can appreciate a completely dominant performance against a slightly better than average team. One that is admittedly struggling on defense, but one that ran up and down the field in Cincinnati a week ago.

The Packers defense is improving by the week, even without starters Sam Shields and Datone Jones. And what can you say about the offense? Rodgers is in an MVP zone and the unit is humming along as smoothly as any other team in the league (except maybe the Colts). The only negative on the day was seeing James Starks limp off the field. He's a terrific complement to Eddie Lacy and gives the Pack a nice lift whenever he spells him.

Otherwise, it was a picture perfect October Sunday. And the Packers provided as much color as the fall foliage currently on display throughout the beautiful state of Wisconsin. On days like these, winter seems like a long ways away.

 

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Chasing Cam: Can Pack Handle Superman?

Posted October 17th, 2014 @ 01:10pm

The best thing that happened to the Pack last Sunday was Aaron Rodgers' virtuoso performance in the final drive against the Dolphins. The second best thing that happened was Cam Newton's 17 carries for 107 yards performance against the Bengals.

Why? Prior to that ground burst, Newton had carried just 14 times in four games for a total of 32 yards. That shows that Newton is finally healthy and able to become the dual threat QB he's always been. Why is that good news for the Pack? Well, it's not, really. But at least the team won't be surprised by it and got to spend the week watching tape and preparing for the dangerous read option--the Achilles heel for Dom Capers, Clay Matthews and company.

Newton presents the largest obstacle in the Pack's attempt at its fourth straight win. With rookie and budding star WR Kelvin Benjamin not yet cleared to play with a concussion, Cam has few legit targets to throw to. Former Bear nemesis Greg Olsen is having a solid season again at tight end; the team will need to account for him. But other than that, the passing game is pretty average.

The Panthers get running back Jonathan Stewart back from an injury on Sunday, something they desperately need, with fellow tailback DeAngelo Williams still out. But even with Stewart, Cam will be by far the most dangerous ground weapon the Panthers employ. They put up 37 in Cincinnati last week against a good defense, with Newton leading the way. He did most of his damage with his legs in the fourth quarter, rushing 11 times for 70 yards, when the Bengals D was clearly running out of gas.

But thePanthers also gave up 37 last week, mainly because their defense is a shell of its former self. It starts with the loss of Greg Hardy, whom they finally suspended after the team was feeling pressure to act. Without him, their pass rush has gone into deep freeze and it has magnified the unit's shortcomings, predominantly in the secondary.

They have three new starters on the back end and they're not very good. Corners Melvin White and Antoine Cason are giving up passer ratings of 126.1 and 113.1 respectively. The pass defense ranks 20th in the league overall and the team has given up at least 30 points in each of its last four games. They're also miserable on third downs, ranking 31st in the league allowing 50% conversions. And they average giving up one play of 50+ yards in every game.

Which means it should be a good day for Aaron Rodgers and company. The emergence of Davante Adams (six catches for 77 yards plus the alert fake spike reception) comes just in time for a unit that was becoming a bit too Jordy-centric. Even Andrew Quarless is showing that he might be ready to step up to a larger role, if the line can protect well enough to allow him to run some patterns.

Mike McCarthy rotated Lacy and Starks equally last week, due in large part to the hot, humid conditions. But it wouldn't be a surprise if that trend continues this week. Keeping both of them healthy and humming for the back half of the schedule is vital.

The Pack should be able to put 30 on the board against Luke Kuechly and his pals. The question will be how does the Pack handle Cam and his legs? What have they learned from their previous failures against talented running quarterbacks? Newton is likely the final dual threat QB they will face in the regular season. But should they make the playoffs, they'll likely need to show their chops against the read option if they find themselves matched up against Russell or Colin.

Looks like the Pack will be without both starting corners this week, though Tramon Williams may have a shot to play. It would be great to have them both back for next Sunday's prime timer in New Orleans, though with the bye looming the team may err on the side of caution. For this game, with the Panthers' dearth of receiver star power, the team should be just fine with Davon House and Casy Hayward doing the heavy lifting. The Pack's supreme depth at corner pays off in spades.

The Pack is back home, on a roll, and up to the Cam challenge (though he'll be productive, as usual).

Packers 31  Panthers 24

Tune in to "Packer Preview" Sunday morning at 7am on KFAN and kfan.com for much more on this game. Or, sleep in and catch the podcast on iTunes while you enjoy your Sunday morning cup of coffee.

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Poof. Rodgers Makes the Dolphins Disappear.

Posted October 13th, 2014 @ 01:10am

Sometimes, greatness wins out. Sometimes you just hand the ball to the best player on the field and say, 'win this one for us, will ya?' Aaron Rodgers served up a magical final drive, one which included a cold blooded fourth and ten conversion to Jordy Nelson and a fake spike-connection to Davante Adams that set up the game winner to Andrew Quarless.

And the Packers escaped with a 27-24 road victory, thanks to Rodgers, but thanks also to the banged up defense, which was great in the first half, but faltered big time in the fourth quarter, especially when both starting corners exited with injuries on back to back plays. Throw in the utter helplessness of Brad Jones, forced into action when Jamari Lattimore left with a neck injury. Despite the injuries, it was the defense that made the crucial stop, giving Rodgers the ball back with 2:04 on the clock--just enough time for #12 to work his magic.

It was a game that felt like it was in hand for most of the afternoon. The defense held the Fish to just 87 total yards in the first half and was very solid against the run all day. Take away Ryan Tannehill's 40 yard run and the numbers look very impressive. They also continued their ballhawking ways, taking it away three times to move to the top of the NFL's turnover list.

Offensively, the Pack never really got the running game going, but to Mike McCarthy's credit, he never gave up on it, hoping to take advantage of a tired Dolphins defense, that was on the field for 37 minutes. The ground game was instrumental in the lovely eight minute third period TD drive that ended with Rodgers finding Cobb for the score on a play that I'll never get sick of watching.

Now we wait on the injury updates. Sam Shields' injury was the dreaded non-contact injury. He just crumpled to the ground as the team was lining up for a play. Reportedly, he was told he didn't tear anything, but he was in a lot of pain. Tramon Williams rolled up an ankle. Fortunately the Pack is very deep at corner, but no team can afford to lose their starting corners and not lose something. We'll hope for good news as the week goes on.

When this one was over and Rodgers had performed his magic, I thought to myself how lucky we've been for the better part of 20 years, having a QB that always gives us a chance. 60 yards in two minutes with no timeouts? No problem.

So Rodgers got his first win in Florida in four tries and the Pack's winning streak sits at three. The Packers always seem to get on a roll in October. We'll see what other tricks and treats Aaron has up his sleeve when the Panthers come to town on Sunday.

 

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