U-G-L-Y. But Maybe Pack Has an Alibi.

Posted September 18th, 2017 @ 12:09pm

When it was announced that the Packers would be without both starting tackles for their showdown with the Falcons, I had one overriding thought: let's just get Rodgers through the game in one piece.

Heading into the season, offensive line depth was maybe the biggest roster concern. Little did we know it would be tested this early. Asking Kyle Murphy and Justin McRay to step up in this spot on this stage was too much to ask. They weren't disasters by any means, but it was clear from the start that Rodgers would be running for his life for much of the night. The play of the backup tackles was not the biggest problem on this night. The play of the cornerbacks was.

When Jordy Nelson and Mike Daniels exited in the first quarter, it was obvious this would not be the Pack's night. But as ugly as it was early, they were in the game until late in the first half when the game turned on one play. Trailing 17-7, and backed up inside their own ten, Rodgers found Randall Cobb for a big gain that put the ball around midfield. But Martellus Bennett was called for a pick, which wiped out the play. It was a borderline call (Allison's similar offense later was much more obvious) and it was followed up by a rare Rodgers interception that led to a score and put the game out of reach.

As frustrating as it was to watch the offense struggle without Bakhtiari and Bulaga, there were some bright spots on that side of the ball. Ty Montgomery is showing that he will be a dual threat--though he'll need more than ten carries a game. And Davante Adams made some big catches--his touchdown was a thing of beauty.

The most disappointing aspect of the game has to be the play of the defense, which was shredded almost as thoroughly as it was in last year's title game. No doubt the loss of Daniels early was critical; he's the emotional leader and best player for the defense. But you have to be able to withstand injuries and the team didn't on this night. Most upsetting was the play of Randall and Rollins who reverted to the 2016 versions of themselves.

We knew the Falcons would make it a point to get the ball to Julio Jones early, after targeting him only five times in the opener. But just like last year, the Pack had no answer as he carved them up right from the start. Mohammed Sanu also had a big night as the Pack's corners struggled. The one bright spot was the play of rookie Kevin King, who got the call when Randall got yanked. King showed he belonged and deserves to start from this point forward. With home games against the Bengals and Bears coming up, it's the perfect time to get him acclimated to the role.

What we learned on this night is that the defense still has a long way to go against elite offenses, especially on a fast track. The development of King and fellow rookie Josh Jones gives us hope that the unit will get better as the season goes along. And getting Daniels back on the field is an absolute must.

Now we'll wait and see if the tackles are able to go on Sunday and we'll wait to hear about the injuries to Nelson, Cobb, Daniels, House and Brice. With two games coming up in a five day span, the team is likely to be very careful, knowing a mini bye will follow, leading up to tough road tests in Dallas and Minnesota.

Going into the season, I thought the Pack needed to start 4-2, which meant winning their home games and then winning one of the three tough road matchups. They failed their first road test; now we'll see what a dash of humility, along with a hopeful return to health will mean when they head back on the road in a couple of weeks.

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Can Pack Tackle Their Demons in Atlanta?

Posted September 15th, 2017 @ 03:09pm

Just like a year ago, the Pack opens its road schedule in a shiny, brand new stadium. This time around, it's the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz stadium in Atlanta, where the Falcons will play a home game under stars for the first time since 1991.

It's got everything you want: a rematch of the NFC title game, a matchup of two of the past three MVPs and plenty of star power. It's also the third meeting between these teams in less than a year--with every game in Atlanta.

This one looks to be the toughest on this year's schedule, with the Pack playing the unusual role as an underdog. The biggest storyline is the health of the Pack's tackles. As I write this on Friday morning, it sounds like Bryan Bulaga will miss his second game (he's been battling the flu, along with his ankle injury). News of David Bakhtiari's hamstring injury caught us off-guard; he suffered the injury when he did the splits on a play against the Seahawks. He's been able to practice, though he's been limited. We'll hope he's able to go and finish, or this one might not be close. With Jason Spriggs sidelined indefinitely with a hamstring injury, the Pack was forced to activate Adam Pankey as the emergency third (or second) tackle this week.

Which brings us to this week's roster changes: out go Francois and Gunter and in come Pankey and Geronimo Allison. Think about it: the guy who was tasked with covering Julio Jones in the title game (he held him nine catches, 180 yards and two TDs) is no longer on the roster. We'll find out Sunday night if the Pack's D has an answer this time around. Francois became expendable when Quinton Dial signed and Montravius Adams healed up.

With the injury issues at tackle, the Pack's offensive game plan should look a little different. I expect Ty Montgomery to get 25-30 touches. The Bears averaged 6.6 yards per carry against the Falcons D last week, a unit that's speedy but undersized. You can pound away at them and wear them down. They also give up lots of yards to running backs as receivers. Bears rookie Tarik Cohen caught eight balls for 47 yards last week. Last season, they gave up the most yards and receptions to backs--James White was historically good against them in the Super Bowl.

Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson saw most of the targets last week, but this feels like a Davante Adams week, a guy hungry to play these guys again, after being mostly a spectator  in the last meeting, thanks to an ankle injury sustained against the Cowboys. It feels like the tight ends will have to do more blocking than running routes, but we'll see how the tackles are holding up.

The Falcons pass rush is no joke and Vic Beasley has to be salivating to potentially go up against Kyle Murphy. The young right tackle held up well after a rough start last week. Talk about a tough way to start your career. The strength of the Falcons D is its line, with Brooks Reed (two sacks last week) complementing Beasley. The unit is led by a new coordinator, former Packer Marquand Manuel, and the scheme is like Seahawks-lite: a lot of the same principles without the same level of talent.

On the other side of the ball, we'll get a much truer sense of where the Pack's defense is in this game. The opener gave us lots of hope, with the Seahawks running game held in check (except for one or two Wilson scrambles), the pass rush in Wilson's face all day and very solid tackling from the linebackers and secondary. But the Seahawks notoriously start slowly offensively, were missing their best back and have one of the league's worst offensive lines. The Falcons are as explosive as any offense in the league.

It starts up front, where center Alex Mack runs the show and leads a solid unit that features Clay's brother Jake--that matchup is always front and center when these teams meet. The weakness is at right guard, where Wes Schweitzer appeared overmatched in his first start--Akiem Hicks beat him for a pair of sacks.

But the offense saw its leader, Kyle Shanahan, leave for a head job and the keys were handed to Steve Sarkisian, who a year ago was competing in the SEC at Alabama. His offense was lethargic in the opener against the Bears, unable to run the ball and only targeted Jones five times (he caught four, for 66 yards).

They'll make it a point to throw at Jones early and often and we'll get our first glimpse at whether Davon House is up to the challenge. The Pack will have to give him some safety help, but with all of the other weapons that will free someone else up to make plays. Mohammed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel are also dangerous; tight end Austin Hooper beat the Bears for an 88 yard touchdown, so he is a weapon as well.

The Pack feels they have made some defensive upgrades that will prevent them from scoring at will as they did in the two matchups last year (75 points two games). Matt Ryan has feasted on the Pack in his career, averaging 351 yards passing in the last three matchups. The key is to make him uncomfortable--knock him down a few times, get him off his spot. If Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark can approach last week's performances, he could be forced into a couple of mistakes.

I do think that a couple of intangibles fall the Pack's way in this one. Teams that are raising banners, getting rings or unveiling new stadiums tend to lose some focus and don't always perform their best; not to mention, the Packers' defense has been hearing for eight months about what happened the last time these teams met. They're itching to show the NFL world that this is a new season.

If Bakhtiari is able to start and finish the game, I think the Pack has a great chance to spring the mild upset, with Montgomery totaling more than 150 yards from scrimmage. But in what will be a loud, raucous environment, one special teams mistake could spell doom and last week didn't give me a ton of confidence in those units.

Falcons 23  Packers 21

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Defense Steals the Show in Pack's Opener

Posted September 11th, 2017 @ 02:09pm

As Packer fans, there are few things more satisfying than a win over the Seahawks. Now, it is exponentially more gratifying if it comes in January, but the Pack's season opening 17-9 over Seattle guarantees that these teams finish with the same record, a potential rematch will take place at Lambeau. And we all know how important that would be.

From my perch high in the south end zone, I didn't have the benefit of TV replays, so I didn't get a look at what happened after Rogers' first half interception that looked like it might become just his second career pick six. Judging from my Twitter feed, the calls that moved the ball back to midfield were highly questionable. Oh, well. It's about time the Pack benefited from a big call against the Sea Chickens.

Bottom line, we all know the better this defense plays, the better chance this team plays deep into January, or dare we dream, February. This performance by Dom Capers' unit should give us plenty of hope. Led by Mike Daniels, the Pack controlled things from the start, allowing just 225 yards and 12 first downs--and most importantly, they kept the Seahawks out of the end zone.

It's always dangerous to read too much into season openers. Most teams' starters haven't played a snap in two weeks, they haven't done a lot of live tackling in training camp and preseason games, so a team's Week 1 performance should always be taken with a grain of salt: it's not always a harbinger of how the season will unfold. Defense tends to be ahead of offense to start the season, and that was certainly the case in this one.

That said, the Pack's defense showed more team speed than we've seen in the past and did a great job tackling--two things we didn't see much of last year. The Seahawks' offensive line continues to be its Achilles heel and the absence of running back Thomas Rawls hurt that unit's cause, but take nothing away from the Pack's defense. Daniels was a beast from the opening staff and filled the stat sheet all afternoon: seven tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4 QB hits, and the biggest play of the game, the forced fumble that led to the Pack's first points of the season. Nick Perry was also explosive and kept Russell Wilson on the run and uncomfortable all afternoon.

The offense got off to a decent start, as Mike McCarthy called seven pass plays to open the game. The Seahawks' defense is the best the Pack will face all season and they were up to the challenge, making big plays to snuff out drives. Bryan Bulaga's absence didn't seem to affect McCarthy's gameplan in the first half, as he seemed to leave replacement Kyle Murphy alone to fend for himself. The result was a couple of first half sacks.

In the second half, Murphy got a little help, and seemed more comfortable and overall, held his own against what has to be the most intimidating defense a player could face in his first career start.

Now, let's take a moment to discuss what happened at the end of the first half. I know I wasn't the only one who pulled my few remaining hairs out when McCarthy used his second timeout in the final minute, with the thought that stops on second and third down could give the offense one last chance to put some points on the board. The problem was, he had already wasted his first time out after Seattle's first play from scrimmage, screaming that Wilson should have been called for intentional grounding. With just two left, there was no mathematical chance for the Packers' offense to get the ball back. We all know what happened next. The Seahawks convert, grab momentum and wind up putting three points on the board heading into halftime.

Mike, your defense has dominated, Seattle was content to run out the clock, you're getting the ball to start the second half...r-e-l-a-x. It feels like this strategy backfires nine times out of ten.

Outside of that fiasco, the game went about as perfectly as we could have hoped. Ty Montgomery found a bit of a rhythm and ran hard in the second half. Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson made big catches all afternoon, and new tight end Martellus Bennett, despite a boneheaded penalty, had a big catch and run on the final series as the Pack ran the clock out to preserve their eight point win.

Just as important, on a day where a number of big offensive weapons were lost for the season, or a big chunk of the season, the Packers didn't appear to suffer any significant injuries as they prepare for their NFC title game rematch in Atlanta next Sunday night.

That will be the next big test for this defense. On this day, they showed they have taken one small step forward. Next Sunday we'll know if it's one giant leap.

 

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The Baker's Dozen Why 13 and not 10? To celebrate the Pack’s 13 NFL titles, of course. 9/19/17

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